Sometimes Smith was scared they would catch him. Something he'd overlooked, maybe. The bullets in his gun were from across the country in Florida, and he'd bought the thing in Alaska, which would baffle law enforcement if he'd ever dropped it. Forensic teams, by this point, would be utterly mystified. They'd know they were looking for a vigilante killer with a propensity for armed executions, sometimes indoors, with no sign of forced entry.
If he were ever arrested, he'd fit the bill, and it'd all be over. He could never go back to Δcorp again.
But Δcorp was just a coccoon. It was just what he'd been doing before all of this, and something he'd held onto out of habit. It was nice to have a steady source of income, but if he wanted, couldn't he just become the greatest smuggler in all of history? It'd have to be something harmless...not drugs, not anything he'd feel bad about moving. People, maybe. He could just take them from place to place, for a fee -
- no, that's stupid. Randall shook his head. He wasn't a taxi driver.
He was The World.
He was justice, and he was doing good work now. Meaningful work. He was a superhero, and a highly effective one. He prayed for another night where he'd accomplish something.
To make sure that he didn't accidentally kill any undercover cops, he had wanted to wait until the crime was in progress. But finding crimes in progress was actually tremendously difficult. Most criminal behavior seemed to take place in the backs of bars and in...warehouses, and places like that. No door was closed to him, but he still had to know where to go, and when.
So, he'd mostly taken to picking suspicious places at random, waiting around for groups of men to congregate, and then spying on them from rafters. The hard part about rafters was climbing them, not sitting still on them. It was easy as taking a step for him to be anywhere in the room, which he used to his advantage. He was no ninja - but the hardest part about sneaking was moving. If they didn't look up, they'd never see him.
He wasn't good enough to be openly taking on organized crime yet - he'd need help for that. Recruits. People who had the same conviction - people that he could move into the right place, at the right time, so that they could fight the battles nobody else could.
This night, he had winners. Not like the last five nights. Five men with guns, paranoid, gathered on the warehouse floor, moving duffel bags. What could be in those? Drugs? Body parts? He shuddered to think of what it could be. Or maybe that was just the anticipation. The adrenaline.
Tonight he wanted to make a show of it. They'd have a window where they could shoot him to death. Just a peek.
He appeared behind one with a violent CRACK and pressed the muzzle of his pistol to the back of the man's head, squeezed the trigger once, and then vanished.
Then he did it again to the other guy. When he left, he went onto the roof, the only place he was sure was safe. He heard gunshots going off within and peeked through a hole in the rafters.
CRACK. BANG. CRACK. BANG.
With the gruesome work nearly complete, he left the last to run screaming into the night.
Then he took him out too.
Five men, five shots. Very nice.
He thought about keeping the rifle, but then thought better of it. Best to touch as little of the crime scene as possible. For this was crime, he had to remind himself. Only...better crime. Good crime.
Randall didn't look at the body at his feet (stupid sack of meat), but he did check his surroundings, reloading his gun in case there were any stragglers. This was something to be proud of. Very efficient.
Hopefully he wouldn't get sick this time, or he'd have to quit.
Cryptid didn’t like that the sound of gunfire was leading him to the same address as his lead.
He didn’t like gunfire at all. Gunpowder and explosions really fucked with his senses. Not enough to put him in danger in the heat of a fight, but enough to slow down an investigation. For the last few weeks he’d been finding warehouses full of dead men that didn’t make sense, but the gunpowder smell made the killer hard to track.
They weren’t shootouts. The victims were put down with a single gunshot to the back of the head, not ripped apart or killed by strays. Every kill was deliberate. The first time, Todd had assumed an assassin of some kind, but when the second group was completely unrelated, he started to have his doubts.
Once was happenstance. Twice was coincidence. Three times was enemy action.
This was the first time he knew where he was going right away, though. He’d almost been to the warehouse when he heard the first shot.
That didn’t sound like any gun Cryptid had heard before. It didn’t sound like an assassin, either. Too showy. Maybe an intimidation tactic? Whatever it was, Todd could hear both sounds from his position a few blocks away, and he took off running.
Rooftops were his preferred mode of travel. He was lean and limber, and while (as with most of his tools) he had no formal training, Todd’s experience in what could roughly be called parkour almost made up for it. Even with all the obstacles that came with running rooftops, he was fast.
He wasn’t fast enough this time. He’d known he wouldn’t be, not once the gunfire started, but maybe he could catch up before the killer left and hope they had his information instead, because otherwise he was going to have to start from scratch. Again.
Someone screamed. Cryptid’s hackles went up, and he put on a last burst of speed before the sound came again.
The screaming stopped, and Cryptid let his speed drop as he reached the last rooftop. There was no mistaking the direction of something that close, even if it left his ears ringing. The breeze moved the scents of gunpowder, fire, and death around him. He dropped to a crouch, going absolutely silent, and looked down at the scene below, at the man reloading over his kill like a trophy hunter, lit by the open warehouse door behind him.
“Goddamnit,” he muttered. Too late again.
He dropped from the rooftop, claws and fingers dragging down the wall to slow his fall just enough he wouldn’t have to waste energy healing his knees. That was an old trick, and it only added to the effect the thin, white-masked shadow of his figure gave. Maybe he should be more careful, more subtle – he couldn’t heal from a gunshot to the back of the head, after all. Not that he’d ever had to try. But his body language communicated exactly how tightly pissed he was, and he didn’t move to make an attack. No visible weapons on him, either, except the melee claws. Under the mask, he wore the dark, hawkish eyes of a man who’d died a long time ago. The voice that rumbled out was another victim’s, and it carried a little growl around the edges.
“So you’re the guy who keeps killing my fucking leads.”
Psycho behavior. It ran parallel with his hot-state impulse thinking. It popped up in boardroom meetings and when he had to crunch in a week's worth of work the night before a big meeting on short notice. In the business world they called it balls. It never kicked in like when Randall was out at night in the mask. He'd always thought himself more clever than intelligent, and in a situation like this, the socially-acceptable cleverness - nay, socially-encouraged cleverness - morphed into a mile-a-minute reactive matrix, processing everything at once flawlessly. It was like being on drugs, and in his soul, he knew it was fueled by his invincible power.
He could be hurt - killed - but it was very hard.
That was how he was able to keep his nerves when the Cryptid scratched his way down a wall. Taller than Randall, and thinner - the thing had claws like a motherfucker and seemed to hunch a little to the side. The face was intimidating - or was that a mask? Any rational person would be shitting themselves, face to face with this lurking creature.
The World may have been a careful operator, but in the heat of battle, when it was time to go to work, the same fearlessness that led men to fistfight bears reared its head.
He swiveled when the gaunt figure landed, gun trained on him from the hip, rather than holding the arm outstretched. He let his finger slip off the trigger, the barrel nosed away from the stranger. He wasn't afraid of him. (Would the gun really do him any good anyway?) If he were going to use the firearm, it wasn't about aim, anyway. It was a tool he used for pushing bullets through skulls at point blank range. Aim barely counted. It was merely enough to display that he was armed and not holstering the weapon. This man had no doubt seen how he'd used it.
"Sorry about the mess. I am The World. Who are you?"
Cryptid watched the gun only until the man’s finger was off the trigger. Holding it at the hip was showy, but not distracting. What was distracting was the devil-may-care attitude the man practically radiated. Either he was very good or very new, and it was too early to tell. Any clue to Todd’s nose was hidden under the scents of gunpowder, blood, and meat. But now the devil was here, and the devil cared very, very much about what this man who called himself The World was doing to the people on his turf. Besides, it’d always been Todd against the world, more or less.
He would’ve found that joke funnier under better circumstances.
He didn’t move away from the wall while he surveyed the scene. The blood was starting to overtake the gunpowder in the breeze coming off the Ohio, but that didn’t give him any identifiers on the villain. No, not villain. Just another vigilante. He had no room to judge the domestic terrorist look when he went with “horror B-movie villain” on the regular.
“Cryptid’s fine.” Other names were going around, but people could tell who’d met him in person when they used that one. “Formerly known as the man who was going to interrogate these guys for their boss’s name. Please tell me you got that before you decided to paint the pavement with their brains.”
That was a simplified version of what he’d planned to do with these guys, and maybe said with a little more attitude reflecting his disappointment than aggression regarding The World’s actions. He wasn’t ready to eat yet, so they would’ve survived the night if he’d been a little more alert. Maybe. He could handle one man armed with a gun if he was fast enough about disarming him. Though, theoretically, he and The World were doing the same thing, so maybe he could’ve talked the other masked man down. Maybe he still could once he got himself oriented properly, and if the other guy was willing to cooperate.
He bit back the comment. Now wasn’t the time to be making enemies. He really doubted he’d be making friends with this one, but the night was young, and first impressions weren’t everything. It didn’t change that he’d lost his lead, though. He had a little bit of a right to be doubtful, and a right to let it reflect in his voice.
“You must be new. I don’t really work with newbies. Word of advice. This–” he gestured vaguely to the crime scene “– isn’t going to get you very far. The guys above them’ll have them replaced by this time tomorrow night to finish whatever they were doing, and then it’s square one.”
He looked the man over again, then sighed and left his refuge. No gun, and if he was going to take him seriously, no knife. He could be quick on the draw, though, and Todd kept an eye out for sudden movements just in case. He didn’t let any worry into his body language. He didn’t even really stalk. He wasn’t trying to intimidate the other guy now that he had something like the right impression.
If The World didn’t bolt at his approach, Cryptid would hold up his hand to show him the bagh nakh. “More personal. Less guaranteed lethal. Gets more results that way.”
Then he knelt down at the victim’s side, and started checking his pockets for ID and cell phone.
A dismissive tut at the remark about his methods. Everyone was a critic. First the woman with the hammer, then the ferrokinetic boy. People were so fond of pointing out how new he was at this. Then, inevitably, he found a way to surprise them. Apparently this one was unfazed by quintuple homicide, which was an improvement on the others. He needed someone made of sterner stuff for the things he had planned.
This one had an interesting taste in weaponry.
The World nodded appreciatively at the bagh nakh before watching Cryptid kneel down and fish through the dead man's pockets.
What, are you robbing him? You must be poor as shit.
He didn't voice his observation. He picked up on something else.
"Don't work with newbies? So, you work with someone else."
He crossed his arms and tilted his head to the side.
"Anyone I might know? A masked woman, perhaps, about yea high? Fond of hammers?" he inquired, holding out his hand at near chest height.
Cryptid didn’t respond to the tut as he found the man’s wallet and opened it. There was some cash, but he wasn’t going to desecrate the body any more than it already had been, not with The World watching. Fuck, he was willing to bet the man took that name just for all the puns. That was why Todd would’ve taken it.
Still beat Phantom Ox. But most names did.
Granville, Ralph William was a different kind of name, but it did give Todd a little information. There was an address on the license, too, but he just skimmed the street name. He could stake that out later under other circumstances. The man was aged 35 years. Not too young, but not that old, either. Plenty of life ahead of him.
Any mourning period was interrupted by The World’s apparent penchant for prying. Or maybe he was just trying to make connections, since he’d clearly seen Phoenix in action. Maybe he was trying to judge Cryptid by that, since he hadn’t seen him in action here. Of course Todd knew who he was talking about, and he only glanced up for the height as a courtesy.
“We’ve met.”We live down the hall from each other didn’t seem quite appropriate for a near-complete stranger. Sufficiently crisp, while he pulled out the victim’s phone.
Wouldn’t you know it. Damn thing was facial recognition. Todd sighed again, frustrated, as he looked at what was left of the man’s head. Definitely not using this one. Next one might be fingerprints, or a password, even. He could work with a password. Maybe.
If he’d been able to interrogate them.
Spilt milk. Or spilt blood, which wasn’t too different for him except that it got in the way of his actual investigation. He put the phone and wallet back on the body, then turned to walk into the warehouse, with a pace that indicated The World could follow if he wanted to. Not that Crytpid wanted more prying questions, but the man was going to ask, so he figured he’d be polite and give him the space while he actually worked toward getting answers from the dead.
As Cryptid walked away from him, the World vanished.
He reappeared in the warehouse, this time without a sound. When done slowly, and deliberately, rather than as a reflex, his power was silent. So, as Cryptid stepped forward through the doors, Randall Smith was already there waiting for him without missing a beat.
"You only acknowledged half my question. Don't worry. There are no right or wrong answers."
One of the men had a shotgun. The World considered snatching it for a second, but decided against it. It was an unknown factor. In a pinch, it'd do, but he preferred to research guns before collecting them. And even that had to be done carefully, to avoid any kind of search history that would tie him to these killings. He went all over the country to conduct his searches, usually with public computers. It slowed him down, but only a little, and was worth the added security.
The World didn’t follow him. That tracked– goddamnit, nope, he wasn’t getting into borderline philosophical puns right now. He was getting to the bottom of what had happened here, or at least getting what answers he could without a Ouija board.
But just as his foot went over the threshold of the warehouse, he paused where he was. The World was there. Cryptid tilted his head at him, thinking. Superhuman speed? Unlikely. There would’ve been a breeze, he would’ve smelled him. He glanced back at the place The World had been a second ago, and then exhaled in what could be mistaken for a sigh of frustrated understanding. Teleporter. That explained a lot of things, actually. It also made Cryptid more wary of the stranger. There’d be no warning if this turned into a fight, and not even his healing factor could fix a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Still, he couldn’t show weakness right now, especially since he still wasn’t sure what this guy’s motivations were.
Though, all the blood should’ve cleared that up. Like he’d said, Cryptid was no stranger to the philosophy of killing criminals, nor was he a stranger to the rush of power that gave someone. The sense of invincibility. He didn’t seem disappointed, or surprised, but he didn’t seem particularly excited, either. He instead just shook his head a little and approached the nearest body.
“Yes, we work together.” He started rifling through the man’s pockets to repeat the same process from outside. “Our territories have some overlap. We cross paths on patrol. Can’t say she’s mentioned you at all.”
As a possible consequence of what he suspected to hear, Randall couldn't parse whether Cryptid was telling the truth or not about whether Phoenix had mentioned him. He strongly expected she would have, given the circumstances of their last parting.
He brought his hands together. Not too loudly - not a clap - but he did feel a little shortchanged by Cryptid's continuing to loot while they were trying to have a conversation. As the gloves came together, he continued.
"I like a woman like her, Cryptid. Principled. She understands what has to be done."
Apply water cooler talk.
He waggled his eyebrows at the other vigilante, though it'd be impossible to see that on account of the hood that shrouded his entire face from view.
Chuckling, he put his hands up.
"If she's yours, though, she's yours. I won't be making any moves, I swear."
Cryptid’s head tilted again, almost imperceptibly, to the sound of the little clap, but he was engrossed with his work and only half-listening to what amounted to casual small talk over a crime scene. Todd was actually surprised he wasn’t angrier – but then again, he also knew Sam would be the one to kick The World’s ass six ways sideways if she heard him insinuating anything like this. So while the fierce possession gripped him and his instincts told him to growl, he just checked the man’s ID and pulled a business card out of his wallet. Pawn shop. Probably nothing, but any lead was a lead at this point.
He picked up the phone, then put it down again when he saw that it was also facial recognition, and rolled his eyes before turning to the next source. He’d come out here to do something more important than listening to another vigilante gloat about knowing his Sammy, or confirming anything about their relationship. After all, it’d complicate things if either of their identities came out.
“She does what she has to, up to a point.” Principled was a word to describe her, and she stuck to her guns. Stubborn was another word for it. Whatever it was, it was an attractive trait. He did agree, after all. She was hot. Todd was saving that joke for her at a more relevant time, but objectively The World was right about that.
“Y’know she’s got this strict non-lethal thing, right?”
The World shrugged, looking at the carnage he'd left in the wake of the teleporting rampage. He didn't usually stick around this long after finishing up.
"What about you? Do you have a 'strict non-lethal thing' too?" he asked, eyebrow raised inquisitively under the mask. Outside of a more heated situation, he was interested in what Cryptid's response would be. The bladed gaunts the other vigilante had shown off before pointed to no. But it made for interesting conversation all the same.
By now, he'd pieced together that Cryptid wasn't stealing from these men, but checking for clues. He wanted more than just blood. It struck him as pragmatic. As in regular conversation, Smith tried anticipating what he thought the other man would say - he imagined something along the lines of 'when I have to,' an inbetweener that didn't betray any bloodthirst. As for Smith - he preferred not to belabor the point. It was messy business, and he'd come to terms with it. The other man needed no reassurances that he wasn't dealing with a monster.
The blood was starting to get to him. Maybe it was volume, or just how spread out the stains were, the smell was, as it came out from under the gunpowder. The skull was full of blood vessels, and exploding it made quite a mess. Biting into one made more of a mess. His nose wasn’t visible under the mask, but his eyes creased as he wrinkled it. He didn’t let it show, but he figured it’d be suspicious to outright deny violence.
He pulled the wallet and phone while choosing to echo in response, “Nobody’s perfect.”
Jackpot. Fingerprint read. This was the easiest one to deal with. He could start to go through it here– but it didn’t seem like The World would appreciate his distraction. So instead he reached over, checked the hands, figured the one with the gun was dominant. Then he took the right index finger and dislocated it with a satisfying little pop, and sliced through the remaining tendons and skin with one claw. He could wash the blood off later and use it until it was too cold to recognize. Then he’d just eat it.
He slipped out of the claws with his left hand and rummaged in his pocket for a piece of cloth, which he used to wrap the finger. The phone was a risk for tracking, but he’d go someplace private and then collect the data he needed before dumping it. Maybe he wouldn’t eat the finger. It might be better just to leave it with the phone, just in case.
He could figure that out later. Now he put the bagh nakh back on, and stood up beside the body. He could investigate the others, but spending any more time in a warehouse full of corpses… overall bad plan.
The line was delivered with an intonation that might leave a listener uncertain whether he genuinely misunderstood what Cryptid was doing with the finger. The flat, raspy voice of the teleporting vigilante was complemented by his featureless mask, like an executioner's hood (the original inspiration).
When Cryptid turned, the World would be right there.
"Where are you going?" he asked, tilting his head back skeptically. He wasn't detaining him - but there was an unmistakable abruptness in his question, the same kind that slipped in when a manager asked an underling why they were leaving their desk for the fifth bathroom break of the shift.
In truth, though Randall had little way of knowing this, it was Cryptid's quiet assuredness which had set the man off. It had garnered his attention, and now, like a gloved fist, his grip tightened around the man in front of him.
If The World had asked him any other way, he might’ve gotten a sincere answer. Worry, fear, irritation, those were all valid responses to someone you were trying to talk to walking out of the conversation. But demand? No. No, Cryptid didn’t do demands. He wasn’t a hunting dog. And he didn’t work with newbies. If The World wanted the information he collected, he’d either have to interrogate Cryptid himself – which wouldn’t be a first, but would likely be his last bad decision – or learn his lesson and get it the old-fashioned way.
Or follow him, with his interesting new powers, and help Cryptid learn how to track a man who could teleport. But that was all the good that route would do for the new vigilante, especially as Cryptid took a slow, almost calming breath that looked for the scent under the gunpowder.
He’d frozen when The World appeared in front of him, too close to have been there for more than a second. His head had tilted at the question. And now he said, very quietly on his exhale, but with a creeping edge of frost, “I don’t answer to you.”
He moved to shoulder past The World. A deliberate brush against his body, unless he blinked aside. He understood human power structures as much as animal dominance rituals. He didn’t have time for more than that, really. He hadn’t forgotten The World could snuff out his life with a well-placed bullet to the back of the head, obviously – but curiosity was a powerful tool in the right hands. As was indignation.
Such intent wasn’t visible in his body language, only the same calm fluidity as he made a second attempt to walk out the door.
The World faded again when Cryptid moved to shoulder through him. Randall knew better than to get into a contest of strength with someone who'd just slid down the side of a wall with one hand. Trying to pull a move like that would dislocate a normal man's shoulder. Distance would be wise.
Randall repositioned on the outside of the warehouse, leaning against the wall next to the door.
"Where were we?"
He let his fingers lock together over his stomach, thumbs tapping innocently against one another.
"Is this a patrol or a hunt?" he chuckled, as if oblivious to the back-and-forth which had just transpired, as if the threat of imminent violence was simply routine - like his wires were crossed, and there was no differentiating between life-threatening conflict and a simple discussion. Deep down, in the back of his brain, he knew it was what made him dangerous before he'd discovered his superpowers. It was always there, lurking, latent. Nerves of steel. He was a flamethrower in a world of gasoline.
The way The World said his response irked Cryptid. It didn’t even make him mad, it just annoyed him, because the other man was acting like everything was fine again the second he stepped out of the building. Tempted though he really was to throw a quip The World’s way, but he didn’t have anything clever that suited the situation. Next time the opportunity presented itself, he decided, he wouldn’t bite his tongue.
For right now he let his anger go again. There wasn’t anything else to do here, and it was very clear that The World was going to insist on watching whatever his next move was. For now, that was to pause again beside Mr. Granville. If he’d been a little faster... but, no. Not even he could beat a teleporter in a race. He probably wouldn’t have fared much better.
“For context, were you ‘hunting’ or ‘patrolling’ when you did this?” He gestured to the body on the ground with a hand, then resumed walking. The World would follow him, not the other way around.
That name was such a waste of potential with this guy.
"Neither," he replied, "Because I don't move like other people move."
The idiosyncratic answer was delivered with characteristic matter-of-factness that showed only that the original question made perfect sense to its asker.
Showing off his ability to move without walking, he simply reappeared at intervals as Cryptid continued down his path. Following him, from a certain point of view - but from another, it was that no matter where Cryptid turned next, he was simply there, lurking slightly out of view before emerging from behind a shadow, continuing the conversation without missing a beat. Subjectively, he had no clue where they would end up - but inside didn't matter. There was only the outside, and on the outside, he was an omnipresence.
"I need to know, Cryptid. Why do you do this? Why not just be a cop?"
Todd actually rolled his eyes under his mask. There was only so much self-restraint he could actually accomplish, and most of his stock had run out inside the warehouse. Not like he’d ever eaten anyone else’s kills – but that didn’t make it any easier. He felt justified in the ability to let just the little bit of childish irritation actually slip.
“Academy didn’t suit me.” He’d never tried, but the gruff guy attitude might give the wrong impression. “I was actually a PI for a while. Nothing fancy – cheating husbands, lost cats, the occasional anonymous tip for the papers. Not my calling either. Though I guess I could get back into it if I wanted to.”
That was actually not something he considered until he said it out loud. Technically, he was old enough now that if he wanted cash, he could apply for the license. Underground PI work could probably be enough to explain how often he moved across the country. It just hadn’t crossed his mind. Hadn’t since before Arlo, back when it was really his only life goal beyond his next meal.
He let the thought hang for a few seconds as he tuned his senses. The illusion of omnipresence clearly wasn’t landing, although he didn’t express annoyance again. This was the first good question The World had asked, sure, but more than that, Cryptid was trying to get used to the changes around him so he could recognize them if he met them in a less civil setting. He could’ve sworn when the World moved, the air changed – but whether it was a sound, a simple displacement, or a scent that came before, he couldn’t tell. Then, he just shrugged. It wasn’t like he could tell this guy the truth, nor was he even tempted to.
“I get things done. I make a difference. No rules but what I make, no regulations but what I feel is right. I don’t want to change the world, and I definitely don’t want a power trip. I’m just here to help people however I can.”