Victor knew far too well about those kinds of parents, so he let the matter fall. Or at least, he tried to. But as they rounded the corner, a bookstore came into view, and there in the front window, a massive poster announced the newest Vale book, on sale this summer.
Victor cringed. He hadn’t spoken to his own parents in nearly eight years. Apparently having a convicted offspring—at least one that didn’t show any inclinations toward being rehabilitated, especially not with the “Vale system”—wasn’t great for book sales. Victor had pointed out that it wasn’t that bad for book sales, either, that they might be able to capitalize on that niche—morbid curiosity buyers—but his parents hadn’t been impressed. Victor wasn’t terribly distraught about the falling-out, but he’d also been spared their window displays for nearly a decade. To their credit, they sent a set of books to his cell in isolation, which he’d cherished, rationing the destruction to make it last as long as possible. When he finally integrated he found that the penitentiary library had, not surprisingly, stocked a complete set of Vale self-help books, and he’d corrected those in his trademark fashion until Wrighton caught on and denied him access.
Now Victor wandered into the store, Sydney close behind, and bought a copy of the newest book, entitled Set Yourself Free, and subtitled From the Prison of Your Discontent. It felt like a pretty obvious jab. Victor also bought a handful of black Sharpies from the turnstile by the checkout counter, and asked Sydney if she wanted anything, but she simply shook her head and clutched her to-go cup of cocoa. Back out front, Victor considered the storefront window, but he feared the Sharpies weren’t big enough and besides, he didn’t intend to get picked up for vandalism of all things, so he was forced to leave the window untouched. It was a shame, he thought, as they walked on. There had been an excerpt, blown up large and pasted on the window, and in a passage studded with overwrought gems—his favorite being “out of the ruins of our self-made jails…”—he had seen the perfect opportunity to spell out a simple but effective “We … ruin … all … we touch.”
He and Sydney continued on their stroll. He didn’t explain the book, and she didn’t ask. The fresh air felt good, the coffee infinitely better than even bribery and pain could get him in prison. Sydney blew absently on her hot chocolate, small fingers curled around it for warmth.
“Why did he try to kill me?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t know yet.”
“After I showed him my power, and he was about to kill me, he called it a grim task. He told me he didn’t have a choice. Why would he want to kill EOs? He said he was one, too.”
“He is an ExtraOrdinary, yes.”
“What’s his power?”
“Self-righteousness,” Victor said. But when Sydney looked confused, he added, “He heals. It’s a reflexive ability. In his eyes, I think that makes it somehow pure. Divine. He can’t technically use his power to hurt others.”
“No,” said Sydney, “he uses guns for that.”
Victor chuckled. “As for why he seems to think it’s his personal duty to dispose of us”—he straightened—“I suspect it has something to do with me.”
“Why?” she whispered.
“It’s a long story,” said Victor, sounding tired. “And not a pleasant one. It’s been a decade since I had a chance to philosophize with our mutual friend, but if I had to guess, I’d say Eli believes he’s somehow protecting people from us. He once accused me of being a devil wearing Victor’s skin.”
“He called me unnatural,” said Sydney softly. “Said my power went against nature. Against God.”
“Charming, isn’t he?”
It was after lunch and the people had almost all slunk back into their offices, leaving the streets strangely bare. Victor seemed to be leading them farther and farther away from the crowds, onto narrower streets. Quieter streets.
“Sydney,” he said some time later, “you don’t have to tell me your power if you don’t want, but I need you to understand something. I’m going to do everything I can to beat Eli, but he’s not an easy opponent. His power alone makes him nearly invincible, and he may be crazy, but he’s cunning. Every advantage he has makes it harder for me to win. The fact that he knows your power, and the fact that I don’t, puts me at a disadvantage. Do you understand?”
Sydney’s steps had slowed, and she nodded, but said nothing. It took all of Victor’s patience not to force her hand, but a moment later, that patience was rewarded. The two of them passed an alley, and heard a low whine. Sydney broke away and turned back, and when Victor followed, he saw what she had seen.
A large black shape stretched on the damp concrete, panting. It was a dog. Victor knelt just long enough to run a finger down its back, and the whining faded. Now the only sounds it made were shuddering breaths. At least it wouldn’t be in pain. He stood again, frowning the way he did whenever he was thinking. The dog looked mangled, as if it had been hit by a car and staggered the few feet into the alley before crumpling.
Sydney crouched down by the dog, stroking its short black fur.
“After Eli shot me,” she said in a soft, cooing voice, as if speaking to the dying dog instead of Victor, “I swore I’d never use my power again. Not in front of anyone.” She swallowed hard, and looked up at Victor. “Kill it.”
Victor arched an eyebrow. “With what, Syd?”
She gave him a long, hard look.
“Please kill the dog, Victor,” she said again.
He looked around. The alley was empty. He sighed and pulled a handgun from its place against his back. Digging in his pocket he retrieved a silencer, and screwed it on, glancing over it at the wheezing dog.
“Scoot back,” he said, and Sydney did. Victor took aim, and pulled the trigger once, a clean shot. The dog stopped moving, and Victor turned away, already dismantling his gun. When Sydney didn’t follow, he glanced back to find her crouching over the dog again, running her hands back and forth along its bloody coat and its crushed ribs in small, soothing motions. And then, as he watched, she went still. Her breath hovered in a cloud in front of her lips, and her face tightened in pain.
“Sydney—,” he started, but the rest of the sentence died in his throat as the dog’s tail moved. One slight swoosh across the dirty pavement. And then again, right before the body tensed. The bones cracked back into place, the chest inflated, the rib cage reformed, and the legs stretched. And then, the beast sat up. Sydney backed away as the dog pushed itself to its four feet, and looked at them, tail wagging tentatively. The dog was … huge. And very much alive.
Victor watched, speechless. Up until now he’d had factors, thoughts, ideas about how to find Eli. But as he watched the dog blink and yawn and breathe, a plan began to take shape. Sydney looked cautiously his way, and he smiled.
“Now that,” he said, “is a gift.”
She petted the dog between the ears, both of which stood roughly eye level with her.
“Can we keep him?”
* * *
VICTOR tossed his coat onto the couch as Sydney and the dog wandered in behind him.
“It’s time to send a message,” he announced, dropping the Vale self-help book he’d bought onto the counter with a flourish and a thud. “To Eli Ever.”