Nefertari vs Pickles

The supervillain pushed his face right up next to mine, and I don't mean he leaned forward: his whole skull enlongated, making his head kind of a cylinder with a long jaw long the bottom, like the front half of a sperm whale. Speaking of which (as Pamela would say), the basement stank so badly of formaldehyde or ghoul sweat or whatever it was he used to pickle people that I couldn't smell whether he was trying to kiss me (eww) or eat my face (ewww). His teeth were like a shark that badly needed braces, so it might have been the same thing. Ewwwww.

His massive overdose of cheap body spray went right up my nose, and with my arms pinned to the wall like that I couldn't cover it, so when I sneezed, it covered his face with glowing blue snot. Also ew, but a big poke in the eye to the Stone Philosopher, that his anti-catgirl plague wasn't just useless but was actually helping me out. Jar-Man flinched back and let go of my left arm to wipe off the goo, which gave me a chance to slap his face off. My claws are only about 2 inches long, but they're sharper than glass and stronger than diamond, and even left-handed they sliced through his pasty flesh just fine (if that's the right word for hurting someone that badly). He gave a shriek that stabbed into my ears even when I flattened them and stumbled away clutching at his face.

I had a long ways to fall, since he was freakishly tall and I'm tiny, but I landed on my feet on the pile of scrap wood without falling over and sprang at him. Blood and clear slime and white slime were leaking out between his fingers, like I'd cut open both an eye and a giant zit, but left a hand free to clobber me with a piece of 2×4, hard enough that the rusty nails gouged even my skin and I folded up and went flying into the concrete wall.

Everything was upside-down, but as he stalked across the ceiling toward me, growling and howling something I was glad I couldn't understand, I could see the last giant jar in the row still slowly filling with preservative as Jacob struggled feebly. Oh, wait, I was the one upside-down, because I'd followed a corpse-licker into a dark basement and gotten my butt kicked. But, I hadn't done it without backup.

"Hey, Jaroszewicz! Get away from my friend!"

"That's Jar-Man!" he screamed. "You—" Look, I'm not going to try to write down how he talked. Just assume every time he mentions a person, he's using a horrible racial or gender slur, every word that can be replaced with a swear is, and there's a bunch of bonus cussing just to show how tough he is.

While he was calling Pamela horrible things, I got back on my feet and pulled my skirt down, and was almost ready to jump him from behind when I missed my chance. He let go of his face to charge at her with claws and stick, a fuzzy crackling blue light hit him in one knee, and then he was scrambling up the stairs on three-quarters of all fours while Pamela's receding voice taunted him. "You're not a supervillain! You're barely even a petty criminal! I should throw you back for being too small! And you know what I mean!"

Pamela had her special running shoes, a head start, and a nerve disruptor, and Jar-Man had a paralyzed leg, so I wasn't worried about him catching her. I was a lot more worried about Jacob drowning and being pickled, in any order. The bodies in the other jars seemed to turn to watch me as I hurried to the far end of the row, but I wasn't looking because they were dead and their eyes were open and they were naked and pickled and ewww. Jacob was naked too, I found when I reached his jar, but he was duct-taped facing the wall so I didn't have to see anything more embarrassing than PG-13. Not that he wasn't good-looking (for a boy 2 years younger than me), but the greenish fluid was up to his shoulders already and he was panicking. Jar-Man had used what looked a whole roll of duct tape on him, even wrapping up his bun of long hair, but he still might have been able to fall over on his side, and that would have been very bad.

I don't know where Jar-Man got his jars, but they were like 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and with a couple of feet of yuck in the bottom, I couldn't budge it. It was thick enough it might not have broken even if I did knock it over. But it was probably still just glass, and sure enough, when I dug the points of my claws in and dragged them down and in as hard as I could, they left deep grooves. They also made an awful screech that probably had dogs barking all over the neighborhood, and puffs of glittering powder that I didn't want to breathe in. Jacob thrashed even harder, probably thinking it was Jar-Man back to torment him, and almost did go over on his side in the deepening yuck. Oh, right. I yanked the pump's plug out of the totally unsafe chain of power strips hanging from the ceiling, and it gurgled to a stop, leaving the basement a lot quieter. "Jacob, it's me! Nef! Just hold still, I'll get you out of there!" He tried to crane his head around to see me, but at least the rest of him was holding still.

I pulled the bottom of my shirt over my face to keep from getting ground glass in my lungs, and made some more screechy clawmarks in the glass, in a rough square. Now I just needed to crack it. I tried a heel-palm strike, but that just made Jacob flinch violently and start slowly sliding over on his side, unable to stop himself with his hands all taped up in front of him. I had about 2 seconds to do something or he was going to end up breathing embalming fluid.

Kicking didn't do any good: my feet are good at walking softly and clawing sharply, not hitting hard, and I knew it, but I wasted the 2 seconds trying anyway. Sploosh, and Jacob was completely under.

The pump! It was about the size of a laundry hamper, and weighed more than I did, but I had enough super-strength to heave it up, stagger around in a circle, and slam it into the scratches, CRASH! The square I'd made cracked free and came out on a wave of yuck that soaked me to the knees. The fumes went right up my nose and I doubled up sneezing and coughing, but managed to hook Jacob's bonds and drag him through the hole before I fell over.

My shirt, my arms, and a lot of Jacob's bare body were covered in glowing blue snot to go with the greenish stains left by the embalming fluid and the red streaks of blood from the glass, but we were both still breathing, somehow. I ripped the tape off Jacob's mouth so he could breathe better, then pulled my shirt off inside-out and used it to mop the yuck from his naked body, because getting that stuff in cuts couldn't be healthy. I'm sure I was blushing furiously, but I realized he was conscious before I got to any of the really embarrassing parts, so I cut away the duct tape on his hands and let him do his own mopping (with what used to be my favorite Magical Girl Polyp-chan shirt).

When he looked up at me aghast, I thought he was just embarrassed by my standing there in my bright pink bra (which covered more than a lot of swimsuits, but somehow it's not the same), but then he raised one finger to point past me.

The dead bodies were climbing out of their jars.

They were still pickled dead people, squished up against the glass so their nakedness was even more gross, but the worst part was how sneaky they were being, slowly and carefully levering themselves out of the jars without a splash. The first one slipped down the outside of his jar like a giant slug, landing in a silent heap and heaving himself upright.

No, I take that back. The worst part was the way Jar-Man came thumping into the basement with Pamela's limp body dangling by the hair from one disgusting paw. His face was still a wreck, so bloody I couldn't tell whether I'd blinded him, and he was still limping from Pamela's nerve disruptor shot, but he was still up and obviously dangerous.

I threw myself on Jacob, hugging his gross naked body (and there were way too many of those around!), and concentrated on being one with the darkness.

Jar-Man sneezed out a spray of blood and slime, but snuffled piggishly at the air. "I can smell you're still here, little—" well, remember what I said about the slurs and the cussing. "Get out here, or keep hiding and watch, I'll find you either way." He tossed Pamela to the floor with a thump that made me wince, and the dead things from the jars all turned toward the noise.

When I got up that morning, I thought I was just going to see some of the city with my new friend Pamela, without any boys involved at all, never mind supervillains or pickled zombies or duct tape.

I should introduce Pamela before monsters eat her. She's my best friend at Peasley Academy, starting from when I showed up to the first-day-of-school-year assembly late and sneezing blue everywhere and she didn't run away screaming. She's basically my only friend so far, since that was Monday and I'm coming in after everyone has had 2 years to make cliques, but she really is pretty awesome. And pretty, even though she's not one of those 8th-graders who's sticking out in all directions. She's slender and has loads of wavy black hair and big dark eyes (she's from Sri Lanka), and she always has stylish clothes and perfect makeup. "Pamela" has the accent on the 2nd syllable, to rhyme with "nutella", and is nothing like her long complicated Sri Lankan name. She was always determined to be a superheroine when she grows up, and now she's determined that we both will.

So we were sitting in the coffee shop drinking hot chocolate and talking about code names (she wanted me to riff off Slink, now that my mom isn't using it; I wanted Cobalt for me, and Captain Inappropriate or Shameless for her since she does things like ask if my claws make it hard to masturbate) when Jacob and his brother Jonah came by and asked us to go to the "special flea market" with them.

Jonah is in 8th grade like us, and will probably be #1 for academics this year like he was last year (I'm sure not going to challenge him!) and in the top 5 for hotness: tall, shoulders, skin about the shade as Pamela's and with no zits, soft brown hair in shoulder-length zigzags and big brown eyes. I can tell by scent that Pamela is attracted to him, but although he's attracted to her, it's not more than he's attracted to every girl: me, the college-age barista, the middle-aged Asian lady with 2 kids sitting behind us, everyone. (And it's not just that he's 13; most boys our age are a lot more discriminating.) Jacob is 2 years younger, so his reaction to girls isn't as hormonal, and he has almost as much hair as me, which he keeps up in a bun with hairsticks carved like ninja daggers, but otherwise he's pretty much a smaller (but still taller than me even though he's a boy and 2 years younger!) and less studious Jonah.

Pamela was all for this, because 1) Jonah, and 2) the special secret flea market is for supers stuff, so she grabbed his arm and they went off in full flirt mode. I was stuck with Jacob, who was afraid we would get in trouble since it's invitation-only, but maybe tried to flirt with me anyway. I couldn't tell before Pamela's teasing made him stop talking forever.

The special flea market was in the bad part of town, which it turns out really is on the wrong side of the tracks, or where the tracks used to be before they tore them up and made a park 5 miles long and 100 yards wide. It's a nice park, but on the other side of it I started to smell the burned-crystal of the Pit. It wasn't a slum or anything, but the buildings were older, the cars were junkier, and the people smelled a little more angry and a little more scared.

After 6 or 8 blocks of that, Jonah led us down an alley where I got the wits scared out of me. Mina Tauros is pretty scary just to look at, all tall and fit with horns and hooves and mirrored sunglasses, and she's a big-name supervillain with a body count, but I wouldn't expect her to give kids going to the flea market a hard time, even if Pamela wasn't on a first-name basis with her (they play some phone game against each other). The problem is, Mina Tauros was pretty much Slink's nemesis, and my mom once threw her off the top of a 10-story building.

I'm pretty much the opposite of my mom in size and shape, and I have blue hair and claws, but apparently we have the same eyebrows so Tauros was able to give me a heart attack by recognizing me. I was sure she was going to kick my butt and then lose me in a maze forever (seriously, my mom has found mummified bodies in there), but she just said I wasn't the one who shot her with that plasma rifle and waved us through.

Jonah and Jacob weren't surprised at all, but they wouldn't tell me how they found out who my mom is except that it wasn't from Pamela. It's not like it's super secret, but once 2 boys know something, it's going to be all over school sooner or later.

After all that, the flea market was still pretty awesome. "Flea market" isn't really the right name, but "open-air superweapon and magical supply sales event" is too long and superheroes might have to take notice instead of dressing down and dropping by to look for good deals. And honestly, some of the stuff was flea-market level, like the blackened piece of what looked like powered armor for a sea urchin tagged, "Found in wreckage of Moonskull's base - make me an offer!"

Most of the stuff was way cooler than that, though. There was a whole table of shrink-wrapped human skulls, piles of normal-looking ones and then racks with special ones: fangs, horns, neat square holes (or ones that looked partly healed over, so the person must have still been alive!), extra eye sockets, all kinds of weird stuff. The middle-aged white lady running the booth looked so normal I wouldn't have been surprised to see her picking up a kid from school, which kind of worried me.

There was an entire booth of ray guns with flanges and coils and bubbling tubes, from derringers that would fit in a pencil case to shoulder-mounted bazookas that looked good for taking out tanks. That was a popular booth, partly for the guns but mostly because the member of the Steampunk Brigade running it, Number LVII, was a pretty Chinese (I think) woman in an amazing dress of purple and red and brass, with a powered exoskeleton across the shoulders and arms, a tiny top hat with fans of brass spider legs, and red/purple corkscrew curls spilling over a low-cut corset. The booth across from it was run by number XIV, an old white guy twice my height (3 times if you count the stovepipe hat), and sold brass and glass mechanical animals obviously based on the Antarctic Brain-Eaters, complete with creepy skull-piercing insect mouthparts. It wasn't nearly as popular.

I didn't recognize most of the people who were in costume, which isn't that surprising since Ironstar and X-Wave, or the Red Knight, don't need to come to a flea market to get stuff. Pamela seemed to know most of them, at least to say hi to, but she dodged the question when I asked how an 8th-grader knows so many superheroes and supervillains. (I'm going to have to find out what her deal is, but in public with Jacob and Jonah right there wasn't the time to grill her.)

Pamela introduced us to the ones that are close to our age, and I remember some of them.

  • The Fabulous Raccoon - A really cute Latino high-schooler with piles of eye makeup, who was special-ordering a sparkly purple lightning pistol from Mme. LVII. The name is tacky, but more boys should wear eyeshadow (Jonah and Jacob are just being contrary).
  • Mechanism Aleph - Beautiful porcelain-white face with almost no expression, no hair, black leather trenchcoat buttoned all the way up, black leather beret. I could smell both machinery and flesh, and they ate about 1000000 orange snow cones, so I guess technically they're a cyborg, but they act like a robot. (I'm afraid to think what Pamela asked them when they first met!) If they are synthetic, they could be any age, but they're Pamela's height and talk like we do, so I think of them as a middle-schooler.
  • Peeler - Aleph's friend, but an ordinary-looking white high-schooler with faded turquoise hair and a shirt printed with 2 seashells like a mermaid's top. When Jacob whispered to his brother, "What, she has stripper powers?", Peeler grabbed his face so suddenly his bun came undone and said, "The veil I strip away is the one that protects human minds from reality. Should I show you?" He freaked out and hid behind Jonah and wouldn't talk to her. I can't blame him. She sounded way too hopeful.
  • Tephra - A tough-looking Indian 7th-grader with a heavy metal zombie shirt and a real mohawk, who glommed on to Jonah as soon as she met him. I think she has some kind of earth or volcano powers, but all she had to do to kidnap Jonah was hug his arm to her chest. She goes to Miller Middle School, so Pamela can get him back during the school day, at least.
  • Tankerbelle - Offended Jacob and I both by thinking we're a couple, but she was so happy he's single that I couldn't stay mad. (I'm not sure he noticed. Boys.) The Vermillion Pupae kidnapped her and ran her through their war-machine-combiner device before Star Phoenix and Earth Serpent kicked them out of the Solar System, so she's a cute little blonde 6th-grader with the power of an alien grav tank. She goes to Peasley too, but she's not out at school.

Everyone wanted to show us their favorite booth, so we saw a lot of mysterious mad scientist widgets (some of them not even weapons), maps of secret caves and tunnels beneath just about every city in the world, ground-up mummies and jewelry from ancient Egyptian princesses, seeds advertised as coming from Dryad's battle flora (control tendrils not included), the Meta-Shogun's first genetic engineering chamber, enough bits and pieces to add up to a whole Vermilion Pupae scout lander (slightly melted), and more ordinary stuff like combat costumery and utility belts. There was a lot I wanted, like the Egpytian necklace of lapis lazuli that matches my hair, and the force-field girdle, but it was all thousands of dollars. I guess the super-economy expects you to always be knocking over banks or getting rewarded for saving them! I ended up lending the rest of my money to Pamela so she could buy something that looked like a handheld vacuum cleaner, and we could only afford it because it was broken. Jonah bought both Pamela and Tephra hot dogs (and got double teasing), but Tankerbelle lent me enough to get one after she bought one for Jacob (and didn't tease him) and saw I was left out. For an alien grav tank, she's a sweetie!

I should have noticed the creepy guy following us, but there were so many strange people and so many strange things in such a closed space that I couldn't smell anyone who wasn't right next to me, and I'm not good at spotting what people are up to just by looking at them. Everything was fine while we were at the flea market, and walking back (shameless as Pamela is, she still has to get home for dinner). It was a complete surprise when Jonah came running back in a panic from the sketchy taqueria where he and Jacob had gone to use the bathroom. "A crazy white guy took Jacob!"

We had been sitting outside while Pamela popped the cover off her vacuum cleaner with a multitool from her giant purse, and fiddled with the circuit boards and white crystals inside. She said it was a nerve disruptor, but wouldn't say how she knew how to fix it, so I was getting sick of her being mysterious and not really talking to her. Kidnapping got my attention, though!


Jonah nodded like his head was going to come off. "Real tall dude, army coat, said, 'you are his' and puked up some kind of green slime on Jacob and ran out the back door with him!"

Pamela set down the nerve disruptor and started changing into terrible sneakers from her bag. Someone had just been kidnapped and I still noticed the shoes, that's how awful they were. One was bright pink, with a glittery transparent purple sole, and the other was bright purple with a glittery pink sole, they had rainbows and stars stuck all over them, and the laces looked like licorice sticks. I wouldn't have worn them when I was 3, never mind 13!

I tried to ask Jonah sensible questions like where the guy went, if he had a license plate, or if the slime melted Jacob's flesh, but he wasn't listening to me. He was sure Pamela, Middle-Schooler of Mystery, was the one who could help him.

"Jonah, do you have any bars? Okay, head back to the park until you can call the League. Nefertari, you go with him." She got out her own phone and slung her purse across her body.

There was a perfectly good phone in the taqueria, but she wanted Jonah away from here, which meant it was dangerous. "I'm not letting you chase a supervillain by yourself!"

"Okay, Cobalt, try to keep up! Jonah, go!" She took off running faster than I could go, bounding along on her gaudy shoes and trailing the scent of ozone. She had super-sneakers!

She must have been using her phone to track Jacob somehow, because she cut across busy streets (in about 2 steps) and down alleys like she knew right where to go. I couldn't keep up even with super-agility, although vaulting over moving cars was terrifying awesome, but she texted me the location where she lost Jacob's signal. It was a really sketchy abandoned industrial/warehouse area, too close to the Pit for normal people, and not the sort of place where middle-school girls should go alone, but we split up to search. I found Jacob's scent (somehow, in all the Pit smell and general grossness), and that's how I ended up in a basement with a disgusting supervillain, a bunch of disgusting dead things, and a naked boy.

While the dead things from the jars crept up on Pamela, Jar-Man kept sniffing around with his freakish enlongated head, like a pig-whale, or a sperm-pig (EWWWWWW!) but the power I inherited from the famous Slink kept him from figuring out where I was. Very slowly, I put my hand over Jacob's mouth, and we got up. I didn't know if I had to keep hugging him to keep him in my aura, but I wasn't going to take the chance, no matter how embarrassing or disgusting it was. We did something between a 3-legged race and a slow dance over to Pamela, and crouched down to grab her just as the first pickle lunged for her leg. A wave of fumes came with it, but I clenched my face and didn't sneeze, didn't sneeze... and then I panicked when it opened its slimy mouth wide and took a big bite of Pamela's foot.

All the dead snapped their heads around to stare right at me with their empty green eyes. Jacob screamed like a little kid and scrambled away from me, and then Jar-Man knocked them all out of the way to tackle me.

We went sliding across the floor with his face buried in my bare stomach, right into the puddle of embalming fluid. He tried to flip me over and shove my face into it, and was doing a pretty good job because the slime was slippery whenever I tried to get leverage and sticky whenever he tried to hold on. Then the dead (probably attracted by all his cussing) dogpiled on us and I was squashed completely flat under a ton of yuck. My face was so close to the slime that I couldn't do anything but cough and sneeze, but I couldn't get a breath because of all the monsters sitting on me. I have to admit, that was the most scared I have ever been in my life..

Suddenly I could breath again! Jacob was yelling, "Hey, jerkface!" (That wasn't the word he used.) "Aren't I the one you want?" and thumping up the steps, and the monsters were going after him. It was a perfect chance to rip Jar-Man's kidneys out, except that crawling out of the embalming fluid was the most I could move. My throat and the whole inside of my chest felt like I'd been breathing ground glass, and my eyes weren't much better.

I figured I had a moment to get my breath back, and then I could jump Jar-Man when he came back with Jacob. But was even someone named Jar-Man dumb enough to put somone in the same death trap again? What if he just killed Jacob to pickle later?

What if the pickles ate Pamela while I was lying there gasping like a fish? I'd never find out what was going on with her horrible shoes! (I really did think that, but only because no oxygen was getting to my brain.) Somehow I got to my feet, and saw the pickles clustered around the stairs out, trying to follow Jacob's yelling without going into the sunlight. Quietly as I could, I snuck over to Pamela. My sinuses were clearing out, so I could smell she was still alive, and her pulse was strong, so I heaved her over my shoulder (I know you aren't supposed to move someone who's hurt, but if Jar-Man dropping her from like 8 feet onto concrete hadn't broken her neck, my carrying her away from the monsters wasn't going to (I hoped)) and crept over to the side of the staircase. The pickles didn't notice us, but they noticed the board I threw into the far corner of the basement and went scuttling after it on all fours like horrible pickled dead things. They figured out there was no tasty living flesh in that corner right away, but by that time we were up in the sunlight.

On the other side of the parking lot, Jar-Man had Jacob pinned up against the wall like he'd had me just a minute ago. Jacob was kicking and prying at his hands and shaking his head wildly back and forth, but without weapons it wasn't doing him much good. I slid Pamela to the ground and threw my second piece of wood, which smashed against the concrete next to Jar-Man's head. "Just in time to watch me kill your little boyfriend," he yelled, and his arms and shoulders swelled with monstrous strength. There was no way I could get across the parking lot before he tore Jacob's head off.

Pamela slapped the nerve disruptor against my leg.

I grabbed it, lined up the green dot on Jar-Man's spine, and pressed the button. It must have broken when he dropped her, because a shock went all the way up the muscles of my arm and knocked me over, but not before Jar-Man literally bent over backwards and sprawled on the asphalt.

With my non-disrupted hand, I tried to aim at Jar-Man's head, but a white boot pinned down the disruptor. I looked up a rounded, golden-brown leg to a body in skimpy black and white that had curves in places other women don't even have places. "Stand down, Ms Nelson," said X-Wave, my mom's old teammate and co-founder of Peasley Academy. "We'll take care of it."

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