Prelude: I Stand Before You Naked To The Eyes
Today was a bad day for Anthony. Despite the bright sun out, despite taking a walk to a local park, his mind was in a pit, and had been for the past four days now. The impending doom of his family’s pet cat weighed heavy on his mind on top of all his usual problems, and he couldn’t bear to be stuck in his house another day. He had to get out of there, at least for a while. After all, wasn’t sunlight supposed to help with depression or something? Was he even clinically depressed, or just feigning it, the way a lot of “self-diagnosed” ill people typically did?
Bah. It didn’t matter so much, anyway. It turned out, in fact, that the park was hosting a fair today, an unexpected event for sure, and a few minutes of walking around in the bright colours of the rides and stalls already had him feeling a little better. Not much, and he could only wonder how long it’d last, but for the time being, he’d take what he could get. Going around in one of the better examples of human positivity might take his mind off of the more negative aspects of human nature for a time.
As he finished off a hotdog- well, a regular sausage in a bun, but he’d never liked frankfurters as hotdog sausages, and they didn’t have those anyway, so a hotdog that officially was- he pondered out loud about what to visit next. ‘I could go on the merry-go-round again,’ he considered, stroking his chin. ‘Or maybe the giant slides...? No, those are meant for kids, they’d ask what the hell I’m doing if I went on that... then again, maybe not? That’s guy’s going down just fine...’
As he considered his options, he walked past a small tent that was at first unassuming, merely blue and red stripes with a sign on a post out front. After a moment, he turned back to look at it again, this time actually reading what the sign said: “Fortunes Told Here! Only £1.50 per fortune, free if you’re unsatisfied!” His expression twisted into a frown initially. “Fortune tellers.” Scam artists, one and all, he reckoned - psychic woo, ghosts and magic and all of those sorts of things, evidently didn’t exist, and it was plainly immoral to take advantage of other people’s beliefs for money, no matter the scale.
Then again... I know their tricks. If the fortune teller tries to get information out of me by being vague, I can just tell them I know their scam and walk off, he considered. After all, it’s free if I’m not satisfied with it, right? Thus, begrudgingly, he stepped toward the tent, cautiously sliding one flap aside to gain entrance into quite a dark room, containing not much more than a crystal ball on a stand, and a short woman with grey hair in a bun and a seemingly-dramatic robe, whose features made her seem quite old indeed.
‘Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, a newcomer...’ the lady immediately crooned. Oh, lord, she’s already putting on an act. ‘Eeexcellent, I knew you’d step in here, sir, yes I did!’ she continued, pointing at him with one gnarled hand and crooking her finger. ‘Come, come, tell me, what brings you to my tent?’
‘Er, well,’ Anthony began, grimacing briefly as he tried and failed to garner more detail from the woman’s face, ‘obviously I wanted my fortune read. Or at least I’d try to get it read, if it’s worth anything.’
‘Mmmm, so you did, Anthony Blaire.’
‘What...?!’ Anthony immediately took a step back, eyes widening. What in the hell had just happened? How had she gotten his name? He certainly didn’t have it on his person directly, it wasn’t like he’d had anybody tell her... ahh, but he did have something with his name on it. His phone. And of course, technology was advancing in leaps and bounds nowadays; obviously, she’d read his name off of some device or other before he’d even entered the tent. He really needed to shut off his phone’s WiFi or Bluetooth whatever before heading out.
Back on his feet, relaxed once more, he stepped back toward the woman. ‘Alright, very clever, I admit,’ he allowed. ‘You caught me off-guard, well done, I guess that means I can give you a bit more of my time.’
‘Heh. Nobody ever expects me to know their name at a glance,’ the lady bragged with a crude smirk. ‘I know what you’re thinking, boy, and it’s no feat of technology that granted me that insight. Perhaps, if you’ll allow me, I might read your palm initially?’
‘Hrm. Alright, then,’ Anthony agreed, rolling his eyes as he held his hand out to the woman. Her grip came quickly, almost too quickly for somebody her age, and it was shockingly strong to boot, the fingers running across each line of his hand at a measured pace, their nails seeming deliberately dug into his skin hard enough to cause heat and friction, until he finally jerked his hand free with a scowl.
‘Next you’ll say, “that’s quite enough!”’
‘That’s quite enough! You- wait, what?’
‘Heheheheheh! Cold-reading, my boy!’ the lady cackled again, seeming to take great glee in Anthony’s discontent and dismay. ‘With, dare I say, a touch of...’
‘Don’t you dare say it, you old-’ He forced himself to calm down again, yet the woman’s smile still seemed to mock him so. ‘Listen, you. I’ve had a bit of a shitty time recently, and right now, I’m thinking you’re just making things worse.’
‘Ohh, I saw, young man, I saw. I see death in your future.’ Oh, lah-de-dah, great observation Sherlock. ‘Yes, death... so much death, more of it than you can imagine being involved with.’ Er, okay, that’s weird to hear.
‘Yeah, uh, right. Look, ma’am,’ he tried to segue, ‘can I just get my fortune read? I wasn’t really trying to get involved with any, uh, anything more than some fortune telling stuff, okay?’ He was, suffice to say, more than uncomfortable at the moment.
‘Oh, of course, of course I’ll read your fortune,’ the woman murmured, suddenly much more kindly-sounding than before. What on earth was with her changes in tone? ‘In fact, I insist upon it. You’ve offered me something interesting, veeeery interesting... I need to see more...’
What the hell is with this lady? Anthony wondered, a concerned frown plastered on his face. It’s like she’s crazy or something. I’m not sure I’m actually safe here... but it’s not like she’s anything other than a crazy old lady, right? Worst thing she’ll do is try and whack me with a cane or something, most likely. His fears assuaged again, but his expression remaining concerned, he stepped up to the crystal ball, realising belatedly that fortune telling required cards on a table. What, was she going to tell his fortune on a ball with a screen inside it?
‘Now, just place your hand on the crystal ball, my boy, just you do that...‘ Apparently so. Sighing, he pressed his hand against the ball... huh, that seemed like real crystal, at least from this angle. No doubt her angle happened to have a screen hidden by the internal imperfections in the ball’s material, but hey, maybe it’d be fun to watch the reflection in her eyes.
What she did next was odd. She didn’t put her own hand on the ball itself - go figure - but she did start to engage in a sort of odd prolonged breathing in. He could hear the air getting sucked into her pursed lips, but no external breath out, and for an old lady, that was impressive. For the first fifteen seconds, anyway. After half a minute, Anthony was starting to wonder when she’d exhale, and after another thirty seconds, he was boggling at what seemed like an impossible ultra-extended breath. How could... that was physically impossible, surely?!
Then, all at once, his hand seemed to start burning. Or, well, something like that. It was hot and tingly, at least, and there was some kind of pressure, but particularly painful it was not. If he had to compare it to something, he might suggest a sort of localised heat stroke, or using the heat of a radiator to try and get rid of pins and needles in a dead arm. And the old woman was still inhaling! How could anybody do that?!
Finally, she stopped sucking air in through her mouth, and his hand stopped... being warm, he supposed. Anthony pulled the appendage away to check that it was alright, that nothing had in fact gotten singed, but caught a hint of chuckling from the woman. Chuckling turned to full laughter, and to his horror, that became howling roars of mirth, the crone’s eyes wide and bulging, her mouth stretched wide to expose her teeth as she cackled with unsuppressed glee.
‘Finally... FINALLY!’ she screeched, glaring straight into Anthony’s eyes as she rounded the stand and headed toward him. ‘I found you at last! You’re him! You’re the one... AAAHAHAHAHA!‘
‘Jesus Christ, do not touch me, please,’ the young man begged, trying his best to get away from her without letting her leave his sight. ‘I will literally pay you any amount of money to let me leave oh God please-’
‘Hahahahahahaha! Nooooo! No charge for you, dearie!’ she shrieked, gesturing with her arm as if to draw him back toward her - only for him to actually be pulled back toward her, feet scraping across the ground, as if tugged by some irresistible force.
‘Oh, shit! What the f-’ Anthony’s voice was cut off as the woman’s hand clamped tightly over his mouth, leaving him vainly trying to pry his head away from her, whatever force that had dragged him in now proving immovable to his skull. In fact, he was sure he felt something like thorns digging into his back if he tried to pull away too hard... what the hell was going on? Was this... was this real magic?! Or psychic powers or some shit? How else did he explain being stuck in place like this?
‘No need to charge you, sir, not at all,’ she continued to rave, eyes bugging out as she rooted around in her robe for something, found it, then pulled forth a Goddamn arrow. It was ridiculous, much longer than most arrows had any right to be, with a standard wooden shaft, and yet a head made of ornately-carved stone. This would be... hell, he didn’t have a clue. Way older than Medieval, though, for certain! More importantly, what was the big idea here? Was she about to stab him, oh shit oh shit...!
‘And your next line is, “For the love of God, what’s wrong with you?!” Go!’
‘For the love of God, what’s wrong with you?!’ Anthony exclaimed, finally succeeding in wrenching his head free of her grasp, only to realise she’d done it again, she’d predicted his very words. How, how, how?
‘Aaahahahaha! You truly were worried, weren’t you?’ she mocked. As she did, he felt his arm wrenched upward by the same invisible jabby force, and the arrow... placed surprisingly gently into his palm. He still wasn’t sure she wasn’t planning on stabbing him, but at this point, he really did rather have to go along with it.
‘Erm... s-so no charge?’ he mumbled out a bit meekly, prompting yet more elderly giggling. ‘No charge, no charge,’ she continued to ramble gleefully, ‘not for you. You, lad, have a much longer road ahead than you know... you, Anthony Blaire, have fate to work with! Yes, indeed, fate is on your side,’ she proclaimed ‘for you are destined... TO RULE! THE WORLD! AAAAHAHAHAHAAHAHAAAAAAAA!’
After far too long, the force let Anthony go, letting him topple him to the ground with the arrow clutched betwixt his fingers. Scrambling to his feet, he hauled himself out of that godforsaken tent in a panic, the mad old fortuneteller’s laughter following him like a guided missile until he was out of the fair and practically halfway across the park, collapsing to his knees and gasping for air once she was no longer audible. At some point, he must have unconsciously realised that he had a damn arrow in his hands, and stuffed the thing under his shirt and into his trouser belt, only mildly conspicuous unless somebody thought to look closer. Thank goodness it hadn’t cut him; he’d have to be careful about that until he could take it out and put it somewhere safe.
It took a good five minutes for him to finally get his breath back, in part because his fight-or-flight response refused to relax for a long while. Once he did, he took it upon himself to trudge, as slowly as he could, back toward the fair. The path into town was all the way back there, after all. And maybe he’d have to pass that tent again, after all, and that’d be fortuitous, wouldn’t it? He could return that arrow to the crone, after all.
By the time he got back to where the tent of misfortune had been, it was gone, signpost and all, with not a hint of its former presence to show that anything had ever been there to begin with. Well, no sense wasting time looking for it, he supposed. I wouldn’t even have handed it back to her anyway. Crazy people shouldn’t have weapons, should they? Especially not crazy old women with telekinesis.
Today, he felt, was still a bad day. A bad day made worse by a most strange and disturbing experience. He’d feel better once he was safe and sound back in his damn house.
Prologue - Speedwagon Foundation HQ, in Washington, D.C.
The director and C.E.O. of the SWF - some preferred SPW, but that simply didn’t fit as an acronym in Louis’ mind - sat at his desk, pondering the meeting that was about to take place. Ten minutes to ten, ten minutes before talking to a group of individuals who he knew could probably end his life with ease if they so wished. Yet he felt not an ounce of fear or worry. For one thing, he had years of experience handling both Stand users and other esoteric supernaturals, he knew the best strategies, the best options to take if things turned sour. He would not fall to a mere troupe of psychic maniacs, if indeed they were.
For another thing, he’d called them here in the first place. If there was anything at all to be concerned with, coincidentally, it was how thinly the SWF’s resources were stretched right now. The current situation, suffice to say, was infeasible to keep in check without extra support; most of Washington’s people were scattered far and wide handling the apparent pandemic, the facility in Dallas was being real slow in getting their own people over, and it transpired that of all their units, only two remained with any supernatural abilities of their own - their pet assassin, and their pet crocodile. Neither would be reliable alone, or even together, not with their respective skill sets and temperaments.
Thus, Louis had been forced to call for external help. He’d put the SWF’s reach to good use, and found himself with quite a few good options. Of those he contacted, though, only three had returned any interest - another hired gun, even more unreliable than the one under the Foundation’s thumb, but skilful in his own right; an ex-wrestler, his path followed and his steps traced, with a long history of Stand combat that made him quite useful indeed; and, God forgive him, a young civilian woman affected by the illness, complete with Stand, who he was quite certain was only interested because she was hard up when it came to money.
Pragmatism had won out, and all three had been called in to assist, alongside their other agents. Two Stand users did not add up to a full diplomatic or investigative force, but five just about made it; thankfully, the one agent had woken up recently, and the other would do as asked given the right incentives, so it was just a matter of having them called in alongside the newcomers.
Five to ten. They should be showing up by now. That, or they were bored and waiting for him to bring them in. Sighing, Louis pressed down on a panel in his desk, bringing up a screen that flicked on rapidly to reveal a security feed. He probably ought not to have that there, but every so often, he found himself with nothing to do, and enjoyed looking around to see how everyone in the building was getting along. For now, he changed the feed channel to the camera covering the waiting room leading to his office, observing to see who was here yet, and who was yet to arrive.