Ra

"Nottingham has enough pubs and clubs", say the local police. If you wanted to get around every last one of them it would be a year at a brisk trot before you were starting to visit establishments more than one mile from the centre of the city. Pick a Friday or a Saturday, any Friday or Saturday of the year: the establishments will be rammed and jumping and the streets bustling with people in their most tightly-wound and elaborately crafted drinking costumes. It's almost Christmas but the cold season has not added much to the average number of layers. Multicoloured decorative illuminations span the alleys and narrower streets: yellow curlicues and red stars and inexplicably five-pointed white snowflakes. Orange light spills out onto the street from the pubs. Floodlit trams cruise past, bells ringing at stumbling people in the way. Officers with cars and vans and fluorescent visibility jackets hold a largely pre-emptive presence on various likely streets. Quite frankly, it's a quiet one.

Laura Ferno and her three compatriots-- and that's how she thinks of them, herself plus three, there is no question in her mind as to who is the first among these equals-- stumble across the Square towards Iris, ratted on vodka-and-vodkas, largely insulated from the cold by the invisible effects of booze. There is a saying. "Drink through it." "It" is usually clear from context, but in this case the interpretation seems to be "life".

Laura is the shortest and darkest and cleverest of the four. "You're so clever!" Diane and Sandra tell her, all the time. She denies it, and tries not to show it. Highly polysyllabic words give her away, though. Diane is snarky and insufferable when not handled with the greatest of tranquility, and adorable and sweet when she wants something. Sandra is the oldest, and is practical and maternal and overweight. She prefers beer and has the greatest capacity for it. Natalie is Laura's twin sister. They are very nearly identical. Or, to put it another way, they are not identical. Natalie is a little quieter, that's it. The four study at opposite ends of the country now, but just for tonight and a few more days they're all back in town, and painting it.

Iris's neon sign casts neon light over the frankly preposterous queue outside the establishment's front door. Every step closer reveals more people in this line. "It never ends!" Sandra says. "We're going to be waiting until Christmas."

"How much is it to get in?" asks Laura.

"Five fifty," say two others simultaneously.

Laura rummages through her purse. "I need to stop and get cash again."

"What did you get last time?" asks Diane. "A fiver? Did you find-- excuse me-- the only cash machine in this city which dispenses single fivers?"

"I'll cover you," says Natalie. "You can buy me a drink once we're inside."

"No no no. I can't, I don't have cash."

"Well then use a card!"

"I-- okay, why are we going to Iris anyway? It's crap and you can't see anything and it's so expensive. It's so expensive."

Sandra: "Because the music's good, and dancing, and it's Diane's friend's first day behind the bar so he can get us a discount."

"Well, I don't even know him, and I hate Iris anyway."

"Overruled!" Laura is dragged forward by several limbs.

"If overruled I will not queue! If-- if dragged in I will not pay! If someone covers me to get in I will not drink and if someone buys me a drink I will still not drink. Seriously, I'm trying to-- hey-- keep a cap on my entertainment budget. It was one cash machine visit per outing, no cards--"

"Come on!"

"Oh, come on, it's only--" Natalie turns around and looks at the big clock overlooking the square. "One. Five to."

"There's a night bus at one. I'm going to try to get the night bus at one. I'm going. Take care!" There are some hurried hugs, but Laura manages to extricate herself and hobble off within a few moments.

*

Crossing the Square takes a little while because her shoes were made for looking good at the expense of comfort, convenience, durability, mobility, price and so on. Her boyfriend never wants to know how much they cost, and yet, like a car crash or gripping slasher flick, can't look away when she reveals the hideous truth each time. (Where is he now? In another city, staying with his family for Christmas. Probably drunk out of his skull with his mates at their local, or, by this time, in bed with half of a sloppy, cooling pizza from the Exchange, taking a good run-up for tomorrow's hangover.)

It's sixty seconds to one and she has a long zig and then zag to take to get to the top of the hill where the bus stops are, but there is thankfully a shortcut, a narrow and steeply-stepped (but usually quite well-lit and friendly) alley which cuts off the corner of the triangle, so she takes that instead. It's well-lit because the Slouch is halfway along it and usually completely filled with people. Of course, she remembers a little too late, the Slouch got closed down a couple of weeks ago because some stupid woman took drugs and almost died on their property. It'll be back, but there are legal proceedings. In the meantime, for the moment, this is quite a dark and empty passage.

A couple of men come around the corner and start coming down the steps. "'Scuse me!" she chirps, moving to slide past them on the side. They don't move. How irritating. One of them reaches into his jacket. The other already has both of his hands free.

"Her," she hears a third man utter some yards behind her.

Oh shit.

It would be nice to say that all the alcohol in Laura Ferno's system leaves her at this point and she gains laserlike, crystalline clarity and the following happens in slow motion. But, though armed, she is drunk off her face.

A momentary pause to elaborate on what she's wearing. The key word here is "rings". The high-heeled, high-impracticality shoes have been touched upon already. The black leggings, black skirt and black top are inconsequential. Resting comfortably around her neck, though, is a very fine silver necklace made from thirty-seven components, each a unique three-dimensional elongated silver shape linked to the next with wire; this is much more significant. Decorating her ears are large silver earrings in equally complex shapes. Around her left wrist are four silver bangles and one golden bangle, all slightly different sizes, each custom-made by a different craftsperson, but engraved with the same complicated repeating and interlocking design, reminiscent of Korean text but illegible in any human language. These five are independent, but amplify each other. Around her right wrist are three more bangles, these ones relatively commonplace items bought "off the shelf", albeit a specialist and extremely expensive and obscure shelf. These three interlock and (in ways which may become apparent) interact with one another in useful ways. On her left index finger, left thumb and left middle finger, three smaller rings with similar designs which control the bangles on her right hand. On her left ring finger, nothing (but ah, one day). On her right index finger, no rings, but an intricate tattooed design circling the base of the finger where a ring would sit.

That covers everything not concealed in her purse. The three thugs -- no, four thugs -- aren't mages. They haven't realised that Laura Ferno is bristling with openly-carried thaumic weaponry. Even with just the tattoo this would have been a bad idea.

Laura turns as fast as can be expected given the events and alcoholic content of the preceding six hours. Thug Three's Maglite, the four-D-cell kind, lands on her head with a bop like a coconut and she yelps and drops to the ground. She rolls and hisses at the pain for a moment or two. Her purse falls off and is kicked away down the steps. That much of the scene goes exactly as the four thugs anticipated. Then Laura's had enough time to remember her emergency phrase and form a few syllables.

"Dulaku surutai jiha, twenty you em!"

She flails her right hand at her attackers and they recoil with hot pain as large amounts of hard infrared and microwave radiation wash over them like water from a fire hose. The thermal output is invisible, but immediately felt on the face and skin. The first one she hits recoils instinctively, hands across his face, cheap plastic jacket bubbling and beginning to melt in places. He runs for it, escaping down the alley steps and into the Square. The one with the Maglite takes the thermal energy in the face and throws himself back against the wall, clutching his eyes. The third ducks with surprising speed.

And the fourth sees it coming. He shields his head with his heavy leather jacket and lurches forward in front of Laura, managing to deflect her hand upwards where it's relatively safe. Her hair begins to singe and the wall starts to scorch. But before he can get hold of her other hand (and before her hair can catch fire) Laura has managed to pronounce "Kafa'u six kay dulaku!" and a quantity of directed linear momentum has erupted out of that hand like a fist into his sternum, hurling him up and backwards into the wall and along it and down into the street beyond. Even if the buses miss him he'll break a leg or two. He won't be back.

"Get her arms!" shouts Three, but there's nobody else still in the game. He cannons into her from below and pins her right hand to the wall, pointed sideways this time. But Three's too slow to get her left hand either-- maybe he thinks she needs to say the whole spell again to carry it out a second time?

"Sedo!" she says, and another invisible piston smashes Three against the far wall of the alley. CRACK go several parts of his body, and several parts of Two's body too, who was curled up on the ground right behind him. Three drops from the wall like a ragdoll and rolls down the steps. Laura manages to find her footing and slump down against the wall. "Thono," she says, which switches off her thermal lance. It's over.

Alcohol and junk food from earlier in the evening swirl in her gut and she throws a lot of it up on the steps. It makes her feel a lot better, for a moment; then her brain becomes clear enough to process what just almost happened.

There are no badass quips.

With a jolt she realises that Two is still moving, groping his way up the steps towards her. But he's moving slowly. He can't see-- his face is visibly burned. Laura yelps and scoots up a step, pulling her feet out of Two's reach. Something blurry and primal and red-hot in the front of her brain demands that she kick his head in while he's vulnerable, or blow it off with another kinetic pulse. Stamp on it, kill the spider! But she reins that instinct in for just a second, just long enough to scrabble to her feet. Standing up steps from the pathetic burnt creature, a less impulsive component of her vodka-blunted psyche manages to wrench control back. Get out of there, it tells her instead. She stumbles backwards and runs up the steps, towards the bright lights and the buses.

CCTV, that's why.

She staggers up the last of the steps and out into the street. There are already several curious heads peering down at her, wondering what just caused a man to be thrown out into the middle of the traffic. There's a pair of police officers hurrying in her direction, one of them radioing details in. "I need some help," Laura explains, staggering forward. "Um."

"Easy, easy!" says a man, catching hold of her as she's about to blunder into the road. He's a bus driver, very tall and much older and friendlier-looking. He manages to hold her up. "Easy. What the hell just happened?"

"I think some people attacked me," says Laura Ferno. She feels a stabbing pain in her stomach, and shivers. "I need to sit down." The man helps her over to the nearest bus shelter, but all it has are uncomfortable anti-seats, barely horizontal planks. The best Laura can do is lean against one for support.

One of them ran away, she thinks. The one with the torch is-- he's still in there. But he can't see. He won't get very far. I hope. One of them-- she looks around through the scratched plastic window of the shelter and focuses on the far side of the road-- is a pile of thug in the gutter. He might be breathing. I don't care. And the one with the knife is wallpaper.

That's right, thinks Laura Ferno. He had his hands free because he was carrying something. And then he didn't-- he could have grabbed both my arms--

But he only used... he only used one hand--

Way down at the far end of the street, a siren starts wailing.

"Is your hand okay?" another strange voice asks her. She can't see who's talking. And then there's a gasp. "Let me look at you. You're covered in blood, honey."

"My hand's fine," says Laura, and collapses, bleeding out slowly from a hole near her kidney.

 

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