This is my second bite at the apple for Chuck’s 5 random words challenge. If anything, it teaches me that I should trust my instincts. This title occurred to me immediately, and I shied away from it initially, but it just wouldn’t go away. I realized, as soon as I gave it serious consideration, that it meshes perfectly with another novel idea that I’ve had; maybe the next one I’ll write after I’m finished with AI.
So, lesson learned, and fun has been had writing this one. It’s not as dark as my others of late either, so there’s that, too.
994 words, and I could easily have kept going.
The Acid Orphan
When Terry arrived at the League, the wolves began to circle. They always did, of course, when an Orphan arrived. But something about Terry drew them in more than usual. Maybe it was her tiny stature, maybe it was her too-pale skin, maybe it was the strange symbols tattooed on her wrists that she refused to explain.
Not every Orphan is an orphan. Some of them come from loving households. But even those have an unmistakable air of abandonment about them. A sadness, a weariness, a mistrust cultivated from years of rejection, years of phone calls home from the principal, years of being locked away, being forced to hide, forced to pretend. Every recruit at the League has felt it in some capacity or another — we are all a bit different — but the Orphans carry it heaviest of all; it is a part of them, etched on their heart, stamped on their soul. You can spot it on them, smell it, like dogs smell fear. Abandoned. Turned out. Unwanted.
The unspoken hierarchy of the school puts them at the bottom, where by and large they stay, outcasts even in the place that should sweep them close. Most of them drop off the face of the earth once they pass their evaluations, choosing to live in exile or even to check out for good. They become hermits even among the hermits; all of us are reclusive by nature, but the Orphans take it to extremes.
Funny thing, though, is that the Orphans have a way of being the strongest and smartest. Something about working so hard for so long to suppress your Ability makes it fester and expand, an amoeba feeding on its own colony. Exposure to the Catalyst would then cause it to flare up and spike, like a saucepot boiling over and spattering the kitchen with bits of tomato. Accidents happen all the time at the League: a classroom will have all its windows blown out, a student will lose an eye or have a limb shattered in a routine sparring session, that kind of thing. They always look at the Orphans first. Unofficially, of course.
In her first month, Terry shut down the entire academic wing of the complex — all thirty classrooms — for a week.
She claimed it was an accident, and nobody doubted it. But I saw her smirk when she came out of the council’s office. She saw me see her and she smiled, a lock of her short, chemically-blackened hair falling across one eye. She casually unwrapped a lollipop as she asked me, “How’s Gina doing?”
I laughed mirthlessly. Gina had marked Terry immediately — she loved to give Orphans hell — and invited her to the roof for a “welcoming ceremony” with some of her friends. What happened next was a story none of them were willing to tell, but all of her friends came back covered in boils and burns. Gina had the worst of it. Her face was unrecognizable: a riot of red, puckered skin and swelling sores. Half her hair was gone, dissolved in a sizzling gout of Terry’s acid blood. The runoff had oozed down through the building, chewing through cement and steel and drywall and wires. It had been three days before they were even sure they’d cleaned it all up. Incidentally, that was how we had all learned what Terry’s Ability was; until that day, it had been the subject of heated supposition.
Gina was out of the infirmary — I’d seen her that morning — but still pretty badly scarred and burned. “She’s not so great,” I replied. “I’d watch out for her if I were you.”
Terry chuckled. “I doused her so that I don’t have to watch out for her.”
That made sense to me, so I told her as much, and that’s how I made friends with the Acid Orphan.
We walked outside, talking aimlessly. She was more than happy to demonstrate her Ability for me, though she insisted that it was silly to call it an Ability. It was her blood; slightly caustic before, but the Catalyst had turned it into a smoldering poison. It didn’t harm Terry, but it burned like hellfire on the skin and it could eat through almost anything if allowed to work. It was a liability until she learned how to weaponize it. She took off one of the oddly spiked rings that she wore on her thumbs and handed it to me: a simple band of dark steel with a viciously curved talon of topaz in the center. The precious stone, she explained, was one of only a few substances that could abide her blood. The ring was too heavy for its size and the stone was wickedly sharp. It had to be, she told me.
She grinned a mischievious grin at me and slid the ring back on her thumb, the glimmering claw turned toward the inside of her hand. With a deft, practiced motion, not unlike a snapping of her fingers, she drew her pinky across the ring and then pressed her thumb to the blood that welled up. Thick and dark, it looked perfectly normal, but it smelled of foxglove, almost medicinal. When she smeared her hand in the grass, it began to smoke, the vegetation withering and then simply coming apart, the dirt beneath blackening and sizzling.
She watched the poison boiling into the earth, her eyes unblinking. “A deeper cut means more blood, and more blood turns these,” she held up her hands, looking at me between splayed fingers, “into weapons of mass destruction.”
“Perfect,” I said.
“What?” She asked.
I could already see events unfolding in my mind.
“Could you use that to open a door? Like, a reinforced door?”
Terry rolled her eyes. “I can remove a door.”
“Do you want to help me with something?”
“Depends,” she said, “Will we have to break any rules?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer.
“Then yes,” she said.