Running as I was, I barely saw Sarah skid to a stop, but I did hear the distinctive whomp of her using her power. I didn’t see the tell-tale ripple ahead of me, which meant that she was going after the flame flyer. That was good tactics, and just the sort of thing that we’d trained ourselves for. If the flyer had a ranged ability, then I was at a distinctive disadvantage. Less maneuverability, less range, and I’d have to depend on my revolver. Bringing a pistol against a flying blaster didn’t exactly even the odds — they could fall back and make it a lot harder to score a hit with the gun. The downsides of pistols.
I dared a glance upwards, and saw the flying girl easily evade the attack. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest. Sarah had done it to draw attention, but now it gave me the chance to take in the woman’s appearance. Not that I could make much out. It looked like she was wearing a soft, brown leather outfit and a helmet. The flames seemed to trail off of her body, but I couldn’t tell where they were coming from precisely.
One thing at a time, though. John. The two of them had done a good job of flooring the opposition. My best guess was that the woman could make bursts of some sort, relying on concussive force to drop her enemies. Just before the burst had hit, John had made his crystal wall. Naturally, a few people had been protected by it… until he’d vaulted it and set it off, pelting them with shards. As I ran, he constructed another wall in the space of about a second and a half, then detonated it again.
I noted that people weren’t getting up. Crap. I liked these folks. Even the Sons.
There was another sound in the air as I continued to run. The flame girl returning fire. When the blast sounded, I was thankful that it wasn’t near me, and that I didn’t hear Sarah scream. Two small blessings. That was about it for the upsides, though. The horses for both wagons were taking off now that people weren’t making sure they stayed in place, taking the wagons with them. Even worse, John saw me on fast approach.
You can’t win them all.
With a gesture, a wall of crystal appeared between us, no more than five feet high and three across. Was there a limit to his power? I couldn’t be sure. A few moments later, it exploded, shards heading directly for me. Reflexively I covered my face, suddenly reminded again why so many parahumans and mercenaries wore masks. Fortunately, it seemed like he’d misjudged the distance — the large shards only pelted against my lower body, not powerful enough to even sting through my armor.
At least he wasn’t one of those types that could launch them at supersonic speeds. My armor wouldn’t do much against that. Chris said that it probably could stop a .50 caliber pistol round, but the same couldn’t be said for rifle.
Still, he was already working on another wall, much closer to himself. This one was forming more slowly, giving me time to advance closer, but it seemed to be growing wider and taller. I shifted my halberd so that I was gripping it with one hand, just over shoulder height, like a spear. I didn’t want to throw it; I wasn’t quite close enough to be guaranteed a hit, and if I missed then I’d only be left with my knife and pistol. Better to hold off.
My free hand reached up and hit the buckle on my pack. Both straps went at once and it dropped to the ground behind me. The lack of weight gave me a bit of an extra boost of speed, something that was quickly becoming necessary with how the wall was growing.
By the time I was close enough to be assured a hit, the wall was already six feet tall, nearly twelve in width and still growing. Yeah, good call on not chucking the halberd. At this point, I’d be lucky to hit his head. My legs were already starting to complain a little, but it was tolerable. My knee wouldn’t feel the greatest in an hour or so, but my main focus was on getting John down as quickly as possible. Better to hurt later than die today.
Instead, I ran a bit further, until the six and a half foot wall was in front of me and jumped. I was a good jumper, but I was better at distance, not straight height. I might have cleared it, if I wanted to land on my back. (I didn’t.) But that wasn’t what I was going for. John had built the wall as a defensive structure, not very far away from him. It wasn’t a bad idea, really. If I threw the halberd, he’d be able to duck easily, and it gave him plenty of maneuvering room if I tried to go around.
I didn’t. My upper body hit the top of the wall, and my left arm pressed down on the crystal to hold me up. The moment I saw him, staring at me in shock and surprise, I lashed out with my weapon. Not as good a jab as I would have liked, though — instead of catching him squarely in the leg to make it harder for him to move like I’d wanted, my aim had been off and it grazed his arm, doing more damage to his armor than to him. The only reason that I’d even hurt him with a poorly aimed thrust like that was because it was one of Chris’ weapons, making sure it had an edge that would put obsidian to shame.
I hauled back to try again when the wall quivered. I only had the briefest of moments to consider the fact that I had made a rather stupid newbie mistake, not taking everything I’d observed about his powers into account, before it exploded.
I would have liked to have analyzed what had happened, how I could recover and use this to my advantage. Unfortunately, the blast hit me like a mule. My armor could handle the force of a few shards at once. The high-sheer layer, though, apparently couldn’t dampen so much of it being hit at once. Or, if it was dampening it, the force was enough that it didn’t feel like it.
I slammed into the ground, curling into a ball almost instantly as I struggled for breath. Susan had made jokes more than once about my choice to wear a cup underneath my armor, but right now I was infinitely glad that I did. Forget how much it chafed at the times, but between my legs was blessedly free from agonizing pain. That was about the best part of me, too. My back, neck, and head all hurt from the force of the impact with the ground. Everything on my front from the nipple level down felt like I’d belly flopped into gravel from a good twenty foot drop. Just trying to draw in a breath was almost an impossibility.
I heard the crunch of a boot next to me. I found myself unable to open my eyes to look up. “Stay down,” John said quietly. “Jordan, just… just stay down. Please.”
I would have liked to have said something that made me seem badass. Instead, my body seemed more interested in coughing and convulsing. Given the circumstances, and how I had no idea where my halberd had gotten to, that seemed like a rather fitting idea. What control I did have over my body, I put into convulsing more, like I was losing the fight of clinging to consciousness.
There was a long pause, the kind that seems to stretch out for an eternity, before I felt the foot land next to my head. A moment later, though, I heard another one beyond me, followed by another. Was I really that lucky today? Or was this just a test to see if I was going to stay down?
I waited another moment before I dared to try and open my eyes to take in my surroundings. Others seemed to be hurt just as bad as me, if not worse. More importantly, my eyes locked on John. Or rather, his back. He was whispering something, too soft for me to hear it.
People accused me of being too nice for this line of work. To an extent, they were right. I hated the idea of killing someone, of hurting them any more than absolutely necessary. I’d kill in a heartbeat if I was put in a position where I had to, naturally, but those were fewer and further between than most people thought. But I also liked the idea of helping people, of protecting them from people who didn’t have reservations against hurting them. So I’d taught myself how to fight, how to take people down with the minimum amount of damage. I’d found anybody willing to teach me, to hone my skills. I was competent enough at it, good enough for someone who might still be in his teens. Or at least I liked to think so.
John, though, didn’t seem to have that edge. He’d fallen for a simple trick, one that he could have checked against with one kick to my head. And in the end, he was going to suffer for it.
My lungs weren’t burning for air quite so badly any more. My body might still be in agony, but that time laying there had given me the control that I needed back. There were two ways that I could do this. I could find my halberd and attack him properly, or I could do it the smart way.
I opted for the smart way.
As quietly as I could, I made my way to my feet, my hand slipping to my holster. The knife would have worked for a few possibilities, but it would have also caused a lot of problems in the long run. Instead, I drew my revolver, and moved as close to him as I dared. Once I was sure that I could, I dashed the two steps, swinging. The butt of my weapon struck him at the base of the skull.
The effect was pretty much what I’d expected. I’d seen DVDs of movies and shows were people were knocked out by such things, but that would just be too easy to work in real life. Instead, he let out a choked scream and fell to the ground, his hands moving to the back of his head. Which was pretty much exactly what I wanted. Now, at least, things were working to my favor.
Almost instantly I dropped on him, letting gravity drive my knees into the small of his back. That hurt my already sore body, but I bet that he felt more than a little smart out of it, given his gasp of pain. His hands hadn’t even moved by the time I’d gripped one, my revolver already back in its holster. I grabbed the handcuffs, wrenching his arm around to put it on. If he would have had the fight in him, he probably could have gotten free pretty easily — I was still weak, my body still wanting more oxygen. But his own throbbing skull was sapping him of his strength, and possibly even his ability to think straight.
I fought a little to get his other arm around. One of the first things that I’d learned was that almost every time you fought someone, there were three key things that could give you victory. Remove any one of the three, and your chances for winning increase dramatically. Their ability to move, their ability to breathe, and their ability to see. Being blinded by pain was one that I’d already hit, but just as he’d taken away my ability to breathe, it was only temporary. As it subsided, he’d want to be back in the fight unless I removed his ability to enter it. I’d make the pain last a bit longer in a minute if I had to. Before then, I wanted to take care of another of the necessities to fight.
I got out my second pair of cuffs, barely getting them latched to the chain between the pair he was already wearing when I heard a scream of rage. I quickly grabbed John’s leg before looking up to find the source. Fire girl was coming in for a dive bomb at me, one hand balled up into a fist. I blinked, a little surprised, before I remembered that John was underneath me. She couldn’t just fireball us to death. Well, point in my favor, at least.
I calmly cuffed his ankle, but didn’t bother to move. She seemed agile in the air, and really, my chances of evading were pretty slim. Might as well just accept my pounding and get it over with. With any luck…
Luck wasn’t necessary. She got close enough that I could see her eyes before she veered wildly off, passing me by. It genuinely took me a moment before I registered that I’d heard the tell-tale sound of Sarah’s power. I whipped around just in time to see the flyer hit the ground, tumbling end over end several times before stopping. Sure, she might have hurt my friends, but I still winced. That… had to hurt.
I nodded once before rising to my feet and looking around. One of the Sons, a blonde woman who looked like she’d seen more share of fights whose name I couldn’t place, was upright with a hand on her knee, apparently ready to jump into action if need be. Fortunately, Sarah was already running towards the fire girl. Which was good; I was out of handcuffs, and I wasn’t even sure if they’d work on a flyer.
Instead, I moved to the first prone body that I saw — Roger. I moved quickly, checking his breathing and pulse. Despite the blood that seemed to cover his face from a nasty gash on his forehead, a quick examination showed that he was okay. Small favors. Still, with cuts like that… Infection was still a big thing out here. On trips like this, you could pick up an infection fast, and then the next thing you knew, amputation was the only solution. Especially since we were over a week from the city Roger called home. And, to be honest, it wasn’t exactly viable to amputate one’s face.
I tried to stand, only to find that my body was protesting. I forced myself up, a hand going to my gut. I could breathe, but it hurt. Walking hurt. Moving hurt. I was pretty sure that everything but looking around would hurt. Pain that seemed to scratch the surface inside enough to make my body not want to respond. But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t work to be done.
I walked quickly to where I’d dropped my pack, redoing the clasps so that I could throw it over my shoulder. If standing had taken a moment of steeling myself before, with the weight of my pack it took sheer force of will. By the time I’d made it back to where the tradeoff had been occurring, folks were already starting to get up.
Now that I thought about it, it was a little odd that there wasn’t any scorch marks around, let alone anyone with burns that I could see. There wasn’t even any steam or smoke. I’d think about that later, though.
I dropped my pack next to Roger, only to pause when Karen touched my arm. She had a black eye, but otherwise she seemed to be doing fine. “The wagon,” she said. “I can… handle him.”
I frowned a little. Not what I wanted, but it was good that she had priorities in their proper order. A sign of a good merc. “Okay,” I said, pushing the feeling of dread to the side. I bent down just long enough to fish out the med kit, handing it to her. “Some stuff is special, thanks to my brother. Directions are inside.”
I gave her shoulder a supportive squeeze and flashed her a sympathetic smile before pushing myself back to my feet. Sarah seemed to have the woman under control. “Sis,” I yelled. “I’m gonna find the horses. Keep an eye on things, willya?”
She looked back to flash me the thumbs up before she bent over to pick up the woman carefully. Might be spinal damage, but given the circumstances…
I fought the urge to sigh as I moved to my polearm. I felt like a freaking newbie, playing merc instead of being one, and suffering for it. Meanwhile, Sarah was still in tip top condition. I kinda wanted tell her that it would be better for her to get the horses; I wasn’t the best with animals to start with, and she wouldn’t have to fight to keep from limping the entire time. Plus, she knew how to drive them. But if the two tried something, she’d be better equipped to take them on than me at the moment.
What a terrible day this was shaping up to be.
It took me nearly three hours to return back with the wagon. Tracking the horses hadn’t been the hard part — panicked as they were, they’d left a heck of a trail. The first moment of difficulty had been catching up to them. The second bit of difficulty had been the supplies that had dropped off the cart during their flight. It wouldn’t do to have to come back and get everything. The propane tanks were easy. The boxes, a little less so. The barrels that composed the majority of the supplies? Yeah, that could easily be described as pure agony.
Everybody, though, was up and moving by the time that I made it back. Everybody but our two new prisoners. The both of them, actually, were looking a little bit worse than when I’d left. I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about that.
Sarah met me before I made it to the clearing, though. “Rest,” she said in her listen-to-me-or-else tone. “You look like you need a forty hour nap.”
I nodded wordlessly, pausing just long enough to get my rifle out of the back of the wagon. As I slung it over my shoulder, I took the time to genuinely look around. Five of the Sons, which really was an annoying name considering their mixed genders, were up and moving. They’d already recovered their wagon and were waiting patiently. With how crazy Bitch was rumored to be, you wouldn’t think that they would be so patient. Truth be told, though, I liked them, liked my interactions with them. Just because Bitch was supposedly a brute didn’t mean they all were, after all.
Our own people looked beat up. Roger had bandages over half of his face, covering one eye. Amy was in a sling. That made me frown a bit. Broken, or just a cut that they didn’t want to aggravate? I’d ask her about it later. Karen and Roy weren’t looking any worse for the wear, but they were moving slowly. Hard to tell. Manuel was holding an arm to his gut, but was still moving about. Gauging by how low it was, he’d taken a shot to the stomach from the crystal. It probably had taken the wind out of him — unlike the rest of us, he wasn’t wearing armor. I bet he regretted it now.
I used my halberd to help lower myself to the ground. After a moment’s hesitation, I went ahead and took the rifle from my shoulder, checking to make sure the safety was on before depositing it next to me. It wasn’t a real concern, but I’d been trained to take gun safety seriously. My pack was the next thing that I relieved myself of. I did it right this time, not using the quick-release strap. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to the weight when you wear it all day, every day. It’s equally amazing just how much your body lets you know when you take it off.
Sarah was right. I wasn’t tired, but I was exhausted. I adjusted my pack before settling back on the grass, using it as a hard pillow. My body was in that quiet state of screaming, a dull roar that didn’t entirely penetrate completely. That state where another nap sounded like a good idea. Just enough pain to make sleep appealing, not enough to hamper the ability to get there in the slightest. I let my eyes close slowly, not really focusing on anything. Another fifteen minute nap, then my usual three hours of sleep while on the clock. The ability to stay awake all night looked good when it came to negotiations, but I usually spent a day or two getting a full six hours a night plus naps when we finished a job before settling back into my standard four hours plus naps.
I halfway heard someone approaching, but didn’t pay it any mind. I honestly didn’t care much about anything at the moment. Sadly, the hand on my shoulder that gently shook me didn’t give me much choice in the matter.
An eye cracked open, and a moment later, a smile crossed my face. It was the older gal from the Sons. Middle-aged by my guess, dark hair. Her name… Meh, I’d heard it before, but my brain couldn’t fish it out at the moment. I felt a pang of self-loathing for being such a jerk, not remembering someone’s name.
“Take your shirt off,” she said gently.
The insanity of what she said took a moment to kick in and force the corner of my mouth to twist up wider. “I dunno if I should be giving everyone a free show.”
She blinked at me before snorting and giving me a gentle cuff alongside my head. “Get over yourself.” At least she took the humor in good spirits. “I wanna make sure you’re okay. We’ve checked everyone else, so you’re up.”
“Mmm.” I let my eyes close again, my smile fading. “I’m fine. Nothing got through the armor.”
I felt fingers on my cheek and eyebrow a split second before my eye was pulled open. “And your sister said you took one of those crystal explosions at point blank range.” The woman looked into my eye with an even stare. “You’re also walking funny. So I’m going to check you over if you like it or not. Now, unless you want me stripping you naked…”
I felt a blush come to my cheeks, but I nodded slowly. “Alright, alright. Forced stripshows aren’t sexy anyway.” I let my eyes close, but still let my hands do their thing.
I worked on getting my shirt disconnected from my pants. It was a weird system that I couldn’t explain. Not like a zipper, but some seams were actually the openings. Put them together and they sealed up perfectly, until you went to undo them by hand. A moment later, I got the seam that ran all the way up to the collar and pulled it open for the woman.
I knew that my face wasn’t the best looking in the world, and I was at peace with that. Ears too big and not exactly even, nose a bit too large and a touch crooked, teeth that didn’t line up nicely, and hair that couldn’t decide if it was going to be insanely curly or painfully straight. And not in a way that made sense, either, with the curls at the ends. It was like for every hair that decided it had to curl up tight, there was another that wanted to be completely straight, and another that wasn’t sure which way that it wanted to go. But there were things that I did… tolerate about my body.
I was told that I had rich, dark eyes that were very pretty, with surprisingly long eyelashes for a guy. I wasn’t sure if I bought that, but I got compliments, so I couldn’t complain. And despite me not being able to bulk up into a powerhouse, I was still quite muscular. Not that sick muscular where you could count a thousand abs; I still had a thin layer of fat on me, which might help explain why I didn’t feel even worse from that hit I took. But I was rather quite visibly muscular, especially when I got my shirt off. This woman was a bit too old for me, but… Well, everybody likes to show off their good side on occasion, right?
“You’re much darker-skinned than your sister,” she muttered. Probably just making chit-chat while she did her thing. Her hands were cool as they pressed against my stomach.
“That would explain a lot.” She paused a moment, touching somewhere else in my lower abdomen. That got a wince out of me. “How’s the Matron?”
I opened my eyes, looking at her. She had her eyes firmly on my chest. I didn’t dare look down. I didn’t want to know. “You know her?”
“I haven’t seen her since… Well, a long time. But Bitch had us take dogs to see her and the kids on occasion. She struck me as one of the good ones.”
Oh. Well. That was different. I let my eyes drift shut again. “She’s older than when I was little,” I said quietly. “I don’t like it. She’s still overworked; she insists on dealing with all the kids personally. Not even the Patron can keep up with her on that. But every year, she gets a few more hands to help out. By the time she gets old, I think there’ll be enough help.”
“It never gets easier, though, does it?”
I smiled sadly, looking at the dark patterns behind my eyelids. “Nope. Always someone new showing up.”
There was a long silence, and I welcomed it. She was content to think about the past, and I… Well, I was just sort of there. There wasn’t anything skimming the surface, and this was one of those occasions where I was content to be hollow for a little bit.
She was the one to break the silence. “These are probably going to be ugly in the morning, but I don’t think you’re in too bad of shape.”
“I don’t plan on looking until we get back to New Brockton anyway.” A simple enough solution.
“Well, the least that you can do is rest tonight. We talked it over, and we’re both going to stay the night here. There’s only a couple of hours of sunlight left, so there’s no point in you leaving tonight. You won’t make it to your first rest stop before it’s too late. We’re going to build a fire and cook soon.”
That wasn’t encouraging in the slightest. Some of our people were depending on getting back on time to collect their pay. “Okay,” I said softly. “Then just… let me catch three hours of sleep, and I’ll take guard duty.”
“Which part of rest didn’t you understand?”
“The part where I always take night shift.” I finally opened my eyes again, looking up at her. “If I don’t stay on that schedule, then I’m going to have a heck of a time while we’re going back, and I don’t think that I have too much to worry about tonight. Nobody sane or smart would come after the ruckus we stirred up, and even the wildlings will be keeping a distance.”
She frowned down at me for a moment before nodding. “Alright. I’ll make sure that there’s some food left for you.” She slapped her knees and rose to her feet.
“Much obliged,” I said with a smile before closing my eyes. It wasn’t the level of rest that I was used to, missing a nap and all, but I was willing to take what I could get. I reminded myself of that simple fact; when you have nothing, something is a blessing. It was a good line to remember.
But I didn’t dwell. I simply watched the black clouds behind my eyelids grow larger.
A lavish room greeted me. A frequent room in a frequent house, with a field leading up to it and a cliffside behind it. There wasn’t really anything notable about it, somehow. The field was pretty but didn’t have anything that stood out. The furniture was rather nice in a generic way, and I had never actually focused on the pictures on the wall enough to see what they were of. It was all too familiar, things that I wouldn’t remember here in a few hours, but were so completely home to me.
Mom rose from the couch, a deep frown marring her face. “What’s wrong?”
The tears started before I got the first word out.