“Hey, Squirt! Mom wants you!”
Emi set down her sewing, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Josh was about as irritating as you could get some days. Almost as irritating as Steve. She was sure that she could hear Mom telling him that she’d meant for him to come and get her personally instead of yelling across the house.
She was tempted, and not for the first time, to stab him in the eye with a needle. “I’ll be there in a minute!”
It took her about that long to get everything put away. Her family didn’t have much money, and if a girl wanted something nice, she’d have to make it herself. Not a day went by that she didn’t look forward to when she could get a job. Iiga had a rule that you couldn’t get a job until you turned 16 unless it was a family-owned business.
To be fair, part of the reason why she was looking forward to it was so that she could move out and be on her own.
Walking out of her room and to the kitchen, she could see Josh glaring at her. Someone got in trouble for yelling. Not her fault he was a dork and didn’t know not to yell when Mom had a headache. She forced a cheery grin to her face as she entered the kitchen. Just to needle him. “What’s up?”
Her mom turned to look at her, already looking tired. “I need Josh to fix the roof, and Stephen is still grounded for ruining Mrs. Agatha’s flowers. Can I ask you to get some bait and head to the river?”
She wanted to say no. Her mom got three days off a week, and she didn’t work tomorrow. It’s not like she didn’t have the time to go do it herself. Drag the two shits with her, get them out of her hair for a little bit. Or make Josh get a damn job himself; his birthday was just last week.
Unfortunately, her mom had phrased it as a question, but it really had been anything but. “Yeah,” she said, drawing out the word as long as she dared. “I suppose.” It was as close to a protest as she could legitimately get right now. “If I catch five, can I have the rest of the night to finish my dress?”
Her mom offered her a thin smile as she got into her coin purse. “If you catch six, I’ll even help you.”
That was enough of a bribe. Sure, her mom wasn’t good at sewing, but just having someone work the pedal was good enough. She pressed two coins into Emi’s hand with a sly wink. Okay, that was the actual bribe for doing this. At least it wasn’t some sort of bullshit about getting her out of the house or something.
Emi really didn’t get that. Some people were meant to be out and about, surrounding themselves with other people all the damn time. She wasn’t. She liked being around people, she liked having good friends, but she also needed time to herself. Time to sew, to make some spare coin on the side from doing it. Time to decompress, to absorb everything that had been happening. Time to see the world as it really was to her, not as everybody else saw it.
In her opinion, that was the problem with folks. Everybody else saw the world a little differently, but nobody wanted to be alone. They knew, instinctively, that they were just a little different from everybody else around them. So they either tried to scrape themselves into a form that matched everyone else, or they tried to force you into their viewpoint. Not that they knew they were doing it, they were operating on pure instinct, but still.
Emi took the coins and gave her mom a kiss on the cheek before scurrying out of the house. A single coin would buy three buckets of bait; one now, the rest whenever they needed them. The important question, the million coin question, was what the hell was she going to do with the other one?
Bucket of bait and her fishing pole in hand, and the rest of her gear in a light pack on her back, Emi made her way through town. She’d ended up saving her extra coin, slipping it into the pocket she’d put in these pants just for money. Zippers were hard to come by these days, making them expensive, but when she outgrew these pants she could always take it out and put it in a new pair.
She’d warmed up to the idea of fishing when she’d gotten the bait. Sure, she was going to need a bath when all this was said and done, but if Josh was going to be banging on the roof all day, it meant that she’d have some peace and quiet. She’d rather been hoping that she could get the dress she was working on done by the social, but… Well, she’d just have to catch six fish.
“Emi! Emi Soseki!”
Emi turned, fixing a pleasant smile on her face. She’d recognized the voice immediately. “Taro. Good to see you.”
There was a heavy contingent of Asians in this sleepy little town. Truth be told, at least a quarter of everybody here was of some level of Asian decent. Most of them were refugees, either from pre-collapse Endbringer attacks, or from Gold Morning. Not everybody that Khepri had collected to fight had a way to get back to their homeland, and more than a few couldn’t bear it. The few remaining Asians were from families that had emigrated before Scion first appeared. From before everything went to shit.
Taro was from the first group; some time after Kyushu was destroyed, after Black Kaze went on her murder rampage killing tens of thousands, after the ultra-nationalists took over, his family had fled to America. Sometimes, he joked about being lucky that he missed Khonsu’s attack on Japan. Truth be told, though, he was more American than most of the white people here. He’d only been a kid when Scion had betrayed humanity, but he’d quickly joined the Wardens as soon as he’d turned sixteen. He was handsome, she supposed, and she knew that one of the other Wardens posted in town had her eye on him.
“Hey, listen. Friedrich did a flyby patrol here a little bit ago. No sign of any wildlings, but… If you’re going to be heading out to do some fishing, I wouldn’t mind keeping guard for you.” He flashed her a worried, almost hopeful smile.
Taro was a friend of the family. He was a friend to a lot of families. Some folks thought he was a pedophile, at least, until they got to know him. If a family had a daughter, he’d start trying to become their friends about the time that the girl would start to develop. It wasn’t hard to understand why people might get the wrong impression.
The truth, though, was a little more complicated than that. Yeah, he loved hanging out with girls who were way younger than him, but it wasn’t out of any sexual urges. Both of his parents had multiple jobs and had worked really hard to provide for their kids… to the point that they were never home. It had been the job of Taro’s sister to help raise him and his brother. Taro and his brother had survived Gold Morning. Risa, though, hadn’t been so lucky. He’d triggered as he held his sister’s dismembered body, her torso torn in two.
Taro wasn’t a pedophile. No. As Emi understood it, he was just making up for not saving Risa.
Emi’s dad had been friends with Taro’s parents; one of the many reasons why Taro had gleefully taken the posting here. That and they’d quickly established a Buddhist temple after getting the first few buildings built. She’d learned more of the story than a lot of people.
“Thanks,” Emi said softly, a patient smile on her face. “I mean it, Taro. But I want to do some thinking right now. I’m almost done with school, you know? Two more years, and I can get a job. I’m not sure what I want to do.”
Taro frowned a little. “You could go-”
“Nope,” she said with a sigh. It was an old argument she’d had with too many people. “Listen, my grades are good, but they aren’t that good. And even if they were, we only have so much money. We can’t afford to send me to a college. And even if we could, I dunno what I’d want to be doing for a living.”
“Still…” It wouldn’t be so bad if she wasn’t sure that he’d been through this with plenty of other girls around town. Honestly, she probably would have told him off right and proper if he hadn’t have been such a nice guy.
“Don’t stress it,” Emi said with a comforting smile. “I’ll figure out something.”
She suppressed the urge to jump as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. It wasn’t that she didn’t like being touched, she just didn’t like being surprised by it. When she initiated it, it was cool, but she’d prefer if people asked. “Just do me a favor and don’t work in the mines unless you absolutely have to, okay?”
She nodded, trying her best to keep smiling as she wrapped her arm around his waist to give him a hug. “Yeah, no stress.”
No stress. Right. She knew she was headed for the coal mines eventually. The pay was good, far better than what either of her parents made. She’d sworn that she wouldn’t live like them when she moved out. That she’d be able to support herself, raise a family without having to worry.
Sure, she could move. Catch one of the caravans that carried the coal away. Maybe even skip over to Bet. Find a job in a bigger town or something. But the cost of catching a ride, getting a place until she found work…
Hopeless was a good word for it all.
Taro kissed the top of her head affectionately, smiling a little. “Alright. I don’t want to keep you from your fishing, but… Listen, if you ever wanna talk or anything…”
“I’ll give an extra loud yell,” she said, giving him a squeeze before disengaging.
They separated, suddenly at a loss for words. Instead, they offered each other a small wave before heading off in their separate directions. Emi couldn’t help but feel horribly awkward by all of it, though. Everybody was worried about her future, but not about her. Sure, sure, keeping an eye on the person that you’d eventually become was important. She got that. She understood it on at least one level.
But what about the person she was now? Focusing on the person that she’d be some day apparently meant that the person she was right now wasn’t all that important to everybody else, it seemed. They didn’t even care what her current hopes were. That she just wanted nice clothes; nothing fancy, just something that she could feel good about wearing. Feel like she looked good in. She wanted to feel warm, wet sand between her toes. To climb a tree and take a nap in it.
Not in the dress, of course.
Adults. Were they all this useless? So self-centered? That their vision of the world you should live in was the right one? They didn’t really care about her as a person, they cared about how they wanted her to be. Sure, they wanted her to be happy, but they wanted her to be their version of happy. But all too often, those were two entirely separate things from what she wanted.
She made a face as she headed for the city gates. Piss on them. Piss on them all.
Three fish down, and by the sun Emi still had a couple of hours before she had to head back. It was going to be hard to get her mom to help her with the dress at this rate. Sure, the fish were decently-sized, but this spot wasn’t working out as well as she’d have liked.
Most people had a favorite fishing spot here at the river. The fish were plentiful, and it was traditional to go upstream and throw food in for them on occasion to help ensure that they’d grow in both size and numbers. Supplying the coal for power generators was hard work, after all, and people needed the meat to stay strong. Sometimes, eggs just weren’t enough.
But Emi just preferred to pick a spot that seemed nice. If she was going to devote hours out of her day to sitting in place waiting on the fish, then she wanted a spot with plenty of shade and a good view. Do the best with the hand that you’re given, right?
Sometimes, it worked to her advantage. Sometimes, like today, her luck was just alright. Maybe the water was too shallow here. Maybe someone upstream was making a ruckus, turning the fish in the entire river cautious. She wasn’t sure, but she knew that last time she came fishing, she’d already have had a full five by now. Maybe…
The sound of someone approaching in the woods broke her out of her thoughts. Might be one of her brothers checking up on her, or maybe Cassie had asked where she was and came to keep her company. Emi set the pole in the stand she’d made and stood, turning towards where the sound was coming from.
It took a few moments for a form to become visible. At first it was just glimpses in the foliage, before she could make out that it was female… And then, finally the face. Aggie, with her weirdly intense expression on. Damn. Of the three Wardens that protected their community, Aggie was the one that people liked the least. She was the least predictable, the least friendly, and generally the most irritable.
As she got closer, Emi forced a smile onto her face. “Hey, what’s-”
There was a blur, and then the side of Emi’s face exploded into pain. She staggered, bringing up her hand to where Aggie had backhanded her. It didn’t feel like she’d lost a tooth…
Aggie grabbed her by her shirt collar, yanking her in close. “You fucking cunt!” she howled.
Emi tried to ask what she was talking about, but it only came out as a questioning grunt. She forced an eye open despite the pain. The Warden was so red-faced it was almost purple, her eyes were bugging out, and the veins stood out everywhere that was visible.
Emi’s heart hammered in her chest as fear overtook her. I’m going to die, she realized. This psycho is going to change forms and literally bite my head off.
“He’s mine,” Aggie screamed again before shoving her hard. Emi stumbled back before her heel caught a rock. A moment later, she was tumbling down with a yelp, splashing straight into the water. She quickly splashed to the surface, coughing.
It was strange. Here she was, dealing with a triggered who wanted her dead and could change into a monster, and her mind was focusing on how all the fish would be scared away now.
She got her feet under her, pulling herself up until only her waist down was in the water. “Aggie,” she said, pausing to cough. “It isn’t-”
“Fuck you!” The woman jumped into the water, moving fast and hard. Emi backed up, but she wasn’t fast enough, not strong enough, to pull away. One of Aggie’s twisted blue hands reached out, grabbing her by the neck and pulling her in close.
“I’ve seen the way you look at him!” What? Emi grabbed at the hand around her throat, then the wrist. “The way the two of you get close.” She’d gone off her fucking rocker. Her body was twisting, changing. Purplish bone making her skin bulge unnaturally before the blue skin parted to let it through. Her throat bulging unnaturally. “He’s mine, bitch! Not-”
Aggie picked Emi up by her neck, getting her almost all the way out of the water before slamming her back into it. The Warden screamed again, but it was indistinct against Emi’s thrashing. Not that what the psycho was saying wasn’t completely obvious.
Emi’s hands moved in a dead panic. One grabbed the rapidly mutating wrist, while another reached out to try and push the woman off of her. It wasn’t easy, trying to hold her breath like this — her back was pressing into the slimy rocks underneath her. Whenever she’d been swimming, she’d never noticed how oppressive the water was when she was under it. Now, it seemed like an evil force.
She felt a knee press into her pelvis and looked up, Aggie’s warped purplish face just right above the water. The way the branches above framed it just made it look that much more freakish. Emi put her hand on the face, trying to push it away, to ease the leverage enough that she might be able to get her head up. She didn’t want to die like-
It was huge and small at the same time. It? One? It could have been multiple, this formless shape, twisting higher than she was, the also smaller than her. When it moved, it also stayed perfectly still, the motion lazily overlapping itself. The surface and interior were the same, but different. The way it seemed to overlap itself didn’t make sense.
The object, the creature, whatever it was, hurt to see. Shapes she couldn’t imagine. Colors she knew she’d never be able to describe. Moving, dancing. But somehow, she got the feeling that it was going through the motions, like there was little effort put into them.
A man. Bearded, in a way that was both scraggily and well-trimmed enough that it wouldn’t interfere with eating. Staring intently at… her? It? Where had the man come from? What was going on? There were indistinct shapes behind him, but she couldn’t make any of them out. No, not her. Someone, or something, else’s eyes couldn’t focus on it. His mouth was moving as if he were speaking, but the noises were strange, muffled, alien.
The object creature thing occupied her vision once more, occupying all that she could see and yet taking up no space at all. What was this? Why was she seeing this? Was she already dead? Was this some sort of weird, twisted afterlife?
The creature moved towards her. A fractal shape extended from its body, moving to caress her face. She got no sense of malevolence out of it, but it still frightened her all the same. She didn’t want this thing to touch her, to even recognize her existence. But at the same time, she got the distinct impression that there was nothing that she could do to escape it.
Emi tried to take in a breath, but only got a mouthful of water. Her hand instinctively reached out towards the sky…
And the water wasn’t surrounding her anymore, though an odd pressure pressed at her. Aggie didn’t have a grip on her anymore. And there in front of her hand was a branch. She tried to grip at it, even as the images she’d just seen fled from her mind. Even though she should have been able to grab at it, it was right in front of her fingers, her hand didn’t want to move right and the branch itself was moving out of her grasp. For a brief moment, something prevented her from touching it, and then all that she could feel was rough bark slipping between her fingertips.
Which was when a new bout of panic gripped her — gravity took control over her body, making her drop. She turned her head as she fell, trying to look down. She barely even got to see the water before she hit it, and something very hard just underneath it.
Being back under like that caused a shrill of panic to jolt through her body, thrashing until her head was once again back above the surface. That first lungful of sweet, blessed air caused a coughing fit to wrack her. With the next lungful, she let out a belch hard enough to make the back of her throat burn.
Slowly, Emi regained her wits, looking around the forest. It was strangely quiet. Very strangely quiet. She wasn’t cold, but she couldn’t stop shaking. What had just happened? It all seemed surreal. And then her body shifted a little. Or, rather, what she was sitting on shifted. She looked down…
Aggie’s monstrous form was shrinking underneath her. Emi thrashed to her feet, quickly moving deeper into the river until her feet no longer touched the bottom and she had to use her arms to propel herself. Aggie’s form slowly floated to the surface, becoming more and more human by the moment.
In the distance, she heard underbrush breaking rapidly. Double fuck, with a side of shit. She’d just killed a fucking Warden, and…
She sucked in a deep breath and dove under the water, swimming with the current as hard as she could. She didn’t like it, and just being under made her spine crawl, but she did it anyway. They wouldn’t understand. They couldn’t. She was a murderer now, and what do murderers do?
Emi crouched under the desk, waiting. She was good at waiting these days. Three years of running would do that to a body. Waiting for the right opportunity, mostly. To run, to hide, to enter a city, to leave it. To get the drop on someone.
When she’d run away, she’d only had the clothes on her back, a fishing knife, and a single coin. She’d evaded the people they’d sent out to look for her. It had almost been winter when she’d finally stumbled into a town, her worn and torn clothes leaving her barely decent and her body nearly skeletal. She’d brought the furs from the animals she’d successfully hunted, earning her a few days in a hotel and a new set of sturdier clothes. The wildlings that had shown up soon after got her a few more days, but only as charity until they’d been cleared out.
It had still taken three days before she’d been able to summon the courage to take a bath. She didn’t even want to imagine how she’d probably smelled.
With the harvest season just being over, there wasn’t much work available, so she’d had to take up less pleasant methods to earn her pay. Being able to teleport worked to her advantage, letting her get into a building and nab anything that she could either use or could pawn fast. Finding the right time to do it, what with the sound she made when she teleported, that was the hard part. When the portal to New Brockton had opened, she’d slipped through it.
And that’s when she started to learn how to get really good at stealing. She missed New Brockton; she’d hadn’t been back that way in over a year, and even then it was just to hawk some of her loot, spend some coin, and then get out. No sense in drawing too much attention to herself.
Yoder wasn’t nearly as big as New Brockton, but it had three banks. That was what had kept her in town a little bit longer. She’d cased all three, changing Coppell coin into local currency a bit at a time. She’d claimed to be a writer, traveling for inspiration, and had even bought a few extra pens and a new journal to back it up. Last night, she’d sat at the inn, acting frustrated that she wasn’t able to write much. And tonight she’d retired early, offhandedly mentioning to the hotel clerk that she’d go to the next town on either the Sunday or Monday coach to keep seeking that inspiration.
Sneaking out hadn’t been that hard. She’d even made sure to memorize the patrol routes of the cops, leaving her a shadow. Using her power to get inside through the window had been a gamble, though — it left a nasty clap every time she teleported out. Which meant that she’d have to wait to do anything else.
The crunch of feet on gravel outside grew faint, letting her know it was time to get to work. Emi left the bags under the desk, not daring to leave them where the cops might see if they shined a light through the window. The only thing that she carried was the large hand drill.
To be honest, she loved this. Why she’d always played it safe as a kid was beyond her now. The thrill of the risk, the constant danger of being caught… Nothing could compare. As she pressed the drill to the vault door and began to crank it, tingles filled her body. Sure, drilling the small hole might take most of the night, and might take more than one drill bit, but the excitement would stay the entire time. She knew that from experience.
Really, this bank would be perfect if it weren’t for a few minor problems. The vault door was thin, which was good, but the large windows in the front of the bank let the cops see it clearly. They passed by every half an hour or so, meaning that she’d have to pause regularly. Plus, the hand drill meant that her arm would feel like jelly.
The upside was that if she didn’t finish it tonight, tomorrow was Sunday. On Wednesday she’d learned that pretty much the entire town shipped off to church. They’d even warned her that she’d want to get food before that happened. With few people on the streets, she’d be able to work a bit more during the day, then again that night.
A noise from the back door made her head snap up. It sounded almost like scratching, but far too persistent. Cursing silently to herself, she quickly moved back underneath the nearest desk, setting down her drill and hefting the length of pipe she’d brought in case she was forced to fight.
She’d been right to be cautious. The door opened, and she could hear someone step inside. Slow and heavy footfalls on the tile floor, heading right in her direction. Her heart was hammering in her chest, but not from fear. Anticipation. She didn’t like the idea of having to fight, per se, but there was a bit of a thrill whenever she won, and she’d gotten into a few scrapes since she’d left home. As the footfalls approached her desk, she popped up, swinging at the silhouette’s head, causing a healthy noise as it impacted.
But the head only moved a little bit. “Ow,” the man said flatly, in a tone that spoke about how little it had actually hurt him.
Emi took a step back, holding up her pipe to swing again if need be. Behind the man, a female figure moved, drawing something. Damn, she wished she could make these two out.
The man, though, reacted quickly, putting himself between the two of them, holding his arms out to keep them at bay. “Woah, woah. Chill.”
He wasn’t local by his accent. He turned to look at Emi. “Relax,” he whispered. “Just… relax. I think we can come to an arrangement if we all just… relax.”
“I’m about as relaxed as I’m gonna get,” she hissed back. After a moment, the other girl stood down, putting away whatever she’d drawn. “What do you mean, arrangement?”
The man lowered his arms, and when he spoke it was with a friendly tone. “You’re here for the coin, right?” She hesitated, but nodded. “As it just so happens, so are we. Now, we could fight over it, but that might make a ruckus, and I don’t particularly feel like letting the cops overhear us.
“Besides, you were here first, right? Early bird gets the worm and all that. But here’s the thing. There’s more than enough coin for all of us in there. Hell, the three of us working together? We can’t even carry it all out of town, and I can carry a hell of a lot.”
She was going to go out on a limb and guess that he was triggered, probably as a brute. Or maybe a changer. “What you’re saying is, we work together?”
“Exactly,” he said in a warm tone. “We all get what we want that way. No need to fight, am I right?”
She thought about it for a moment. He did have a good argument there. Hell, it wasn’t even really an argument. “No backstabbing?”
“I haven’t backstabbed a business partner yet, and I don’t want to start now. Honor amongst thieves and all that rot. Besides, making enemies with others in this business is dumb. You cut off future possibilities, right?”
He sounded like a bit of a self-important twat. Still, she lowered her pipe slowly. “Alright. Fine.”
“How were you getting in?” the woman whispered.
“Uh.” While they might be partners in crime at the moment, she didn’t particularly feel like giving away what her own powers were to these two. “I was going to drill a hole into it and open it that way.”
“Pah.” The woman moved beyond them, up to the vault door. “A little light?”
The man offered Emi a little bow before moving to his partner. There was a click and a moment later flame came from a zippo. The woman worked quickly, turning the dial until there was a clack. A moment later, the door swung open and the light went out.
“We’ll almost close the door while we’re in there so that we can use the lantern we brought,” the woman said quickly. “I brought a blanket to cover up the gap so the police won’t see while they’re doing their patrol.”
The three of them slipped inside, despite Emi’s reservations. Sure, they said they weren’t going to backstab her, but words were just that: words. After a moment, the guy flicked his zippo again and lit the lantern, giving her a good view of them.
Really, she wasn’t sure what she expected. He looked like a normal guy in his mid-twenties, and the woman looked a bit younger. She was pretty, though; prettier than Emi. The both of them wore gloves and rather normal clothes. They easily could have been mistaken for someone who had gotten lost from a social. Which, considering that there was at least one going on that Emi knew of, made sense. She wished she’d thought of it, instead of wearing dark clothes.
“We’ll go with the New Brockton coin first,” the man said quickly, looking around. “After that, we’ll see what’s available.” He gave Emi a look. “Split everything three ways so that nobody gets gypped, okay?”
“Yeah,” she said softly. “Sounds fair.”
The man grinned as he grabbed a tray. “Name’s John, by the way. That’s Kathy.” The woman smiled and bowed her head a little.
Was that a jab at her ethnicity? She pushed the thought aside. “Emi.”
The grin widened, as if such a thing was possible. “Well then, Emi, let’s see how happy we’ll be when we all walk out of here.”