With what little we were bringing with us, the wagon was empty enough for everybody to ride. Roger, Karen and Manuel were keeping Chris company in the back while Sarah and I flanked Amy as she drove the horses. Tabitha had given Chris her shotgun for the trip, but he’d barely even checked it so far. I’d have to do it for him during our next stop.
I had propped my halberd so that I could stretch my leg out on it, resting comfortably. I’d rather be in the hay with the others and the equipment, but I wasn’t complaining. This was still a good place to be. Compared to walking next to the cart, this was pure heaven.
That didn’t mean that I wasn’t thinking about our security, though. There were reasons why people were placed the way they were. Rapid response was a thing, after all. But it also meant that we could enjoy ourselves while being secure. Twenty miles a day riding with all angles covered made for a better trip than twenty miles a day marching with all angles covered. It also meant that we were guaranteed to be well-rested.
And it gave us plenty of time to talk.
“I think that what surprised me the most about the facility was that it was pure white,” Roger was saying. “You’d expect an illegal operation to give people powers would be more… I don’t know. Dark and gloomy. But I stepped through the portal and there was just a white facility, like some sort of huge hospital. Very pristine, and amazingly well-kept.
“But that woman who greeted me, the Doctor… Enough of a French accent to make you wonder where she was from, but perfect enough English to make you wonder if the accent was fake. Her skin was like yours, Jordan. Dark enough to be damn near anything, light enough to make you doubt.”
I smiled a little. I would have liked to meet her.
“She had these chopsticks in her hair, and her nails… Oh, you kids wouldn’t understand right. They say nails are manicured now, but that’s nothing compared to back then. It was like an artist had spent days making them look just perfect.” He chuckled a little. “I didn’t even notice them back then. Hell, I think it’s just now, telling you this, that I realized it.”
“Memory works that way,” Sarah said idly.
“Yeah, it does. You remember the strangest details after it’s all over. So, anyway, she leads me into this room-”
Some brush on my side of the road shook violently. I was already hitting the ground, taking the impact with my left leg, before I was consciously aware that it seemed purposeful. The others followed suit, forming a defensive perimeter around the wagon. I didn’t have to look to know that Amy and Roger were getting their guns, but I hoped that Chris was doing the same.
I gripped my halberd, staring at the brush as the shaking died down to nothing. My eyes strained to try and see through the foliage, but I couldn’t see anything. No animals fleeing, no humans setting up for ambush. As the seconds ticked by, the urge to check the brush started to rise. It was human nature, to confirm or not.
But that was a dangerous prospect. If it was an ambush, then going to investigate would leave you in the awkward position as both the defender and the aggressor. It was dangerous, to say the least. A good way to get yourself killed. It was safer, better, to wait and see if it actually was something. But that meant fighting human nature.
I adjusted my grip on the halberd as I fell into position by the horses. They were well-trained, so I didn’t need to worry about them running from the gunfire (unlike flaming explosions), but if one died, it would make this trip much more difficult. And with the glass cylinders…
I didn’t have time to finish that thought, as the brush on the other side of the wagon seemed to explode with motion, resulting in guns firing and the sound of Sarah’s power. I didn’t dare look. Not for a moment. My rifle was, once again, useless in this situation, and drawing my pistol would only slow me down.
A wildling jumped out of the brush in front of me, a large beast, but I’d fought bigger. I saw more behind it, but I was focusing on that one as it charged towards me. As soon as it got within range, I lashed down with my halberd, catching the thing in its ugly mug. There was some resistance, but not nearly as much as I would have had with any other blade. Enough resistance to let me know that I was cutting through bone.
The resistance didn’t stop, though, as the forward momentum kept pushing it forward, but I was already trying to pull the blade free. There were two more to deal with, and cleaving its head down the center was enough to kill most wildlings. I backed up several paces, taking in the situation as the sound of gunfire roared behind me.
The wildlings weren’t swarming me, but it sounded like they were swarming the others. Why? I didn’t have time to think, though, as the bulldog-like creatures were still focused on me. The lead wildling lunged and I made a quick swipe at the forelegs, severing them cleanly. That didn’t seem to dissuade it, so I quickly reversed and used the spearpoint of the halberd to clumsily rake at its eyes. The positioning was bad, the cut higher than I’d like, but I could feel that it went through bone.
I didn’t have a chance to observe if that killed it or not, as the third was leaping over the prone body at me. I didn’t have enough time to reset my stance or reverse my swing, so instead I turned my body with the swing, ducking my head low and lowering myself as best I could.
Inch long claws scraped against my back as the beast’s mass collided with me, sending both of us sprawling. I rolled once before catching myself with my foot, my knee screaming as I came up in a crouch. Too close to the wagon, too close…
Chris leaned over the wagon, pulling the trigger on his shotgun. At that range, it didn’t matter, the creature’s head blossomed. I didn’t pause to see any more. I whipped around, bringing the halberd up and back down, severing the head of the one I wasn’t sure that I’d killed. As an added precaution, I moved to do the same to the first. With how diverse wildlings could be, it was better to be safe than sorry.
I stayed there, scanning the brush, as the gunfire on the other side of the wagon began to die down. The horses were spooked, but were holding their ground. Finally, it came in slow retorts, people making sure that the beasts were dead. Only then did I relax enough to look back.
Chris was still hanging half out the wagon, the shotgun pointed at the wildling he’d killed. Every time the body twitched, his finger on the trigger flexed ineffectually. I didn’t even need to see his face to know that it was painted with terror.
Quickly, I moved up to him, laying a gentle hand on his arm. It was still enough to startle him. “Hunker down.”
He nodded a little, and as soon as he settled down into the back of the wagon, I was already in motion. “Form up!”
Karen paired up with me, and Manuel with Sarah. We waited until Amy and Roger finished reloading their guns before I felt Karen patting my shoulder once. She learned well. I moved slowly to the brush, sure that she had me covered, and started moving foliage to the side.
Carefully, our two groups each made a half-circle around the wagon. I used my halberd to move brush out of the way so we could see clearer into the forest. Just because the initial battle was over didn’t mean that we were out of danger yet. Considering the intelligence of the ambush, drawing our attention in one direction and then performing the main assault in the other, we couldn’t be sure until we made sure that we were safe.
“Clear,” Manuel barked first.
“Clear,” I echoed a minute later.
“Damn it,” Karen growled almost immediately. “I was enjoying that story!”
I ignored her as Sarah and I approached each other. “Cup,” I said softly, putting my hand to my chest and twisting. As my pack fell free, she nodded. I couldn’t see her face under her helmet, but I could guess at her grim expression.
I bent down and got into one of the pockets after peeling out of one of my gloves. Right near the top was a small jar. I pulled it out and turned to Sarah, just in time for her to hold out a cup of water. “That bad?” she asked.
I gave her a curt nod as I opened the jar. “I got it.” I dipped two fingers into the foamed honey. It wasn’t just honey, there was something mixed in to help keep it foamed without fermenting, but it served its purpose. I traded Sarah the jar for the cup before swirling the honey in there, watching most of it quickly dissolve. My task complete, I hurried around to climb into the back of the wagon.
Chris was still sitting there, pale as a ghost as he clutched the shotgun as if his life depended on it. I smiled weakly as I crawled up to him, careful of the equipment in the hay. “We’re in the clear, bro. Here, take this. The sugars will help.” Gingerly, I pried the shotgun out of his hands and gave him the cup.
I handed Roger the shotgun before turning back to Chris. I could hear the pump being worked, ejecting the spent casing. Better to have it ready. Chris took a noisy gulp of the sweet water, and then another. Before he even felt it, I was moving to take the cup out of his hands and guide him towards the wagon wall. He didn’t need much, though, putting his head over it and retching.
“Shhh. It’s okay. We’re safe now.” I slid my hand up and down his back, glancing around. Karen was looking at me oddly. I mouthed the words ‘First time’ to her. She nodded slowly, a sympathetic frown on her face.
As Chris flopped back over the edge, I pushed the cup towards him. “I should have told you to drink it slow,” I lied. “Don’t worry, we gotcha.”
I crawled back out of the wagon and laid a gentle hand on Karen’s shoulder. “Keep an eye on him, willya? He did good, got a kill in, but…”
She nodded, giving my arm a squeeze. “It’s okay. Don’t worry.”
Manuel was hunched over one of the corpses as I moved back to my pack. Sarah had already put the honey away and set my glove on top of it. I could hear her talking with Roger and Amy as I put my pack and glove back on.
“I’d rather go further.”
“And I agree, I’d like to as well. But I think it’s the best if we don’t. No offense, but your brother needs to rest.”
“And there’s a good spot about ten minutes from here. Easily defended.”
I ignored them for the time being and moved to Manuel.
“This the first?” he asked.
“I think that’s the one who was shaking up the brush, yeah.”
“Smart bastard,” Manuel said of the wildling with more than an ounce of venom. “All of ours are full of buck — I think Amy got the most kills again.” He stared down at the corpse. “I think this one’s most right. You wanna do the honors, or…?”
“I got it,” I said with a nod, kneeling down next to it. I drew the knife from my chest.
“Alright,” Roger said more loudly. “There’s a place a good ten minutes from here that’s about as good as any. We’ll make this a short day and set up camp there.”
Manuel glanced to me. “You want Sarah to stay-”
“No.” I stood to look at Sarah, who was already waiting for my lead. I pointed to myself and Manuel, then pointed down and made a sweeping gesture. I pointed to her with two fingers, then to Chris.
I couldn’t see her face, but she made a fist and brought it close with a nod of her head. Message received loud and clear. She started to move around the wagon, but noticed that Karen was already there, staying just on the other side of the wall from Chris. She was very nearly standing in his puke.
With a glance in my direction, Sarah hurried back to the other side of the wagon. “We’re ready. They’ll catch up.”
I looked back down at the wildling, turning my blade this way and that as the wagon got to moving. Finally I stood, looking to Manuel as I sheathed my blade again. Not yet. Not this one. “Let’s clear the rest of these first. I wanna get some practice cuts in, make sure that I’m not walking into something unexpected, you know?”
“Yeah,” he said with a nod. “I can respect that.”
We could have moved each wildling separately, one dragging while the other stood guard, but it would have taken more time. Even with switching who was dragging, we would have been more exhausted when we caught up to the wagon. Instead, I grabbed one set of legs while he grabbed the other, hauling them off the road and a good twenty to thirty feet into the woods.
Leaving the carcases on the road was a good way to cause long-term problems for the next folks who came through. It would encourage predators and scavengers to come to the road, and the bodies themselves could become hosts to all sorts of bacteria and nasties. Doing this was a service that shouldn’t be ignored. People who didn’t do it often found themselves taking a hit on their rep, and these days, reputation counted for a lot.
It also gave me a chance to count how many had been on the other side of the road. Fifteen, plus my three beasts. That was… weird. Wildlings of this size couldn’t maintain their numbers out here for very long. Their size meant they needed a lot of food, and a pack this large would be hard-pressed to sustain itself even with such smart hunting tactics.
When we dropped the seventeenth one off, I took the chance to kneel and give their teeth a once-over. Omnivores, sharper teeth up front, flat in the back. That would help sustain them, but it wasn’t perfect. I pushed that concern out of my mind and drew my blade again.
I’d never seen this particular breed of wilding before, but figuring it out wasn’t my primary reason for slicing it open. The flesh was thick, but my knife cut through it like it was butter. A little too easily, opening into the muscle. I winced a little and tried a few more cuts until I got the balance of pressure right. This knife was good, great even, but it would take some working with to get used to.
It even cut through the creature’s ribs with a bit of effort. I pulled them back, frowning as I looked inside. Two hearts? A little further cutting revealed that they were six-chambered. That made even less sense. I could clearly see the arteries running from to the heart, to the lungs and back, and then back to the body, but there were two extra arteries that ran to the lungs and then through the rest of the body.
On a whim, I cut one of the extra arteries and was surprised by how little blood there was in there. Instead, there was some sort of clear liquid. Strange.
Six-chambered hearts would seriously increase the metabolic rate from even warm-blooded animals, while two hearts of the same setup would increase it even further. Each heart seemed to connect to a single lung. Horribly inefficient, even if they were redundancies.
I couldn’t be certain about the digestive system, either. I wasn’t sure if it was complex or efficient. The stomach had bony growths in it, almost like teeth. I couldn’t even identify what half of the organs were inside the wildling. Stomach, heart, lungs, bladder, those I could identify. The rest? I might have done well in biology, and even taken some of the higher classes, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea.
The brain was, as I’d guessed, highly developed. The bone of the cranium wasn’t as thick as I’d expected, except around the snout and mouth. I probably could have stunned it with a punch to the top of the head. Chris could have done it, even. When the one had clipped me, it might even have stunned itself while tumbling.
I rested back on my hunches, wiping my blade as I thought.
“Done?” Manuel asked quietly. He’d been alternating between watching and keeping an eye on our surroundings.
“With this one, yeah.” I would have liked to study it further, but it had taken quite a few shots, complicating my study. I lifted my head, looking to the road. “Yeah. Let’s get to work.”
“Why couldn’t one of them have been pregnant,” Manuel asked, a blissful smile on his face.
I took a look at my plate as I speared a piece of meat with my boot knife. I only carried a cup and a plate as far as eatery went. I could make rice or soup in the cup, and the plate was useful for more than just eating. A knife was all that I needed for silverware, though. Anything more here on the road was just extravagance.
I popped the meat into my mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “It tastes like…”
Chris finished for me as I struggled to find the words. “Bacon and corned beef.” He looked down at the heart. “I barely even added salt.”
Sarah immediately began to add salt to her own. I could see others doing the same — salt could mean the difference between life and death out here, especially during the summer where you’d sweat your own salts out.
Chris looked over to me. “Mind explaining why we’re eating wildling, let alone why you’re having me eat the heart?”
Manuel and I had gutted the last wildling, the one Chris had killed, before dragging it back to camp. We’d been lucky that Chris’ upchuck hadn’t landed anywhere near it. Manuel was surprisingly good at butchering, getting it done before the fire was even right for cooking. What Chris hadn’t fixed tonight had been packed in salt Roger always brought for this exact reason. It would further our rations and ensure that even I ate my fill for the rest of the trip.
“Yeah, sure. As soon as someone explains why he wanted wildling veal.” I flashed Manuel a grin.
“What?” Color rose to the young man’s cheeks. “N-no, no, not like that. I mean, if it tastes this good, maybe we could have tried to domesticate them or something, sell them for breeding and slaughter.”
There was a chorus of chuckles over Manuel’s embarrassment. Sarah saved him by addressing Chris.
“Remember our first real job? Those vets we got teamed up with? Well, they made sure to teach us the ropes rather well. Your first wildling kill, so long as its edible, you eat. Especially the heart.” She nodded to Chris’ plate. “Whenever possible, you butcher them, don’t waste anything if you don’t have to.”
“Because they tried to kill you and failed,” I answered. “It’s part of the circle of life, and you pay your respects to the fact that they’re trying to survive as much as you are. It’s a waste of perfectly good meat, otherwise. We try and respect every life we take.” Even if Sarah wasn’t so good at it.
“It was your first kill,” Sarah said. “Period. And you deserve the heart for that. We’re both proud of you for acting when you could have been cowering. Nobody would have blamed you for that.”
He chuckled weakly, no actual mirth in it. “Yeah, but I could have helped sooner.”
Karen let out a bark of laughter. “Idiot. I’ve seen those two train. We’ve all trained, in one way or another, in order to do this. You told me yourself that you’re not a fighter. But it means a lot more when someone who isn’t one steps up to the plate and does what they’ve got to than when someone who does it for a living goes into a fight. If anything, it’s even more badass.”
“Thanks,” he said weakly. We’d had this conversation twice already, but it still wasn’t sinking in. “I’m not very hungry, but I’m trying to get it all down.”
I laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay. Eat what you can, alright? I’ll finish off anything that you don’t.”
He nodded a little before impulsively standing, offering me his plate. “Don’t gobble it down yet, I just wanna go relieve myself, see if that helps.”
Sarah moved to stand, but Karen beat her to it. “I’ll keep an eye out for him, don’t worry.” Just because we’d killed that pack didn’t mean that we were out of the woods yet. The bodies of the others would attract predators and scavengers, but Chris hadn’t been in any condition to travel much further.
Sarah settled back down and we all watched them wander off into the brush. After several long moments, Roger quietly spoke. “He gonna be alright?”
“Yeah,” Sarah said with a nod. “He might not be a fighter, but he’s a survivor. He always bounces back quick, even more quick when he’s got something to focus on. Having him cook was a good thing. By morning, he should be okay.”
That seemed to satisfy everyone, so we all fell back into silent eating. I didn’t like that. I rather enjoyed the more conversational tone. Save for when Manuel got everybody seconds, we just sat there in our own thoughts. Or in my case, focusing on the food and trying to balance Chris’ plate in my lap.
It was a good half an hour before the two of them returned. They had a bit more bounce to their step now, and Chris had a dopy grin on his face. He took his plate and dug in with a renewed hunger. Karen wasn’t much better, almost floating as she as she made her way back next to him. Good. I wasn’t complaining in the slightest.
Instead, I looked to Sarah. “Can you take care of my plate? I need to get some sleep in.”
“I can handle the night watch,” Karen said quickly.
“Nah, I’ve got it. Besides, if I didn’t, I’d feel like I was slacking.” I smiled as Sarah took my plate, rose to my feet and made my way for the shelter we’d set up for the three of us. “Relax. I’ve got this.”
The sound of movement behind me, but I easily identified it without turning around. Carefully padding footsteps. I could hear a lot more without Roy’s snoring. “Shirt off.”
I worked my armor slowly, thankful for the distraction. For some reason, I was feeling restless tonight. I wanted to move, to train more, to run. Despite the combat, I hadn’t really gotten any training in today. I felt out of sorts because of it. Too much energy, despite how tired I was.
I placed the upper portion of my armor in my lap as Amy started to work on my back. “Jesus,” she whispered.
“Sorry,” I said quietly as I tried to relax. She paused long enough to grab one of the logs so she could sit behind me. “I guess I’m just worked up over Chris.”
“He’s doing better.”
“Getting laid helped.” I heard her choke behind me, bringing a smile to my face. “What?” I asked innocently.
“I’m surprised that you caught that is all.”
“I’m not blind! If he would have been glowing any harder, I would have thought he’d had a second trigger.” My lips curled into a smirk. “Heck, I’m still not convinced that she didn’t trigger from it.”
Amy chuckled under her breath as she worked on a knot. “I’d hate to see what that power would be.”
“Striker. Power to cause or delay orgasms. Causes a mild calming and healing effect on the side.” She gently slapped my shoulder, fighting to keep her laughter quiet. “What? I’ve seen weirder.”
“Better than causing lust or something.”
“Nah, then I think an orgy would have broken out.” I snickered quietly. The mental image of Roger trying to kiss Sarah was… amusing to say the least. It took me a moment to sober up. “Besides, she’s always worked up after a fight. But it was good for both of them. Hormonal reset, helping them channel their aggression, help deal with everything. There were studies about this before Gold Morning with the PRT.”
“That’s a weird study.”
“You’re telling me.”
She was quiet for a moment, and when she spoke, there was a weird tone to her voice. “I know he’s going to make a mint, but are you going to get much money for this?”
I let out a soft sigh. “For bringing this in? Nah, probably not even a month’s worth of pay. But for the final thing, if everything works? Knowing Chris…” She hit a tender spot, making me lose my thought for a moment with an almost purr. “Tim did some math, and I’ll probably get twenty-five grand.”
“That’ll be enough for you to buy it, right?”
My personal desires edged at the corners of my mind again, but I pushed them to the side quickly. It was one thing to set a goal, but I’d found that if I focused on what came with that goal, what I really wanted, something always went horribly wrong. My training had included not thinking about things, and though it had taken ages, I’d gotten more than a little good at it.
“Should be, yeah.”
She paused for a moment, and when she spoke, her tone was cheerful. Hopeful, even. “Maybe you and Sarah could stay in New Brockton?”
I turned to look behind me. The moonlight was only bright enough so that I could make out her form. “I’d like that. I’d really like to spend more time with you. And Roger.”
When her hands slipped from my back, I knew I’d done something wrong. My mind began to pour over everything I’d said, picking it apart as best I could to try and figure out what I’d said wrong. Until I figured it out, I was better off not saying anything.
Finally she was the one to break the silence. “Goddamnit, Jor, you’re the most confusing man on the face of the planet. I can’t get a fucking bead on you.”
I turned on my stump to face her, squinting to try and make out better details. “I’m sorry…”
“Don’t be sorry,” she growled quietly. “I just…” Her words trailed off, leaving only the hoot of the occasional owl.
Great. I’d done something to confuse her. Pissed her off a little, too. That was pretty much the last thing that I needed to do to her. She was a good friend, a dear friend. I hated causing anybody turmoil, and here I was unwittingly being a jerk somehow.
My trail of thought was cut off as she moved suddenly, grabbing my shoulders and pulling herself up to kiss me.
I froze, my brain seeming to short circuit and refuse to come up with an appropriate reaction. She was very eager in her kiss, but I was kind of just… there.
Oh my, indeed. But she’d said…
After a moment, she broke away. “Sorry,” she said, her voice cracking a little. I felt like I was being stabbed in the chest. “I just thought that maybe-”
Impulsively I rose to a half-standing position, my hands moving to the sides of her face, more for aim in this darkness than anything. I was lucky enough to meet her lips on the first try — trying to kiss her only to hit nose might have ruined the moment. Unlike the first one, I was able to pay it the proper attention that it deserved. The old yarn of ‘Act, don’t think’ proved adequate.
I was glad that I wasn’t wearing the upper portion of my armor as her hands found their way to my shoulders, hanging on as if she might suddenly fall. It was so strange. Confusing. I felt… lost? Unsure of myself, if I was doing anything right or wrong.
Finally, she was the one who broke the kiss. We both stared at each other, panting, and for a long moment I wasn’t sure if we weren’t going to leap back into it again or not. But she placed a gentle hand on my chest. “That… We shouldn’t…”
Words had failed me once again, but she shook her head. “N-no, it’s not that. We shouldn’t any more tonight. Otherwise, I might…” She bit her lip. “I, uh, my time of the month should be starting soon, and I’m not sure if I could stop if we kept going.”
“Ah.” Contraceptives were easily available in New Brockton, but birth control could be expensive. I’d never invested in any, which hadn’t been a problem up until now. “I’m sorry, I was just confused. You’d said that you used to have a crush, but you were over it.”
She moved forward to gently bump her forehead against my chest. “You big idiot. When a girl says that, half the time she’s still holding that crush. She’s testing the waters, you know?”
“Oh.” That made a disturbing amount of sense. Things were quickly falling into place, though. “This past week must have been hell.”
Her silhouette pulled away and nodded. “Yeah. It was nice, and I loved it, but I wasn’t sure if you were just being you, or if you felt something. That hurt, a lot. I knew that I was just torturing myself, but I couldn’t help it.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth. “You could have said something, you know.”
“I tried, and you just wanted to know the details.” Oh, right. Her big confession. “But now…” She shook her head, her voice growing firm. “There’s nothing more that I’d like to do than spend the night making out with you, watch the sunrise, but…”
“But you have to drive tomorrow, and you might not be able to stop at just making out.” Some might just see her as a pretty face, but there was both brains and steel behind it.
“Yeah. But, uh, if you’re going to stay in New Brockton for a little while, maybe after Aunt Flow comes and goes, you can get around to giving me my backrub.”
I grinned into the darkness. “I’d like that.”
She paused a moment, then leaned up to give me a quick kiss, going so far as to nibble on my lip before pulling away. “Then I’m going to try and sleep. I… Thank you, Jor.”
“Sleep well,” I said with genuine sincerity. “I’ll still be here when you wake up.”
I watched her go back to where she and Roger were camping, giving her a little wave when she glanced back. It wasn’t until she settled down that I finally sat on my stump again. After a brief check to make sure my halberd was still where I’d set it down, I worked on getting the upper half of my armor back on.
I had a long night ahead of me, trying to figure everything out. Including what exactly my feelings towards Amy were.