I looked at Sarah, my chest feeling as heavy as lead. With how high the sun was, I could make her out clearly. She was in full armor, leaning against a tree. Her bowed head and the way that she didn’t look at me, along with the very way that she was leaned against the tree told me that she was conflicted, frustrated.
I couldn’t blame her.
“Heya Sis. Uh, how’d you know that I’d be here?”
She snorted. “You’ve always been weird about cemeteries. Whenever you’d leave for school, or come home, you’d always slink off before you thought anyone was awake and head for the nearest one for a little bit.”
Visiting cemeteries made whatever goodbyes I had to say that day a bit easier to swallow. No matter how bad leaving hurt me, it wasn’t as bad as the unspoken goodbyes the dead had to go through. I’d hit one up before leaving New Brockton, but it hadn’t been like this. “I didn’t know that you, uh, knew.”
Sarah glanced at me, a hint of a smirk on her face. “Please. Half the time I couldn’t sleep before you left. You have no idea how many times I trailed you.”
I smiled thinly. How had I missed that? Not that it mattered now, but I felt a little guilty over it.
I needed a topic change. “So, uh… How are things going?”
All hints of mirth left her. It took a moment before she spoke.
“I’m being fast-tracked, I think. Classes were a fucking joke; I tested out of most of them, and led the discussions when I was forced to participate. And what training they offered for my powers? I surprised some of my teachers with what I can do.”
Sarah pushed herself off from the tree, finally turning to face me. “Seriously, Bro, you could probably do better than them in your sleep. In your twitchy sleep, even.”
I smirked a bit. I didn’t have that intrinsic sense of how powers worked. Only a person with powers could have that sort of a feel, and only for their own powers. But that didn’t mean that they knew everything. Paras usually didn’t put deeper thought into how their power worked, the mechanics of it all. They usually didn’t feel the need. It was almost like the passengers didn’t choose people who would think about that sort of thing.
I was different. I’d thrown myself into the study of powers. For years, I would eat, sleep, and breathe focused on powers and how they worked. I’d studied how the future Wardens at the Orphanage used their powers, how they were trained, and had sometimes even gotten to help the teachers work people through new applications.
It was human nature. The more you immersed yourself in something, the more of a sixth sense you got about it.
Maybe that was why I wouldn’t trigger. I understood it all way too much.
Sarah was still talking, though. “After a while, after the whole New Fairfax thing, I got an even harder push. I started helping with training. Some time after New Year’s, I got placed in my first response team.”
I blinked at her. “First?”
She grinned a little. “I’m not officially a Warden yet, but I’ve been in charge of overseeing two response teams, and that’s after I was team leader of my own response team. Apparently they think I’m good enough to lead.”
I couldn’t help the smile that came to my lips, but it was bittersweet. “I could have told you that. Uh, you know. That you’d make a great leader.”
“Thanks,” she said softly. After a silence, she spoke again. “Things sure are fucked, aren’t they?”
“Yeah,” I said softly. “The entire world doesn’t make sense anymore. And not just Bet, either. Gimmel, Tet, all of them.”
Sarah nodded. “How are you doing? Well?”
I nodded. “Found a place to hunker down for the winter. Helped people.”
“Sounds like you.”
What did that mean? I ignored it, pushing on. “It was good work, and what I did is going to help a lot of people in the long run. But… I couldn’t stay.”
“Yeah,” she said nodding. “I understand that. But… You didn’t answer my question.”
I sighed, looking up at the treetops. “I’m not doing well. I’m… I’m hanging in there. I spend most of my time not thinking about it. It’s not easy, but it’s getting me through the day. That’s all that I can hope for, to get through the day.”
“One day at a time,” she mused, nodding. “I’m glad one of us learned that lesson.”
That earned a wince. “I’m sorry.”
Sarah shrugged. “I’m managing. The plan’s gone to shit, but… Keep moving forward, I guess. There’s nothing else that I can do.” She glanced at me. “You wouldn’t have me with you anyway.”
“Nope,” I muttered.
“Exactly. You always were protecting me.” She sighed softly. “Uh… How was Christmas?”
“Pretty lame, for me. Though I did make you a present. It’s, uh, it’s in your room.”
Sarah nodded. “Thanks, I’ll pick it up later. And New Years?”
“No presents.” I smiled a little and shrugged. “The people that I was with, they didn’t know, uh, that we don’t know when my birthday is, so…” I shrugged.
“Damn. Now I wish I would have got you something.” She frowned for a moment before shaking her head. “So, what’s your plan?”
“Tet,” I lied. “Find a place to settle down, see if I can get some work scavenging metal that isn’t entirely rust.”
“Not a bad plan,” she said, nodding. She knew, I could tell by the tone of her voice, the way that she looked at me without turning her head towards me.
“I haven’t seen much of you in the papers.”
That earned a bitter bark out of her. “The Wardens are keeping me away from the reporters. Besides, they’re much more interested in making you out to be some sort—”
“I think that’s enough,” a voice called out. “This isn’t getting anywhere. Drop it.”
Slowly, like a melting ball that revealed its contents, people began to appear, along with more of the background. An invisible hemisphere was draining away into the ground.
I immediately identified the people as Warden Cadets. Wardens didn’t have standard armor per se; they all got assigned the same type of armor, but full Wardens could modify it any way they saw fit, or abandon it entirely if their preferences ran contrary.
Cadets, though, were a different story. Unless they had their own armor, they weren’t allowed to modify their assigned armor until they graduated. It was an easy way to tell the difference between full Wardens and Cadets like these.
There were five of them, all in cadet leather armor. Flexible, good for moving around in, well-oiled, and without a scratch on it. Four guys, and one girl came into view, standing at the far end of the cemetery, all facing me. And they were nervous.
Given that I was wanted for slaughtering a village, they’d be stupid not to be.
“Jordan,” one man my age, the oldest of the group, said in a commanding voice. “I’m afraid that I have to request that you come with us for questioning regarding the incident in New Fairfax.”
I turned to Sarah, my mind whirling. “You’re a decoy?”
She looked away. “No. They wanted me to talk to you, to try and convince—”
“Enough,” the man said forcefully, not taking his eyes off of me. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that I have to take over now.” He paused for dramatic effect, but it wasn’t really necessary. “Jordan, will you come peacefully? We’re under orders not to hurt you if we can help it.”
I lowered my head to look at the ground. So many rules were being broken here. Not just written rules, but rules of decency. All just to capture me…
“Jordan,” another guy said in a much softer tone. “We don’t want to have to fight you.”
“I don’t want to fight you, either.” I wanted anything but that.
“Good. That’s good. Your sister has told us all about you. That you’re a good man at heart.” He paused for a moment, and I could hear him moving a bit closer. “And for what it’s worth, I believe her. She’s been a great help to all of us.
“And then there’s you. I don’t know what happened, and I don’t want to make assumptions. But I look at you, Jordan, and I don’t see a villain. Hell, I don’t see a… butcher or whatever the papers are calling you these days. I see one of the survivors of Saint Louis. I see a man who fearlessly let himself be left behind in order to help evacuate the wounded. Who, when faced with certain death, found a way to strike a final blow against his opponent so that other people wouldn’t have to die.”
The man sucked in a breath. “That’s hero shit, Jordan. Straight up. So, please, believe me when I say, I don’t want to fight you. I’d rather talk to you and get all this straightened out. I’d rather get to know the guy standing here, looking lost and alone.”
I nodded slowly. I knew what I had to do. Slowly, I set my halberd on the ground, part of the shaft on my foot.
“Thank you,” the man said, sounding relieved. As I pulled off the duffel bag and set it behind me, his voice became stronger. “You’re making the right decision, believe me. I’m sure that there’s more going on here than we know, but it’s better for you, and your sister, if we just get this all worked out.”
I set the satchel on the duffel before working on the straps of my backpack. The guy remained quiet as I turned to finish taking it off and set it on the ground. A deep breath, and then my hands moved with the sort of speed that came through practice.
I opened my pack, pulled out my helmet, and placed it on my head as I righted myself. With that, I kicked my foot up, snatching my halberd out of the air with my left hand. Just over 1.5 seconds. People never got why I practiced stuff like this, but it paid off.
“I’m sorry,” I said as I slammed the faceplate down, sealing the helmet. I wished I’d worn the collar to my armor. Or switched to the new armor. Had Chris known? Probably. It didn’t matter. “Let’s move out of the graveyard to do this.”
The man in front of me began to change instantly, his body softening like wax and turning a bluish purple. What I could see of his stance, the slight slumping of his shoulders before the change started, conveyed disappointment.
Changer of some sort. Too many variables to start making guesses.
“No,” said the man who seemed to be in charge. “We’ll do it here, thanks.” He was rather quite purposefully touching another man. Striker, some sort of power that either enhanced his teammates, or protected them. He was only touching one, though, so either the power synergized well with that man, or he could only affect one person at a time. I’d wait to see what it did before I called him a Trump.
The long-haired woman and a man with dyed red hair were hanging back. No clue on them. The man that the leader had touched was forming what appeared to be a greenish gel over his skin as he began to walk towards me. He seemed unafraid, and his entire demeanor spoke of a lack of finesse. Brute, most likely, possibly with a Striker component. I was leaning towards part Breaker, though.
Five people were a lot to keep track of in a fight. This was going to be challenging. Even worse, I wasn’t exactly too keen on hurting any of them. They were just doing their jobs, no fault of their own.
I stepped away from my discarded gear, eyeing the probable Brute. He’d take point, partially in hopes of taking me down quickly, partially to test me, and partially to distract me from the others. I began to slowly step back, putting more distance between myself and the group behind the Brute.
As he drew near, I made a quick jab towards his head with my halberd. Not enough to connect, but his absolute lack of a reaction told me that he was completely unafraid of being cut. Good enough —–
I didn’t have to worry about hurting him. Fortunately, there were plenty of other avenues to dealing with Brutes who lacked Mover aspects.
I let him advance so I could take a quick jab for the leg before darting backwards. The strike connected, penetrating the green gel, but didn’t seem to hurt him in the slightest. Dang. As I darted back, withdrawing from my strike, he tried to snatch at the point of the halberd. Nope —– I knew better than that. But at the very least, that jab told me that the gel didn’t stick to my blade. Good to know.
We remained like that for a few more moments, him slowly advancing, me slowly retreating to the perimeter of the graveyard. I’d have to change my angle soon. Why were the other Cadets hanging back and not joining him? Or hitting me in a pincer attack? Or putting any more pressure on me?
Were they completely green? Or did they have some sort of grander plan going on? My questions were interrupted as the Brute lunged, trying to tackle me in a bear hug.
I sidestepped the lunge, bringing the shaft of my halberd against the back of his knees. Nothing. Options were slowly being taken away. He righted quickly and lunged again. This time, I didn’t bother to dodge. Instead, in that split second that I had, I let go of the halberd with one hand and fell to a crouch. As he impacted with me, I used his own momentum against him, bringing him over my shoulder and slamming him into a gravestone.
We were lucky that Burlington didn’t have a higher mortality rate, or the fight would be a lot trickier.
He might be a Brute, he might have durability, maybe also strength, but he relied on those more than finesse. By the time that he was coming to grips with what I’d done, I was already putting distance between us again, more quickly this time.
The Striker had touched the Brute with his bare hand, so I hoped that the gel wasn’t acidic or had a similar effect. If it was, then I’d just have to trust that the things Chris had done to the armor would provide a level of defense.
But I was still keeping track of the rest of them. The woman was charging towards me. As I turned to face her, I only had a split second’s warning before what looked like golden electricity spread out across the ground around her in a circle. Not even enough time to jump before it arced from the ground and into me.
My armor was insulated from electricity, but my body was still wracked with pain. Far different than the sting of electricity, this seemed to radiate from my gut outward. I couldn’t help but cry out in pain, but it wasn’t enough to put me down. All the aches and pains all my life had prepared me for moments like this. If I could run with my knee in agony, I could handle this.
Besides, sometimes pain served to remind you that you were still alive.
I lunged the three feet to her, giving her only the briefest to moments of surprise before I was grabbing onto her long hair. She hadn’t even put it into a ponytail —– there were reasons why Sarah kept hers short. I yanked with that hand, slamming the fist that still held the halberd into her face.
The pain that emanated from my gut flickered for a second before returning. The Shaker effect relied on concentration; good to know. Also, the blow had hurt her. Equally good to know. I wrenched her forward by her hair, jerking her past me so that she stumbled. For added measure, my foot lashed out to the small of her back, propelling her towards the Brute that was trying to get to his feet, making them collide.
That gave me a brief second. Shaker, inflicts debilitating pain on anyone within her radius of effect. Immune to her own power. Five foot radius of effect. When I lunged, there was a brief moment where neither of my feet touched the ground. The electrical pattern was purely ornamental, or close enough to count.
Except now the guy with the dyed red hair was charging. There had to be some reason why they weren’t ganging up on me, which worried me.
I raised my halberd as if to attack, but his stance was odd enough to make me hold. His arm reached out to the side as he crossed the distance. Instead of taking the fight to him, I braced myself for anything.
He swung his arm, and I felt the impact of liquid that I couldn’t see, hard enough to make me stagger. Bracing myself had been the right choice. But the interesting part was that my halberd briefly disappeared from my sight.
The hemisphere from earlier. Stranger with a Shaker/Breaker effect. Able to summon and control an invisible liquid, one that could mask anything inside of it. He was using it as a weapon right now, making it into a liquid cudgel.
He put his hand forward and I lunged to the side. It didn’t help —– he adjusted his aim immediately, hitting me with a spray that made me stumble and crouch, fighting against an invisible torrent in order to stay upright. The liquid was cool against the exposed flesh of my neck, even as it was threatening to put me on my back.
“Stop it!” I heard the leader shout. “We can’t get him if we can’t see him!”
The spray stopped almost instantly, and I was lunging forward, using the energy of my coiled leg muscles to give myself a burst of speed. It must have taken a moment to become visible again, because he barely had time to look surprised before my foot impacted with his chest, making him stagger. I adjusted the grip on my halberd to slam the ball at the end of the shaft into him—
Something slammed into my back, wrapping around me and binding my arms against my torso. Almost as quickly, a band of warmth came around my throat, making the skin tingle slightly.
The melting Changer. He must have turned to an almost liquid state while I was focused elsewhere, biding his time before attacking. He might be the best fighter here out of the group. Or at least the one with the best head for it.
“No, Jess!” the Striker barked. “You’ll hurt Gram. Tedd, go!”
The Stranger, apparently Tedd, hurried towards me. That probably made Gram the Changer.
My bound arms seemed to give the Stranger some confidence, letting him abandon caution and charge. Despite what he might think, though, my upper body’s limited mobility didn’t mean that I couldn’t fight. As soon as he was in range, I lashed out with my foot.
The leather armor that the Wardens handed out was unisex, comfortable for either gender. It was decent enough for general purpose, comparatively lightweight, and easier to produce than something Tinker made. The thing was, the fact that it was unisex meant that it didn’t come with a cup like mine.
The Stranger doubled over as my foot connected. Apparently, he hadn’t thought ahead to wear a cup under it, either. This would be a painful, but necessary lesson for him.
That alone made everyone pause and think twice about attacking me for a moment. Which gave me time to focus on struggling, trying to move my arms out from my chest.
“Please relax,” said a voice against my chest. “This will all be over soon.”
Struggling wasn’t getting me very far. I doubled over at the waist and let go of my halberd with one hand. Time to change tactics. “You’re trying to put me in a sleeper hold.” He didn’t say anything. Fine by me. “Well, you’re doing it wrong!”
I straightened quickly, putting more effort into stretching my arms out. It only lasted a moment, but this time my free hand fell back against my belt, right where I wanted it. To his credit, the Changer adjusted the grip on my neck, putting pressure more accurately on my jugulars.
“Much better,” I said, a hint of cheerfulness in my tone.
“Good. Like I said, Jordan, I don’t want to hurt you. I’m trying to do this as painlessly as possible.”
I couldn’t help but smile a little under my helmet. “I know. I don’t want to hurt you, either. Not any of you.” My fingers worked the dispenser on my belt. “So I’m sorry.”
I crushed the firestarter sphere in my hand, making it erupt into flames. Immediately, the Changer flung himself off my back. I turned and snapped my hand, causing flame to spit onto the ground where the retreating purplish blob had been just a moment ago. The Changer dove behind a gravestone, even though I no longer had fire in my hand.
A quick glance over my shoulder revealed that the Shaker was charging again. Behind her, the Brute was looking to the Striker, his stance… annoyed?
It hit me suddenly what was going on, why they were only attacking one at a time. The Striker had ordered them to. Why? No time to think about it, though. I had work to do.
Rather than turn to face the Shaker, I launched myself into a flashy spinning kick that had my body nearly horizontal in the air for a moment. That made her pause her charge, but was only half of it. As I landed, I used the torque from that to make a swipe with my halberd.
I caught her in the chest with the end of the shaft and part of the flat of the blade, sending her off her feet. Before she even landed, I was moving again, rushing for the Brute. He surprised me by charging again, arms raised to grapple.
I had to change tactics. My breathing was getting labored, though I otherwise felt fine. In fact, I felt surprisingly good.
I stopped dead in my tracks and brought my halberd horizontal. I dropped my weapon as he drew close, not worried if it fell to the ground. As his hands fell on my shoulders, I grabbed his armor. Oddly, I was able to get a perfect grip as if the gel wasn’t even there. After that, a simple shove was all that I needed to do.
It wasn’t enough to knock him back, but it was enough to lean him. His natural response was to shove back, which was what I wanted. Unlike him, I fell back willingly, dragging him down with me. Even as my butt hit the ground, my foot was coming up, pressing into his groin as it kicked up. Simple physics said that his momentum carried him up and over me.
I didn’t let go, though. I rolled as he landed hard on his back, pulling myself on top of him. Time for a little experiment. I let go of his armor and slapped my palms over his ears, boxing them.
As the air compressed against his eardrums, he let out a shout of pain. I’d asked that it be done to me a couple of times so that I could know what it felt like, and the pain was incredible. His ears would be ringing for quite some time, too. Small bonuses.
I rolled off of him, almost a mirror image of how I’d rolled onto him, and snatched my halberd off the ground. I’d just hurt a Brute, made him scream, and it proved my theory right. That was all that I really needed to know.
The others didn’t seem to worry about being cut by my halberd blade, but had shown a certain wariness about other forms of damage. Strikes affected them when blades weren’t a concern. Fire was most likely still painful. Boxing the ears of the Brute had hurt him.
The leader of the group was a Striker Trump, granting a limited form of invulnerability to one form of damage at a time. The Brute’s gel probably did something similar; stacking the two had made him confident that I couldn’t harm him.
But the protection was limited. Perhaps it went time-based, or maybe it lasted until the Trump applied it to another person. Which meant that I might have to get creative, but I knew some general limitations that I could use to my advantage. And now I had an idea as to everyone’s powers.
I kept my back to everyone, halberd held straight up, fighting to keep my breathing under control. My free hand went to my belt, disguising the action it as if I was holding my gut.
I could hear the footsteps of someone charging. I spun, extending my arm so that my fist snapped at the Shaker, my fist exploding into flame again. That made her stop in her tracks but fast, reversing and taking a few steps back, only to trip over a grave.
My halberd flipped, the insanely sharp blade nearly bisecting a gravestone as I moved to catch it in my flaming fist. With both hands, I swung it in a wide circle. As I began to back away from the Cadets, I kept swinging the weapon in a tightening circle. I lowered myself with each step until I fell into an awkward crouch. Like this, I held my weapon steady, drawn back and ready to strike.
Tactically, this position was stupid. The crouch, the way that I was holding my body, and even the way that my halberd was held left me with little maneuverability. Even launching myself forward would take work. But from the outside, it looked rather impressive; like a coiled snake, ready to lash out in any direction to attack.
Psychological warfare is still warfare.
“Give it up,” I barked at them. “You’ve already lost! Leave now, and you don’t have to get hurt.”
If only that were true. My heart was hammering, I had to concentrate to look like I wasn’t breathing heavily, and truth be told? Despite how I was holding them off, despite the hand that was still aflame, I was still going to lose this fight.