“Do you have any idea who you’re actually dealing with?” I snarled at the cadets. I wasn’t a good actor, but intimidation came easily. “I’ve gone out of my way to be trained by the very best. My teachers include students of Crane the Harmonious. Coil’s mercenaries. Every day since the age of four, I’ve been pushing myself while you all lived normal lives.”
“Shut up,” the Striker growled.
Okay, I had to focus on him. He was the leader, and if I could break his fighting spirit, it would make everything so much easier. I needed every advantage that I could get with the odds of this fight so heavily stacked against me.
Fighting a group of people can’t be done simply by charging into them. The only reason that i was doing as well as I had been was because my opponents were new. This was quite possibly their first real fight. They didn’t even count as green; they were newborn pink. Well, maybe the Changer have some experience; he seemed to have a bit of skill, at least.
The only way to beat a group of people was to engage them one at a time. Some might see it as cowardly, but hitting and retreating constantly, making your opponents come to you, was the best way to keep yourself alive. If you tried to engage them all at once, you were doomed to failure.
By engaging them singularly, I was wasting a lot of energy. I felt that I had the edge on stamina, but they were taking turns often enough that they weren’t tiring the way that I was. There was no guarantee that I’d be able to discourage them from fighting me before I ran out of energy. Not with how I was fighting.
I knew that I could take them down, and rather easily. I could beat them, each of them. The ways were forming in the back of my head by reflex. Unfortunately, I had a problem. I had one thing holding me back.
I genuinely didn’t want to see any of them hurt. Any of my plans would result in broken bones at the very least, or even death at worst. They didn’t deserve that. Here were five Warden Cadets, in a response team as part of their final training and assessment cycle. They were only trying to do their jobs. I held zero animosity for them, no matter what they might think of me.
How could I hurt them for being everything that I wanted to be?
Of course, I didn’t have to let them know that.
“I know everything that I have to about your entire squad.” They couldn’t see it, but my lips curled into a sneer. They should be able to hear it, though. “I’ve broken down your individual powers. Not fully, but enough to identify weaknesses. Some of you, I can even tell you how you triggered.”
“He’s lying,” the Striker said. “He’s trying to mess with our heads. Attack!”
They hesitated. Keep it going.
“Oh, like you? You need them to listen. You need them to rely on you for guidance. For your power. That’s why you triggered, of course. Some jerkwad was hurting people, maybe taking attention from you—”
“—and you triggered. Oh, you couldn’t fight him. You’re afraid of fighting. But you could give other people the ability to nullify his powers. Never for long, and no more than one at a time. They have to come back to you for protection, listen to your advice.
“But I know your tactics. Cadets are put in response teams to teach them how to work together, to give them a taste for danger. The way individuals work together varies by their powers, but there are formulas that are followed. And you better believe I took those classes.”
Behind them, I could see Sarah nodding, her arms folded over her chest. Her expression was inscrutable like this.
The Brute was looking uncomfortable now. Perfect. “You applied your power to the big guy first. His gel absorbs one type of damage, and judging by how his breathing is stabilizing, he’s a regenerator. He adapted his gel to bladed damage, you applied your power to impact damage. My halberd blade can’t hurt him, and neither will my martial arts.”
I snorted softly. “Please. There are far more types of damage than that. I can apply torque to his arm, dislocate it. Maybe his passenger differentiates between pressure and impact. Maybe all that I have to do is cover his nose and mouth, and let biology do the work of defeating him for me.
“But you thought that his regeneration powers would help him even if I did come up with something brilliant. That’s why you sent him in first, to help assess my abilities. You didn’t realize that it also gave me a chance to assess the both of you.”
“Attack!” The Striker’s voice had climbed in pitch. “He’s not even a para, we can—”
“You discriminating idiot!” I shouted. “I’ve got Tinkertech weapons and armor! Except for the fact that I can’t make it on my own, how am I the slightest bit different from a Tinker?
“Leet was pathetic, and without Über he would have been captured on his first real outing! And was it the Tinkertech that made Armsmaster, made Defiant such a badass? No, he could have ended up just as pathetic as Leet, but he pushed himself to be the best fighter he could. He learned how to use his weapons and armor to their best effect!”
The Warden cadets were bunching together. Their postures told me that my intimidation tactics were working, but their actions said that they were regrouping, both figuratively and literally. They weren’t giving up. Still, every blow to their morale was an advantage on my end.
Time to drive it home. I stood from my crouch, swinging my halberd out with my right hand, my left still ablaze. What was left of the firestarter pellet fell from my hand like water. What a fearsome imagine I must have been, fire pouring from my hand and my halberd held in an intimidating pose.
“I have the armor. I have the weapons. I have things that I can turn into weapons. Someone from Gold Morning might be able to put me down, but you can’t. Don’t make me destroy you.”
A voice rang out from the purplish puddle. “Why? I just want to know, why fight us? I know it’s not like you. That’s not the sort of person that you are. Why?”
Why indeed. Something stirred in the back of my head, struggling to get out of whatever box I’d locked it in. I pushed it back down. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter right now. I didn’t need the distraction. All that I needed to know was that it felt like everything was going better than anything that could have been planned.
Later. I’d have to let that thought out of the box when I had more time to think about it. Fighting first, emotional self-discovery later.
“Because that’s how it has to be,” I said. “I’m really sorry. You seem like a nice fellow, with a good head on your shoulders. I’m pretty sure that if we met under different cir—”
The Brute was suddenly sprinting for me, the female Shaker slowly following. Finally. They’d tested me to see how I handled their powers individually, trying to find weaknesses in my capabilities. Now they were ready to team up and try to leverage what they’d learned. Against anyone else, caution might have been a decent plan. Know their enemy to defeat him. Against me, though? Now I knew how they operated and could adjust to their powers, effectively turning their tactics against them.
As I moved to engage the Brute for a hip toss, pain suddenly exploded out from my gut. The Shaker had timed the use of her power well enough that I stumbled, nearly dropping my halberd. The Brute powered through the pain with a grimace, slamming into me hard enough for me to lose my weapon. I didn’t have time to focus before he had me in a full nelson.
The moment I was caught, the Shaker broke into a sprint, fist raised, probably going for my unarmed neck. Good teamwork.
At the last moment, I lifted my knees to my chest and ducked my head, dropping my center of gravity to the point that the Brute had to lower me. Before he could right himself, the Striker’s fist hit his shoulder. Despite the agony flowing through my body, I immediately kicked my feet down, then brought them back up just as he tried to pull me back upright.
It was enough that he brought my body up far more than he’d intended. In turn, that gave me the briefest of moments to lash out with my legs at the Shaker. I wasn’t going for a kick, though. She was still close enough that I was able to get my legs wrapped around her neck.
“Jess!” I heard someone scream as I squeezed as hard as I could. All this effort was only making the strange pain radiating from my gut even worse. And I knew it was about to get compounded.
The Brute yanked me to the side as he turned a bit, trying to pull me off his teammate. Bad move. Instead of letting go, I twisted as hard as I could and let simple physics do the work for me. She came tumbling down, dragging me with her. He’d put too much torque into the yank and didn’t have the footing to support himself against the sudden shift in resistance.
The Brute tipped forward, giving me the chance to twist harder, dislodging his arms as I effectively tossed the man. It was hell on the neck, but worth it. I let go of the Shaker, and was dimly aware of a sudden, brief pressure against my armor’s built-in cup.
She’d tried to headbut my crotch. A+ for effort, but she’d only succeed in hurting herself doing that. No time to dwell. I got my feet under me and lunged for my halberd—
Only to suddenly be taken off my feet by a blast of cold liquid. Right, the Stranger. I tumbled a little more than necessary to get out of the pain field, before sprinting for the monument to Mr. Gillis. It was barely big enough for my needs, assuming that I could just keep from tripping over a gravestone on my way there. My hand moved to my waist, snagging the fire suppression sphere from my belt.
I turned the moment that I was safely behind the monument, glad to be outside the radius of the Shaker. It only took a moment before the Stranger shot another blast of that liquid, momentarily turning the stone pillar invisible and giving the Cadets a clear view of me. Fortunately, it also gave me a clear enough view to chuck the sphere before he stopped the stream.
I heard a curse, and I knew exactly what happened. The pellet released a liquid that hardened upon contact with a solid object, leaching heat from whatever it covered. I went to peek and see how well I’d gotten him when I noticed the Changer trying to flank me. My hand snapped like it was making a quick throw, and the purplish blob leaped to the side, desperate to avoid another fire sphere.
No time like the present to move. I turned and ran the direction that I’d come from; the Brute was on his feet and charging for me, and beyond him the Shaker was going for my halberd. Meanwhile, the Striker was standing around like an idiot, his face so red it was almost purple, and the Stranger was shaking his fist, which was fixed within a glass-like coating.
As the Brute drew near, he ducked his head down, going to shoulderblock me. A lack of finesse. Instead of letting him, I simply dropped into a roll and let my back slam into his legs, sending him tumbling over me. I headed for the Shaker again, only to be taken off my feet by another cold blast of liquid. I’d hoped that the Shaker’s power only channeled through his primary hand, but that was too much to hope for.
As soon as I hit the ground, I was bouncing back to my feet. My hand flicked to my belt and ignited another firestarter sphere before flicking and creating an arc of fire around me. I only had two of them left in my belt dispenser, but there wasn’t much sense in saving them for later if saving them got me captured. Immediately, both the Brute and the Changer backed off. It might not seem like it due to the chaotic nature of the fight, but they were cowed. Honestly, I probably would have already been done for if I hadn’t broken their spirits like that.
As I ran, I drew the knife that was lashed to my chest free. They might have taken my primary weapon, but I had plenty of reserves. My boot knife, my handcuffs, even my multi-tool could be used in a pinch. I turned, only to see the Shaker lifting my halberd to throw it like a spear—
When a girl, or maybe short woman, suddenly appeared in front of the Shaker, yelling. “Boogada!”
The Shaker yelped, stumbling back, only for the newcomer to grab my polearm and yank it free from her grasp. She spun around to look at me, and was suddenly right in front of me, a loud clap sounding from where she had been.
I couldn’t tell much about her; she only had a tiny sliver of her face visible, the rest of her head hidden by two bandannas. She was dressed rather plainly, nothing that immediately stood out. At least I could see that she had dark hair, and she was either extremely tanned, or she wasn’t caucasian.
“Hi,” she said cheerfully as she held out my halberd. “Are these guys bullying you? Bullies are assholes.”
Not that I wasn’t going to accept my weapon from her, no matter how confusing the situation might be. I sheathed my knife again; having options was good, but I only had two hands.
She was a Mover, with mechanics that seemed surprisingly simple. There was probably a deeper aspect of her power that she wasn’t actively using in this fight.
“Hey,” barked the Striker. “This is official Warden business! You’d better leave unless you want to be charged with aiding and abetting!”
The girl turned around, putting her hand to her bandanna. “Oh my,” she said in mock surprise. “The Wardens are in the business of bullying now?”
“We aren’t,” he said in an exasberated tone. “We’re… This is a wanted man!”
“I can believe it,” another woman’s voice said. I turned towards the entrance to the graveyard, where three more figures were approaching. One man, a woman, and a girl either in her mid-teens or a rather short woman. It was hard to say, since their heads were covered much like the one who had retrieved my halberd. “That armor is dead sexy. I doubt that I’ll find the guy inside to be the same, but whatcha gonna do?”
“Uh.” I looked around, feeling like my world had just taken a hard turn to the left. “I’m Jordan?”
“It’s an honor to make your acquaintance,” the man said, pausing to give a slight bow. “But I think that we can save the introductions for later. Especially now that the numbers are almost even now. A much fairer fight, don’t you think? Six against five is much more sporting than six against one.”
Six? I looked at my five opponents; the Brute, Shaker, Striker, Changer, and Stranger. How were they coming up with…
My eyes fell on Sarah, who wasn’t leaning against a tree any more. For the first time since all this began, she looked… concerned.
“Her? No, no. She’s not fighting.”
“Oh,” said the man in a chipper tone. “Well, that makes everything quite fair, then! A game of outdoor chess! And the stake is not without value, eh?” I turned to look at him, tilting my head ever so slightly to the side. That got a chuckle from him. “Your freedom, man. Keep up, won’t you?”
These people wanted to ally with me. Or defend me. Why? Did they have a beef with the Wardens? Maybe this team in particular? I couldn’t say right now — I needed more information. And right now wasn’t a good time to collect it.
This was going to make the fight infinitely more difficult. I couldn’t be sure as to their intentions; the man claimed that they were interested in maintaining my freedom, but he could be lying, perhaps hoping to turn on me and collect a bounty on my head.
The Brute charged the man, giving him only a moment’s warning before hitting him with a double axe handle strike across the face. The man’s head moved maybe an inch. “Ow,” he deadpanned. Another Brute. Well, then.
And like that, all hell broke loose. The two Brutes paired off, the Warden dancing around my suddenly slow-moving ally. He seemed to sink into the earth a little bit with each step, his arms slowly swinging at the Warden. Whenever he connected, no matter how slight, the Warden would stumble with a yelp of pain.
The Mover blinked towards the Shaker, her power leaving a loud clap as she teleported out. The Shaker backed up as the Mover’s punch went wide. The Mover pulled back for another poorly-formed punch, only for the electric circle came up again, making the Mover scream and drop to her knees. Only for a moment, though, before she blinked out again, appearing a good five feet behind the Shaker.
“You bitch,” the Mover screamed as she got to her feet and turned around. I didn’t get to see what she was doing next; a sound drew my attention away from the two of them.
The Cadet Changer was moving as fast as his liquid body would let him. The taller bandanna-clad woman had her hands about a foot apart, a thin beam of golden light shooting out from between them. Her clothes were rippling as if being drawn towards her hand. Blaster of some sort. I’d need a better way to examine her power before I made any deeper guesses.
The last of the girls, the shortest, was charging towards the Stranger. He lifted his good hand, and she was already dodging to the right before he fired his blast. He tried another blast of his invisibility liquid, only for her to dodge to the right this time.
That seemed to be enough for the Stranger — one moment he was standing there, the next moment there was nothing. The girl didn’t care, though. She adjusted her path once, then twice, before leaping into the air. For the briefest of moments, she disappeared, before the both of them became visible again as they tumbled to the ground.
Which only left one Warden Cadet without an opponent. The Striker. Get him to give the command to retreat, and I could get back to assessing the threat of the newcomers. I could end this fight quickly. I spun my halberd in my left hand before snapping it up to point at the man.
He jolted as if I’d just shot him. Quickly, he looked over to Sarah. “Help us!”
Sarah folded her arms, pressing herself tighter against a tree.
“God damnit!” the man bellowed. “We’re going to lose if you don’t do something!” What little self-control he had was being whittled away, just by me pointing at him. I hadn’t even moved yet.
When Sarah didn’t respond again, he started shrieking. “You fucking cunt! Unless you help us, my dad will make sure that you’re kicked out of the Wardens and only able to—”
The sound of a gunshot startled everyone, including myself. Despite the 1911 in my hand, pointing it. Despite the blood rushing in my ears, my lips peeled back in a snarl.
The Striker fell to the ground screaming, his hands grabbing at his leg. Good. I hadn’t shot him in the chest or the head. The demons in the back of my mind howed that the bastard didn’t deserve a quick death, threatening her like that. But it opened up all sorts of problems.
Once you drew a gun, once you used it against them, a Warden’s gloves came off. They would do whatever it took to take you down quickly, cleanly, and effectively, even if it meant killing you. If they’d been holding back at all, that was over. I’d just doomed myself.
Everyone was standing still, trying to process what had just happened. Instead, I focused on the anger as I jammed my gun back into its holster. The bastard wanted to threaten her like that? To do whatever it was to make her leave the Wardens?! To ruin her rep? To hell with him! To hell with all of them! To hell—
I fell out of my mind, entering a strange calm as time slowed and my body howled with rage. If I was going to win, I needed to be in this state. It was the only way that I could teach him the lesson that he deserved.
Time seemed to slow down to my mind as I watched as my body automatically step, gripping the halberd. There was motion in the corner of my eye that I couldn’t make out. But the body was already responding on its own, taking a side-step towards it. Ducking down so slowly. Swinging the halberd as the head, my head, turned.
I watched as the dull back of the blade struck a pair of legs. The Brute Warden’s legs. They were sweeping him off of his feet, even as my body’s left hand was letting go, using my stomach to leverage the swipe. The hand going to my belt.
The Brute was still in the process of falling as the field of vision moved. My body was scanning for something. It wasn’t until it started to stand that I could make out a purplish blob moving among the gravestones. What was that? Not that it seemed to matter; my body knew quite well. I watched as my hand whipped out, throwing something. As the blob changed its course, my hand reversed, throwing again.
My head didn’t seem interested in watching to see if anything hit, already turning back to the Brute.
The man was rolling onto his back in slow motion to get his feet under him. I watched as the butt of my halberd came straight down, agonizingly slow, to strike the Brute in his solar plexus. As he was pushed down, my body jumped, both hands gripping the halberd near the top of its shaft.
I knew what was happening. My body was putting as much pressure as it could into the solar plexus. I watched as my body fell, only to jerk as my arms caught and prevented my body from falling further. That jolt of my full weight suddenly being supported by the shaft drove extra force into the Brute’s body. Almost instantly, I was falling back to my feet in a crouch, standing again as I started scanning.
One hand began to slide down the halberd, a motion that confused me. My body hopped back, my field of vision turning to look behind me. Ah, the Shaker. The butt of the halberd began a downward arc behind me, even as she activated her power.
Her area of effect didn’t last long, shorting out as the ball at the end of the shaft connected rather forcefully with her groin. Even as she began to double over in agony, my body was spinning in the other direction, taking a deep step back to cross what distance remained. I watched as my elbow came up, arcing towards her face.
In this detached state, I could see everything clearly, all the odd details. The flat of my elbow connected with the flat of her jaw. Flesh gave first, but eventually the bone of her jaw snapped, silent to my ears. Her mouth distended oddly before the other side of her jaw dislocated. Already, though, her eyes were glazing over. The Brute was out of the fight, but he might be able to get back in, depending on his recovery speed. The Shaker, though, wouldn’t be regaining consciousness for a while.
My body didn’t even watch her fall, instead turning to look at the battlefield.
The purplish blob wasn’t moving very much. it appeared to be almost completely covered in a glass-like coating. There were others that my eyes slowly moved over. A man, two women, and then another woman, all with their hands rising into the air above their heads, palms pointed towards me. The shortest woman’s lips were moving slowly, as if she were saying something.
I noted another man, both of his hands rising above his head as he sank to his knees. One of his hands was in a fist, covered in a glassy shell. Fear was plastered on his face. The Stranger. Behind him, Sarah was standing against a tree, staring intently at the ground.
Just like that, though, time resumed at its regular pace. I was turning my body towards my last target, who was lying on the ground, gripping his leg and screaming in pain. The Striker. Right. Time to teach him a lesson.
I spun my halberd in one hand as I marched towards him. After a moment, I jammed the blade into the ground. The asshole. I had to go around a gravestone to reach him, but as soon as I was in range, I pounced, flipping him onto his back and grabbing him by his neck so I could look directly into his eyes. My free hand snapped my helmet’s faceplate up. I wanted him to see my face.
“Article 17,” I bellowed. “Section 12, subsection B. Wardens are forbidden from interacting with family members in an official capacity. This includes investigation and arrest. This is both to prevent conflicts of interest, and to protect you from litigation.” I leaned a little closer. “Sarah Abrams has no right to be here, and she knows it. She shouldn’t even be interacting with me at all! If she does anything, anything at all, she can be dismissed from the Wardens after a proper hearing!”
The man under me gurgled, his hands gripping my wrist. I must have been choking him. I relaxed my grip a bit. “You idiot! If she gets dismissed because of this, I swear, I will hunt you and your family down and make you pay! What? Do you think she was weak for not helping you? Do you?!”
The Striker opened his mouth, but the only sound to escape was a small squeak.
I didn’t care. The fury was flowing through me. “You’re wrong! She’s stronger than you can possibly imagine! To watch her brother fight her comrades? The people she’s supposed to trust fight someone that she loves?”
My vision began to blur. “Do you have any idea how much strength it takes to watch silently? To not join in to protect her little brother? To not protect her comrades, her team when he starts tearing them apart?”
The tears were flowing now as I looked up to Sarah. “I…” My voice broke for a second, making me restart. “I’m so fucking proud of you, Sis. You have no idea.”
“I know,” she whispered softly, not daring to look at me. “I’m sorry, this is all my fault. If I hadn’t—”
“No! No, it isn’t your fault at all. Things happen, and we… can’t control them. You did the best you could, and that… I…”
I lowered my head, trying to fight to find the words. Any words.
“Don’t move,” someone barked.
I whipped around, looking as the Stranger moved, ignoring the Blaster’s order. “He’s suffocating!” the man said quickly. He hurried over to the encased Changer’s liquid form and began to beat on the glassy shell with his own coated fist. “When he’s in this state, he draws air in through his skin! I’m not going to let him die! Please!”
The Brute whose face was hidden with bandannas walked over quickly, casting a glance to me. Right. I removed my hand from the fucktard’s throat and found my way to my feet so I could retrieve my halberd.
That was the answer he needed. He knelt over the trapped blob and laid his hand on it. After a moment, the shell shattered, and I heard a strange sound as the purple blob ballooned. Just trying to increase its surface area to draw more air in, but that didn’t stop the others from reacting as if it were about to attack.
I didn’t care any more. The fight had drained out of me. Instead, I headed towards my gear. As I fought to get my pack on, I heard Sarah call out. “Love you, Bro. Be awesome! Be…” She paused, and when she spoke, there was a tremor to her voice. “Be you.”
I smiled softly, though I felt more like someone was raking my chest with a hundred broadswords. I gave her a brief glance. “Keep making me proud, Sis. Never stop.”
It was easier for me to look away, to grab my pack and put it on. My new Brute ally came over and got the duffel bag, despite having his own pack on his back. I noted again that he was slow as he straightened. The Mover grabbed my satchel, laying a gentle hand on my arm.
I didn’t say anything. Instead, I began to make my way out of the graveyard. My new companions seemed more than eager to follow me. We moved in silence as I opened my teleporter.
We’d just made it to the entrance of the grove when I heard someone call out. “Jordan!”
We turned back to look at the Changer, now in human form, drenched in sweat and panting as he staggered after us. “It’s… not too late. It isn’t. You can still—”
I pressed the button.