If my grip on the rifle strap were any tighter, I was pretty sure that I’d leave fingerprints on it. I desperately wanted to adjust the hood on my robes, but even that was denied me right now. All that I could do was walk with my head down, focusing on the road in front of me. It was starting to get dark, but not enough that I couldn’t see the road. Soon, but not quite yet.
I stopped as I heard a voice call out. “Who goes there?”
I gripped my arm, taking a deep breath as I hit the button there. My vision changed ever so subtly as my helmet went invisible. Go time. Lifting my eyes and getting a clear view of the wall that could only be a good twenty feet away from me now, I could see the man on it that guarded the gate. The wall itself was only eight feet tall, which made sense, given the trees in the area. He was armed with an assault rifle, but I didn’t care much about the type. It was just that he was armed.
“Greetings,” I called out to him. “My name is Tobias. I’m on my way to the Hive, and was hoping to stay here the night.”
“Traveling with just that rifle?” he asked curiously.
I chuckled sheepishly, bringing my hand to the leather belt that held my robes closed. “I had a very good sword until a few days ago. By any chance, is there a blacksmith? I would like to replace it, if he’s able.”
The guard gnawed on his lip a little. “Yeah, but… You’re a long ways off from a Hive.”
I chuckled sheepishly. “Yes, well… If you notice, I’m traveling light for a reason. I got a little lost, and I’ve been doing as best I can.” I paused for a moment. “If you’re worried, I have plenty of coin. Some from Hartsford, but mostly from New Brockton. I can pay for all that I need.”
The guard remained silent for a long moment. This wasn’t too big of a city, maybe two hundred people if they were lucky. They would probably have a blacksmith, but he probably wouldn’t have a sword handy. His skills would be too valuable elsewhere.
Fortunately for the guard, it also meant that he didn’t have to yell so loud. “Tommy! Kim! C’mere!” With that, he turned back to me. “Listen, give us a moment, alright?”
As soon as I nodded, he turned and hurried to where a ladder must have been and began climbing down. Which left me… Waiting.
I hated the waiting. It was the worst. Standing there, staring at a wall, mentally counting the seconds away. Nothing to do or focus on but the welling of energy inside of me.
It was a relief when when I heared muted voices on the other side. I quietly took a few steps forward, even though it wouldn’t help me hear any better. That wasn’t the point. I also took a moment to adjust the hood of my robes a little more.
There was the sound of climbing before I finally saw the guard again. “Alright, we’re opening the door for you. No funny business!”
“Perish the thought,” I said with a smile. “It’s not like I’m from Fyrtorn or anything.”
I heard the bolt being lifted, and a moment later, the gates opened. With a pleasant smile, I strode forward, trying to remain relaxed. The gates didn’t open far, just a little more than enough for me to pass through.
There were two men on the other side who definitely didn’t look like guards. Far too plain clothes, not even right for farming or traveling. More of idle city life. Too casual for standing up on a wall for hours on end.
As I stepped through the gate, the beefier of the two got up in my face, trying to look intimidating. Too much focus on his posturing, too little focus on watching the rest of my body beyond my face. I could take him down clean and easy if I liked.
“We’re gonna need your gun, sir. We keep weapons here.”
Cute. I smiled graciously. “Then I’ll need a ledger filled out so that I can reclaim it when I leave.”
That made his tough guy act drop in a heartbeat. Not the response that he was expecting in the slightest, but he nodded hesitantly. “Y-yeah, of course.”
“Then we’re copacetic,” I said warmly. I just hoped that the others caught the code word.
As he stepped away to scrounge up some paper, I heard voices in my ear.
“South’s clear,” Emi whispered, much to my .
“North’s good,” Kathy echoed. “John will give me a boost.”
Brenda didn’t say anything, but I’d been expecting that. There was a reason why I posted her on the west wall. All as planned.
I turned to the third guard. “Is there any chance that you could tell me where I am? As I told your compatriot up there, I’m a little lost.”
“Uh…” These weren’t people used to playing this role, obviously. “You’re, uh, you’re in Aiken. Aiken Gimmel. In what would be South Carolina.”
I wide smile crossed my face. “Then I know where I am now,” I lied. Quickly, my smile fell. “Oh dear. I’m… quite a bit more out of my way than I suspected. It might take a couple of weeks to get there, if I’m even the slightest bit lucky. Hm…”
“Well, uh…” The “guard” smiled at me pleasantly. “I’m sure that we, uh, we can work something out. We’re probably going to be sending a, uh, a wagon in the next few days for trade. Maybe in the morning, you could negotiate with them for a ride?”
I smiled widely. “Ah, fortune at last. How many times had Skitter gotten a lucky break like that, hmm?” Hardly ever, I was pretty sure. I wasn’t a cultist, and only had passing knowledge of her life, but I knew it had been a hard one once she became Skitter.
“Exactly,” she said with a hesitant smile.
The other guard returned with a slip of paper that read simply the date and one rifle, held at the wall. I held up a reassuring hand as I slipped the rifle off my shoulder. I dropped the mag, removed the round in the chamber, and put it back in the mag before handing both to the guard. Almost as an afterthought, I carefully reached into the modified pockets of my robed, pulling out three empty magazines and one full one, handing them over as well.
“Seems like you’ve seen some trouble.”
“Nah,” I said quickly. “Hunting. The wildling that cost me my sword was alone and almost dead already. I’m not much of a fighter, so I got lucky there.”
“You did,” said the third guard. “Come on, let me take you to the inn. You can get a meal and a drink there before going to bed.”
I motioned for her to lead the way. If these people had been legit, I might have actually liked her. She was being rather helpful. Still, I wasn’t going to give her even the slightest benefit of the doubt — no doubt, she was just as ruthless, if more so.
With some groups, criminal or otherwise, the women had to work twice as hard to get half as much respect. If they were equals, or leaders, you had to assume that they were twice as ruthless, twice as creative, and willing to work three times as hard to watch their backs.
It didn’t take long for us to reach the inn. It probably doubled as a restaurant and bar, gauging by the size and how far off the beaten track the city was. As we stepped inside, that much was reaffirmed — plenty of tables, a bar with alcohol bottles… This was the place where people should be to take their minds off their woes.
And it was absolutely deserted.
“West is down,” Brenda whispered in my ear.
“I’ll get east,” John said quickly.
“Hey,” the guard called out. “You’ve got customers!”
I kept smiling as I walked towards the bar. A lot of missing bottles on the rack. These people were probably partying hard.
“Banging on a door,” Emi hissed. “I’m guessing our mark is there.”
The barman came out, looking a strange combination of exhausted and nervous enough to scream at any moment. The guard approached him, slamming her palm on the bar. “This here’s a traveler passing through town. How about you get him a meal before he gets a room, huh?”
The barman looked from her to me, and I offered him a pleasant smile. “My name’s Tobias! It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir! What do you have for dinner?”
“I-I… I have, uh…” The man swallowed. I could see the conflict in him; if he said anything to me, he was dooming himself, and maybe everyone, in order to save me. If he didn’t, he might very well be dooming me. It had to be horrible. My heart broke for him, and it took everything that I had to keep from turning and striking the guard down where she stood.
“I have some delicious stew,” he made out at last. “That’s probably w-within your price range.”
“Excellent! Make sure it’s hot.” I paused. “And hot tea, if you have it?”
The man nodded and hurried off, eager to get back out of sight. I didn’t blame him for keeping up appearances. Were I in his position, I probably would have done the same. After all, he might have a family to look after, and standing up to Jordan probably seemed like a quick path to being just another number in a pile of smouldering corpses.
That reputation probably wouldn’t be any better here soon.
“So,” the guard said, leaning against the bar as I settled down on a stool. “You said you were going to a Hive?”
“In Kirkwood,” I said with a nod. “From there, I’m getting transport to the Orphanage. Apparently, they’ve been going over everything gained from St. Louis, and there was not only a video of Skitter’s fight with Armsmaster, but a recording of what happened in the hospital. It’s an opportunity that I can’t pass up.”
The story had been an afterthought when we’d been getting ready to teleport out here. John had come up with a good one — it established that I was familiar with St. Louis, making me familiar with what I’d done there, and provided a good cover for traveling. Gina had filled in the details surprisingly fast, and I’d made a point of memorizing them.
“Target on his way, two escorts. Eyes open, dickwad heading north.”
I’d impressed on them that they had to be as succinct as possible in their communication, giving the maximum information and cutting out unnecessary words. They weren’t the best, but at least she wasn’t giving me too much chatter.
“You know,” the guard said slowly. “I still don’t get why you all do that. Study Skitter so much.”
I smiled and shrugged a little. “Everyone does it for different reasons. I can’t speak for them, but for me, it’s because there might be more aliens like Scion out there. And if there are, then we’re dead unless we figure out a better way to kill them. I’m no scientist, though, but I can hope that by studying the woman who lead to his demise, we can get an insight in how to fight them.”
A load of bull, but I didn’t have a good answer.
“Fair enough,” she said as the innkeeper came back with a large mug of hot tea and a bowl of soup. As soon as he set them down and walked away, the guard moved away from the counter. “I’m gonna step outside for a smoke.”
“Thank you for your help,” I said warmly before turning to my meal. I listened as she walked away, lifting the spoon and blowing on it. As soon as I heard the door open behind me, I poured the contents back into the bowl. It wasn’t steaming like the tea was, but still.
Subtly, I hit the button on my arm again before going back to miming eating. This time, I didn’t bother to actually fill the spoon. I only had to worry about it looking like I was eating — the hood would help hide the truth.
“One of the escorts is moving south,” Emi hissed quietly.
“Got it,” Brenda said, a tinge of pain to her voice. “Keep following them.”
Slow, controlled breaths. I had to keep my heart rate even. Focus on that, and not how my hands were trembling, or the sudden streak pain that appeared on the left side of my face. That was new, but I wasn’t going to spend time contemplating it. I had more important things to worry about.
“Woman outside, waving to target and his escort.”
Almost go time. I pressed the button again, worried about how much power I had left. Gauging time right now was impossible — a minute to me could be fifteen seconds or ten minutes. I was willing to bet that I was experiencing time faster due to waiting, but with how much my body wanted to go into a furious rage it could be passing faster.
By my guess, it was five minutes before I heard the door open. With a smile, I glanced behind me to see them enter.
The woman, of course, I knew. Her assault rifle only offered the usual urban combat concerns. The plainclothes male was likewise armed, so I wasn’t worried too much about him. It was the man between them that drew my attention.
His armor was an… alright replica of mine, considering that it wasn’t made via Tinker tech. The halberd was kind of alright, too. He’d obviously heard a description of it at some point, but had never actually seen mine. Still, the armor was impressive. The colors were right despite the material, and it had a textured hexagonal pattern.
Pistol on his hip. At least it was a revolver. Someone had spent plenty of time squinting at photos of me, apparently.
“Well,” the false Jordan said with a smirk. “I’m afraid that you’ve made a mistake, friend.”
“Is that so?” I asked, trying to muster chipper innocence as I turned to face them gently. “Was there an entry fee that I should have paid?”
The male escort snorted softly. “You could say that.”
“East down,” John said quickly.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” the man in the middle said. His voice was dripping with smug menace. “My name is Jordan.”
My hands went to my hips, my fingertips on my right hand slipping into the false pocket of my robes. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jordan! What’s your last name?”
Emi snorted in my ear.
The smirk on his face faded a hair. “I don’t have a last name.”
“Oh,” I said thoughtfully. “Like, Jordan, the Butcher of New Fairfax?”
Now the smirk disappeared. Good, the innocent act was making him angry. “Yes, actually. I am the Butcher of New Fairfax.”
“Oh!” My face lit up brightly. “No you’re not.”
I couldn’t read the expression that crossed his face. “What?”
“Oh, yeah. Your halberd has a spike on it that was originally meant to penetrate plate armor, which Jordan’s doesn’t. Your armor is made of pleather, which is surprising to see these days. Jordan’s armor isn’t glossy like yours, it’s more matted. He also stands six foot tall, more in armor, and you’re a couple inches short. Your skin is too dark, your hair doesn’t have enough cowlicks, you–”
I saw his hand moving to his belt. I could have tried to dodge, crouch, or dive behind the bar. You can’t dodge a bullet, but you can dodge the shooter. But anything that I did to decrease the odds of being hit would have meant that he would have had a higher chance of hitting someone else in the building. Or a nearby building, or whatever. It was safer to take the bullet. Besides, unless it was a Tinker tech bullet, I didn’t have to worry too much.
It took more time than it did for me to put that together for him to raise the gun and fire. Immediately, I felt the armor on the left side of my chest stiffen, and I flung myself that direction, falling to the ground. It wasn’t an unguided fall, though. Usually, I’d go for my back so that I could break my fall, but this time I landed squarely on my chest.
Even though it hadn’t hurt, I hacked, wheezed, and gurgled, using that to disguise my hand sliding through to grab my pistol. A wasted effort, I knew, but…
“Put a fucking bullet between his eyes,” the imposter snarled.
Wait, that worked? As I heard footsteps coming towards me, I couldn’t help but marvel at that. There was no blood spray, none of the tell-tale signs that I’d actually been wounded beyond my rather pathetic act. Did he honestly think that I’d been lung shot? How… How stupid was this fucker?
Wait, he was pretending to be me. Pretty stupid.
“Runner,” I heard Emi say. “Coming your way, J.”
I didn’t have time to contemplate that, as I felt hands grab my robes and yank hard enough to roll me over. As I came face to face with the barrel of the woman’s rifle, my hand lashed out to grab the man’s groin with all of my strength, earning a scream. The woman jumped back, startled, firing off a single round that went wide, missing my head.
She didn’t get another shot as my hand ripped free from my robes, raising my own pistol and firing.
I didn’t have a chance to see the damage as I felt a shove, and then that blissful feeling of weightlessness. Only it wasn’t in the right direction — I was falling up and back, fast enough that my arm was yanked hard, tearing my grip from the man’s balls.
I only had a moment before I hit the ceiling, tumbling back until I hit the wall above the bottles. Almost immediately, I was weightless again as I fell again, slamming through the bottles and shelves before hitting the floor.
I blinked, trying to get my mind clear. I flexed both my hands as I realized that my pistol wasn’t there any more. Where had it gone?
I didn’t have time to think before I felt that push and falling again. In the brief instant that I had before I hit the ceiling, I realized that this wasn’t being thrown — that felt completely different. No, this was straight up falling.
I hit the ceiling face-first, only for me to fall in the right direction again. No push. This time, I did land on my back, my hands slapping to distribute the energy. I was just sitting up when I felt the shove upwards again.
This time, I understood. He was redirecting gravity, offering a telekinetic push to increase the speed. As I rolled in the air to break my upwards fall against the ceiling, I noticed the imposter’s hand was raising upwards, directing how I moved. He relaxed his arm, and I dropped again.
This couldn’t last. The armor and my breakfall were helping, but eventually I’d over-rotate and hurt myself. Or the imposter would get creative instead of simply bouncing me straight up and down. Something had to change.
The moment that I hit the ground, I was rolling underneath the bar, screaming out. “You idiot!” I raised myself up, my hands bracing against the bartop for when he used his power again. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
Nothing. No shift in gravity, though I did hear the bar straining. Interesting. Was the power being blocked because I was hiding under something? That was an aspect to his power that I could use, a way to defend myself. It didn’t require a line of sight, but it did require a lack of obstruction.
With powers, the devil was in the details.
“Who are you?” I heard him call out over the sound of his guard whimpering.
“You don’t get it, do you?” I laughed as I broke the cheap buckle on the leather belt. “Think for a moment.” I hit the button on my arm and started working on getting my robes off.
“Your little escapades draw attention, bub. They’re in newspapers. The Wardens are tracking you. People are putting a price on your head.” A lie, but he didn’t need to know that. “Eventually, someone was gonna figure out how to find you.”
“So, what? You’re a bounty hunter?”
Kathy’s voice sounded weak in my ear. “Got him.”
I gave a bark of laughter. “Bounty hunter? No. I’m no bounty hunter. Allow me to introduce myself.”
I stood quickly, my hands grabbing the underside of the bar in case he used his power. What a sight I must have been — a few moments ago, he’d been dealing with a helmetless cultist, and now I was standing there, helmet visible again, in armor that he was trying so desperately to emulate.
“My name is Jordan,” I snarled.
He blinked at me, and then turned tail and ran for the door.
I took a breath, trying to process that. He… was running? That coward!
“He manipulates gravity,” I said as I vaulted the bar. “Everyone, pull back. Harass from range, but–” I heard a gunshot. They wouldn’t kill him. That would be against the plan. “–get under cover afterwards. Something over your head.”
I looked down at the man curled up in the fetal position, hands between his legs. He didn’t seem the slightest bit aware of my feet next to his head, only able to make a keening noise of agony. I felt a pang of sympathy as I drew the knife that was strapped to my chest and slammed the blade into his temple. My brother’s treated steel penetrated with little resistance. At least he wouldn’t feel pain any more.
At least the woman’s skull had blossomed nicely.
No time to dwell. I hurried out the door, looking around. The impostor glanced behind him as he ran, pausing to jerk his hand up. Immediately gravity shifted, slamming me into the overhang of the inn before dropping me again. This was getting annoying very quickly.
I under-rotated as I hit the ground, wrenching my arm enough to send a shrill shock of pain through me. Being on open ground was a bad idea. If he flung me like that without something over me, there was no telling how high or far I would go.
“Halberd,” I snarled as I scrambled to my feet.
There was a whoosh of air as Emi appeared next to me, holding out my halberd. I glanced back up just in time to see the impostor’s hand jerk again. Instead of feeling anything, though, I heard a deep-voiced yelp and then a crash of splintering wood. John. He’d probably increased his density thinking that it would help, and had just turned himself into a cannon ball.
Fortunately, there was a plume of dirt in front of the imposter, with a gunshot reaching my ears the barest of split-seconds later. “Herding,” Brenda said, though she sounded like she was speaking through gritted teeth.
True to her word, the imposter changed directions, running another way. “Em, with me.” Her bandanna-clad head nodded once, and as I broke into a run, so did she.
As we ran, I explained as best I could. “Soon as… You see him… Teleport. Harass. Keep moving. Keep on… top of him. Distract.”
“Yeah,” Emi said, not able to get out much more while running.
It only took us minutes of running to get caught up with him. The town wasn’t big enough for him to have too much to go. I had no idea how Brenda was able to keep him going in the direction that she wanted, but in the end, it didn’t really matter. She was doing us a huge service.
We rounded a corner to find him running away from us. “Go,” I snapped, and I heard the sound of Emi teleporting even as she appeared in front of him.
“Bad,” she barked as she turned to face him, making him stop in his tracks. Even as he began to lift his arm, she was already gone, appearing by his side. “No!” He turned, but she was already reappearing, the air displacements from her teleportations making him stumble. “Round and round!”
That second turn was the problem, though, as it let him see me as I charged towards him. Emi teleported again, not realizing what he was doing as he jerked his hand upwards, giving me only a moment to brace myself before I went flying.
…Which didn’t happen. The two of us looked at each other — no doubt, my expression matched his of confusion. At least until an annoyed Emi shoved him from behind, making him stumble.
“Yoohoo, bitch who can make with the stabby right here?”
Everything snapped into place, but I didn’t have time to process it at the moment. That could come later. Other things to focus on.
Even as he was turning around to try and fling her away, I resumed my run towards him, only this time, I let out a long bellow of pure, unadulterated rage. I was only wasting air, but it didn’t matter. His attention would be divided, he’d be quaking in his boots, and hopefully I’d draw even more attention towards us. I wanted the whole damn village to be looking at us, knowing exactly what was going on.
As I drew near, he began to turn towards me again, his hand reaching out in a futile effort to fling me again… only for both Emi and the imposter to get a momentary vacancy in their eyes as I drew in range. Damn. I knew that look, I’d seen it more than a few times and had wanted to get it myself — someone had triggered nearby.
But it also gave me that brief split second that I needed. I swung my halberd, feeling that momentary resistance, before turning the swing, creating a sideways U. It wasn’t a comfortable strike, awkward as hell, but I still had enough power to push through both moments of resistance against my blade.
The imposter gave a yelp of surprise as he fell onto his back. Still, he quickly lifted his arm, only to find that it terminated halfway up his bicep.
I didn’t have time to process his reaction, though, and I was thrown to the ground, feeling an odd sting as electricity pulsed through my body. Most likely, if I wasn’t protected with my armor, it probably would have hurt a lot more than just sting. Pain was no reason to stop, though. I could appreciate it later.
I looked in the direction that I’d been flung from, finding a young, frightened woman standing in a doorway, an arm outstretched, her expression unreadable. No time to deal with her, though. I had to finish this.
The imposter was staring at his stump, slowly reaching up to it with his good hand. I scrambled from the ground, lunging to give an awkward, one-handed swing with my halberd. It… mostly did the job. At least, enough. With that awkward angle and lack of proper stability in the swing, I didn’t quite sever the arm, but it was enough to score the bone deeply.
That did it. The stump of his primary arm had put him into shock. I wasn’t even sure if he recognized that his legs were severed yet. But seeing his other arm almost get cut off made him begin screaming in horror. I couldn’t help but give a grim smile of satisfaction for a moment. He’d bleed out soon enough, but for everything that he’d done? He deserved this.
But I couldn’t take the time to enjoy my victory. Already the newly triggered para was walking towards the scene, her eyes wide. Right. Damage control. I spun my halberd around so that I could drive the spearpoint into the ground. Using that to help myself up, I turned to the young woman, lifting my hands as if I were surrendering as I began to slowly walk towards her.
“You’re the real thing, aren’t you?” she asked in a tiny voice.
“Yes,” I said in a soothing tone. It probably would be better if I wasn’t splattered with blood. “Yes I am.”
“What are you–”
“I’m here for him,” I interrupted. “Not for any of you. I have no quarrel with any of you. Only him. Relax. You’re safe.”
“He needs to die,” she said vacantly.
Right. Crap. I quickly put myself between the imposer and the woman, moving towards her more quickly. “Everyone dies. Even if he survives those wounds, he’ll be crippled for life. His crew are all dead or disabled. He will pay, either through a slow agonizing death, or living out the rest of his life in a wheelchair.”
I was close enough now to reach out and touch her, but I didn’t dare. Instead, I lowered my hands, looking down at her. After a moment, she looked up at me to stare me in the helmet.
“You don’t need to kill him,” I said softly. “You have your whole life in front of you. Join the Wardens with your hands clean of blood. Don’t cross that line. Become the defender to prevent something like this from ever–”
There was a scream of incoherent rage behind me, followed by gurgling. God damn it. I lowered my head, my shoulders slumping. So much for the inspiring pep talk. Somehow, it would ring awfully hollow now.
But the fact that the gurgling continued made me look over my shoulder. A middle-aged man, pudgy, tears streaming down his face, was clinging to the shaft of my halberd. In turn, the spearpoint of the halberd was plunged into the imposter’s chest, enough to collapse the lung without killing him. At least, no faster than the blood loss would.
With a sigh, I turned and marched back towards the two. As soon as the man realized that I was heading straight for him, he let go of the halberd, stumbling away in terror.
“Bad,” I said chidingly as I planted my feet on either side of the halberd. “Bad,” I repeated with more conviction as I pulled it free. “No more suffering than is necessary.” With some degree of effort, I swept the halberd like a broom, and the gurgling stopped.
“No more,” I announced, only realizing that it came out as a scream when it was too late. “Do you all hear me? No more death today! It’s done!” As I stepped away from the body beneath me, I whispered more to myself than anyone else. “No more.”
“J-man,” came John’s voice. “A doorway just opened outside of town. Looks like a full squad.”
And thusly, the other shoe drops. But we’d also prepared for this. Emi appeared next to me, and I unclipped the teleporter from my belt, handing it to her. “Round up, prepare. Back at the inn. Find my gun.”
She nodded quickly, hurrying off. I saw John’s form briefly flying overhead before he landed on the ground. He was getting better, but he was still landing poorly — he was gonna mess up his knees doing that. Good. They’d be ready to go if need be. All that I’d have to do is meet up with them.
As an afterthought, a final act of defiance, I drew a fire pellet from my dispenser and threw it on the corpse without looking. Once upon a time, I would have checked to see if he was religious and given him last rites before giving him a mercy killing. I felt guilty about it now, but if I could have gone back in time, I wouldn’t change a god damn thing.
My back straight, I headed for the gates. As I approached them, I could see John’s handiwork in a mangled, flattened corpse on the ground. I could also see the hole where he’d gone through the wall courtesy of the imposter. He must have used his power to jump onto the wall’s catwalk afterwards. I’d still take it.
I planted my halberd in the ground again before walking up to the gates, grabbing the doors. I had to pull with all of my might, expending the last of the adrenaline coursing through my veins, in order to open them. But that let me see that John had been right. And it let me see their leader.
She only looked to be in her late teens, but I knew that was a lie. Her helmet covered her forehead and cheeks. The gold and sky blue armor was adorned with a skirt and chains, and she was armed with a shield and sickle. For the most part, the armor looked good, reliable, and sturdy. I did find the wings to be a little overkill, though.
I plucked my halberd out of the ground and turned, making my way to meet them with long, purposeful strides. Both myself and the Wardens stopped within a few feet of each other. Some of them were ready for a fight. Some were waiting to see which way the wind blew on this one. The leader was smiling pleasantly at me.
“Jordan,” she said melodically, inclining her head.
“Valkyrie,” I responded, much more gruffly. “I take it that you’re here for the imposter?”
“Indeed. How fortuitous of you to beat us here.”
“Cut the crap,” I snarled. “You made sure that I knew, then waited for me to finish the job before showing up.” I looked to one of the Wardens who was tense, ready to lash out with their power. “By the old rules, these people would have had a hit order on them ten times over. You’d be congratulating me and then sending me on my way.”
“Indeed,” Valkyrie mused. A portal opened, and she reached inside, withdrawing a hefty bag. “Then by the old rules…” The portal closed, and she cradled the bag in both hands, holding it out to me. “May I present you with your payment?”
I regarded her and the bag silently for a moment. I knew that this wasn’t a ploy — if she wanted me dead, she’d summon one of her ghosts and there wouldn’t be a thing that I could do to stop her. As I took the bag, though, feeling the weight of it in my hands… It didn’t feel right to me. The whole situation didn’t feel right, and it was only making me feel worse by the moment.
I tossed the bag back to her, making her scramble to catch it. It was nice to break her out of her ladylike routine for a moment, no matter how brief it was.
“I don’t want your blood money. It goes to the city. Rebuild. Help them. Understand?”
A smile played across her face. “Of course. Perhaps we could talk a bit?”
“I don’t think that’s very wise,” I snapped back at her. It took everything that I had to keep from backhanding her, wiping that smile from her face. “I think I’m going to walk out of this city, you’re going to focus on these people, and recruiting the woman who just triggered. We’re gonna pretend that we never actually saw each other.”
Valkyrie’s smile faded quite a bit, but didn’t disappear entirely. “I really think we have much to discuss.”
“No we don’t.” I turned on my heels and marched back through the gates. I made it all the way back to the inn before I realized that I’d left my rifle back there. Fuck it, I could buy another.
As I approached the inn, the others were waiting for me, just far enough away as to not damage the building.
“What were you going to do if she wanted to fight?” John asked.
“If she wanted to fight,” I said as I took the teleporter back from Emi, “I don’t think any of us would have stood a moment of a chance.”
With that, I pressed the button, and we were gone.