Interlude 7.C

Amaia tried once again to not pay the child any heed.  She wasn’t good with kids.  She didn’t even like kids.  She was fairly certain that her own children, if she ever had them, would be miserable under her care.  She wasn’t a happy, joyful, pleasant person.  Children should sense that and stay out of her way.

So why, in the name of everything good and holy, was the little girl clinging to her hand?

It wasn’t even like the little girl had the common sense to grab her left hand.  No, she had to be gripping her right hand.  Amaia’s sword hand, her shooting hand.  If they got attacked by wildlings, she’d have to shake the girl off to properly deal with the threat.

Beth was peaceful, if quiet.  Kids usually picked up on her serenity and flocked to her.  Solly, she was helping with the little girl’s broken arm with her power.  She was good with kids, too.  But no, the child was clinging to Amaia’s hand with her good one, doing her best to crush it.

She glanced down at the child, who immediately smiled up at her.  What a bother.  Amaia’s lips pressed together and she looked ahead again.  This mission had been too long already.

Fortunately, as they began to round the bend, they saw the bridge leading to the village.  Thank goodness!  Amaia turned to Solly.  “I believe it’s time.”

Solly nodded, pausing for a moment to get her traveling pack off of her shoulders.  Amaia dimly recalled how people wanted to look back before Gold Morning; tall, svelte, with mildly angular features, blonde, and with long limbs.

Solly had none of that.  She was short, meaty without being rotund, with short hair that was always threatening to go wild.  Her nose was crooked, and she had a small, fuzzy birthmark on her jawline.  And yet, as she approached the little girl, the child’s eyes lit up like she was being approached by a model.

“Alright, Katla, we’re going to take care of your arm.  Okay?”

The girl let go of Amaia’s hand to clutch the arm bound by Solly’s power.  “But you already did.”

“Yeah,” Solly said slowly.  “But I need to be nearby for it to work right.  We’re almost home, and then–”

“No!” the girl shrieked, spinning and latching herself onto Amai’s leg with a death grip.  From the corner of her eye, she could see her twin sister’s hand going to her mouth, hiding a silent giggle.  “You aren’t leaving!”

Solly glanced up at Amaia.  Right.  Fine.

“Katla,” Amaia said firmly, drawing the girl’s eyes upward.  “Don’t you want to be with your parents?”

“Yeah,” the girl said, almost shyly.  “But you can stay with us!”

Amaia held up her hand, indicating that Katla should stop.  “Yes, we could.  But what about all the other children who need our help?”  The girl frowned a little.  “Think about how scared you were.  Those others are just as scared, and they need someone to help them.”

Amaia lowered herself onto one knee so that she could look the girl in the eyes better.  “They are praying for someone to help them.  Calling out into the night with their hearts, just wanting to go home.  Now, you aren’t a girl who is selfish, are you?”

Katla shook her head slowly, a deep frown on her face.

“Precisely.  You have been so brave, too.  Now, would you want to live your entire life knowing that those other children were never rescued?”

“No,” the girl said, looking at the ground with a pout.  “But I don’t want you to go.”

Amaia wasn’t heartless.  She might not like children, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t be affected by them.  Indeed, they could strike her more deeply than most adults.  Even annoying ones who insisted on clinging to her sword hand.

Tenderly, she reached out to pet the child’s hair.  “Oh, sweet Katla.  You see us leaving as an end.  Goodbyes aren’t an end, though.  They’re a chance to grow, and learn.  A chance to make the reunion that much sweeter.”

Katla looked back up, her dark eyes watering with hope.  “You’ll come back?”

Amaia nodded slowly.  “It may not be for a long time, but we will meet again some day.  And when we do, I want to see how you have changed for the better.  I want you to be able to tell me about how you have become a good person since the last time that I saw you.”

Katla frowned a little.  “I’m not always good, though.”

“Nobody is a good person all the time, child.  We all think things that are wrong, or do things without thinking.  Sometimes, we delude ourselves into thinking that the wrong thing is the right thing.  But you can try.  You can strive to do the right thing.  And should you fall, there is nothing wrong with that, so long as you continue to try to make amends, and always strive to be better.”

Amaia’s gloved thumb stroked the child’s cheek.  “No tears.  You are a brave, strong girl, and you can get through this.  Alright?”

The girl nodded slowly.  She hadn’t started to cry yet, but she’d been close.  “Aright.  Just…  Just promise me that we’ll meet again.”

Amaia’s hand moved to her breast, her back straightening.  “I do hereby promise that some day, no matter how distant, that we three will meet again.  This I swear, on the grave of my parents, and on my very soul.”

Katla hesitated before nodding.  Slowly, she moved over to Solly and held out her arm.  “Will it hurt?”

“In a matter of days, it will throb.”  Solly smiled sweetly at the little girl.  “However, the worst is behind you.  You will not hurt anything like back then.”

She produced two fire-hardened sticks and held them out.  The prismatic strands that were wrapped around Katla’s arm reached out to wrap around the sticks, pulling them inside.  With that, she retrieved two large bundles of bandages from one of the many pouches on her pack.

Amaia watched as Solly activated her power again.  More prismatic strands formed at her fingertips, weaving together to carry the bundles through the air and to the young girl’s arm.  Once again, the bandages disappeared within the glowing strands around the girl’s arm, even as new strands began to wrap around it.

Solly’s power was more useful in everyday life that Amaia’s or Beth’s.  Not only could she use those strands to move things, weaving them together to carry heavier loads, but she could also use them to bind people in place.  It was testing around with that when they learned about the other aspect to her power.

At first, it was simple — those bound found themselves going numb, but not in a tingling way.  Feeling was slowly sapped out of them.  And if people were completely cocooned, they would have to fight to retain consciousness.  Testing with that revealed that her power could either aggravate wounds while they were bound, or help to heal them more quickly.  It wasn’t a true healing, but for the week that they had traveled with Katla, she would probably only need another week before her arm was fully healed.

The fact that the filaments could be used to suture the wounds was only a bonus — both Amaia and Beth had a couple of mild cuts and scrapes bound, though they probably didn’t need it at this point.

Katla frowned, twisting her arm this way and that.  “It feels weird.  I don’t like it.”

Solly chuckled softly under her breath.  “In a week’s time, you can remove the brace.  Your arm should be as good as it ever was.  Until then, though, you’ll need to keep it on.”

That didn’t ease Katla’s mind at all, gauging by how she slowly moved over to Amaia, taking her hand again.  Kids.

Amaia suppressed a sigh as she began to lead the way again.  Beth’s smile had turned serene again.  Amaia tried to put her irritation out of her mind — her twin wasn’t trying to get on her nerves, so there wasn’t any point in allowing it to aggravate her.  Instead, she focused on going over the bridge, and to the quickly approaching gates.

The four of them entered the village to cheers from the guards, Katla waving and smiling cheerfully to them.  They only got halfway to the smallest store in the village before a bearded man came sprinting out, a hand on his yarmulke to keep it from flying off.  Katla let go of Amaia’s hand, running to her father.

As the two half-collided, half-embraced, Amaia’s face relaxed a little.  She wasn’t one for smiling, but she always found these moments beautiful.  If there were no other reasons to do these, then watching moments like these would be good enough for her.  Seeing people reunited like this, a daughter returned to her family’s loving embrace, was a beautiful sight to behold.

After a few minutes, the man looked up to the three warrior, tears flowing from his eyes.  “I don’t know how I can thank you.  After they ran off with the ransom money, I…”

Amaia lifted her hand to halt him.  “It was a pleasure.  We wouldn’t sit by and allow that sort of thing to happen.  Please, just appreciate having your daughter back.”

A new man stepped into view behind the shop owner.  A familiar face, one that made her heart sink a little bit.   But he smiled and nodded before stepping away again.  At least he would give the family the time that they needed.

But there were other things to address.  Amaia looked to Katla.  “Young one.  We must take our leave now.”

“Noooo.”  The girl pouted deeply enough that Amaia felt a small stab in her heart.  She might not like children, but she was still human.

“Now, now.  Remember my promise to you.”  She stared until the girl nodded.  Good.  Now she could address the other concern.  “Sir.  I know that we are of… differing faiths, so I feel that it’s only appropriate that I ask: may we pray for the well-being of your family?”

The man looked confused for a long moment, but he gave a nod.  “I…  If you…  Yeah, you can.”

Amaia closed her eyes and bowed her head, tilting it slightly in the process.  Her own silent thanks.

Solly spent a minute explaining the injuries that Katla had received and how to care for them before the trio departed.  Fanfare wasn’t unnecessary, and the three preferred to leave as quickly as possible.  Praise was unwanted, thanks unnecessary, and payment unwarranted.  There was no point in staying longer than necessary.

As they stepped through the gates, she focused her mind.

Her footstepes echoed through the ruined chapel as she made the slow march towards the altar.  Rain poured freely through the many holes in the roof, through the ruined portions of the walls, through the shattered stained glass windows.  Even still, there were candles lit, providing some degree of illumination.

Were this reality, she would assume that the candles had been lit by the only other individual here.  Passing by shattered pews, she approached the only half-decent pew where he had made his seat.  He was half naked, festering wounds covering his flesh.  He didn’t acknowledge her approach, instead seeming content to slowly run individual beads of his rosary between his fingers.

Not that Nexus would do that in real life.  At best, one could consider him agnostic.  At best.

Amaia settled on the bench next to him, looking up to the ruined cross.  Why this setting this time?  It was always a different setting, but why this one?  “It is done.”

“I was worried,” he mused quietly, not bothering to open his eyes.

“The teleporter’s battery would have been too depleted to teleport back had we not traveled on foot.”

Nexus barely nodded.  “I see.  Is the lamb safe?”

“A broken arm seems to be the worst of it.”  The corners of his mouth barely moved upwards.  “However, I couldn’t help but notice Carl there.  In fact, he made himself known to me.”

“The family put much of their own finances into the ransom.  I don’t suppose that you found the money?”

“No.”

The hint of a smile disappeared.  “I was afraid of that.  Carl will deal with them, offer them an investment as a silent partner.  I’ll see to it that their stock is replenished, and that they receive goods which will cannot be gained by their local competitors.  In this, they will flourish.  In this, the community will flourish.”

Amaia raised a slow eyebrow.  “And in return, you will receive a portion of their profits.”

“As well as a profit from moving the stock of others that I have invested in, yes.  In this, others will flourish as well.”

That was the thing with Nexus.  He rarely did anything for a singular purpose.  He was constantly finding other angles to work things.  However, he was fair, and his vision was not completely without merit.  Otherwise, Amaia wouldn’t waste her time with him.

“So be it,” Amaia said softly.

“Please be out of sight of the village before you teleport, and please come directly back to me.  I require your guidance on a matter.”

She nodded once, and then closed the connection.

Amaia needed only the briefest of moments, a few heartbeats, before addressing her companions.  “We’ll move a ways away, and then into the forest before teleporting out.”

Solly looked at her curiously.  “Is everything alright?”

“It’s fine.  Nexus has requested our assistance in a matter when we return.”

That only made Solly frown even more deeply.  “I don’t want to sound selfish, but I’m going to need some time to rest before we head back out.”

“Don’t worry,” Amaia said firmly.  “We all need our rest, and we will have it.”

“Alright.”  She paused a moment.  “Amaia, since we have a little bit, do you mind if we talk?”

“Of course.  What’s on your mind?”

Solly hesitated, and when she spoke, she chose her words carefully.  “I was reading the other night, and something that I read bothered me.  Our armor is metal, leather, and cotton…”

Ah, Amaia could see where this was going already.  “Leviticus 19:19?”  Solly nodded.  This was going to be a difficult one for her to grasp.  In fact, throughout history, much strife had been caused between the changing of times and the two Testaments.

It had apparently been worse when Scion and paras first started to appear on Earth.  To say that it had caused debates would be an understatement.  Almost all religions had undergone strife due to the appearance of paras.  Many suffered fractures.

Gold Morning had caused even further fractures.  People were torn on what to believe, and many groups were founded in the days after the fact.  Too many cults, lead by charismatic individuals offering desperate people something to believe in.  So many had twisted, selfish beliefs, but there were more than a few who had tried to do good.

Amaia and Beth were lucky, though.  Their parents had been deeply religious, but were willing to talk, debate, and consider their faith.  Sometimes, their beliefs would change based on some personal revelation.  They’d taught both girls to view religion in the same way, and while Beth didn’t voice her opinions now, sometimes she could communicate through expressions what she believed while Amaia was talking.

That was what had lead them to the defense of others, in the end.  After they triggered, they believed that the Lord had granted them the means to help others.  Eventually, they had met Solly, who decided to join them and join in their version of faith.

It’s not like they actively tried to convert people.  Instead, they simply tried to show their faith through example.  Solly had liked that example and joined them, understanding that they didn’t follow a particular church, but had formed their own version of Christianity.

“Many covenants were made in the Old Testament.  Many things were asked of humanity, so that we might flourish.  However, it was easy for one to find that they could not obey all of these, for a variety of reasons.  Ignorance, being placed in a difficult situation where adherence was not possible, a momentary lapse of judgement, a change in the times or situation…  The reasons are many.

“It was for this reason that the Lord was born to Earth, that he was sacrificed on the cross.  Humanity no longer needed such strict governance, and so it was through him that we might be forgiven for our tresspasses, and be freed from the covenants of yore.  This was the establishment of a new Covenant.  So long as we accept the Lord into our hearts, and try to live by His example, we will find our place in the hereafter.”

Solly remained silent for a long moment before nodding.  “Alright.  So what about the rules of the Old Covenant, then?”

“We look upon those and follow them when appropriate.  The Ten Commandments are still to be followed, but as the world has changed so much, so must we if we are to survive in it.  We must also always keep the Old Testament in mind, as it gives context to the New Testament.”

“I’m going to have to think about that one,” Solly said carefully.  “That’s a lot to digest.”

“Do so.  Think on it, and reach your own conclusions.  Then, we will discuss those conclusions.  Perhaps you will give us insight that we didn’t have before.”  It wasn’t like either Amaia or Beth had all the answers.  Even within their own belief, they didn’t.  But they did have faith, and often, that was good enough.

Beth laid a gentle hand on Solly’s shoulder, giving her that same serene smile.  It was easy for most people to forget about Beth — she was so quiet these days.  Amaia was pretty sure that Beth had only said forty words all year at this point.  Amaia had long since given up on figuring out why her sister was so silent, but it really didn’t matter.  In a way, her serenity was helpful in keeping Amaia’s own balance in a perilous world.

They diverted into the woods, and it wasn’t long before they found an appropriate spot.  The three of them turned to face each other, clasping their hands and bowing their heads.

“Lord, please watch over this village.  Help them to find the peace and serenity needed to thrive in this world.  Help their harvests be bountiful.  Help their children to grow up strong and able.  Look after them, care for them, and ensure their future.  Please look over Katla and her family.  They have suffered greatly, and deserve respite.  With Your grace, please help to ensure that Katla and I might meet again, either in this world or the hereafter.

“Thank you for guiding us to Katla.  Thank you for guiding our hands, preventing her from meeting further harm and distress.  Thank you for preventing us from meeting difficulties in our return, and that her family was safe.  In all things, thank you.

“Amen.”

“Amen.”

Amaia looked up just in time to see her sister mouthing the word.

With the prayers out of the way, she turned her attention to the teleporter, setting the coordinates.  The battery was awfully low.  She tacked on a silent, mental prayer that God would help the device allow them to reach their destination safely before pressing the button.

They appeared in the fenced-in area behind Nexus’ primary base.  Amaia breathed a sigh of relief and glanced down at the teleporter — only 2% remaining.  Her lips pressed together, but didn’t have time to think on it; Solly had already pushed ahead, opening the door and leaving Amaia and Beth to catch up.

The three of them moved through the storage area and into the main lounge, making Peter, Louise and Xavier look up.  Xavier found his way to his feet quickly, hurrying over.  “Ladies!  It’s good to have you back!  How did it go?”

“Katla is back with her family,” Solly said with a wide grin.

“Awesome!  Nobody got hurt?”

“Minor scrapes and bruises,” Amaia said.  “The girl’s arm was broken before we got there, and had already started to set wrong.  We had to break it again to repair the damage.”

Xavier frowned softly.  “Um, I…  I know that, uh, that you ladies aren’t–”

“We had to use lethal force to rescue her,” Amaia said flatly, and Xavier relaxed visibly.  “It is regrettable that they died rather than face justice, but I doubt that the courts would have been kind to them, either.”

Xavier nodded eagerly.  “I get that.  Um…  Want us to take your weapons, make sure that they get a proper cleaning?”

Beth was already handing over her two machine guns.  Amaia and Solly’s guns were traditional and could be cleaned in the field, but Beth’s were Tinker-made, ensuring that they would always have bullets to fire.  Whenever they returned, they always had to be checked by a Tinker.

Amaia handed over her sword and rifle to Louise before unclipping the teleporter.  “We were worried that we wouldn’t make it back.  Teleporting seems to be using more of the battery than it used to.”

Louise nodded, moving the weapons between her hands so that she could take the teleporter.  “I’ll make sure to have it looked at for you.  I’m thinking maybe we should have it looked at after every mission or two, what do you think?”

“I think that’s wise,” Amaia said.  Tinker devices were beyond her, so she was perfectly willing to follow someone else’s advice on this.  “Where is Nexus?”

“Downstairs,” Peter said, nodding towards the door down.  “He’s been waiting for you.”

“Thank you.”

The three of them made their way down the stairs.  Most people would have expected Nexus to live in the lap of luxury, and while the main lounge was rather nice, that was for entertaining guests and making an impression.  The lower levels of the building were…  Well, unadorned would be too strong of a word, but Nexus put little to no effort into enjoying his wealth.

They didn’t get far into the first basement before Thelma found them.  Quickly, the woman hugged Beth tight before doing the same to Solly and Amaia.  She was a pretty woman, pretty enough that most people mistook her for Nexus’ secretary… which was exactly the point.  The burly guy was the secretary, and meanwhile the smaller, more unassuming woman was the one who could break every bone in your body.

“We’ve been worried,” Thelma said, looking between them.  “Is everything alright?”

“Everything’s fine,” Solly said warmly.

“He didn’t tell you?” Amaia asked.

Thelma shook her head.  “No, a lot’s been happening in short order.  Come on, walk and talk.”

She began leading the three through the facility.  “We got a strong lead and a lot of evidence on Warden corruption in Bradford.  A Tinker was using them to bleed the town dry.”

“Any signs of Teacher’s handiwork?” Amaia asked carefully, dreading the response.

Thelma nodded once.  “Yup.  He was going to combine you three with Clint and his boys to try and mop everything up.  But then Jordan of all people dropped in our laps.”

Amaia’s eyes went wide.  “Nexus is dealing with Jordan?”

“Relax,” Thelma said.  “He’s like a puppy.  Just, uh, a puppy armed with a railgun or something.  The point is, he’s not a problem.  And he took care of Bradford for us.  We paid extra, but Nexus thinks it’s worth it for nobody but the Tinker getting hurt.”

“How bad?” Solly asked curiously.

“All four limbs broken, but other than that, not bad.  Thing is, though, that we think we’ve got some good intel on what Teacher was up to.  Nexus’ contacts in the Wardens have been passing it along.  Duane’s been working on organizing all of it.”

Unsurprising.  Nexus would be obsessing now.  They passed a bank of the communicators, manned by people communicating with Nexus’ agents.  Someone, a new person, was running around delivering water to all of them.

Nexus was a drug lord, perhaps the biggest supplier of narcotics to North America.  Any North America.  He claimed that it was merely a means to an end, a necessary evil to fund his grand operations.  Were it anybody else, Amaia would have her doubts.  After seeing the extent of his operations, though, she was willing believe it.

Thelma lead the way to what was commonly referred to as the board room.  As they stepped inside, they found only a couple of people hard at work on sorting information, while Nexus frantically marked notes on a chalkboard.  Half of the walls were chalkboards, while the other half were corkboards, notes stuck on it in an indecipherable pattern.

Nexus turned, and instantly his eyes lit up.  He didn’t bother to hide the fact that he had more than a mild crush on Amaia, something which she tried to tolerate.  He was good looking enough, and he carried a sort of anima that wasn’t unpleasing.  Were he anybody else, she might actually be receptive to his advances.

She could forgive the sinner, but she could not forgive the sin.  And he continued to sin willingly.

“You’re okay,” he said with a smile.  He took a slow breath, focusing.  “How, uh, how bad was young Katla hurt?  You mentioned that she was hurt…”

“A broken arm,” Solly said.  “She should be healed within a week.”

“And the deal with the family?” Amaia asked.

Nexus looked at her like she’d just grown a second head.  “Amaia, please.  We aren’t even going to approach him about investing until tomorrow at the very earliest.  We have some degree of, of decorum!  Let them have their time together again.  Sheesh!”

Nexus set his chalk down, grabbing a rag and wiping off his hands.  “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to step away with our fair church militant.”

“Before you go,” one of the staff said quickly.  “I can’t find the passcode to our agent in Clarksville.”

“Oh, uh…”  Nexus frowned a little, tapping his middle finger and thumb together as he thought.  After a moment, he snapped and smiled.  “One five seven two eight, query.  Keep repeating until you get a response.  You may have to say query a few more times, too.”

The woman jotted it down as Nexus motioned to the three of them to follow him, heading for the stairs to the lower levels.

“Are you still working on scaling back your empire?” Solly asked.

Nexus nodded slowly.  “Last month I was able to disband another group of cookers, sending them to other tasks.  They aren’t… good people, not really, but they’re behaving.  For now.  I’ll keep a close eye on them, and if they betray my trust, I’ll see to it that the authorities get their mitts on them.

“Unfortunately, I still don’t have enough legitimate money coming in to disband the entire thing.”  He sighed softly, shaking his head.  “It’s one of the reasons why I have so many deals being set up.  If I can make enough…”

He shrugged, letting the words fall short.

Most people would think that the three of them shouldn’t work with Nexus.  He was a criminal, after all.  However, Amaia found that the things that he wanted them to do were worth it.  Hunting students, preferably capturing them alive; saving people from those who would prey on them; defending areas that would otherwise not have anyone to protect them…  These were righteous things, and while Nexus frequently had something to gain from it, he was honest about it.

He may not be sure about the existence of God, but he was supportive.  Even without his… crush towards her, she believed that he did have a deep-rooted desire to make the world a better place in the end.  Sometimes, that desire was all that a person could hope for.

Amaia believed him when he said that he was trying to pull out of the drug trade.  She’d seen his reaction to junkies — disdain, depression, and guilt.  It was one thing to act guilty, but another to try and hide those feelings.

For now, though, she had other things on her mind.  “Jordan.”

Nexus flashed her a half-grin.  “Oh, he’s a right piece of work in all the best ways.  You’d love him, Amaia.  Oh…”  He laughed.  “He’s everything that I imagined.  If we could pull him away from the group he’s thrown in with…  Ah, well.  They’re looking out for him, at least.”

“He’s a murderer,” she said flatly.

“And what you do could be viewed as murder in the right light.”  Nexus raised an eyebrow as they walked down another corridor.  “It’s all about perception, and the Wardens are trying their hardest to do paint him as the next Jack Slash, but…  I don’t know, it feels odd, and there’s quite a few Wardens who aren’t sure if they buy it.

“It’s a very complicated situation, Amaia.  I don’t think that anyone has the full story, either.  But I believe that he’s innocent of many of the crimes he’s accused of.  Besides, I’d rather try and focus him on the people who need taken down than have him blindly lashing out at the people who may have wronged him.  It’s…  Well, like I said, it’s complicated, and I need to wait for the videos before I go too far into details.

“Besides!”  He flashed the three a wide smile as he approached a door.  “I have a gift for you!”  With that, he opened the door and stepped inside.

What was inside made Beth gasp.  Even Amaia had to admit that she was a little surprised by it — three suits of proper plate armor, gilded in what appeared to be silver and gold.  Very well gilded at that; it was far too fine for the three of them.

Amaia could see the bird motif on the one on the left, marking it as Beth’s.  The one on the right had what appeared to be a variation of the Maltese cross.  That, along with the heftier shape, marked it as Solly’s.  Naturally, he would make Amaia’s the one in the middle.

She approached it hesitantly, looking it over carefully.  It… was beautiful, she had to admit.  Etched into various places were script, but she couldn’t read it.  The shape, the gold and silver, it drew the eye.  Slowly she turned to look at Nexus, struck speechless.

He flashed her a hesitant smile.  “I know, I know, it’s ostentatious, but I only gave the maker some direction as to who you three were, your powers and personality.  I, uh…”  He took a hesitant breath before hurrying over to the armor, pointing to the script.  “These are apparently passages from the Bible in Latin.  I, uh…  Latin isn’t my thing.  I’ve always kinda wanted to learn, but I just don’t have the time.”

“Who?” Solly asked, looking over to him.  “Who made this?”

“I…  I shouldn’t say…”  Amaia flashed him a glare, and Nexus winced.  “Je–”

He caught himself, biting his lips and wincing again.  He remained silent for a long moment, holding that pose.  Oddly, Amaia could appreciate that.  Most people took the Lord’s name in vain, but at least he was trying around them.  Nobody was perfect, but the effort to overcome ones flaws was a commendable act.

“Valkyrie,” Nexs said at last.  “Clint did something for her recently, and, uh…  Sometimes she does undercover work, and she comes to me to set certain things up for her.  You know, so that it doesn’t have links to the Wardens.  She offered repayment for all of that, and I know that she has some wicked awesome armor, so…”  He shrugged.

“It…”  Amaia chose her words carefully.  “I’m not sure that we can accept it.”  Beth flashed her a hurt look.  “It may be too much for us.”

“Bull!” Nexus said, a hand going to his hip.  “That’s a load of crock.  I don’t even pay you, the least that I can do is…”

He waved his hand suddenly.  “We can discuss it later.  The videos are ready, and I want you three there.  Please, join me.”

The three of them exchanged a glance.  It was an odd request, but finally Amaia motioned for him to lead the way.

Besides, it gave them an excuse to avoid a potential argument.  He did pay them — he ensured that they had room, board, that their gear was properly maintained, and that they were well-supplied.  They didn’t need money with those things taken care of.  It wasn’t a vow of poverty, it was a desire to lead a simple life, free from distractions that might cause sin.

As he lead the way, Nexus snapped his fingers.  “Right, that reminds me.  There’s a, uh, a medic in the Dragon’s Teeth, posted in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by atheists.  He’s not having, y’know, a crisis of faith or anything, but…  If you all get the time, I’d kinda like you to talk to him.  Let him know that it’s alright to believe when people around him don’t.”

“And you care because?”  Nexus had never asked them anything like that before.  Amaia couldn’t help but feel curious.

He shrugged a shoulder.  “Because he’s a good guy?  I’ve got an agent there, and he says that the poor guy’s sliding into some deep depression.  I just thought…  I dunno.  That you all might like the opportunity to help someone that doesn’t involve fighting.  It’d be good for you, and great for him.”

He made a good point.  “We’ll see,” Amaia said slowly.  “We need time to rest before we make any decisions like that.”

“Of course, right, right.  I gotcha.”

Nexus lead the way into a room filled with monitors, a couple of people hunched over terminals.  Amaia barely remembered television, sitting in front of it watching educational cartoons with Beth before Gold Morning.  She couldn’t even remember what cartoons.  Somehow, the room filled her with discomfort, a sense of pain that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.

Duane, Nexus’ official secretary, looked like he was able to tear people limb from limb.  That… wasn’t quite the truth though.  Amaia was sure that he’d fight if he had to, but he handled a lot of the more technical things for Nexus, organizing information for Nexus that couldn’t be passed along using that power of his.

He looked up at his boss, frowning a little.  “I’m telling you Nex, you aren’t going to like it.”

“I know,” Nexus said gravely, as if his earlier emotions hadn’t existed.  “But I need to see it.  Key it up from the entry.”

What was going on?  Amaia didn’t have time to ask, though, as Duane was already hitting play.

She watched from an awkward angle as a man in strange armor finished climbing down a ladder.  He removed the polarm from his back, taking up a cautious stance.  Jordan.  She couldn’t see his face, or anything about him, but that had to be him.  She crossed her arms over her chest, frowning at the monitor.

After a few steps, he turned back to look up the ladder almost casually.  A moment later, the lights brightened considerably, and he spun around… and fell to the floor.  He was only there a moment, twitching, before he used his halberd to get to his feet.

“What’s going on?” Solly asked quietly.

The man on the screen took a few steps before swinging his weapon at the wall.  Apparently dissatisfied with the results, he began to haul himself forward, as if moving through mud.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Nexus said.  “I’m told that Jordan got stuck in a trap.  I want to see exactly what happened.”

There was a sudden explosion that made Beth jump.  Strange.  A moment later, though, Jordan drew a pistol from his holster with a shaking hand, cradling it like he would a babe.  She could see his shoulders slumping more and more as he fell to his knees.

“Significance?” Nexus asked quietly.

Daune took a breath.  “Agents in Mother’s Hospital say that his revolver was ruined in the Agamemnon fight.  His brother was observed shopping for a replacement before Jordan departed New Brockton.”

Nexus nodded silently, but Amaia frowned a little.  Jordan just lost this fight.  An emotional blow like that, with how much he was already struggling?

But he was already on his feet again, pushing forward.  As Jordan slowly made his way, struggling for every step, Nexus’ face was hard and unreadable, a hand on his chin.  She had to admit, this wasn’t an easy thing to watch, electricity arcing across his body in weird ways, leaving trails behind him with every step that he took.  Each step a little slower, a little harder from the last.

Jordan was dying.  She swallowed, but her mouth felt dry.  This wasn’t something that anyone sane wanted to watch.  The man was practically convusling with pain before their eyes, each step agony for him, and there wasn’t a single thing that anyone could do for him.  Monsters deserved to be killed, but this was simple torture.

The man reached the end of the hall, doing something that she couldn’t see.  Something that set the metal doorway on fire.  She could half-see him summon the strength to hit the door with his polearm, and then collapse on the doorframe.

“Why isn’t he going through?” Nexus asked softly.

“Dead end.”  Duane wasn’t looking at the monitor or anyone around him.  Things were going to get a lot worse.

Jordan pushed himself off the wall, making three tiny steps before falling over, lightning extending from his body through the hallway.  Nexus’ body tightened sharply, his eyes bulging a little.

Jordan laid there, not even thrashing.  For a full minute, they just watched electricity arc from his body in silence.  Finally, the man shifted, and his arms began the agonizingly slow process of pushing himself up onto his knees.  He stayed like that for a few moments before falling backwards, leaving him at an odd angle.  She couldn’t even see him breathing.

Amaia’s hand moved to silently cross herself.  She wasn’t Catholic, but the motion had always been a comforting idea for her.  A way to silently pray for another when you couldn’t form words in your own head.

He’d made a valiant effort, she had to give him that.  Whatever was happening to him, it must have been terrible.

And then the lights dimmed again.  After a moment, Jordan began to get to his feet with agonizing slowness.  No, he wasn’t dead yet, but with how he was moving, she didn’t see that lasting long.

The image paused, and Duane looked up.  “I’m skipping over the bits where he met with the target.  There’s no sound, so there isn’t a point.”

“Why isn’t there sound?” Amaia asked.

Daune shrugged.  “Dunno.  It just wasn’t in the file.  Maybe something wrong with the codec?  I’m not sure, but we were lucky to get this so quickly.”  With that, he turned to advance the video.

Nexus still wasn’t moving, his lips a thin line.  What was going on in his head?  She could only wonder.

The video skipped to an outside view, a large robot approaching a group of people…  No, two groups.  A pair of Wardens and four people in masks, a different color each.  Interesting.

The robot halted, and the chest opened, only for Jordan to virtually fall out of it.  She could see him ripping his helmet off and tossing it to the side.  It looked like he was screaming, but she couldn’t see clearly.  What she could see was him tearing off his clothes, or at least, the upper portion of them.  He looked almost frantic about it.

There was something odd about him, but Amaia couldn’t see it from this angle and distance.

After a moment, though, he grabbed his halberd.  He looked like he was yelling; Amaia would have given anything for sound at this point.  But one at a time, the Wardens slowly laid down on the ground, face down.  Jordan limped over to where one of his people was laying before heading inside the nearby building.  The camera angle changed, giving them a clear view of the man.

“Pause,” Nexus barked in a strange voice, and the image froze, giving them a clear view.

The first thing that Amaia noticed was that what almost reminded her of the whites from fried eggs were running from the man’s eyes.  Then came the fact that one of his eyeballs had turned completely black.  Only then did the skin come into play.

Golden hexagons seemed to steam on his skin, almost as if they were glowing from underneath.  The pattern was more intricate on his head, with other colors visible on the skin of his scalp.  It made him look strange, almost like an alien creature.

Not that the expression helped.  You could slice his head in two and get two completely different expressions.  His mouth was twisted in a furious rage, as if he might rip open your throat with his teeth and keep on walking without any hesitation.  However, once you got above his mouth, there was… nothing.  No rage, no pain, no anything.  It was like he was dead above the nose.

Nexus turned suddenly and marched out faster than she’d ever seen him move before.  She shared a glance to her companions.  Duane didn’t look at any of them as he slowly turned back to his computer.  Solly was crying softly, unable to look away from the monitor, and Beth was staring at Amaia with a horrified expression.

She could only guess what her own expression looked like.

It hit her after a moment, though, that Nexus had wanted them there.  Not so that they could see Jordan in action, though.  Otherwise, he would have insisted on seeing the meeting with the Tinker.  Why?

…For himself.  Amaia turned and hurried out the door, just in time to hear a door down the hall slam.  Her armor was light enough to jog in as she hurried in that direction.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, a loud crash let her know exactly which room Nexus was in.

She opened the door to find a shelf torn from the wall, things strewn everywhere.  Nexus gave a primal howl as he grabbed another one and hauled.  This one, at least, seemed more secure and didn’t budge.

“Nexus,” she whispered, closing the door behind her.

“I swore an oath!” he boomed, tears running down his face.  It wasn’t the pretty crying, either — snot ran from his nose, and his eyes were puffing up already.  “I swore a fucking oath, Amaia!  I promised myself that I’d be better than him!  That I might treat people like muscle, but I’d never treat them like fucking meat!  Para or not, I’d be better to them!  I’d never stoop to his level!  Nobody would ever be meat to me!”

He spun to face her, his expression twisted in furious grief.  “I’ve never, never tortured anyone!  I’ve never asked anyone to be tortured for me!  I’ve always, in everything that I’ve ever fucking done, I’ve always tried to move towards making the world better in the end!

“I got into the drugs because I fucking listened to her!  Because she said that I’d need the fucking money to do any good!  I told myself, I’m not cutting it with anything that will hurt anyone!  And then…  I quit fucking cutting it, just to make absolutely God damn sure!  I used that money to make changes!  To improve things!  People are alive because of that fucking money!  And now…”

His mouth worked, but nothing came out but a sob.  Amaia took a step forward, reaching out, but before she could reach him, he fell to his knees, shoulders slumped.

“I didn’t ask for this,” he moaned.  “I didn’t…  I never…”

Amaia wasn’t the best at comforting people, especially not in such volatile displays of grief.  But she could put her hand on his head as he cried, letting him know that he wasn’t alone.

From this day on, if she ever felt any doubt over his character, she would remember this moment and cast all doubt aside.

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5 thoughts on “Interlude 7.C

  1. Thank you for reading this chapter, and this arc. The next arc begins next week.

    It’s a well-documented fact that those who live through disaster tend to gain renewed faith. To ignore this would be a disservice to all of the other research that I’ve put into Setanta. However, anything dealing with religion is a landmine for an author. You will have those who will react violently if you treat any particular religion as good, and those who will react if you don’t treat their particular sect as good.

    Politics and religion. As a general rule, I avoid writing about both, simply to avoid land mines. But you can’t write about someone so intensely faithful without eventually addressing their faith. Sorry if it comes off a little heavy.

    I’ve mentioned before that I’m an atheist, but I’m supportive of those who are religious. I’m actually envious of them. I’ve never had that kind of faith. I’ve never known what it’s like to believe in something like that. It’s an alien concept to me, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the faiths of characters.

    I also like writing flawed individuals. Amaia has a host of them. Is this because of her faith? No. But she does have them, and I hope that I displayed them well.

    I also wanted to show another side of Nexus in this. He’s much more restrained with Amaia and her group, for reasons that Amaia touched on. I also wanted to show that his operation is far, far larger than what Jordan saw. I think that I accomplished that easily.

    Lastly, I wanted to show that Jordan wasn’t aware of everything that happened to him, and happened to his body. Everything that is shown in Setanta is through the filter of the character. They will see and know things only as they are able to. You have yet to get the full story from anyone. It will be up to you to put certain things together.

    Please take care until next time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought that this read very well, although I am also not strictly religious so I don’t have very strong feelings on it one way or another. I like that Amaia asked for permission before praying for people, because that has honestly always struck me as a kind of rude thing to do without consent.

      I also really like seeing this side of Nexus. He kind of strikes me as what Taylor could have been, had she been dealt a better starting hand. Someone who wants to do the right thing, but is willing to make hard choices to do so. There are also some strong parallels with Accord there, as far as a “villain” who uses criminal activities to fund projects designed to make the world better.

      Seeing him break down at the end is the clincher for that, in my mind. Just like Amaia says, his true character is right there, bawling on the floor because he sent someone out to suffer. Nevermind that we all know Jordan is the kind of stubborn bastard who would force that kind of encounter if he thought it was necessary.

      The description of Jordan on the video was physically painful to read. Everything about it just sounds awful, from the burnt-in patterns to the ruined eye gave me a very visceral reaction. Coupled with the mental trauma that we know Jordan has been suffering and it really is just ridiculous that he was standing for so long. I guess Riley really does do great work.

      One very small note from the first scene: “They only got halfway to the smallest store in the village before a bearded man came sprinting out, a hand on his yamaka to keep it from flying off.”

      Again, I am not religious, but I am pretty sure that the actual spelling is yarmulke instead of yamaka. Just something that popped out at me because the word is so strange.

      All in all, I loved the chapter. It lived up to the very high standard of writing that I’ve come to expect from you. Keep up the great work!

      Like

      • Thank you very much! I’m fixing that error now.

        The asking for permission was something that I rather liked when I came up with it. Amaia comes off as a hard person on the outside, and she spends a lot of time being irritated by people, but she’s also quite considerate and tolerant.

        Errant Vagrant once told me a story about going to a convention, and there was a woman dressed up as a character from Claymore there. A little girl walked up to her and asked “Can I have a hug?” The woman quite sternly explained that her organization didn’t do hugs, before handing the sword over to someone else and hugging the girl.

        That’s Amaia in a nutshell to me.

        This is more of the Nexus that I originally envisioned. I wanted someone who can make the hard decisions, but carries that weight. He’s justified his actions for so long, but they still haunt him. He tries to distract himself by growing passionate about people who remind him that the high road is still possible — Jordan, Amaia, Clint, Legend, etc. But when his decisions catch up with him, he can be volatile. And he can get more volatile than even this — you don’t get to his position in a criminal empire without bumping a few people off.

        His silliness is lessened here, but there’s still hints. Had I told the story from, say, Beth’s perspective, it would have been highlighted a little more. Thelma or Duane would attest to the fact that for every ounce of seriousness he has, he’s a funny guy, too. Thelma, though, would point out that his silliness helps fight the pain.

        Like

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