The wagon hit another bump, rocking me painfully.
They’d handcuffed me and hurried me almost a full mile to a wagon in the dark, a gun to my head the entire time. I’d faintly heard John yelling my name at one point, but it had been too faint. They wouldn’t find us.
There had been two of them, with a third at the wagon. The third had only taken the time to remove my belt, knowing just how to press and turn to unlatch it, before loading me up and ordering them to move. It… wasn’t a bad idea, not really. Divest me of what little gear that I had, my belt and my two knives, then continue to put distance between me and my allies. They’d moved slow enough to not make too much noise for a while before kicking it into high gear — decrease the chances of my allies drawing a bead on where I’d gone.
As far as kidnappings went, they were running a fairly efficient operation, all things considered. Despite the hiccups they were suffering… like now.
“I say we fucking cut the armor off.” I could barely make out the woman’s face in the rising light of the morning sun. She had a learn, hard look to her appearance. This was a woman used to fighting, and used to going a while between meals. Not in a desperate way, either — she was more built for stalking, for hunting. A patient predator.
“And run the risk of him bleeding out if the blade slips?” the other man who had been in on the initial kidnapping groused, not bothering to look away from the road. “I’d rather not.” He was a bit heftier, more prone to being muscle. If I had to guess, the woman chased the people they went after into an ambush, and he tended to take them down quick and painful. At least, that’s how I’d do it if I was those two.
“Wouldn’t do any good,” the third said with a weird, tense calmness. “His armor’s designed to handle as much conventional weaponry as possible, and this is an upgrade. Trying to cut through it is worthless.”
Another odd sign from this guy. He’d known about my belt, and now was showing that he knew about my armor. I still couldn’t get a good read on his appearance, though, not from the way that he was hugging the shadows of the wagon. I knew that he was wearing leather armor of some sort, but beyond that, I hadn’t made anything out yet.
“So what?” said the woman. “Are you saying we shouldn’t do anything? Or do you have some idea how to get it off?”
“The only way we’re going to get it off is if he wants it off,” the more knowledgeable of the three said. “Until then, there isn’t much that you can do.”
“Oh, come off,” the other man said. “You could use your power, easy.”
“That’s not what I’m hired for. Besides, unless you want him badly injured, Jordan will be able to twist any use of my power to his advantage. Or would you rather him not have handcuffs on?”
That seemed to give the others food for thought, at least.
“Smart of you,” I said with a slight nod. “Professional.”
“Thank you. I’m a quick study.” That was an interesting response.
“I’m surprised you aren’t tying down my legs and putting a burlap sack over my head.”
“We debated it,” the woman said. Just like the well-informed guy, she wasn’t taking her eyes off of me. “We still might.”
“Threats are useless at this point,” I mused. “I’m coming along peacefully, and you don’t want me resisting.”
“Then how about you ditch the armor?” she shot back.
“And leave myself naked in the sun all day? I’ll pass, thank you.”
“Calm it,” the smart one said to the woman. “Don’t antagonize him. Plus, we need to see where his eyes focus.”
“Please. He ain’t that smart.”
I turned to look at her directly. “The two of you are partners. You do merc work, bounty hunting work… You like taking on people. Showing them what you’re made of. But when you got hired to take me on, you pulled him into the mix. He was extremely specific in what he would and wouldn’t do. He’s willing to leverage his familiarity with my modus operandi against me, but only in specific ways. He’s not willing to risk my wrath.”
Now she was smoldering with quiet, impotent anger. Good.
“You found out that I was in town, recovering from my last battle. Taking me on then and there was a good idea, tempting. But you weren’t willing to risk losing out on the bonus for bringing me in alive, and I’m guessing it’s only gone up lately. So you had to wait for the doctors to finish doing their thing.
“But my friends were hovering over me, you didn’t dare act. Two to one odds, those don’t fly so well. You didn’t dare leave at the same time as us. You didn’t want to attract attention from us, but you didn’t want to attract attention with the locals, either. When we settled down and spent the day there, you came up with the plan. Wait until I separated from the others, probably to relieve myself, and then drag me off. If you could do it at night, or even just twilight, all the better.”
“The bonus ain’t that high,” the driver said. “If I was you, I’d watch your tongue.”
Ah, that tone to his voice said a lot. “You’re right. I apologize. You’re getting tired, and I’m pressing my luck. It has been a long day for all of us, hasn’t it?”
“Next you’ll tell us to go ahead and take a nap.” That woman, so hostile. And they kept directly talking to me, leaving me options to speak. Not very smart. That could seriously get a person into trouble.
“Not a bad idea,” the smart one said evenly.
“What you say?” She snarled at him. “You on his side now?”
“Nope. I’m still waiting on the other half of my pay. The difference between me and you, though, is that while you two were stalking him, I was napping.” He finally looked at her. “If he does anything other than just sit there, I’ll yell. At the very least, you can get a few hours of sleep and we can hit the road fresh again.”
“Fuck you,” she shot back.
“He’s right,” the driver said, pulling the horses to a stop. “I’m literally passing out here. If I don’t get at least forty, preferably a couple of hours, these horses are go on their own. Then what?”
I said nothing, not wanting to piss her off any further. She was already fuming pretty badly over this situation.
But she finally stood and carefully made her way out of the wagon. “Fine. Go ahead and park. But if anything happens–”
“Then my ass is grass,” the smart one said. “Yeah, I get it. Don’t worry about that at all. I might chat him up, but if he so much as twitches the wrong way, I’ll be screaming.”
The driver took the time to pull the wagon off the road, something that I was thankful for. There was an old saying about the road less traveled, but right now I would give anything to go on the road more traveled — what they don’t tell you is that the road less traveled is full of rocks and bumps, and sitting cross-legged with your arms handcuffed behind your back in a wagon is painful after a while under the best of circumstances.
The driver paused to whisper something to the smart one with a grin before grabbing two bedrolls and hopping off. The smart one didn’t even respond, he just kept staring at me intently. It wasn’t a bad stare, at least. It was just the stare of a man who expected me to pull something at any moment.
I did note, at least, that the other two laid down close, but not right next to each other. They’d been working together long enough to trust each other, but weren’t close enough to raise the possibility of romantic attachment. If I had to, that wasn’t going to be an option to use against them.
I was cursed with ten minutes of silence before the smart one spoke quietly. “They think that just taking away your gear and handcuffing you will stop you.”
I smiled a little at him. “I haven’t tried anything yet.”
“Because you’re playing along. What’s your game?”
“Maybe I don’t have one.” I relaxed, closing my eyes. “Maybe I don’t know enough about this contract and want to learn more.”
“Huh.” I heard the guy shift a little where he was seated. “There’s big pressure on delivering you alive now. Family of someone in New Fairfax wants you. Rumor has it, they wanna have words with you before dumping you on the Wardens. That’s why there’s a $5k bonus if you’re alive now.”
That made my eyes open. “That’s… a serious chunk of change.” And that was only the alive bonus.
“Your rep is the only thing keeping every nutjob and idiot from clambering all over you. Only an idiot would go after you right now.” The man shrugged a little. “You’re too dangerous. Taking on Wardens and response teams like it’s nothing, walking away from a city-wide battle where bullets were flying all over the place with only a few cuts, walking through Tinker beams that would liquefy most folks and still being able to take on corrupt Wardens, going up against some mean pieces of work… You’ve got some serious threat to most people, threat that they don’t want focused on them.”
“And here you are, helping people going after me.”
He shrugged again. “I’m here as an advisor only. If you go fists of fury on them, I’m just going to stand by and watch for the most part. I’m not stupid. Not after last time. I’m hoping that you’ll be willing to cut me some slack. Besides, I’m curious.”
“There’s an information war going on, Jordan. Every article about you is either singing your praises, painting you as a guy trying to do some good after a bad situation that we don’t know enough about, or as a psycho with a plan that everyone should stay the fuck away from.
“I see two different sides of you. A nice, friendly guy who is all smiles and concern. Then there’s a ruthless, brutal man who can either take you down with brutal efficiency, or leave you wishing that you’d go unconscious already. I can’t figure out which one is the real you.”
“Who says that they aren’t the same person?” I asked, more to make conversation than anything. He was talking, and I could get information from that. I just had to keep him conversing. “Someone who does want to help, but is willing to use whatever means he feels is appropriate at the time? Someone who is willing to maim and kill if it helps others?”
“Maybe,” he said slowly. “But I think that’s too simple. Nobody is simple. Everyone is more deep and complex than what we see when we first look at them.”
“This is true,” I said with a nod.
But he didn’t take the bait. Instead, he got out his canteen and took a swig. After a moment, he tilted it towards me. I nodded, and he carefully moved to let me take a few precious gulps of water.
As he settled back down, he raised an eyebrow. “You’re an odd one.”
“And you’re a philosopher.”
That got a smirk out of him. “I’ve had about a year to think over the mistakes of my life. Sometimes, one mistake is all you need to change your entire perspective on a lot of things. Especially when it should have ended in your death.”
I nodded a little. “That’s fair.”
He took a slow breath. “You’re a long, long way from where you thought you would be. I’d imagine you’ve had some time to think about your mistakes.”
“Not as much as you’d think. Things have been fairly crazy.”
He snorted, one corner of his mouth raising. “Yeah, I get that. You’ve been a busy guy. I’m surprised that this was the first time you needed a Tinker to help you.”
That told me a lot. “Yeah, well, having internal organs melted does that to you.” I tilted my head. “So, lemmie guess. Those two got word about where I was, hired you, and waited for me?”
The man stared at me for a moment before laughing and nodding. “Close enough. Your friends asked for directions, and someone saw you. Since they knew where you were going, they could set up. By the time that you arrived, though, you were in pretty bad shape. We kind of agreed that it was better to wait for you to heal up. Honestly, we weren’t sure that you’d survive the trip to drop you off.”
“And once you imagine how it would be to be at the top making cash money, it’s hard to toss a bonus like that away rather than wait a week or so.” I nodded slowly. It made sense.
The man regarded me for a moment. “You don’t smile as much as you used to.” I blinked at him. “Oh, you still have that smile, but it isn’t quite a strong, isn’t quite as inviting. Then again, under the circumstances, it makes sense.”
“We know each other.” It wasn’t so much of a statement as a realization. Great. I hated when I bumped into someone who I knew but couldn’t remember in the slightest.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a wave of his hand. “We were never close or anything. Truth be told, we barely knew each other. With everything you’ve been through, too, I’m not surprised. Hell, at this point, I’d wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t even recognize your own sister.”
I lowered my head.
“Ah, struck a nerve, didn’t I?” He honestly sounded sympathetic.
“A lotta guilt there. Lotta pain in general, yeah. Not your fault, though. These days, I try not to think about my family. It’s… easier.”
He nodded a little. “Hurts less.”
“Yeah.” I sucked in a slow breath. “Do you, uh…”
He chuckled softly under his breath. “Yeah. I’ve, uh, I’ve kept track of both of you. So, uh… She’s a full Warden now. She leads her own response team, and not a trainee response team. They’ve already had a few good missions. When they aren’t doing stuff, she’s helping out with training.
“They don’t let reporters near her most of the time, but sometimes they surprise her. Usually, they’re, uh, they’re pretty good about not talking about you. I’ve only seen one reference to you, and her response was a silent glare. Otherwise, she mostly talks about the usual stuff. Very polite, humble. There’s been a quote from others about how she’s on her way up the ranks.”
I smiled a little, looking down at my knees. Well, not at my knees. Beyond them, beyond the wagon, the dirt underneath us. “Good.” My voice was barely a whisper. “I’m glad.”
He seemed content to let us fall into silence, something that I was thankful for. I might have gotten to him, I wasn’t sure. If I was focused on trying to escape, I probably would have said something more to try and hammer at his emotions. It just wasn’t in me, though.
I was simply glad that Sarah wasn’t suffering because of me.
Yet another noise in the darkness made me look up at the woman. “Are you sure that you don’t want to check that? It could be wildlings.”
“Quit trying to scare me,” she snarled. “You got two spoons of soup left, do you want them or not?”
I frowned and opened my mouth, letting her feed me. They didn’t trust me to move at all, but at least they were finally willing to feed me. The soup tasted funny, but at least it was something.
As soon as she finished, she hopped out of the wagon. “I’ll keep my eyes on you, so don’t try anything funny. We’ll secure you down properly for the night here in a little bit.” With that, she moved off to the fire, and her partner slowly lowered his assault rifle.
For the most part, I’d kept quiet during the day, focusing on watching my surroundings and paying attention to my captors. We’d spent most of the day moving, until the horses started to have problems and had to get more than an hour’s rest.
The woman had kept threatening me, playing up the role of nasty psycho, but I could tell that she was running out of steam. It wasn’t exactly who she was, and keeping the act up was starting to tire her. But she thought that the act would keep me cowed, willing to play along with whatever they wanted.
The three of them were now seated by the fire pit a good fifteen feet away from me. That was stupid — with how they were sitting, they had to look across the fire from me. Sure, they could see me, but they wouldn’t be able to see if I did anything small. Shadows would play hell on my motions, and it would also interfere with their night vision. They either should have kept me near the fire with them, or kept someone by me.
No matter. They’d probably tie my legs together, then lash my handcuffs to the wagon. If they were feeling particularly mistrusting, they might lash my legs to it, too. Maybe put a bell or something on my head so that they’d hear if I tried moving or getting loose. That would be smart.
Instead, I relaxed against the wagon, tilting my head back and closing my eyes. I didn’t like this silence. I didn’t like being so unoccupied. Maybe if I could make out what they were whispering to each other, it might give me something to focus on until I had to sleep.
I was just starting to feel a wave of tiredness wash over me, just barely staring to make out the whispers over the crackling of the fire, when I heard a familiar voice whisper behind me.
“Enjoying your vacation?”
My eyes snapped wide open. “Emi?” I whispered as quietly as I could, trying not to move my body.
“Fine. Shoulders hurt, butt hurts. What are you doing here?”
“John got nervous, thinking that there might be wildlings, so he went to check on you. When he realized that you weren’t at the stream, he hurried back and let the rest of us know. Brenda thought you might have run away, trying to keep from getting us in it any deeper, but the rest of us knew better — you wouldn’t leave without your halberd. I brought that, by the way.”
A small bit of tension that I hadn’t even known was there uncurled from my gut. I let my head drop down and gave a loud sigh. It was enough to make the three stir a little, watching me, but they quickly relaxed.
Interesting reaction. I would have been more suspicious.
“How do they got you secured?”
“Handcuffs. Can you reach through and grab the chain?”
It took a moment, but I finally felt her hand doing as I’d requested. Carefully, moving as little as possible, I ran my fingers around the edge of one gauntlet, releasing the seam. Emi caught on quick, adjusting her hand as best as possible to help. As soon as the seam let go, I felt her other hand grab my fingertips and slowly pull the gauntlet off.
I squeezed my hand together. “Pull it off.” Emi moved more slowly than I would have liked, carefully working one side of the handcuffs down, scraping skin. The gauntlets had given my hand an extra click or two of the handcuffs, meaning that it was easier to pull off than it should have been. Even still, my hand was going to sting for a bit as the cuff came free.
“You okay over there?” the smart guy called out.
Damn. I’d been jostling too much. I looked back up. “Maybe?” I called back, a plan forming in my head rather quickly.
Strange. He seemed to accept that without question.
Already, though, Emi was using the glove to work the seams of the other one. Right.
I whispered again. “The one who called out, he’s a non-combatant. Ignore him. Leave my halberd leaning against the wagon.”
“Gotcha,” she whispered as she pulled the gauntlet off. Within moments, my other hand was free, and she was helping me back into the gloves, sealing them again.
As her hand worked around the last one, I looked back over to the three. “Hey, um… You, uh, wanted me out of my armor. I… might need some help.”
“Is that so?” the male bounty hunter called out, sounding amused. “Why’s that?”
“Well… Now that I’ve got some food into me, I think my body’s, uh, it’s decided that I kinda need to… You know.”
“Ha!” The woman slapped the smart one’s shoulder, sounding so very smug. “What I tell you, Armando? Worked like a charm.”
Wait… They gave me a diuretic, or some sort of laxative in that soup, hadn’t they? And they thought that it was already taking effect? I’d need at least ten more minutes before it worked. If they worked at all — as people were fond of reminding me, my biology wasn’t exactly normal any more.
At least the smart one, Armando, seemed to be even more concerned now, sitting up straighter and lowering his head slightly.
But the man was already getting to his feet, wandering over with a bit of a swagger to his step. He was proud of himself.
As the guy got close to the wagon, I sighed softly. “Your lady friend by the fire is too pleased with herself, and I’m more than ready.”
“Keep your pants on,” he said as he reached it.
“That’s… the opposite of what I’m requesting. I’m set to explode.”
He climbed up inside, and I waited for him to stand over me, standing with my legs between both of his. Fool. “Alright, no funny business.”
I smiled at him as he began to bend over, probably eager to grab me and haul me up. “I’m good to go.”
I kicked one leg up so that my knee caught him right between his legs. Even as he began to clench, my arms snapped up to box his ears, grip his hair, and yank so that his face came crashing down into the crown of my head.
As I hauled his head back, I heard a gunshot, heard the wizz of a bullet past us. But I also heard both ends of Emi’s teleportation, so I stopped worrying. I pulled again on his head with all my might, not towards my own this time, but to the walls of the wagon. His head impacted with enough force that I heard the wood give a crack of complaint, and the fight was out of him. He wasn’t unconscious, not by a longshot, but he had more pain to worry about than fight.
Unfortunately, I also heard a series of roars. So much for Emi being the sole source of those noises. I warned them, I honestly had!
It took less effort than I anticipated to get my feet under me and vault the wagon — thankfully, Emi had left my halberd like I’d told her to, and she’d left it blade down. Smart girl. I grabbed the shaft and took a step forward, seeing three beasts charging towards me, with dim awareness of more heading towards the others.
I whipped my halberd three times, stepping back each time, and the three went down easily. More easily than I’d expected — there had been the resistance of their bone, but it hadn’t proven to be as much of an impediment as before. I was stronger than the last time I’d fought wildlings.
I heard a horse scream and whipped around. Fortunately, I could already see Emi with that assault rifle. She tore off a short burst that resulted in a gurgle — I hoped that was a wildling and not a horse.
But I could also see a man running for me, almost on top of me now. By instinct, I kicked, hitting him square in the groin with the heel of my foot. With his forward momentum, it made the connection that much worse, sending him onto his back and curling instantly into a ball.
Wait. That had been the smart guy, I realized. As Emi fired off another three sets of bursts, each resulting in howls from wildlings, I came to the conclusion that he’d been heading this way to help, not to fight. Oops.
No time. I moved for the horses, finding one on the ground, and the other panicked, trying desperately to flee from where it had been tied up. I barely made it around the wagon when another wildling leaped for me. I stopped dead in my tracks, and it went flying past, nowhere near connecting. One slash with my halberd severed both hind legs, while another bisected it nicely.
Quickly, I scanned the battlefield. With how dark it was, and how my eyes were adjusted to staring towards the fire, I couldn’t be sure that the field was empty. But I could hope.
“Partner,” I barked. “The ones you shot, make sure they’re dead!”
Good, one less thing to worry about. I hurried back to the wagon and jumped inside. The merc inside looked up at me before wincing again, expecting more punishment. That worked for me.
I grabbed him by his shirt and forced him onto his back. “My knives!”
“B-by the fire!”
I heard Emi squeeze off another burst — it must have been set to three round bursts, and she didn’t know how to adjust the setting.
“Who issued the price on my head?”
“Wh-what?” he asked, confused.
Emi fired again.
“Name, motherfucker! I want the name of the woman who put out the contract on me!”
“Veronica Cagle,” he made out. “She’s in New Brockton!”
“Alright.” I let go of his shirt and stood up straight. “At this point, you’re done. I could kill you right now if I wanted to, but I’m sick and tired of this. No more fighting tonight. You give up on me, and find someone else to hunt. You got that?”
“I let you three live, and you let me be in peace, deal?”
“Deal. Honest, I swear!”
I turned to look to where the woman was laying by the fire. I’d deal with her in a second. I hopped down, moving to where the smart one whose name I’d already forgotten was laying, still curled into a ball. Hesitantly, I knelt to pat him on the shoulder. “Sorry, man. I, uh… Blood was hot, saw someone running towards me, and, uh… Yeah. Sorry.”
He didn’t respond. Hell, I wasn’t sure if he could even hear me right now. I gave his shoulder another pat as I heard Emi fire again. Good. I used my halberd to help myself to my feet, my limbs still stiff from going so long in awkward positions. As Emi made sure the last one was dispatched, I moved to the woman.
Out cold, a pistol still in her hand. I wasn’t sure what Emi had done, but I wasn’t sure that I cared right now. I found my gear, got my belt on and my knives holstered. As I straightened, I saw Emi hurrying back to me.
“I’d rather not take their weapons,” I confessed. “But it’s a long walk back.”
“I brought the teleporter,” she said, tapping it on her belt. As an afterthought, she set the rifle down. “We can teleport back to the others any time. I have the coordinates already entered.”
I nodded and, with a jerk of my head for her to follow me, headed back for one of the wildlings that I’d killed, the one that I’d split the head in two. I paused just long enough to grab it by its hind legs before walking further. Once we were safely clear of the wagon, I gave Emi another nod.
She looked down, flipped up the cover, and hit the button.
Immediately, we were in front of another campfire. John bounced to his feet, grinning from ear to ear. “It’s good to have you two back!”
“And with food,” I said, dropping the wildling leg.
“We’ve had fish,” Kathy said. “Thanks to Brenda. But I’ll gladly take some meat, if someone wouldn’t mind gutting it.”
It was so strange. They were casual, as if Emi and I had only stepped away for a few minutes or something. Brenda was having the biggest reaction of the three, sitting up straight and grinning from ear to ear, one eye peeking out from her headband.
This felt… strangely right. I couldn’t help but smile a little.
“I, uh… I gotta go throw up before i can do that. Nothing bad, I just don’t wanna crap myself later. Long story. But after that, I’ll gladly butcher it and start roasting it.”
“Good!” John dusted his hands off on his sleeve. “Because I’d love to hear what happened.”