The robes were quickly becoming second nature to me, and I was getting used to the hood obscuring the edges of my vision as we would leave town. Still, this would be one of the last times that I’d be leaving town fully kitted for a while. No more having to hide my armor under the robes, now I’d go back go wearing as much of it as I could under regular clothes again. One last job, and I could have a winter of real, honest work. I couldn’t help but be excited.
As soon as we were out of sight from the village walls, I took the shaft to my halberd back from Brenda, reattaching the head.
“I actually kind of like that,” she said softly, a slight smile on her face. “While you all are dealing with the guards, I can just lean against it and listen. Maybe I should get myself a staff or something.”
“Ah yes,” John said, smirking a bit. “The blind seer with the staff. A classic image. Especially once people underestimate her physical prowess.”
“I could help in that department,” I said with a smile. “If you’d like, that is.”
That made Brenda frown a little. “Maybe. I… I don’t really enjoy your training, but… I dunno. I guess that I kinda enjoy the way it makes me feel later? Like…” Her words trailed off as she struggled to put words to what she felt.
“You feel more confident,” Kathy said. “More capable. More… Powerful.”
“Yeah,” she said with a nod. “Something like that. I just… I don’t worry as much. And I don’t trip as much anymore when I’m wearing my blindfold. I like that. But the actual martial arts stuff… I dunno. It’s something that I just do because you wanna do it.”
“There’s worse reasons out there,” I confessed as we began to walk into the woods. We never teleported on the road itself if we could help it.. Fortunately, we had a spot now. “Honestly, it’s how I saw the dancing. Basically the same thing, but in broader strokes. Maybe we could do that again some time.”
“Maybe,” she said with a nod. “Let me think about it though, alright? Things’ve… changed a bit.”
Changed? I was curious, but I nodded once. A useless effort, I realized, with her eyes covered and being patiently lead by Kathy. “Not a problem.”
She smiled a little, but I let the subject drop. I had more important things to think about.
This was going to be a fairly light one, all things considered. Straightforward, too, which I appreciated. I especially enjoyed the fact that there wasn’t going to be any hiding and waiting for days while we finalized everything — we knew exactly where they were this time. We’d get a hotel room, sure, but that was just to wait until nightfall, and it wouldn’t be just Brenda and I hiding for days on end this time.
A relatively quick in and out. I could deal with that.
It wasn’t hard to find our teleportation spot — the circle was well-defined by plenty of use. It was also a slight depression in the clearing. While I’d fine-tuned the teleporter as best I could, no matter what we were going to be a bit above or below the surrounding ground level, and I figured that below would be better. The elevation controls were good but they were far from perfect.
As soon as we were in position, I hit the button and suffered that brief disorientation from all of the input coming into my senses changing. When I was coming out of combat, with my senses primed in my brain parsing the world at a much faster rate, it wasn’t so much of a problem. In casual situations like this, though, it was almost like vertigo. My senses struggled to make sense of what was going on around me and momentarily failing.
As things began to settle down, I took stock of my surroundings. We always set the teleporter for a general nearby the coordinates of where we were teleporting to rather than the precise location. Teleporting into a city drew attention, which was something that we didn’t want. I’d learned enough through trial and error to get us relatively close to where we wanted to go, but far enough away that we didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing us port in. Usually, the worst of it was finding the road into town.
This time, though, something was off. Something that I struggled to put my finger on.
John grunted as he looked around, but I raised a fist to silence him. For a moment, I debated unslinging my assault rifle, but I decided against it. I could be overreacting. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to assume that it was nothing.
I turned and lifted up Brenda’s headband, forcing her to look at me. It only lasted a moment before she pulled it back down, though. Good. I turned to the others, using the rudimentary hand signals that I’d taught them. Quiet. Possible danger. Stay low.
They nodded, and as they quieted down, I closed my own eyes, focusing on my hearing. The sound of the wind, rustling leaves that were dying and falling off of trees filled my hearing. I could make out the patient, worried breathing of my friends. And quiet talking in the distance.
It took me a moment to get the direction narrowed down. Once I did, I opened my eyes and began stalking. It wasn’t something that I was the best at, but I could still move. Slowly, put my heel down, then carefully roll to the flat of my foot, then once I was sure of myself, pressure on the ball of my foot. Carefully, trying not to make any noise more than absolutely necessary.
The others were slightly better at it than me. Where had they picked up stalking through the forest from?
The voices were too indistinct to make out what they were saying, even as I drew close enough to make them out through the fall foliage. There were four of them, standing on a trail and talking ever so quietly to each other. Over the span of a full minute, I made my way behind a tree to spy on them, gripping my halberd tight.
Two men, a woman, and a figure covered in what looked like black latex, thick enough that I couldn’t tell the gender. That might have been the point. Either way, I was getting a funny feeling from them that I couldn’t put my finger on.
As I watched, the woman drew a knife and approached one of the men. There wasn’t any fear or surprise in any of them as she drew back to stab him. Strange — they didn’t look like Fyrtorn. It wasn’t until the knife connected that I understood.
It was like the man formed into molten, flesh-colored wax for the briefest of moments. In a span of a couple of heartbeats, the wax split into two and reformed into two identical copies of the man. That… was a nifty power, I had to admit. But it was also the sort of thing that made me all the more worried.
There was a sound behind me, and I turned to find Brenda pulling her mask out of the large, empty pack she carried. It was like a luchador mask, only thin cotton that was designed to tear easily if need be. That would keep people from getting a good grip on them and using the mask against them in battle.
She looked up at me, pulling the cloth that could cover her eyes out of the way. “Run.”
I glanced from her back around the tree, then back. A hesitant hand moved to pull the hood of my robes down as I looked at her curiously. Everyone else was in the same boat as me. Brenda rarely, if ever, took initiative, preferring to follow what others said. For her to take the lead like this, without any provocation was a little unnerving.
But she continued to stare at me desperately. “Run,” she whispered again, only louder this time. “Now.”
“Is someone there?”
Maybe a bit too loudly. Crap. I slid the faceplate of my helmet down, pointing towards the city before nodding once to everyone. They didn’t budge. Alright, fine. I’d force them. “Go!”
As I heard startled noises behind me, the others finally took the hint and bolted. Unlike them, though, I made sure to draw my pistol. It was an old tactic — send something one way, and while your opponent instinctively watches that, you use the distraction. As the four watched my friends run, I came around the tree and took aim at one of the two clones, firing once.
I was using the distraction twice. Once to draw their attention away from me, and once to pull it back on me, giving the others a better head start.
I didn’t watch to see if the shot connected or not, instead immediately running. John would have to use his power to take any kind of a hit, and lowering his density slowed him down exponentially. I was the one in armor, so I should be the one to take up the rear, acting as the defensive wall for the others. Unfortunately, it also meant that I had to run more slowly than the others.
“What the fuck?” someone screamed as I bolted.
Unfortunately, either I was faster than I thought, or they weren’t as fast as I’d hoped. Emi was a combination of the lead, middle, and rear, teleporting like a madwoman. We’d discussed that — she was muddling her profile, making it harder to predict where she was and how many of us there were. John was also using his power to pull far ahead, dropping his density like a stone to make long jumps, then raising it again right before he’d crash into something.
Kathy was next, and she was what was helping the rest of us move faster than we otherwise would have — instead of trying to duck and weave through the branches, she instead formed the destructive disk in front of her with her power, shooting off the material destroyed at an upward angle. It formed a strangely neat hole in the forest, a tunnel for the rest of us to follow through.
And follow we did, Brenda hot on Kathy’s heels, and me dragging a healthy distance behind. Something that I almost regretted as something slammed into me from behind, making me stumble. I glanced at my shoulder, noting a black, viscous, plastic-like liquid clinging to the back of it. If I’d have had time to worry about it, I would have tried to get it off ASAP. There was absolutely no telling what it was or what it did. Another worry for another time, though.
Especially as I saw Brenda trip and fall, tumbling and rolling. Being able to see all possible futures within the next few seconds doesn’t necessarily mean that your body will always move the way that you want it to.
Unfortunately, waiting for her to get back up and get back to speed would slow us down pretty bad. Most likely, the person who shot me with the stuff would get another shot off, and it would probably be more accurate this time.
Emi appeared next to Brenda, then reappeared halfway between Brenda and I, raising her hands and making gimmie motions. Smart girl. I raised my halberd as I passed her, and she snagged it from my hands before teleporting ahead of us again. With my hands free, I had more options.
I was enhanced, and Brenda knew what I was doing before I did. Rather hand struggle to her feet, she practically launched herself in the air. She didn’t get as far up as I’d have liked, forcing me to duck a bit in order to scoop her out of the air. I stumbled, and she adjusted herself in my grip, helping me to stay upright. As soon as my body accepted the new weight and center of gravity, I started sprinting as hard as possible.
The people pursuing us might be going hard, but we were effectively running for our lives — the others were probably running faster than they ever had before. It wasn’t enough.
I had a brief vision of a shadowy, serpentine shape streaked past me and off to the side before taking a humanoid shape. One of the two guys. He raised himself and lunged in my direction, getting a few steps in to try and tackle me. I got ready to dodge in that split second, ducking myself a it.
As he began his jump, Emi appeared again, my halberd at the ready and the butt of it planted firmly on the ground. He didn’t even have a chance to see what was happening before the spearpoint impaled itself on his midsection, running all the way in until the axe stopped his progress. I only had the briefest impressions of his surprised, bulging eyes as I passed them. A moment later, I heard Emi teleport. Another teleport and she was in front of me, flashing me a brief thumbs up before disappearing again.
Still not out of the woods. I could hear people catching up behind us, sounding like a small army, and we were only maybe halfway to the village. Maybe.
There was a loud crack of wood practically exploding behind me, along with the sound of a tree falling. At almost the same moment, my shoulder exploded into flame — the shoulder that had been hit just a few minutes before.
“I did it!” Brenda called out in my arms. “And he’s coming! The tree! Keep running!”
Who? Didn’t matter. I wasn’t able to run nearly as easily as I had before I’d started carrying Brenda — it was far easier for me to keep pace with Kathy. A moment later, John practically flew past me.
Right. He’d knocked over a tree to buy us some time. Good man! That little maneuver might mean the difference between life and death. Even more importantly, I didn’t hear anyone else behind us. Small favors.
It was probably two or three minutes of frantic running later before Kathy finally burst through the woods and into the clearing around the town. We weren’t that far from the open gates. John and Emi were already waiting for us, eyes wide and concerned. We all were okay.
It wouldn’t last. I was pretty sure that we’d only seen two or three, most likely three powers, which left one para left unaccounted for. Unless they weren’t a para, but with my luck, I’d rather bet on them being one. Prepare for the worst…
I set Brenda down and jogged up to them. “Kathy, inside or out?”
“Wh-what?” She was panting, trying to get a real lungful of air.
“Inside, shooting out when they show up–” Brenda hurried through the gates. “–or out here with me?”
Kathy looked over her shoulder, then back to me. I wouldn’t blame her if she went inside, not what happened after that time that someone ran into her destruction disk. But after a moment’s hesitation, she nodded once and hunched over a bit.
I couldn’t be more proud.
“Over there, not directly behind me.” I turned to John. “Inside, close the gate, hold it closed, get as dense as you can. I don’t care if you sink knee deep into the ground, don’t let anything through.”
“Not until I get the all clear,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder before hurrying past.
That left Emi as she handed me my halberd. “Wait until they’re fully engaged, then harass the perimeter. Distract them as much as possible, draw as much attention as you can before moving on. Don’t be afraid to use lethal force against the primary. We’ll be lucky if it slows him down.”
Emi nodded, a wicked grin on her face. “I can do that. Who’s the primary?”
I took a breath. If my suspicions were correct, it would take too long to explain. “Whomever I fight the most.”
“What’s Brenda doing?” Kathy asked as an afterthought.
I jammed my halberd point into the ground and handed Emi my assault rifle for a moment. “Manning the wall.” Or at least I hoped. I still wasn’t sure how exactly she knew with such good accuracy what we were going to say before we said it, but my guess was that she looked at all of the possible futures she saw and went with the most common themes. I’d have to ask, but it could wait for another day.
I pulled off my robes and traded Emi for the assault rifle before kneeling and taking aim at the treeline. She quickly opened my pack and jammed them in. I’d taken to wearing it during fights lately — I didn’t want them to hurt for money because of me.
Once my pack was closed again, she drew her Calico and started the breathing exercises that I’d taught her; one hundred rounds of 9mm ammunition was nothing to sneeze at. Even if I had spent far too long trying to teach her trigger discipline.
We didn’t have to wait long, though. I heard them coming far before they arrived. Almost as one, around twenty people burst through the edge of the forest, screaming something that sounded like “Frag you!”
My thumb flicked to full auto and I opened fire, not lacking for targets as Emi did the same. We had some overlap as we hosed down the people before my magazine went dry. I was reaching for the next one strapped to my chest before I even hit the release, flicking my wrist to eject the spent magazine. The entire time, I kept my eyes glued to the people I’d shot.
Each one had that brief molten wax moment before separating into two, all in the span of one and a half seconds. Whereas once we had dealt with twenty identical people coming after us, we now had about forty. Bullets were not the answer.
I slammed home a new mag, but as I chambered a new round, a blue beam appeared, striking a good portion of the forty; Kathy’s handiwork. I knew that I shouldn’t, but I had to look: the disk that she created to make that powerful of a beam was huge, cutting an impressive hole in the ground in the process. Still, as good as it was that she one-shotted so many, it had the regrettable, even predictable result of doubling those that she hit.
I turned to Emi, switching to three round burst before handing the assault rifle out to her and quickly grabbing the last two remaining mags that I had on me. “If this doesn’t work, circle strafe. I’m the bait.”
As she took the rifle and ammo, Emi frowned at me. “This is a bad plan!”
I knew that.
Grabbing my halberd in one hand, my other going to my belt, I charged forward. The mass of over sixty individuals did the same. As we drew close, I threw. A moment later, a handful of pellets broke against my opponents. Clear liquid covered them, liquid that leeched out heat and solidified almost instantly. In a moment, sixty opponents returned back to the far more manageable twenty.
Not that it made it any less impossible.
Before I could reach back to my belt, they were on me. I made an awkward slice with my halberd, but with how sharp it was, it didn’t matter — faces, chests, and even arms were sliced open. That would buy me one and a half seconds, but would make things even harder from here on out.
I turned, thrusting the halberd point into one opponent’s head badly enough that it glanced off his skull, going upwards. Quickly I began stepping back, and the moment that he began to split into two, I sliced back down, chopping one of the two in half with the axe.
Only for both halves to begin separating. So much for that idea.
Kathy fired again, a longer, more sustained blast that seemed more powerful. It didn’t seem to be targeting my dividing opponents, though.
I didn’t have time to investigate as one tried to flank me. Backpedaling the way that I was, I could only hit him with an awkward, weak strike with the butt of my halberd. He staggered a bit from that.
If I’d been more scared or angry, I would have let go so that my body could fight while I analyzed the situation. Something wasn’t right, but I was having to make grand sweeps to keep from being overwhelmed. Constantly on the retreat, only buying myself a little over a second at a time to back up further and try to think.
He shouldn’t have staggered from that. I swiped again as Emi started teleporting and shooting.
It was a weak strike, it should have been easily soaked. A slash.
It wasn’t much of a stumble, but it was there. I went for the legs this time, trying to buy myself more time.
Unfortunately, they weren’t falling before dividing. At least they were acting as a wall each time that they divided, slowing the others down.
I was given a reprieve when more gunfire joined Emi’s. Brenda, along with the town guard, were shooting down. She had her Calico, but they only had bolt action rifles. It wouldn’t last, but it gave me a moment. A moment of desperate inspiration.
I turned behind me, shouting at Kathy. “Get in your hole!”
“What?” She shouted back.
I didn’t have time to respond. The opponents that I’d trapped in the firestopper pellets finally exploded out of their prison, dividing rapidly and massively, far more than two. I turned and ran, even as the gunfire began to die down. I didn’t even check to see if they were following me, I just ran for Kathy.
She seemed to get the idea, jumping into the deep furrow that she’d dug with her power. I joined her a moment later, disconnecting my halberd’s shaft in the middle and crouching. “Shoot up! Shoot up!”
That, at least, Kathy understood. She dropped to one knee and formed her power over her head.
At first, nothing seemed to happen. There was a moment where there was an energy in the air, and that was it. Until one of my opponents got too close. His leg was ripped apart as if by a buzz saw of pure energy, and the disk visibly formed a few inches above the ground even as he began to split into two.
The massive army tried to stop in its tracks, but when you have over two hundred people charging towards someone without any form of coordination, stopping isn’t easy. The first row stopped short, only for more to slam into them. More slammed into them, making the first row stumble. Almost immediately, there was another impact, one that sent several of our cloned opponents tumbling into the disk.
It was equal parts fascinating and gruesome. As they fell onto the disk, it began to eat away at them to fuel the particle beam. That damage made them divide and form into two new clones, who immediately began to be eaten by the disk. As quickly as they divided, they simply joined the flesh being churned into a blue light that went ever upwards, growing stronger. Kathy grunted and adjusted her arms, forcing the disk even wider, forcing more people into the meat grinder.
All that I could do was watch the still sanding opponents through the spray of viscera and gore.
It was subtle at first as they tried to back up. But as more and more fell into the disk’s destructive radius, the more quickly it became visible. A stagger here. Slumping of shoulders there. It taking two seconds for them to divide. Within moments, they were starting to droop as if fighting to stay awake. After a few more moments, they began to fight not just to stay awake, but to stay upright.
By the time that thirty seconds had passed, they were all collapsing onto the ground.
“You can stop,” I said just barely loud enough to be heard over the power’s grinding.
Kathy let go, panting with effort. I’d have to ask if stopping her disk was more exhausting than actually maintaining it later — now seemed like a bad time.
The clones were all lying on the ground, panting. There always had to be an upper limit. In powers like these, even with the most heavy of triggers that broke all the rules, there was always a limit. It might be subtle for some powers, but there was always a point where the power wouldn’t grow any more.
Our opponent could divide when damaged, but the passenger would only allow so much division. They had checks and balances in powers, and this one appeared to have that the more that he divided, the weaker the clones became. When they reached critical mass, they became too weak to stand.
By how they were wheezing, we must have gone to the point where they were fighting to just breathe.
After a few moments, their features began to get soft and mushy. After a minute, that softness became a grey goo that seemed to evaporate in front of our eyes. We’d done it. We’d won. We’d… Saved the village? Maybe? I wasn’t sure what the end goal had been for our bad guys.
Suddenly, I felt tired myself. There wasn’t any of the usual wind down from a job or fight where the energy slowly ebbed out of me. One moment, I was completely primed. The next, I just wanted a nap.
I looked to Kathy and smiled as best that I could. Once upon a time, I would have given anything to be a Tinker or a Mover with flight. Now? Her, John, Brenda, Emi? I would give anything to have any of their powers. Not that I had much left to…
I buried that thought deep.
“Listen,” I said weakly as Emi teleported over to us. “Let’s go home. Job’s a wash, and I’m strangely exhausted. I’ve got cash. If we start running low, I’ll… I’ll pay for it all. Whatever. Let’s just… Let’s just go away. Alright?”
Kathy stared at me for a moment before nodding. “Yeah. Yeah, that… That sounds like the best… That sounds like the best god damn thing that I’ve heard all week.”
“All clear,” Brenda called out before vaulting the wall and dropping down. A moment later, John literally jumped over it, landing easily. As soon as Brenda got her eyes covered again, he began to lead her back to the rest of us.
“Hey,” one of the town guards called out. “Hey, are you Jordan?”
I could see this conversation play out in my head. I’d say yes, he’d say some sort of platitudes or fight us, and a week later, there’d be some article painting our mystery opponents as the town saviors who gave their lives to protect people from me.
Fuck. That. Shit.
“I was here for them,” I called out as John helped Kathy out of our impromptu trench. “Came to… Protect you from them. Got a little out of hand. Sorry about that.”
“You’re just… sorry about that?” one of the guards parroted back at me.
“Who were they?” the first one asked.
“That’s a long and complicated question,” Kathy called out, pointedly not looking at the guards. Right, Brenda was the only one wearing a mask. “You should ask the Wardens. Maybe they can tell you.”
As I climbed out of the hole, the guard called out again. “How about the short of it?”
I activated the postcog suppressor and began to dial the new coordinates in. “Sorry. You don’t always get easy answers in life.”
My thumb almost pressed the activation button when the second guard called out again. “Hey! Hey! One sec!”
I looked up at him.
He couldn’t see it, but I was smiling as I hit the button.