Emi shifted the bag in her arms as she lead the way down the street. She wasn’t sure how the others couldn’t remember the green house with the alleyway behind it; it was the easiest goddamned thing. Sure, there were, like, five other green houses in town, but she could remember seeing it as they’d scouted the shrink only, what? Four blocks away?
The hard part for her was the bag. Not only was it heavy as hell, but other than the short straps that looped over the shoulders and attached to his armor, Jordan’s pack didn’t have any real loops. With how big it was and how much junk he had in there, it made the entire thing hard to carry. She would have switched with John, but he was trailing behind, carrying Jordan’s duffel with heavy steps. The pack weighed nothing compared to that thing. Brenda and Kathy were carrying damn near everything else.
As she turned the corner, though, her eyes narrowed as she saw who was with Jordan. Those perfectly plucked brows that were drawn together, that slightly upturned nose, that firm jaw, that freckle on her cheek… That bitch. They wouldn’t be in this situation at all if it hadn’t been for fucking Gina.
Gina was the one who had made Jordan start to fall apart inside. They’d worked hard to shield him from what was going on, not for their sake, but for his. They’d figured that it would have been like a stab in the chest for him, so they’d kept it on the down low. And sure, he’d gone into quiet fury mode, hunting down everyone and everything, but after that? That’s when everything fell apart.
If it weren’t for that bitch…
“What the hell are you doing here?” she growled.
“Unrelated,” Gina snapped, barely glancing up from her Tinker-tech bracer. “Come here.”
Jordan had rolled up the sleeve of his robes and was attaching a bracer himself. What if this was a trap? Sure, Jordan said that the bitch was a friend, but she was a Warden. You couldn’t trust them! They were all fucking crazy or corrupt as hell! And here he was, clamping one of their devices onto his arm like…
Well, okay, he had his serious expression going on. His ready-to-fight-and-destroy-everyone expression. Guy didn’t realize just how scary that look was — he could clear rooms with just that look. But when he actually acted? If he would have been her enemy, Emi would have ran. As he looked up to see them, he slipped out of his robes, revealing that he was already wearing most of his armor. Unsurprising; he slept in that stuff.
Kathy put a hand on Emi’s shoulder as she hurried past. “What’s going on?”
“We’re looking at a fight,” he said tersely.
“With whom?” John said between deep, labored breaths as he lumbered into the alley.
Gina shook her head. “I’m officially raising the odds to 90%. Odd power surges in the area.” She looked up briefly. “Fyrtorn.”
The pack slipped from Emi’s arms, almost smashing her foot. Fyrtorn. Her heart began to pound in her chest as she looked up at Kathy. Kath’s own face was suddenly pale, her eyes wide.
“We should be running,” John whispered, his voice returning to its normal pitch. “I’ve always wanted to visit France, after all.”
“No.” Everyone turned to look at Brenda, whose jaw was set. “I’m not going anywhere. Not yet. Everyone just says Fyrtorn and shuts up immediately, like it’s some sort of forbidden word, but nobody ever took the time to explain it to me. Why does it always scare people? Who is Fyrtorn?”
“Fyrtorn isn’t a person,” Gina said, the words shooting past her lips like a machine gun. “It’s a cult. Worse than Teacher.”
Kathy snorted. “At least with Teacher, you have to accept his gift.”
“That’s a complicated topic for another day.” Someone was coming down the other end of the alley, and Gina waved them closer without looking. “Fyrtorn rides into a village or city, abducting any para or anyone that they think might trigger. We count the cases where there are civilians who survive the assault as a victory. About a year later, though, the people that they kidnapped are the ones performing the next assault.”
Jordan grabbed his pack, his eyes catching Emi’s. “Duffel. Wizard.” Thankfully, John set down the duffel for her as she hurried.
“Wait,” Brenda said quickly. “You mean, they’re… brainwashed?”
“Effectively. Those captured just go on and on about Krigarguden, their leader. First chance that they get, they kill themselves. Makes interrogation hard.” With that, Gina turned on her heel and began to walk away.
“Wait! But… Why don’t you go after them? Get to the root of the problem?”
“They have,” Jordan said, a dangerous tone to his voice. Emi turned around with the pants already bundled, and he easily slipped into them as he strapped the holdout shotgun to his forearm. “So have the Dragon’s Teeth. Valkyrie lead a team of five, the best of the best, to take out Krigarguden. Only she and one other returned, and she was missing an arm.”
Pants in place, he knelt to let Emi pull his neck sheath on.
“It’s not too late to run,” John said, looking at all of them. “I’m just saying. This is bigger than–”
“I’m in,” Emi said flatly. John and Kathy exchanged a glance; they weren’t happy.
“Alright,” the Warden who had been coming down the alley said, an authoritative tone to his voice. “I have been informed that I’m supposed to deputize anyone who is staying. Lawyer’s orders.”
“Fuck your lawyer.”
Jordan flashed Emi a conflicted look that shut her down. He probably would have glared at her if he wasn’t so protective. She felt a tiny sliver of guilt, there — he protected his friends, stood up for them, and two friends not getting along? That was probably agony for him.
As soon as the neck piece was nice and snug, covering all the way up to his chin, he rose his hands to fold the collar of his armor over it. Normally, she didn’t help him get dressed in his armor, but since the first time, she’d made it a routine to dress him in an outfit for the first time.
While she went for the rest of the wizard’s robes, Kathy spoke up. “How many Wardens are there here?”
“Ten,” the Warden said, his voice subtly betraying his lack of confidence. “Plus another three mercenaries. Plus yourselves, if you’ll–”
“Brandford had twenty and fell.” Kathy looked at Emi as she got the robes on Jordan, carefully arranging them. “We’re small fries compared to this. I get why Jordan is going to fight, but–”
“How much blood do you want on your hands?” Emi snapped, not bothering to look up from her work. Trying to work fast and careful was hard. “John had it straight, but in the wrong direction. This is bigger than any of us. Can you really live with yourself, knowing that maybe you could have saved some lives? Because if we can keep them from getting their mitts on even three people, I think we’ve won.”
The battery pack connected, and she flipped the hood up before hitting the switch. Immediately, the hood, sleeves and pants began to glow faintly, as if Jordan was radiating some sort of power that was confined by his green robes. It’d taken her ages to get that right, even with Habib’s help.
“Holy shit,” the Warden said as Jordan straightened up. The guy’s face now matched Kathy’s. “The resemblance is… freaky.” What did that mean?
Gina came stalking back. “It’ll look even better once your helmet’s on, fuckface. Now.” By the time that Jordan turned to her, Emi was already tossing it to him. “Arm up to your chest, horizontal.” As soon as his helmet was in place, she spoke into her armband. “Update, he needs the full monte. Anything that you can give, do it, ASAP.”
What was like a small window in space opened in front of Jordan, and almost immediately, vaporous hands began to reach through, one at a time, to touch his chest before withdrawing to make way for another. What the fuck? Wait, was Valkyrie doing something to him? No, no! That bitch tried to get her teeth on him before, this couldn’t be good!
But Jordan was already pulling the teleporter out from under his robes, holding it out in Kathy’s direction. “I don’t blame anyone for going. I won’t try and convince you to stay, and I won’t have bad feelings. Head back home, recharge it. If I live through this, I’ll get in touch with… With our occasional employer to contact our mutual friend. If not… Well…”
Kathy looked to Brenda as the portal suddenly snapped shut. “It’s up to you if you stay or not. These people are–Glory be to Krigarguden!”
Emi’s eyes went wide, but not because of what Kathy had said; Jordan, John, Brenda, all of them had said it at the exact same time. Jordan was already putting the teleporter back on his belt.
“He is the Light in the darkness!” It wasn’t just them. Everyone in town was saying it in those slow, droning tones. Kathy’s hands clapped over her mouth, and she looked about ready to piss herself. Honestly, Emi couldn’t blame her — she was already diving for her pack, pulling on her mask and tossing others their own.
“His Glory is what draws the Worthy together!” The voices were rising in volume against their wills. It was like her mouth was completely detached from her. Fucking Masters. She pulled the laces on her gold-colored leather mask tight, only giving it a blind shoe knot.
“And it is only through Him that the Worthy will find paradise on earth!” Emi grabbed her guns and knives, pleased to see that everyone else seemed to be getting ready as frantically as she was. Everyone except Brenda, at least. She’d missed her mask and was blindly probing at her face.
“And should you be unworthy…” Emi scrambled to retrieve it, trying to ignore the words, or at least will her mouth into saying something else. “…Then all you shall know forevermore is but the depths of the earth.”
Everyone seemed to say something at once, jumbling over each other bad enough that Emi couldn’t even make out what she’d said herself. It didn’t matter. Mask in hand, she pulled off Brenda’s blindfold. The girl’s pale brown eyes only registered for a moment before going wide.
“No!” Brenda shouted as she dropped to the ground.
Emi groaned, which did nothing to help the pain that lanced through her head. This felt arguably worse than when she’d had a concussion. Then she hadn’t had the brains to cry or feel the worst of it, but right now? All that she could do was press her head into the ground and scream. She couldn’t even lift her hands up, it hurt so bad.
She wasn’t sure how long it was, but the pain let up just enough that she could hear screaming, worse than her own. Screaming and laughter.
Fyrtorn. The realization hit her like a bullet, making her eyes open wide. Fyrtorn was here. Her blood turned to ice, cooling off some of the pain. Blurred vision cleared as several thoughts worked through the pain at once.
People were dying. The others might be dead, or they might be fighting. Either way, she was laying here sobbing while people were dying. If she didn’t get up, she’d hear a lot more screams. If she didn’t fight, they’d drag her away. If she did fight, she might die, but that was better than having your brains scooped out and chants of praise stamped behind your eyelids.
Her vision began to clear as she pushed herself to her hands and knees. She didn’t feel like puking — from what Jordan had said about concussions, that was a good sign. What had happened?
The green house was… gone. Simply gone, a pile of debris where it had been. No sign of the others, though. Where was her purse?
The screaming was louder now. Emi turned her head as best she was able, scanning for the source. It took her a moment to get her head to focus on it — her entire body felt like lead. A man in a blue shirt with a yellow stripe down the middle with a yellow sash wrapped around his waist. He was sitting on top of someone that was hard to make out, but the woman was screaming alright. Loud enough to be heard over all the other screams.
Emi knew immediately how far away it was, not in numbers or anything. The real distance. She focused on crossing it… and nothing. Not a single damn thing. The realization that she couldn’t teleport made her chest seize.
Jordan? No, they’d tested the watch, and the range wasn’t great enough to do it. Were the people from Fyrtorn the ones blocking her teleportation somehow? Jordan said that part of the demand for Tinker weapons and jamming devices was to fight the Tinker items that Fyrtorn brought into play. An ECCM war, he called it.
It took a bit of work for her to run her hand along the shoulder strap and grab the calico, raising the gun. It was shaking badly, but as soon as it was trained on the guy, she pulled the trigger. Nothing again. She let go and drew her pistol, firing again… and more nothing. Jordan obsessively worked on their guns, making sure they were clean and in good repair. More Fyrtorn tricks.
She watched as the man lifted his hands, a strange blackish glowing energy forming between them, before thrusting them down and causing the woman to scream louder again. Fuck this.
She drew her knives and forced herself to her feet. Each step brought a little more energy, a little more pep to her step. He lifted his hands again, and just like that, she was at a full sprint. Before he could form that energy again, she drove a knife into his back. As he arched into it, she drove her other knife into his chest and heaved with all her might, pulling him off the woman.
His face twisted as he made several noises in the back of his throat — not gasps, but more like he was trying to swallow air and failing. Emi didn’t care. A blade was thrust into his throat, and then is chest. The blades flipped, and the thrusts became a flurry of slams into him, making up for their lack of precision with force and numbers until the body stopped twitching.
Oh, she was alive now. Her entire body had that tingle, and the weight and pain were long forgotten.
Emi glanced behind her, and the woman…
The woman’s arms and legs were gone, the stumps ending in a black gel that was melting onto the ground. The woman’s eyes were frantic as she looked around, but not at anything in particular.
Emi felt her soul crack. A pain deeper than she’d ever felt before as she looked at the poor woman. Fuck, she wanted to help. To say something. To do something. But… There were so many other screams.
“I’ll come back,” she whispered softly, more to herself than anything. The woman couldn’t hear her now. It would have been kinder to have let him finish it — she doubted the woman would still be there when she returned.
Emi bounced to her feet, ignoring an explosion somewhere in the distance. Whomever that was had taken out the house. She wasn’t going to take them on with her guns not working. Instead, she just started running blindly. Where was everyone?
A window exploded as a villager was thrown through it, falling lifelessly to the ground. Emi turned, and a shapely woman in the same getup as the last guy made eye contact with her for a moment before jumping through the window, fists raised. So it was a shitty uniform!
Emi barely had time to bring her hands up to her head before the woman swung, her fist connecting with the flat of Emi’s forearm. The other fist connected with the other, but Emi didn’t give her a chance for a third, driving both her blades into the woman’s chest — all like Jordan had taught her.
So it took her completely by surprise when the woman grabbed her by the hair and violently flung her away. She tumbled briefly on the ground before coming up on one knee, looking up to see the woman smirking. That explained the blood — at least some of it had to be the woman’s.
“Damn girl,” Emi said without thinking. “I’m flat as a board and I got more going on than you!”
The woman stopped flat in her tracks, blinking before looking down at her impressive bust. That was all that Emi needed to turn and begin running. If that bitch could take two to the chest without flinching, she had nothing to take her on. Maybe if her damn guns were working or she could teleport, but no, nothing’s that easy! Especially not with psychos who wanted to kidnap them all over the place!
Was this what Jordan felt like all the time?
As she passed an overturned cart, Emi caught a glimpse of a green mask for a split second. A moment later, she heard a crack behind her as loud as a gunshot. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Brenda spinning, raising a sledge over her head, and bringing it down on the head of the prone woman with a satisfying crunch.
And immediately falling on her ass.
Emi hurried back over, only for Brenda to speak up. “Not dead.”
Answering questions before she could ask them again. Fucking Thinkers.
But the woman had more pulp than a head. Emi grabbed a foot and jammed her knife in before pulling back and severing the tendon. Brenda was right there, jamming a rock into the wound.
“Do the other. She regenerates. It’ll keep her from walking until after the fight.”
Emi grabbed the other foot. “We win?”
“Most of the time,” Brenda said as she jammed another rock into the new wound. “Getting better by the moment. Usually.” Her hand went to her shoulder. “Met up with Gold. We’ll stick together.”
Radio! Emi had forgotten hers! She cursed herself inwardly, but looked around. Anyone could pop out at any time. “How we doing?”
As if on queue, a body wearing that damn uniform fell to the ground. Emi looked up and took a breath — Jordan was hovering in the air just above the buildings, and just looking at him, he seemed… Powerful. She could feel it rolling off of him, like he was oozing strength.
A flyer tackled him mid-air, and they both went careening off into the distance. If it was anyone else, she might have worried, but Jordan was tough. Tougher than the rest of them put together.
“I started off seeing almost an hour after the fight,” Brenda said quickly, moving to retrieve her sledgehammer. “I’m down to just a few minutes.”
Holy shitballs, how many paras did Fyrtorn bring?!
“Red and Blue are paired up. Blue’s a bit beat up, but they’re still fighting. I started with Gina, and we make a good team. I came here to meet up with you.” Which meant that John and Kathy were doing as well as could be expected, and bitchface was alone. At least one thing was going well.
“How long was I out?” Emi asked as she moved towards the guy Jordan had dropped. There was no way that the guy had taken this much damage from the fall, especially not with his eyes gouged out like that. Her boy was getting downright brutal! She approved.
“Dunno. In every iteration, I say it’s been a number between ten and fifteen minutes since the fighting began. You were in bad shape, but Jordan touched you. We had to move on, sorry.”
Well, at least Valkyrie did something right.
“My time’s dropping fast,” Brenda continued. “In thirty, Red’s going to report that Blue just took out a bunch of them, but it cost the town’s water tower and made them targets.”
Damn. At least Kathy could still use her power. “Let’s go!”
Brenda wasn’t moving, though. Instead, she removed the woman’s sash, pulling out what looked like ribbons. “Boss, another set. I don’t know what they do, just that you destroy them. Next to the woman that we took out.”
She paused a moment before looking back to Emi. “Back to the guy that you took out.”
What?! “But Joh… Red and Blue!”
Brenda shook her head. “Will be worse off if we don’t. Come on!” She began to run as best she could with that sledge, muttering something into the mic on her shoulder, and Emi had to follow or be left behind.
A great V of light rose up into the sky to the west, only to close suddenly like a pair of scissors. To the south, she could hear a high-pitched thrumming, but it definitely didn’t match the strange rhythmic tremors under Emi’s feet. To the north, she could hear a strange chittering.
“Not wildlings,” Brenda clarified. Oh, thank goodness! That was the last thing that they needed. “Fyrtorn-summoned energy creatures.”
Oh, come on!
The temperature began to drop sharply, going from a pleasant temp to Emi seeing her breath, and it was only getting worse as they got closer. Brenda wasn’t slowing down, though. If the precog charges in, just try and keep up.
Emi tried not to look at the woman, whose screams were getting quieter now. Brenda pretty much collapsed next to the guy, less moving to his side then quickly crawling. The temperature was only getting colder, but the sound of fire was quickly approaching. Emi might not be good at figuring out powers, but even she knew that was a bad thing.
“Brilliant,” Brenda muttered between pants as she fumbled with the sash.
A figure stepped around a building, coated in flames that seemed to give off frost. Even still, when the flames touched a tree branch that was covered in white, the leaves curled and darkened.
“Go with the… future where your… hands won’t work,” Brenda continued to grumble.
The burning man turned to look at the two of them. It turned to begin a slow walk.
“Green,” Emi said, a hint of nervousness entering her voice. Just because she felt so very much alive at the moment and was willing to take on the world didn’t mean that she didn’t know when she was outclassed.
“Don’t bother… shooting him yet,” Brenda said as she worked on the sash. “Cold and heat fucks the bullet.”
The temperature was really dropping down, making Emi shiver. As the para slowly drew closer, she raised her knives. If the temperature difference would keep bullets from hitting him, it would do absolutely nothing, but she had to try to at least look a little intimidating, damn it!
Wait… Don’t bother? Her guns didn’t work. How…?
“Point guns away from people!” Brenda finally yanked out two of the ribbon-like devices and tucked her own pistol underneath the corpse.
Oh, hells yeah! Emi quickly sheathed her blades and drew her pistol, switching it to her left hand and grabbing the Calico with her right. Brenda struggled to raise the sledge, and brought it down as hard as she could on the Tinker toys.
All over the town, guns fired at that exact moment, including Emi’s. And it. Felt. Glorious.
“Gold, stab that son of a bitch.” Brenda’s voice was dangerous.
Stab? She holstered her pistol and drew her knife. But he… Did that mean…?
Emi knew the true distance from the guy, her lips twisting upwards. She pushed herself ever so slightly, and she was no longer next to Brenda. She was right in the guy’s face as his flames disappeared. Normally, the resistance that she felt after teleporting wasn’t a good thing, but now? It gave her a precious moment of surprise on his face to savor before her knife stabbed into his chest. Her Calico pressed into his gut and she let rip with a burst, hearing Jordan chiding her for wasting bullets in the back of her mind.
“I am the great equalizer!”
She yanked her blade free as he fell and turned back to Brenda, only to see her friend judo tossing another Fyrtorn bastard. By instinct, Emi jumped, tucking her legs under her, and teleported over the guy, dropping down to drive her knees into his gut. She barely had time to recover from the drop before Brenda put her pistol against the guy’s head and pulled the trigger.
“Teamwork!” Emi said with a grin, enjoying herself despite it all. Here she was, surrounded by paras, scared for her life and more, but a part of her was honestly enjoying it for some reason.
Still, they had a lot of work to do before they were safe.
Emi passed another pair of Wardens tending to one of their own. A wound on his thigh, right underneath his pistol holster. There were a lot of people with wounds like that — those who had tried to use a gun, only for it to finally fire once they’d destroyed that device.
Was it worth it? The teleportation suppressor being destroyed was definitely a good thing. There had been more, but with each one that they destroyed, things had gotten easier. Some of the devices created short range interference bubbles, while the others worked together to keep the defenders from calling in reinforcements. Take out enough of them and the Wardens were able to get people here.
That one bullet suppressor, though, had changed the entire battlefield, for the better and the worse. There were plenty of self-inflicted injuries to go around, and some deaths from it. On the other hand, though, it had let people in town defend themselves.
The two things together had turned the tide. Emi knew that she should be riding the high from victory, but there were other things on her mind. Not the least of which being that trick she’d pulled once she could teleport again.
Now that the battle was done, she’d tried it again and found that she couldn’t. She hadn’t been able to teleport into midair before then, and she couldn’t do it after. She didn’t have to teleport onto the ground, but she at least had to be extremely close to something to anchor her. But in the heat of combat, that combat, she’d pulled it off without a hitch. Why? What was different?
As she approached where the green house had been, she found Gina waiting there, playing on some Tinker device.
“Don’t you have work to do somewhere else?”
“Yeah,” Gina said, her eyebrows drawing together. “I actually do. But I wanted to talk.”
“Not my type, poppet whore. Whorelet, if you will. But no, you’re the only one of you bitches that might give me the straight dope.”
Emi sighed softly. She wanted to be anywhere else, not dealing with this psycho. “Just… Just go away. Never come back. You just make things worse.”
Gina looked up from the device, fixing her eyes directly on Emi. “How bad?” When Emi didn’t say anything, she tried again. “Fuckface is my friend, and no matter what you think, I give a shit about him. I know things got worse after my visit, but I need to know. How fucking bad?”
Emi puffed out her cheeks. It didn’t feel right to talk about Jordan like this. But the bitch wanted to do this? Fine. “Where’s my purse?”
She expected a snide remark, but Gina moved immediately, pushing away a piece of rubble to retrieve it. She remained silent as she handed it to Emi, her face as hard as stone.
It only took Emi a moment to fish out the pieces of paper out, holding them up for Gina to see. “You know what these are?”
“You’re waving them in my fucking face too fast for me to see anything.”
Oh. Emi held them still, glaring at the bitch. “Drawings of him and his bro and sis. I found them in the fucking trash can.” Gina looked from the papers to Emi, her eyes going a little wider. “Yeah. And get this: he broke down this winter. Everything he’s been holding back came flooding out. But ever since then, he’s been forgetting more and more, putting it in whatever pocket of his brain that shit goes to.
“How much you wanna bet that he doesn’t even remember them, huh?”
Gina’s throat tightened. “Pretty good. He’s… He’s always suppressed the bad stuff, but he’s probably also doing the good stuff, too. No, he probably doesn’t remember them. And he probably won’t remember me tomorrow.
“When he’s gotten serious, he’s always been brutal. He was fairly gentle when he wanted to put someone down without hurting them, but when push came to shove, he was always brutal. But he was brutally efficient. The way that he fought out there today? It was like one of his red rages. He didn’t just kill them, he destroyed them.”
Emi’s mind flashed back to the gouged out eyes and mangled body, sending a chill up her spine.
“Yeah. Exactly. Listen… Getting a taste of having powers like that? Two years ago, it would have been the highlight of his life. He’d be talking about it all the time for months in that giddy, excited way he has. If he doesn’t…” Her words trailed off.
“You really are worried,” Emi said softly. “Like, legit.”
“Legit,” she said with a nod. “I need you chucklefucks to take care of him for me. He’s a good guy, and I don’t know what’s happened, but the fire isn’t there in his eyes anymore. He’s still there, but the magic, that damn magic that draws you into him and want to be part of his damn world that he wishes for… It isn’t gone, but it isn’t there, either.”
Gina unhooked a heavy pouch from her belt, the size of a small purse. “I’ve been authorized from on high to pay you all for your services. It’s the least that we can do for disrupting your operations today, and for you all risking your lives to help out.”
Emi frowned a little as she took the bag. “Hey, uh… While I got you here, and you’re being so quick to answer questions… Who’s Amy?”
Gina looked away. “Someone that I’m jealous of. You’ll probably never see me again, but if you do… I’ll tell you then.”
“Well, that’s not fuckin’ weak in the slightest.”
Gina snorted as her eyes fell back to her device. “Whorelet, stop making me like you.”
That one sentence might have been the scariest thing that had happened today.