As we approached the door, Kathy took the lead, bursting through. John flashed me an amused glance as the girls followed her, motioning me to go in before him. As we stepped inside, faint wisps of some spice that I couldn’t identify slamming me in the face, Fenix let out a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank God. You’re all okay. But your eye! And your lip!”
“I’m fine,” Brenda said, waving her hand a bit. “Locked myself into a course that I couldn’t help. Emi saved my ass, though. The Wardens helped.” She was moving sluggish, though. She’d pushed herself hard, and I was willing to bet that she was feeling the burn.
“My eye’s alright,” Kathy said cheerfully. “It’ll probably swell shut tomorrow, but right now? I’m not feeling it at all!”
John was grinning a bit as he made his way to the counter, depositing the bag on it. “Any chance that you can change this into New Brockton?”
Fenix glanced inside and let out a long breath. “I dunno. I can get at least some of it, but… This is a good amount of Warden reimbursement chits, and I just had to part with a bunch for the more honest side of my job.” He dumped the bag onto the counter. “Lemmie count up and then I’ll check the latest exchange.
“The fact that the five of you survived and came back is impressive enough. The fact that you won? Amazing.” He grinned. “Always thought that Valkyrie should take those fucks out.”
“She would if she could get there,” I said as I scanned the shop, trying to find where the spices were. “Teleportation suppressors, but it’s a really weird design. I did get some samples of their tech, though, if Habib’d like to take a look.”
“Probably, but give him a bit. He’s a little, uh, occupied.” Fenix leveled his gaze on me. “And a certain someone wants to talk to you, ASAP.” I raised an eyebrow and Fenix tapped his temple.
Oh. I focused on Nexus…
I was dressed in a suit, sitting in a large, plush leather chair in front of a massive cake. “Congratulations!” Nexus called out, as Mom burst through the paper top of the cake, spreading her arms wide.
What. The. Fuck. “Uh…”
“Jordan my man!” Nexus was in a suit himself, his hair slicked back as he slugged my shoulder and pulled me out of my seat. “I would have called you, but I figured you were busy and didn’t need a distraction. Are you okay? Is everyone else–“
“We’re fine,” I said, holding up a hand to stop him. I was very purposefully not looking in Mom’s direction. “Thank you, though. It’s been hectic.”
“I should say so!” He dragged me to a television, turning it on only to reveal static. “Look at you, man! That… Oh, that was brutal, but I’d expect nothing less against Fyrtorn. Oh… I was lucky to get the videos, and it cost me a pretty penny, but… Man, is this worth it!”
Right. I shook my head. “I’m glad you’re enjoying it. How’d you know it was us?”
He snorted. “It’s an open secret among the Wardens. The Great and Powerful Jordan, so empowered that he took down, like, thirty dudes and dudettes.” He laughed again. “How’d it feel?”
I shrugged, not really understanding. “It felt like a fight. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“Aha! Ever the humble hero.” Okay, now he was really, really laying it on thick. I couldn’t remember the details, probably from having altering time, but all that I’d done was assault people until we could use our guns again. Then I shot and assaulted people. Standard fare, really.
I tried changing the subject. “Any word yet on the Wardens analyzing the tech recovered from the raid?”
“They’ve got a bunch of Tinkers crawling all over it. If Valkyrie’s ghosts could learn, she’d probably have them crawling all over it, too. Too soon for any information to come trickling back my way, though. I’m in tight with a few of the Tinkers, but they’re… Well, a little focused.
“The Thinkers and a few others are scraping over the survivors. One got away, but they’ve got their bloodhound and a few others tracking the guy. They’re hopeful that they can interrogate that regenerator you bagged, thinking she can’t be tagged. Maybe not in the short term, but the long term, you know?”
No, I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.
“I’m going to go over all the intelligence that I can get my mitts on. It’ll be a bit, though, before I can get any real good juicy stuff. The video data alone is making my computer system into a sauna.”
I nodded. “I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. How many of those mercenaries were sent by you?”
“Only a couple. I would have sent the girls in as backup, but I never got a message. Did you even think about calling me?”
“No,” I admitted. “I was preoccupied.”
Nexus laughed again. “Perfectly understandable. And if what you said about the teleporters is true, they might not have done any good anyway. Oh well! Hopefully, we’ll be able to rig something up to accommodate it.”
I paused for a moment. “You have people with access to that video footage? That fast? Without them blowing their cover?”
“Kinda,” he admitted slowly. “Sharing the data with the Dragon’s Teeth was top priority. Thinkers are nice and all, but the DT wanted it, and they have more bulk analysts to look everything over. I tapped into it that way. I probably could have gotten the rest of the data, but I didn’t want to push things.
That was fair. “You said that my presence was an open secret. Any chance that it’ll shift the opinion of me with the Wardens?”
Nexus shook his head, frowning a bit. “No idea, man. It’s probably far too early to tell, anyway.”
Dang. Since we’d come back from Angel Grove, we’d already fought off multiple Warden teams. I was hoping to lower that before things got too heavy and someone got permanently hurt.
He frowned, reaching out to touch my arm. “You okay, man? I thought that you’d be happier.”
“I’m just tired.” I sighed softly. “Plus… I dunno. We saved a lot of lives, sure. But we also lost a lot of people.”
That made him nod appreciatively. “Civilians dead, Wardens and mercs injured… That’s perfectly understandable. Besides, you’ve worked yourself hard. Harder than you probably should. Fenix says that sometimes you pick up restorative elixers, so I’ll have some sent to you as thanks for participating when you didn’t have to.”
“Yeah I did.”
“I know,” Nexus said warmly. “That’s why I go the extra mile with you. It says something to me that you’ve never tried to negotiate money when it comes to our little arrangements. You just take whatever I’m willing to pay without complaint, even when you feel you need the scratch. I send you to do something good, and that’s good enough for you.
“You didn’t even know they were going to reimburse you. You still got the gang to join you in taking them down without that. I appreciate it. So I’ll send some money your way, some elixers… Anything else that you want or need while I’m at it?”
I paused. “Two things, and you only have to do one of them.”
“I got an appointment with the two doctors to make sure that I’m not suffering any tissue rejection and that my cybernetics aren’t messing up.”
Nexus nodding, rubbing his chin. “Keeping you going is pretty important, and I’m willing to bet it’s expensive. Alright, what else?”
“The village that I’m in doesn’t have a lot in the way of red meat.”
That made him burst out into laughter. “Only have to do one of them? Yeah, right. Like I can deny the hero of the hour real meat, and keeping you in fighting condition is a pretty damn high priority. You’ve got both of them. No question about it. I’ll let you know when it’s there.”
I blinked rapidly, stifling a yawn. “Well, that was interesting.”
“It always freaks me out how fast it is,” Kathy said worriedly.
John sighed. “Jordan, I really wish that you wouldn’t–”
“He’s sending us as much red meat as we can eat,” I interrupted.
John’s face fell before he smiled brightly. “Three cheers to the voice in your head!”
Emi snorted. “That’s it? That’s what he wanted you for, to send you some meat?”
“No. We’re also getting a restorative and he’s paying for my visit to the doctor.” I looked to Kathy. “I know that you won’t know what to look for, but I’d feel safer if you were to watch, just in case. I don’t want him adding in something extra without me knowing.”
She nodded, and Brenda squared her chest back. “I’ll come, too.”
“We’ll all come,” John said warmly. “It’ll increase your timespan, and extra eyes may see different things.”
“Awesome. Now, there’s only one more thing that we have to worry about.” I looked around the shop slowly. “What in the hell is that smell?”
The doctor’s visit had gone fine. There was a tiny bit of issue around one hip, but that got resolved with less than an inch of flesh. The cybernetics needed more adjustment, and I was warned that I needed to increase my iron and manganese intake. Just because the cybernetics were self-repairing didn’t mean that they didn’t need a helping hand. Which made sense.
The good doctor also gave me a bunch more of her elixers, lying to Nexus that I’d probably need them after every checkup. The cyberneticist warned me yet again that there was no chance in hell that he’d be able to actually repair my stuff if it actually broke without throwing my body out of whack somehow, so I’d better take care of myself and hope that oxidization didn’t become a concern.
That had been a week ago. The others were still living it up and enjoying themselves, which was good. Kathy especially was still in a terrific mood — ever since the clash with Fyrtorn, she’d been more upbeat, a bit more bounce in her step.
I returned to the inn with the last of the beef — steak tips. Fenix was holding onto it for us since he had freezers. We’d taken to eating it in the mornings and going to the burlesque club at night. For lunch we went wherever, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. It was a good system, but I needed to eat more. I needed to train more.
Thankfully, the others weren’t giving me grief when I did any more. I wondered what had changed there.
As I handed the meat to the server to take back into the kitchen, I got a weird feeling off of someone nearby. It wasn’t anything particularly major, no feeling of danger, but still. A weird feeling in the back of my stomach that eased up as I made my way back to the group.
“Guy at the bar with the breakfast kippers,” I said as I settled down.
“I thought that you already had a boyfriend,” Emi moaned. Too much alcohol for her last night.
“Don’t worry about it,” John said quietly. “I’ve got my eye on him. He’s glanced around a few times, but I think it’s just boredom on his part. I will admit, I wish there was at least a radio down here…”
Kathy nodded. “Since we are all here, except for Emi, mind if we talk shop?” Emi stuck her tongue out, trying not to open her eyes. I nodded.
“Right. So. We have some options for you.”
“For me?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
Kathy smiled patiently. “Yep. Emi gives more inpu– up to the plate. If you don’t have any preference, that’s fine. But at least we’re asking for your opinion on what to do next.”
I frowned a little. “How about we do something that avoids power here soon?”
“That… wasn’t quite what I was getting at,” she confessed.
“What do you mean, power?” John asked curiously.
“I mean, electricity.” I ran a hand over my thick stubble before speaking quietly. “Look, every time that we’ve gone after someone, it’s been on pretty well-defined routes. Places with electricity available for everyone. Places that I have the teleporter coordinates for memorized. That makes us, to an extent at least, predictable. Now, we’ve had run-ins with the Wardens already, and not just what happened last week.
“Now, I’ve been using the scrambler to keep people from spying on where we go, but full teams keep meeting us.” Full teams of cadets, at least. It was still damn confusing. “One possible solution? They’ve got a Thinker coming up with possible places that we can hit. They only need one eye on the gate to see if we’re there, or maybe an eye on whatever hotels are around. That person reports in, they dispatch the Wardens, and the rest is history.”
John was nodding. “Break up the routine a bit, see if they still attack us, and then go from there? I like it. I don’t know of any place offhand, but I’ll check with Fenix and…” John’s words trailed off as he focused on something behind me, and he wasn’t the only one. There were a lot of people at other tables doing the same. As I turned, I immediately understood why.
The man who entered the hotel was over six feet tall. His muscular body had begun to sag from the ravages of time maybe a decade ago, maybe more, but the tattoos that encircled his bare chest and arms spoke more about him than most would have cared to guess. His hair was thinning, going gray, but he still walked with power, pride, and a sense of purpose.
And he walked straight to our table. “Jordan.”
I whipped around to look at everyone, holding up a finger. “Nobody fight. Nobody. Nobody, nobody. There’s no point.” I turned back to the man, forcing a smile to my face. “Hi Lung! Pull up a chair!”
Teleporter roughly similar to mine on his belt. Different, though; smaller and thinner. Interesting. He also had a knife on his belt, though I was willing to bet it wasn’t for intimidation purposes. Back in the old cape days, he’d fought off entire teams of heroes and won. Or, at least, escaped. The longer that you fought him, the worse the fight turned out for you. The more hostile the situation, the quicker that his power ramped up, making him bigger and badder, making his flame powers that much more powerful.
A man like him didn’t need a weapon to be intimidating. He was the intimidation given flesh.
“You know who I am,” he said, not taking me up on the offer of a seat.
“I do.” I glanced to Kathy. “Get us two drinks. Good and strong ones. It’s not every day that I get to meet someone like him.” I turned back to him, plastering a giddy grin to my face. “Please, sit. Join us. Have a drink with me. I honestly doubted that I’d ever get to meet a living legend like yourself.” And every moment that I could keep him distracted was another moment that I could figure out what to do, how to get the others out of this mess.
“We’re having steak tips, eggs, and hash browns. Would you like some? I’ll gladly give you mine if it gives us a moment to talk.”
“I am not interested in talking.” But he was still grabbing a chair from a suddenly vacant table and pulling it over to sit next to me.
“Please humor me.” I turned back to look at Brenda. “This is Lung, the end-all, be-all of mercenaries. An absolute badass. Once upon a time, most people thought that his biggest claim to fame would have been fighting off Leviathan, almost single-handedly. The others were only canon fodder for him to have the time to ramp up.
“But was stopping an Endbringer attack enough for this guy? Oh, no. No, he decided to one up it by directly assaulting Scion, getting some great blows in on him while taking that glow of his without hesitation. And he even threw Bitch’s dog at Scion, too!” I looked back at him. “Wow, this is an honor.”
“Buttering me up will not get you anywhere,” Lung said dangerously.
“Believe me, I’m not buttering you up. This is… I don’t even have words for it.” Terrifying was a good one. If I fought him, I’d have one chance to kill him. After that, all that I could hope to do would be to knock him down and out and run. If he had a teleporter, though, it would only be a matter of time before he caught back up. I wouldn’t have another chance to plan ahead, either — he’d come in swinging.
Kathy returned with two glasses, setting them in front of us. Lung didn’t hesitate to pick up mine. Fair enough. I grabbed his and took a drink. Powerful stuff.
“You have no idea how much I respect you, Lung. How much I wished that I could be you. I grew up hearing stories about you meant to scare kids, but I always thought, here’s a powerful guy who knows what he wants and goes for it. I didn’t agree with your methods, but I had to honestly admire your directness.”
Lung only took a sip of his drink, staring at me.
“Besides, my blood’s pretty well diluted, but we share some common ancestry.” Lung’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say anything. Which… actually sucked pretty bad. It was hard to stall for time if your target wasn’t taking the bait. Out of options, I finally asked the big question. “So, what bring you to my neck of the woods?”
He took another sip of his drink before replying. “You have been making an awfully large name for yourself.”
“Thank you,” I said, faking pride in that.
“People, and not just the Wardens, have been looking for you for quite some time now. You have managed to stay one step ahead of them. I do not mean the mercenaries, though I hear that the contract has been called off.” News to me, but at least it was good news. “I am here on behalf of Teacher.”
I heard Brenda gasp, but Lung and I had locked eyes. His were hard, and I was doing my best to keep the upbeat and cheerful mask up. “Teacher? What’s he want with me?”
“He is willing to offer you what you have always wanted. Power.”
I let my smile dampen. “By sacrificing my freedom.”
“No. More than that. He is offering you the chance to trigger.”
That felt like a stab to my chest. “How?”
Lung shrugged a shoulder. “Does it matter?”
That wasn’t an answer that he wanted to hear. “I do not know. I know that he managed to salvage some from Gesellschaft, what those in Europe didn’t secure. I know that he has been doing other experiments on his own, too. The details are uninteresting to me. But I do know that he can force triggers. Some of his people are quite powerful for it.”
“That’s fair,” I said, nodding my head. “Just… Understand that this is a big thing. But offering me powers seems like it would come with strings attached.”
He shrugged. “Not my concern. I was hired to bring you to him to discuss it. After you understand everything, if you decide that it is not for you, you’re free to go.”
Yeah, and I had the sinking suspicion that it was a load of bull. “And if I don’t want to go?”
“Then I bring you to him.” The by force was unspoken, but he wasn’t hiding it either. “Simple as that.”
“I see.” I broke eye contact at last, looking towards the kitchen. “Where’s our food, anyway?”
John spoke very hesitantly. “I, uh, think that everyone but us is long gone.”
“Then this conversation is complete. I am no fool, child. I know when someone is trying to delay me.” He downed his drink in three wet gulps before looking at me sternly. “Choose.”
I sighed before looking at the others. “Don’t interfere. Don’t even say anything.”
I turned back to Lung, putting my elbows on my knees and gripping my wrist as I let my head drop. “I don’t want to go, but I know that I can’t fight you. Not without putting my friends and everyone in this village at risk.”
“You are no stupid man.”
“Yeah I am. ‘Cos I’m not gonna help you.” I gently pressed the button on my watch.
“I do not understand.”
I looked back up into Lung’s brown eyes. “I’m not gonna help you. The moment that you walked into this city, they would have activated the teleportation suppressor that they installed underground. It’s got a pretty big radius outside of the city, too. I’m not sure how far, but it’s their guarantee that the Wardens, Dragon’s Teeth, and even Fyrtorn don’t mess with them. It’s why folks like us feel safe here, so long as we don’t break the rules.
“I’m not going to fight you, but I won’t help you, either. If you want to take me to Teacher, I won’t walk. You’ll have to carry me.”
I was pulling everything that John had taught me on this gambit. People would only do something for as long as it was worth it. Lung was a mercenary, and he was in it for the money. I wasn’t exactly light, either, especially not with my armor on under my robes. If he carried me for long enough, then I might be able to let him tire himself out and decide that dragging my dead weight wasn’t worth however much he was getting paid.
If I said anything that upset him, made his power activate, it would end that. His strength would be renewed, and my watch would definitely run out of juice first. I just had to trust that his patience wouldn’t last as long as his greed.
Lung’s aged face folded into a frown, but after a long moment of contemplation, he made his way to his feet. “You were right. You are stupid.”
He might not have been in his prime any more, but he still had enough in him to get me on his shoulders in a modified fireman’s carry and stand back up.
“Jordan,” Brenda whispered.
“It’s okay,” I said as Lung moved for the door. “It’s better this way. Don’t do anything — I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
As we made our way outside, I glanced to see the guards gathering. Brilliant. That was the last thing that I needed. “Please don’t interfere,” I called out. “Please. There’s no need for a bloodbath here in town. Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be alright. Just stay out of our way.”
Somehow, I doubted that it was actually my words that kept them from interfering. My rep might have been awesome, but Lung’s? Lung’s reputation made mine look like nothing. After Gold Morning, he’d done some dangerous things, even acting as a distraction for Teacher by assaulting New York Bet by himself while Teacher’s forces committed to their act of revenge against the Undersiders. Going up against him was effectively suicide.
Having so many people watching us, though, was troubling. I pulled my hood over my head as best I could and tried to hide my face. I didn’t want them to see. I didn’t want them to recognize me.
We moved through the town unmolested, finding the gate already open. As soon as we were past the gate, Lung stopped, grunting as I felt him move. A moment later, he started walking again. No doubt, checking to see if the story that I told him was true.
It was another fifteen minutes before Lung spoke again. “How large is this?”
“I dunno,” I lied. “I was lucky to find out about it at all. Nobody told me the exact measurements, and they were probably too drunk to give me the full story, anyway.”
I heard air escape through clenched teeth as he kept walking on the path.
Boredom. It crept up at the oddest times. As we walked, Lung content to be silent, I was left with my own thoughts, nothing much else to entertain me. That was bad.
I thought about Teacher. What did he want me for? I was a nobody, really. In the grand scheme of things, I didn’t really account for much. I didn’t have a cool power for him to tap into, and while I had technical skills, they weren’t enough to really drive a community like whatever it was that he had. At this point, they’d want specialists, and I definitely wasn’t a specialist.
Why grant me powers beyond being just a bargaining chip? Sure, if he got his teeth in me, I’d be someone else in case the Wardens or Dragon’s Teeth or whomever had a grudge against him. But at the same time, wouldn’t that be a waste of resources?
I briefly considered trying to press Lung for more information, but I doubted that he had any. I considered striking up a conversation, but he didn’t seem like that much of a talker when he didn’t want to be. Maybe if I spoke in Japanese? Or would Cantonese be better? Or was it Mandarin? I honestly wasn’t sure if he actually knew any Chinese at all, let along what dialect. Besides, I was pretty sure that I only remembered the basics from school.
The other problem with striking up a conversation was that it might piss him off, which would only make this gambit fail. No, it was far better to remain silent and just focus on his slowing pace.
Another half an hour passed, only punctuated by his occasional pauses to test the teleporter and his ever slowing pace. The monotony was finally broken when Lung lurched.
I had a sudden moment of panic and vertigo as he fell to one knee, my head swinging all over the place as I slammed into his shoulder. As I opened my mouth to as him what was wrong, he let go of me, dropping me to the ground without a care in the world.
“Hey, uh, Lung?” I quickly made my way to my feet, moving around him, only to find that his face was twisted up in pain with bullets of sweat running down it. “Are you–”
I didn’t have time to finish my question as he tipped to his side, making me scramble to catch him and ease him to the ground. My hand went to his artery as his eyelids began to flicker, finding his pulse to be too weak and sluggish for someone who had been carrying a man for almost an hour. Too irregular.
I found myself staring down at a man in his fifties who had lived a hard life. He’d been in many great battles, but what had he done between those battles? Had he smoked? Drank heavily? There were rumors that he’d been spending a lot of time in the past few years going from fight to fight, taking any job offered him if it meant that he could fight someone, anyone, no matter how big or small. Had he been staving off the effects of time that way?
I didn’t know. I honestly didn’t. But I punched him in the face anyway. When he didn’t respond, I punched him again. A third time to the chest. “Stupid fucker,” I growled, not really feeling it. “Limp-dicked son-of-a–”
A surprisingly strong arm grabbed my robes and flung me away. I tumbled, and as I slowed, I came up to a sitting position, as awkward as it was from how my robes were tangled. Slowly, Lung shakily made his way to his feet, his brown eyes now having a slight golden look to them.
“There we go,” I said sagely.
Lung sneered at me. “You–”
“Just saved your life.” Getting up was just as awkward as sitting, if not more so. “You were dying, Lung. Your heart was stopping. CPR is only good if you can get aid there soon. The rest of the time? Even if you get the heart going again, there’s a good chance that the person’ll end up braindead. So I got your passenger into the act, kicking your regeneration into full speed.”
His sneer softened a little.
“You’ve done great things, man. Amazing things. I’m not gonna let you die just because we’re on opposite sides. That’s not my way. But I’m not going with you. I’m going back to the city. And I think that you’ve got just enough honor to you to realize that screwing over the dude who could have done it without saving your life is stupid.”
“Saving me was stupid,” he said slowly, his voice even deeper than it had been before.
“And if I come after you again?”
He did have enough honor. Thank goodness. “Then it’ll be an interesting day. But I think that we can both agree that today shouldn’t be that day. Yeah?”
“You are a fool.” Lung took a deep breath, putting a hand to his chest. “And… Maybe I am too, for letting you go.”
“Maybe. But honestly? I don’t care. I’m just glad that I don’t have to bury your ass by hand.” I took a step, then paused. “And seriously, Lung… See a doctor. Do something to fix yourself up, alright? I don’t know who or how, but just see someone.”
I glanced at my watch — dead. The localized teleportation suppressor had long run out. I’d have to get Habib to recharge it or replace the batteries or whatever. “I’m headed back. I missed out on breakfast. Tell Teacher… Tell him the truth. Whatever he’s selling, I’m not buying any more. He should have come after me last year.”
With that, I turned and began the walk back towards the city. I could only imagine what the locals would think of me now. Left being carried by Lung, come back without him, and mud on my robes? Thank goodness they didn’t know who I really was.