It was hard not to just turn and walk away into the wilderness. Stepping through that open gate, seeing every eye on me, it was enough for me to just disappear from the world. The nervous stares, the kids who usually at least waved at me being restrained by nervous parents… I felt so very small.
But my halberd was at the hotel. I couldn’t leave without it. It didn’t matter how much these people stared, it didn’t matter what else I walked out with or without. I kept my back straight and my head high as I went for the hotel to retrieve it. After that I could figure out what was going on.
I made it maybe twenty feet from the hotel when the door burst open and Kathy came charging out. Almost instantly, Emi appeared next to me, the displaced air giving both of us resistance before she could throw herself around me. It said something that her teleporting didn’t give her long before Kathy joined her in embracing me.
“Idiot,” Emi growled.
“Fuckin’ moron.” Unlike Emi, Kathy sounded like she was close to tears.
It wasn’t like I could hug them back, not with them pinning my arms against my body. All that I could do was stand there, keenly aware of how many people were watching. “Sorry,” I said quietly, not sure what else I should say. I didn’t even know what I could say.
Emi pounded her fist weakly against the small of my back, not letting go. “When they explained who that was, I thought you was dead.”
“I knew you were dead,” Kathy added. “Getting Lung out of the city, making sure that we weren’t around? That was insanely stupid!”
“Why didn’t you let me come?” Emi asked. “I coulda disrupted him and–”
“You could have interrupted his pyrokinesis,” I corrected. “His powering up? I can’t say for sure, but I doubt that it’d work. Having you involved in a fight with him would have only resulted in him getting more pissed off, which might have made him ramp up even faster.”
I wasn’t sure about that, actually. There was a lot about his power that I just didn’t know about, but I wasn’t about to admit to it. One thing that I’d learned was that sometimes it was better to keep my mouth shut. Explaining myself too much while someone was crying didn’t help matters any.
Kathy pulled away, looking into my eyes. “Are you alright?”
I frowned. What the hell was I supposed to say to that? Wasn’t it obvious? “I could eat a pig. And a few potatoes. But mostly the pig.” Her shoulders slumped as she stared at me in disbelief. “Maybe some switchel, too?”
I felt another person slam into me. Really? I didn’t even bother to take my eyes off of Kathy’s. “Hi miss B.” I couldn’t remember offhand what name we were using for Brenda in this city.
“Seriously.” I turned to look at John’s grinning mug as he smugly crossed his arms. “I have no idea how you keep surviving shit like this.”
“It’s not my fault. I try to get myself killed.” My joke was rewarded with two fists and an open palm smacking into me. Right, I should have known better. It didn’t help that John was laughing.
The laughter, though, ended surprisingly fast. Bad sign. I glanced to him, his suddenly sober expression, and followed his eyes to where a man and a woman were approaching us. I had no idea if everyone else knew who they were, but they were following John’s example and pulling away from me. Even though they were still right there, it made me feel like I was on my own for this one.
“You’re alright,” the woman said in amazement. I was starting to get the feeling that I’d be hearing that a lot.
“Half-starved and in need of a nap, but yeah.” I’d see if the others could help me come up with replies later.
“And Lung?” the man asked in a worried tone.
I got the impression that telling them the truth wouldn’t help me much, but I didn’t want to lie. “He’s seen better days.” There, that worked nicely.
The man nodded slowly. “Will he be a problem?”
Someone of authority in the city. Doubtful that this guy was the head of the guard — guards here wore uniforms. Maybe the mayor? “Probably not. We… reached an accord of sorts, I guess you could say. He might return, depending on if his employer offers him an amount of money that he can’t refuse, but I honestly doubt it.”
“Do you think they will?”
I blinked at him. Was it possible? I wasn’t sure. On the other hand, though… “I doubt it. If the walking person of mass destruction doesn’t bring your target in, then it’s time to start looking into other methods. If I was still a free agent merc, I wouldn’t take any contract that he failed at.”
“They know,” I heard Brenda whisper just loud enough for me to hear.
So they knew who I was. Alright, fine. Fuck it. I might as well go all in. “Listen, I never intended to put you or yours into any trouble. I just wanted a place to be me. If you want me to go, then all you gotta do is say the word. I’ll grab my stuff and go. No questions, no trouble.”
The woman narrowed her eyes. “I find it interesting that you say trouble and not danger.”
“Danger’s a form of trouble, but not the only one, you know? I don’t need to worry about anyone getting dragged into my problems who isn’t already there.”
“But you won’t stop doing what you’re doing,” she stressed.
I shrugged a shoulder. “I’ve been meat for a long time now. You forget how to be anything else. Nowadays, I’m my own meat.” I took a slow breath. “I honestly wouldn’t blame you if you were to say the word.”
“It’s almost like you want us to say it,” the man said.
“I’ll be blunt, sir. I’m a simple man, and I wasn’t kidding about being half-starved. I can stand and talk if you’re not kicking me out, but if you are, it means I gotta get my stuff and get out before I can eat.”
The man and woman looked at each other for a long moment before she nodded. He turned his attention back to me. “Have you ever wondered why this town got so big?”
Oh, fuck me. He was going to give a speech. Still, I shrugged my shoulder. “It’s a day’s ride from a bunch of other places and was on a natural path to another community that had a teleporter to New Brockton, allowing you to be a trade hub?”
The man paused for a moment. “That too, yes. You’re smarter than you look. But that’s not the only reason we had so many people join.
“Mary and I, we aren’t villains, we aren’t even paras, but we were in jail when Scion got a land deed. Almost starved to death before someone came to the prison and let us out. But we had the chance to put our pasts behind us, so when we helped organize this little convoy during the exodus, we made an oath: we’d give everyone a chance.”
Why did they do this? I really didn’t get it. I’d ask why adults did this, but I was 21 now, so I guessed that I counted as one, but… Why?
“If a person walks into our village, it didn’t matter if they were Jack Slash, we’d give them one chance. If they screwed it up, they’re gone. It’s why we don’t have an agreement with the Dragon’s Teeth or Wardens. We’d be safer, and they’d have to follow the contract, but we’d have to put up with them doing their thing here, going after folks.
“If people cause a problem here, we’ll handle it. Otherwise, we’d rather give people the same courtesy that we got after Gold Morning.”
There! Thank you! Why couldn’t he have just said that?!
“Don,” the woman, Mary, said pointed. “We’d be curious if you’d like to have dinner with us. Not as someone who has… troubles in the outside world, but as someone who’s been a part of this community, and who just tried to keep those troubles from affecting the community.”
My chest seized and my blood turned to ice. I wasn’t sure why, but her offer scared the living daylights out of me.
Even worse, I didn’t want that. I didn’t want any of this in the slightest. I wanted to continue being Don here, a nobody who could find a warm sunbeam to read in, or who people would just roll their eyes over whenever he was training. I didn’t want special treatment. I just wanted the freedom to do my own thing, interacting with the people that I chose, and no worries about anything else.
Unfortunately, I didn’t think that I had the choice. Political games weren’t my thing, but I knew when I was getting pulled into one. Fortunately, I had backup this time. “I’d appreciate that, but I wouldn’t feel right if my friends didn’t come as well. They’re as responsible as I am for keeping trouble at bay, if not more. They’ve had my back, so they’ve had your back too. It wouldn’t be proper if they didn’t join us.”
The woman looked between the five of us, a strange, soft smile on her face. “Of course. I’d love to have all of you. I’ll make sure that Tom makes a feast. Is there anything in particular that you all would like?”
John was the first to speak up. “Meat.”
“Lotsa meat,” Emi agreed.
“Okay,” Brenda said, holding out her hands. “Imagine a pig. Now, stuff that pig inside of another pig. Now stuff that inside of a cow. Then put that in a hippo. I think that’d make an excellent first course.”
“I don’t know,” Kathy deadpanned. “I think we might need some meat with that. And maybe some sort of alcohol.”
The man laughed. “I make my own bourbon.” John perked up. “It’s clear, I’m afraid, but rather smooth.”
John chuckled softly. “Dark in the bar, clear in company, I’ve heard it said.”
That got the man to smile warmly. “Well, then. We’ll let you five be. How does six tonight sound?”
“That sounds wonderful,” Kathy said. “Though I’ll warn you, you’ll have to forgive Don. Until he gets comfortable or on a subject that he likes, he’s not much of a talker.”
“Then you can’t shut me up,” I said, glancing at her. It only made her smile a bit more.
“You can’t expect perfection from everyone,” the man said. “We’ll see you then.”
That seemed to break up the crowd a little bit. The message had been sent loud and clear; I was still welcome here. I turned to Kathy and whispered to her. “Thank you. I owe you guys so much.”
That made her laugh, and she didn’t even lower her voice at all. “Nah. We’re getting meat out of it.” Her mood tempered quickly, though. “Still, I feel like we’re gonna have to do some talking before our next job…”
I swung, only to have one piece of rebar impact with the back of my machete at the same moment as the other piece connected with my gripping hand. My swing went wild, and before I could recover, the rebar smashed against my temple, sending me to the ground.
Before I could even recover, I was being offered a hand. I took it gratefully, and Mom hauled me back to my feet.
“Sorry,” I said, smiling apologetically at her. “Let’s do it again.”
Without waiting for an answer, I swung, and she repeated the deflection. This time, I was able to prevent her counter by raising my machete in time. I went for another quick snap, but left hand impacted with my wrist a split second before her right brought the rebar down on my arm. Not content, she swept her arm, swiping the tip into my throat with surprising force.
I let out a frustrated sigh, and she smiled at me. “Relax. We just haven’t done escrima in a while.”
“Yeah, but I’m getting soft.” That was the worst part, knowing that certain skills were falling by the wayside.
She pushed her bright red hair out of her face, her expression grim. “Indeed. You haven’t been training with me often enough. If you’re going to keep your edge, we have to do this more.”
“I know,” I whimpered, lowering my head.
Mom smiled again, reaching down to lay a hand on my shoulder. “You’re getting upset. We’ll call it for today. But come back soon, alright?”
I lowered the newspaper from my eyes, giving out a mighty yawn as the wagon shook from the poor road.
We’d teleported into town dressed in Dragon’s Teeth uniforms that Emi had made by examining pictures saved by my employees. Kathy had taken the role of our commanding officer while dealing with the businessman, explaining that we had it on good authority that there were bandits in the area planning to hit his trade route on the way back, and asking to act as decoys. We’d had to put down a deposit to guarantee that we’d return with his product and wagon, but that had been the most that he’d asked.
The others had relished the little mini con, convincing the townspeople that we were a small fireteam of Dragon’s Teeth. It’d come with two days of prep in my room, me explaining everything that I knew of them from back home. I hadn’t taken more than their combat and threat assessment courses, but I’d watched them when I could, learning everything possible.
Now, we were simply on the road in an empty wagon, waiting to reach our target. It would have been easier if I’d had the coordinates for it.
“Have a good nap?” Brenda asked cheerfully.
“Yeah,” I said, wiping my eyes.
Kathy shook her head. “One moment you’re reading, the next you’re sleeping.”
“I used to pass out doing pushups, so…” I grinned a little before looking back to the paper. “This guy.” I tapped the article. “This expy of Eidolon down to the powers and had his luchador commandos… Know anything about him?”
Kathy’s expression went strange. “Why do you ask?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “Just worried is all. Someone like that, I like to have intel on whenever possible, and the papers aren’t saying enough about him for me to get a handle. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that they showed up to help, but… I’d just like to have an idea walking in just in case we have to face him, you know?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” she said sagely. “We, uh, we move in different circles. Anyway, you never did tell us about the meeting with the guy.”
“The shrink?” I shrugged. “We talked. It was mostly a meet and greet. I mean, I’m not upset or anything, and I can respect that you all wanna make sure I’m on the up and up after the past couple of years, but it’s going to take more than one session to do anything. If you all wanna schedule another, I’ll go. I’m more worried about you, though.”
I still remembered Kathy’s reaction to killing someone. She’d bounced back well, and the second time that she’d used her powers the same way she hadn’t responded, but I still worried.
Rather than push it, though, I moved on. “It was nice to see Gina, though.”
Kathy and Emi exchanged glances. “You saw her?” Emi asked carefully.
“Uh, yeah?” I frowned a bit. “I thought that I told you?”
“No. No you didn’t. What happened?”
I shrugged a shoulder a bit. “She grabbed me, asked me what the hell I was doing there, I asked her what she was doing there. That’s all. Then I met up with the rest of you, we did our thing, then we went home. Seriously, I could have sworn…” Something about Gina, at least. I couldn’t put my finger on what.
Emi coughed before speaking quickly. “Anyway, I still don’t know why you’re friends with bitchface.”
I smiled. “She’s hard to like, I’ll be the first to admit. Very rough, very aggressive. But… I dunno, she’s good people once you get past that. If you give her way too much to do… Well, okay. If you give her enough to do at once, she’s actually pretty pleasant. Talking to you isn’t a chore for her, and the real her can shine through. I wish that you could meet her like that.”
I turned my attention to Kathy. “Hey, I never asked. What happens if we get there, do our skullduggery, and can’t actually find the plates?”
John called out. “A fiver coin says we do.”
Kathy rolled her eyes. “I’m ready to agree with him, but you’re right. We should talk about that. We know that someone there is somehow involved with forging the new US currency, yeah. But I guess that they could just be a middle man. Hopefully, we figure something out in our, uh, skullduggery, someone who can lead us to the people responsible. If not…”
She frowned, shaking her head. “You mind if we use your rep to squeeze info out?”
I nodded a little. “What would the angle be?”
“Duh,” Emi said, rolling her eyes dramatically. “You did a bit of merc work for someone, they paid you, but half the bills were bad. You’re pissed, even though it isn’t their fault, and you’re hunting for the people who made them for reparations. Did I use that right?”
“Yeah, reparations is the right word.” John looked away from the road to grin at her. “The grasshopper continues to surprise me. Soon you will be the master.”
“So long as she isn’t the master of evil,” Kathy mock-groused. I perked a little. That was a reference that I actually got! Master of Evil was a great module with witches and evil mathematicians skulking in pyramids and death rays and stuff.
“Damn it!” Brenda’s face twisted into a snarl, her eyes still hidden. “Is it too much to ask that we go one fucking month…”
“What is it?” I asked, immediately scanning the treeline.
“Everyone be quiet and listen.”
As John slowed the horses to a stop, I closed my eyes and focused. Brenda spent most of her time blind, so her hearing was a bit better than ours. It took me a moment to hear a soft droning whine in the distance.
“Fucking Wardens,” Emi muttered. “Masks or no?”
“Not much point,” John said with a sigh. “Honestly, we wear them more for other people than we do them. They already know who we are.”
I frowned as I shrugged out of my robes, keeping my eye up. Something felt off about the way it sounded.
“So is the job a wash?” Brenda asked in a disappointed voice.
“No,” Kathy said. “We can salvage this. If they come straight for us and then home again, we can claim that they were investigating the same bandits that we were when we return the wagon. If they’re going to the other village, we keep our heads down and quietly find out what’s up.”
“And if they’re getting the counterfitters instead of going after us?” Emi asked.
“Then we deliver the alcohol and get our deposit back. The only thing we’ll be out of is what we paid Fenix.”
I was just grabbing my helmet when I saw the green and gold craft flash by overhead, mostly hidden by the trees. That was enough to make my heart almost stop in my chest. “Nope.”
Everyone turned to look at me as I slammed my helmet on. “It’s me they want.” With a flick of my wrist, the faceplate came down. “There’s a teleporter back where we came from. Head back there and use it.” I stood in the wagon, reaching for my pack, but ignoring the duffel. “Ride the horses hard. Claim that they got the bandits, so you aren’t making the run as you now have other temporary additional duties that you have to perform ASAP.”
Kathy helped me anchor the pack into my armor. “What’s going on Jordan?”
“I’ll explain as we go,” Brenda said, peeking out to look at us.
“I’ll draw them off for as long as I safely can,” I said quickly, hopping out of the wagon. “I’ll teleport around a few times with the suppressor active. Try and draw them off the trail. No names, but I’ll meet you where we meet the four, alright?”
“You shouldn’t go alone,” Emi whispered, suddenly scared. “You need backup.”
“And you won’t know when I’ll be teleporting out. I have to time it precisely, and if you aren’t exactly where I’ll need you, then we’ll both be in deeper shit than we are now. And if I accidentally leave you behind… They’ll grill you to get to me, and nobody needs that.”
I hopped off the wagon, and by the time that I turned around, she was already holding out my halberd. I took it from her, nodding once. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you sure?” Kathy asked, her brows drawn together.
“Positive. Now go on, get. The closer you are, the more that I have to toy with them to buy you time.”
Emi looked like she wanted to say something, but John was already getting the horses moving again, pulling as tight of a circle as he could. Even then, the wagon jolted badly as it turned around on the narrow road flanked by trees. I didn’t watch them go — I simply pushed forward, one foot in front of the other. There wasn’t enough space to land here, and I didn’t want them to have to go far. It’d only make things harder for everyone. After a few steps, I broke into a run. There had to be a clearing somewhere.
The sound of the craft returned again, louder this time, holding pace with me right overhead. I didn’t bother to look up. After several long moments, I heard it pull ahead, the whine changing once again.
As it started to descend ahead of me, I slowed to a walk. Forced my breath to come more slowly. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
The craft was longer than I thought it was, the basic form somehow reminding me of a sniper rifle. The gold and green way that it had been painted was… Well, it was beautiful. Four thrusters, two on each side, had been crafted with care, form and function melded into one beautiful combination, like limbs reaching out towards the ground.
The sleek angles moved forward, tapering to a point that opened up, revealing some sort of Tinker-made weapon like a maw that was opened and ready for combat. The way that the tail had been done was more elegant than any other craft that I’d ever seen, looking like a piece of art. Like an animal’s tail, sleek and long as it flew through the air.
Honestly, I didn’t know all that much about aircraft — it had never been a focus of mine, but I could draw impressions. This wasn’t designed for a dogfight against other flying craft. This was to get from point A to point B quickly, to perform strafing runs and get out of retaliation range as fast as possible.
Hell, why did I never study aircraft? I felt like I was only scratching the surface of the beauty behind this design.
I blinked away tears as the craft touched the ground, my lips pressing together so tight that it hurt. Everything hurt. I felt like a void had been torn open inside of me, one that threatened to consume me if I let it. I found myself standing still, the butt of my halberd on planted on the ground, my back straight as a board.
This was it. The moment that I’d been secretly dreading had finally arrived. Nowhere to go but forward from here.
Defiant and Dragon had finally found their prey.