The sun felt warm on my face.
The window wasn’t bad. There were people building stuff nearby. People moved about. There was something to watch. Sometimes, the window would only show trees and stuff. There wasn’t much to look at. But sometimes the window would show something else. I could see people building stuff, or people milling about. Sometimes I had to look down to see them. Sometimes I didn’t. The window was weird.
It was better than when I didn’t look out it.
I blinked as I saw a pair of figures come into view. A girl and a man. She looked like my age. They were holding hands. That was strange. People didn’t hold hands.
As they walked, my eyes adjusted. The man looked strange. Funny. Weird. The fact that he was holding a stick a little taller than himself with a piece of metal on top didn’t help.
His clothes were made out of metal. A light green and shiny yellowish color. They sat on him well, making him seem bigger than everyone else. It wasn’t that the people that they passed were smaller, but he was… bigger somehow.
I could barely make out the vertical slits in his mask over where his eyes would be. The mask itself wrapped completely around his head. He walked slowly, mostly so the girl could walk with him, her hand in his.
Was he… Was he bringing her here? But she wasn’t crying. She was bouncing along next to him. She was happy to come here? Nobody was happy to come here.
The big man dressed in colorful metal made her happy to come here. Amazing.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Come on,” a woman said. “Let’s get you something to eat.”
“Who is that?” It hurt to talk, and my voice was barely a whisper. Why had I asked that? Why couldn’t I take my eyes off the man dressed in metal?
The woman took a sharp breath, and she was now at my side, squatting next to me. Peering at me oddly. “What did you just say?”
I didn’t take my eyes off the man. She should know what I said. The man just kept walking towards the main entrance with the little girl.
There was a long pause before she spoke. “That’s…” Her voice wavered with hesitation. “That’s Defiant. He’s a hero from before Scion. He saved a lot of lives, and fought bad guys. He… He’s bringing that girl to stay with us.”
She paused, putting one hand on my shoulder again and her other on my chest, trying to make me look at her. “Do you like him?”
Hero. I liked that word. I didn’t know what it meant, but I liked the way that she’d said it. It felt like it meant something good.
The craft’s ramp lowered, pressing into the earth. My body felt weird. My bones were filled with helium, but someone had turned my armor into lead. My heart was racing in my chest. My teeth were clamped together so tightly that my ears rang.
A hand pressed to the circle on my chest and twisted, activating the mechanism to release my pack and let it drop to the ground behind me.
Those forest green boots, inlaid with gold design and trimming hit the the ramp. Dang, those were big. Long, powerful legs, inlaid with almost Celtic designs. A wide waist that, even with the heavy armor over it, spoke of a powerful core. A broad chest, the gold forming wing designs. Wide shoulders. A helmet that looked like some sort of souped up high tech knight’s helm. In his right hand was that spear that was taller than him, and he had to be a foot taller than me in that armor.
My throat was tight as I spun the halberd, jamming the point into the ground and letting go as I walked forward.
Dragon was behind him, looking more dragon than human. It fit all classic images — maw, wings with turbines, a tail… All the fittings in a humanoid shape. She walked leaning forward, but it looked like she could straighten up and walk, or act, normally if the need arose. The same green and gold as Defiant. The difference was, however, that she had two protrusions, one on each shoulder. Some sort of weapons array.
I lifted my faceplate, then pulled my helmet off. My mouth felt like it was full of dust and ashes.
Defiant turned, walking towards me. In his armor, he had to be seven feet tall. A truly massive, powerful, imposing figure. He flicked his wrist slightly as he cleared the craft, the spear extending to its full height, towering over him.
My hand went to my belt, touching, then twisting.
He walked until he was fifteen feet away. Even with his helmet obscuring his face, I could feel his eyes boring holes into me. I could feel him staring, judging. When he spoke, his voice was low and powerful, altered slightly by speaking through his helm. “Jordan.”
I dropped the helmet and belt, taking one more step before crossing my feet. As I lowered myself to my knees, I put my hands on the back of my head, interlacing my fingers. “I surrender.”
I didn’t feel bad about lying to my friends. We couldn’t take Dragon and Defiant. John might have the strength to hit them and do some damage, Kathy might be able to shoot them and make it hurt, but they’d have counters to that. These were people who fought, and killed, the Slaughterhouse 9. These weren’t the kinds of people who fucked around.
Besides, deep inside, a part of me was tired. It had been for a long, long time. As long as I could remember. It was time, and I couldn’t think of anyone better.
Defiant said nothing for a long moment, not moving at all. Just staring at me. What was he waiting for? I could feel the disgust rolling off of him. Of course he’d feel disgusted by me.
It was a simple word, but it struck me like he’d just run me through the chest with his spear. “No?”
“No.” His voice was firm. “I refuse your surrender.”
My world spun. Part of my brain fet light and weird. “Wha… I don’t… I-I…”
“It’s simple.” He hefted his spear, pointing it at me, the two-pronged tip only a couple of feet from my face. “Retrieve your gear and fight me.”
I lowered my hands. Well, more of let them drop, really. Reality had stopped making sense again. “I… I surrender, though. I don’t want to fight.”
Defiant took a step forward, swinging that spear. The head didn’t strike me, but the shaft scuffed the crown of my head, not enough to do any damage, but hard enough to send me toppling over onto my side. “I don’t recall giving you a choice.”
His strike hadn’t caused much pain, but it hurt more than anything else in the world. I would have gladly walked through that damn Tinker’s hallway again rather than felt this. “Why?” I whimpered, my vision blurring. “You’re a hero!”
“The age of heroes and villains is over,” he boomed, stepping back. “Now, gear up and fight. The only way you’re getting out of this without fighting me is in a body bag. Do not disappoint me.”
My breath came out in short, shuddering pants as I weakly pushed myself back up to my knees. His stance was coiled, ready to strike me again. I was tempted, sorely tempted to let him. What had happened to make him react like this? This wasn’t like him. What did I do to deserve this much hate from him?
But I got up, my shoulders slumped. I shuffled to retrieve my helmet and belt. I couldn’t even look at him as I put them on. When I caught even a glimpse of him out of my peripheral vision, it felt like a sucking wound had been wrenched open in my chest. Not that it was any easier with my back turned to him as I moved for my halberd. I could still feel his hate behind me.
What did I do that was so wrong? I could think of a million things, but what had specifically triggered this behavior?
It didn’t matter. My helmet and belt reattached, I put my hand on my halberd. I’d done something too vile for him, and this was the only way that he could express it. He had to fight me. He had to vent his rage and frustration. That was fine. I…
That was fine.
I hefted my halberd and turned to him. He was still coiled and ready to go. I squared my shoulders back and took up a stance myself, glad that he couldn’t see my face. “Okay,” I whispered softly.
We stood there for a long moment, waiting for the other to act, neither one of us wanting to be the first to make a move. He wanted to fight, but he didn’t want to be the aggressor. That would put him in the right. That was fine.
I crossed the distance, making a wide sweep with my weapon, one that he easily deflected up and around him with his spear. As soon as it was clear of him, he lunged and slapped my helmet with the shaft, not even hard enough to make me stumble.
My weapon was shorter, so that put me within my optimal attack radius. I reversed my blade, pulling it down towards his lower calf.
It never even connected. He simply raised his foot and brought it back down, catching the blade and stomping it into the ground. With the weight of his heavy armor on it, trapping it, he made a massive overhand swing, slamming it into my helmet hard enough to knock me to the ground.
As I tumbled, I realized that he’d released my weapon — I still had it in my hands. Rolling to my knees, I launched myself forward to try and drive the spearpoint into him. With a jerk of his hand, he slapped the shaft of his weapon up, impacting mine and sending it too high to hit him. Old training kicked in and I jerked it back down, the axe head of my halberd uselessly glancing off his shoulder armor.
Defiant lunged forward as I backed off, lashing out with the butt of his weapon, impacting squarely in the middle of my faceplate and sending me stumbling back. He backed off immediately, giving me room.
I swung again, aiming for his neck. I must have telegraphed it too much, though, because he raised his arm, effortlessly letting my halberd glint off of it. He didn’t let it rest; shifting his arm so that my momentum combined with the movement drove the blade downward.
As the blade ran off his elbow, he snapped his arm back down, trapping my weapon in his armpit. His other hand effortlessly swung his spear. The shaft impacted my helmet hard enough to make my head rock, distracting me from the powerful boot that lifted and slammed into my chest, sending me off my feet.
I hit the ground hard, realizing that I didn’t have my halberd in hand anymore. I looked up, only to find Defiant standing there, retrieving my weapon from his armpit. We hadn’t even engaged each other for thirty seconds, and he had already disarmed me.
I put my elbows underneath me to push myself up a bit. “You won.”
“This is the Survivor of St. Louis,” he spat, not listening. “The Hero of Agamemnon. The Butcher of New Fairfax.”
“You beat me,” I whimpered.
“You’ve fought more wildlings than most people have ever seen and survived. It obviously isn’t because of your skill. You must have only lived because of your armor.”
He hefted my halberd, examining it. “Look at this. A worthless mimic of my old weapon. I’ve been told that you call it a halberd.” He looked down at me. “Without the spike on the back, it isn’t a halberd. It’s more of a bill, or a bardiche.”
I shook my head weakly.
“I’ve been told great things about the weapons your brother makes. From this design, I think that they’re full of shit.”
I winced. That… That hurt, coming from him.
“Everyone tells me that people have to be sharper these days. That even non-combatants know a thing or two about fighting. And that you’re one of the best.” As he spoke, I pulled myself up to a sitting position. “From what I’m seeing, you wouldn’t have survived two minutes back in the day. All that training, gone to waste.
“You never would have been a hero. Even if you would have triggered… You aren’t even good enough to trigger. But even if you had, you’d be lucky if you would have been put to use in training. You probably would have been put behind a desk, occasionally trussed up and taken to schools to show little kids that don’t know any better.”
He paused a moment, but it didn’t last long. “If you’re this pathetic, then I’ll talk to Chevalier. See to it that your sister files paperwork for the rest of her life.”
That was a slap to my face. No… Sarah… She was too good to deserve that…
I didn’t have time to process it. He tossed my halberd back to me before reaching up and touching the side of his helmet. “I don’t need my analyzer to beat you. Get up and fight me.”
“Why?” I whimpered. “Why do we have to fight?”
“Because I say so.” He backed off to take up a fighting stance outside of both our attack ranges again. “Now have at you.”
I struggled to my feet, finding that I had a little more energy than before. A little more determination. Not for my sake. I was still going to lose, and I knew it, but… Maybe if I fought hard enough, I could save Sarah. Maybe. Either way, I couldn’t help her by laying on my back.
I lunged, and he immediately thrust his spear at me. I easily knocked it to the side, and he immediately shifted his weight, telegraphing too much. As he started to spin, I was already ducking and backing off to protect myself. His spinning back kick made his powerful boot barely graze the arm that I’d brought up to defend myself.
That was the problem with paras from the old days — they tended to have too much flash to their moves. He was better than most, but there was still some there. Style versus substance. Style was good when used tactically, but they’d been slaves to PR. The Protectorate needed to look good for the public, so the PRT trained them with a bit of flash. Meanwhile, the villains had egos to feed, or fans to culture if they were on the ranking boards.
While he recovered from that risky move, the dull edge of the back of my halberd blade impacted with his hip before I danced back. I didn’t want him trapping my blade again.
I still didn’t want to fight him. I didn’t want to hurt him; Defiant did great things for the Dragon’s Teeth. But I had to make an effort now. As he recovered and began to thrust with his halberd, I had to make a good show of it. I had to do it for Sarah.
When two polearm users would fight, there were three levels of combat. Beginners would flail clumsily, being awkward to watch. Intermediate fighters would be somewhat impressive, with frequent pauses to size up their opponent before attacking again. But when two experts would go at it… the combat looked clumsy again. Swords looked elegant when two experts went at it, but polearms could be exactly the opposite. The more skill you had, the more you were aware of your weapon’s strengths and weaknesses.
We fell into the latter category, as attacks were deflected, countered, and avoided instantly. Our weapons slammed into each other, rubbed up against each other, and were yanked away instantly before one of us could use that moment against the other. My attempts to hook his weapon underneath the axe head were useless, as were his attempts to thrust his spear into me or get me with the cutting edge.
My armor was cooling off quickly to compensate for how hard I was working. As my body temperature soared, it tried to mitigate that to keep me going. When normal people’s limbs would be screaming, the fibers spread throughout my muscles kept them feeling normal. When others would be gasping for breath, my augmented lungs kept me going.
But Defiant was a cyborg, whereas I was just augmented. Unless his body ran out of power, he wouldn’t wear down. And from what I could gather? He had gone days without recharging before.
I tried to catch his spear shaft under my my axehead, but he moved out of the way. Unfortunately, that let him catch my halberd shaft between the fork of his spearhead, clamping it tight. A twist of his wrists, a pull and drag, and my weapon came free from my hands. Before I could even react, he’d closed the distance, and a mighty gauntlet slammed into my helmet, sending me stumbling back.
It took me a moment to register the voice, but as soon as I did, a familiar pressure formed against my side for a moment. I looked down to find Emi next to me, wearing her mask and her pistols in her hands. Behind us, I could hear voices.
I turned to her. “What the fuck are you doing?”
She snorted, and I could see the curl of her lips in her profile. Holy shit, she was actually enjoying this? “You’re just the kind of asshole who would sacrifice himself for his friends.”
I stared at her in disbelief. Could this day get any more insane? “And you’re fucking that up nicely, thank you!” There was motion in the corner of my eye, and without thinking or looking, I caught the tossed halberd.
Her grin widened. “Sacrifice denied, motherfucker.”
In any other situation, I might have taken a page from her book and said something smart, like reminding her like I was an orphan or something. Instead, my mouth worked wordlessly.
As the horses came to a halt, though, Dragon finally stepped forward. The great dragon’s head of her armor opened its mouth, a blue light shining inside. I knew that light — the plasma weapon she’d used on Leviathan. Meanwhile, the weapons pods on her shoulders sprung to life, one glowing green and the other red.
“Interfere and you’re all dead!” Defiant shouted in an authoritative tone. “We will not hesitate to use lethal force!”
He paused for a moment, his head turning from the wagon behind us back to me. “They’ll get their turn, though. I promise you that, Jordan. Since you’re still holding back, not giving me your all… Once I’m done with you, I’ll take my disappointment out on them. It might take a while.”
My heart froze in my chest. Slowly, I looked from him to Emi. She’d give him some trouble at first, but she followed patterns when it came to teleportation. If he didn’t figure it out on his own, the same battle analysis program that the Dragon’s Teeth used would figure it out. She’d go down fast.
I turned to look at the others, who were wearing their masks, too. They were frozen in place by his declaration.
John had already shifted his density down, sinking slightly into the ground. He wasn’t fast enough in that state to fight Defiant, and if the spear were activated, he’d be cut down where he stood no matter his density.
Kathy… The disk that she made with her power would destroy his spear, giving him a good kick to the gut for his efforts. But if Dragon fired… Her disk acted as a shield against physical attacks. I wasn’t sure how it would work against energy blasts.
I looked to Brenda, who was looking back at me. She stood the best chance of surviving, but she was up against two people in heavy armor. We didn’t have heavy weapons. She didn’t stand a chance…
“Jordan,” she whispered. “No…”
My entire body was shaking. My friends. I sent them away to protect them, and they came back. Because they were my friends. And because they were my friends, I was going to get them killed.
I pushed my faceplate up. The air felt cool on two trails of liquid running down my cheeks. Was I crying?
No. Not any more. I wanted to, but… No. I wiped at my face. “Em, back off.” My voice sounded strange, like it belonged to someone else.
She looked up at me, her good humor suddenly gone. In its place was a look of fear.
“Do it,” Brenda said, sounding close to tears herself. “It… Please.”
Emi gave me a worried look before teleporting back to the others. Good. One less thing to worry about.
I pulled off my helmet and looked down at it. Chris had made it for me. He’d done good work. I didn’t even want to think about how many times his armor had saved my life. The addition of a helmet was good. Smart, even. It had served me well.
My gaze turned back to Defiant, and my body settled. My gut felt like lead, but my bones no longer felt light and my shoulders no longer felt heavy. The trembling left me. Pinpricks danced across my skin as a new emotion swelled in my chest.
“You wanna fight?” I snarled. “Fine.” I tossed my helmet to the ground. “But you will leave. Them. Alone!”
I hefted my halberd and took up my stance. I couldn’t win against him, and I knew it. I no longer cared. Even if he beat me, I was going to destroy him. Right now? Right here, in this clearing?
The sun felt warm on my face.