About Ritic

I'm just this guy.

Ninsun 13.7

Fenix smirked at me. “I don’t know everything that you’ve been doing, but you’re losing your reputation as a murderhobo.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Zwa?”

He laughed, deep and full from the belly. “Don’t worry, you haven’t lost your reputation of being dangerous. But the newspapers are really confused as to if you’re a saint in disguise, or a murderhobo who occasionally does good things just for kicks. Sometimes, you’ll get two completely opposite articles about you in the paper.”

That seemed to perk John’s curiosity. “You wouldn’t happen to have copies of those papers, would you?”

Habib shook his head. “I have my own recycling program. While I’ve kept every article that I come across about Jordan’s murdohobo activities, we recycle every unspent paper.”

“Unsold,” Fenix gently corrected.

“Bah.” Despite waving Fenix off, Habib didn’t seem to actually mind. “However, if you are wanting, I could copy them for you.”

Emi leaned on the counter, grinning from ear to ear. “Why are you keeping track of J-man being a murderhobo?”

“It’s not every day that we get a pleasant customer that just so happens to be a murderhobo!”

I squeezed my eyes shut. “Guys.”

“We might want to get into some more murderhoboing,” Kathy said thoughtfully.

“Our escapades as Relentless and his squad help immensely with that. We now have the ability to distance ourselves from Jordan for adventures such as denying a cult their fresh cache of recruits.” John shook his head. “I still don’t know how you talked me into that.”

Emi giggled. “Because deep down you know that having anyone other than this big lug out there being a murderhobo is bad for business?”

“This is true,” John confessed. “Murderhobos are bad for trade and economy in general. Still…”

“Maybe you’re starting to enjoy murderhobo levels of violence?” Kathy teased him.

“Please! I am, if nothing else, an actor. A con man. I have no qualms portraying the role of a murderhobo, but actually enjoying the visceral violence? No, I’ll leave that to our illustrious murderhobo friend here.”

“Guys!” The six of them turned to look at me. They were all smirking, but still. “Enough with the murderhobo already!”

“They’re only teasing,” Brenda said quietly.

“I kinda gathered that, don’t worry. But seriously. I think that I’ve heard the word murderhobo more in the past five minutes than I have in my entire life, and I took a class on the Slaughterhouse Nine! What if someone walked through the door?!”

“We’ve been closed for a half an hour now,” Fenix said with a smirk.

I blinked at him. “Right. I… I knew that.” No I didn’t.

“I’m surprised,” Kathy said. “I didn’t see you as the sort to take a course on them.”

John snorted. “Dragon and Defiant chasing after the Slaughterhouse Nine was all over the papers. She did kill the Siberian, after all.”

Emi snickered. “Yeah, of course he took the class, then. Hell, I’m still surprised that you’re not gushing about having met the big man.”

I sighed. “Okay, first of all, I lived with him for a winter. Finding out that was more than a bit of a mindfuck. Second, everything afterwards left me a little numb. Third, I distinctly remember thinking that if I were to just drop dead after that whole Simurgh thing, I’d be a happy man.”

John coughed. “On the subject of mildly worrisome things, I have an appointment for you with a psychologist on Thursday.”

“No good,” Brenda declared.

John lifted his eyebrows. “Oho? What do your fine precog eyes see, Brenda?”

“Nothing,” I answered for her. “She’s cashing in her Christmas present. The two of us alone in the woods, with no other paras as far as the eye can see. I’ve already ordered the meat for it.”

She nodded blindly, positively beaming at that.

“And who am I to deny a lovely young lady her Christmas present?” He frowned a bit. “Then I’ll reschedule for after next week’s job.”

Emi winced. “You might wanna hold off on that.”

John stared at her flatly. “I know that Jordan didn’t give you anything like that.”

Her posture drew in on itself slightly. “Um, no, but…”

I decided to take the pressure off of her. “Since Valkyrie says that she isn’t wanted in her hometown, I asked if she’d like some backup to go visit them. Moral support and all that. Unless she gets hurt on the job, the plan was to do it the next day.”

John shook his head. “You two have been holding back on me.”

“Says the guy who’s been borrowing my teleporter for hours on end while not wanting to say what he’s doing.”

He tilted his head a little, frowning thoughtfully. “Fair’s fair, I suppose. May I make a suggestion for yous two, though?” Huh, his New York accent kicked up for a moment there.

“A’course,” Emi said. I was guessing that she was humoring him more than anything.

“Go as Lacuna and Relentless. And not just because your home has Wardens. Relentless and his team have been seen twice. The first, they fought the Simurgh. The second, they were part of the second victory against Fyrtorn. If they were to identify him as Jordan, it might damage your relationship with your family. However, as Relentless, even if they know the truth it still leaves you with a legitimate excuse as to why you associate with him, no?”

Emi thought about that for a long moment before nodding. “That’s actually good thinking. And with how Legend officially recognized Relentless as not being Jordan, the local Wardens can’t go all rawr on us without looking like total douchebags. I’m down with that.”

I looked at Habib. “By the way, speaking of my teleporter…”

“I have noticed that the battery is not holding a charge as well as it used to,” Habib admitted. “I can tell merely by looking at it, but how to return it to pristine condition? I am truly sorry, but in order to fix it, you may have to find the original recruiter.”

I frowned. “There’s nothing that you can do at all?”

“Oh, indeed! Quite a bit, without ruining the functionality in the slightest. I could improve its efficiency by adjusting the relays, the user interface is downright crude, which I could do a great deal to improve. If you were to let me get a look at your new armor, I am most certain that I could find a way to integrate the user interface with those systems. And I have been hearing rumors about your brother producing a room-temperature superconductor capable of impressive but contained magnetic fields. I am thinking that if I could get some of that, I could significantly improve battery lifespan.”

A long silence filled the room as everyone stared at him. Thankfully, Kathy was the one who spoke up.

“And you haven’t… Why?”

Habib shrugged. “Nobody is asking me?”

I squinted a little. When did he trigger? What made him trigger? I was starting to get an idea as to what his specialty might be, but I couldn’t be sure. The devil was in the details, and what could seem like the obvious answer for a Tinker might not be. Still… It would fit with how he could perfectly repair things. That was a rare skill for a Tinker.

Kathy looked to me. “Maybe it would be worthwhile to let him—“

“You should know better than to even suggest that,” I said quickly. I turned to Habib. “No offense, but having you look at Dragon and Defiant’s tech without their permission…”

He nodded somberly. “No, I am understanding. Do not worry, I do not take offense. But if you do get their permission, I would be happy, yes?”

I nodded. “Just, uh… Can you make one of those interdimensional comms arrays?”

That made him frown. “My power, it lets me understand Tinker technology, but not mundane technology. I am learning as much as I can, but the weird combination of mundane and Tinker technology, it is… problematic.”

I nodded. It made sense. Interesting.

“So,” Fenix said, putting his elbow on the counter. “Where are the two of you planning on going for your little trip? And are you going to need any camping gear?”

…That was actually a good point. Roughing it probably wasn’t her cup of tea. Great. Now I was going to have to spend money on stuff that I wasn’t ever going to use again.

———————————————————–

 

The world changed around us, and my hand gripped my gut. This damn indigestion was getting worse. Nothing that I couldn’t handle, but it was just… annoying.

I didn’t really have time to think about it, though, as Brenda was ripping off the headband that at covered her eyes with a gleeful giggle. The corners of my mouth twisted upwards as she spread her arms and spun around, though she was squinting pretty heavily.

I couldn’t even begin to imagine how hard it must be for her to keep herself blind like that. The only way to keep her ability of seeing countless possible realities when other paras were around was to keep herself blind. To be here, alone with me, must have been pure bliss for her. To be able to see, to move without worry… It must have been glorious to her.

As she took in everything, and got used to light, I grabbed her tent. It was a simple canvas wedge tent, nothing special. We weren’t going to have to worry about the temperature, so the cot that I got for her plus the bedding that she packed should leave her in a good position. A down pillow seemed like a luxury to me – who needed that to sleep?

As I unpacked the wooden tent poles, she suddenly hugged me from behind. “Thank you for this, Jordan. You have no idea…”

“Any time. And I mean that. We have a tent now, so before it gets cold, if you want to, say the word and I’ll gladly do this again.”

She let go, moving around in front of me. Her smile was dazzling enough to light up the night. “I might have to. Do we have an axe or something? While you set up the tent, I can get some firewood or something.”

I retrieved my halberd and disconnected the blade section, offering it to her. “Be careful with it. It’s insanely sharp.”

Brenda’s smile softened as she took it from me. “You part with the shaft or the head, but never both.”

I shrugged a shoulder. “It’s… hard to explain. But it means a lot to me.”

“Mm. Probably because your brother made it.”

“Probably, yeah.”

She hefted it a bit, nodding. “When we worked for Mr. Abrams… He sometimes worked on blades like this. Well, not like this…”

“The ones for the Dragon’s Teeth.”

Brenda nodded again. “Yeah. I asked him about your halberd once. He was so proud of it, and the tech that went into it. I never had the courage to tell him that the tech that went into the shaft could be used for prefab housing. Make big squares of it, so that you could easily fit them together.”

I thought about that for a moment. “You should have. That’s a good idea, especially for the Dragon’s Teeth or the US. Heck, if we had squares like that, you’d probably be sleeping in a small cabin tonight instead of a tent.”

She shrugged a shoulder. “It wasn’t my place. Honestly, I was just happy that Karen wanted to learn something from me.”

“Math you said, wasn’t it?”

“You’ve got a good memory.” She frowned a little. “I was supposed to do that sort of thing. Uh, in the cult, I mean. Paperwork and stuff. While my schooling was mostly the same as everyone else, I had more math classes because of it. It wasn’t quite accounting, but it taught me everything that I needed to know to do accounting.”

“That can’t be their teaching alone,” I mused. “That takes some smarts on your end, too. You’re pretty young to be doing accounting.”

“Nah. Well, maybe out here. I was learning fractions by nine, and was reading by four.” Suddenly, her smile was back in place. “Anyway, you get the tent, I’ll get the wood!”

I watched her as she suddenly skipped off. Suddenly, but not unexpected – she’d told me a lot about her life right there. The cult she was from afforded few personal freedoms. She probably had her future chosen for her when she was born, if not sooner. But she’d loved her parents, and losing them had forced her to flee. But her education was impressive; she might well be better educated than even the Orphanage.

She hadn’t said anything about what her cult’s beliefs were. Either she’d already been deprogrammed, which was a lengthy and difficult process even for the willing, or she’d never bought into them. Either option was rather strange. But it was obvious that her knowledge of the outside world was limited, with how often we had to explain things to her. Normal for cults. Introduction to Cult Theory.

It was an interesting puzzle, but at the same time, I didn’t honestly care. She was my friend, and while she probably didn’t want to admit it, she was warming up to us more. We’d always been her friends, but now she wasn’t quite so willing to leave us at the drop of a hat. Every day, that loyalty got a little bit stronger.

I focused on the tent. We had three days out here. I wanted them to be good for her.

———————————————————–

“There’s only one thing that I miss,” Brenda mused quietly. I looked up from my lunch at her. “Music. I wish we would have brought a CD player or something.”

I nodded. “I can respect that.” Something to mildly occupy the brain. If it weren’t for the books that I’d brought and my training, I probably would have gone insane by now.

She was content to continue her musing. “It’s funny, the world we live in. Swords and stuff alongside firearms. A township that might not have electricity, but has hot and cold running water and a CD player powered by a windmill. People aren’t banding into primitive tribal structures and running around in black leather. Well, Bitch and her son were in leather, but those were just pants and their jackets. How’d they keep from sweating to death?”

“Practice, most likely.” I took another bite of the stew, savoring the flavor. I wasn’t the best cook, and I felt that I was getting worse, but this was nice and meaty. “Before my armor, I used to have leather armor. You get used to it after a while.”

That made her smirk at me. “Kind of like how you wear your armor all the time now?”

“Kinda. But it has temperature control. It makes it far nicer to be in.”

That made her eyes go wide. “Do ours have that? Or am I just oblivious?”

“Uh… Well, it looks like it was made with Chris’ tech, so… Probably. I’ll take a look when we get back. Really, I wish that you would have brought it.”

“Ugh!” She set her bowl down. Huh, she must have inhaled it. “Come on! This is my vacation! I can just… run and jump and stuff!”

I shrugged and went back to eating.

Brenda was silent for a long moment. When she spoke, it was with a bit of a sad tone. “You know, I should have voted for us to leave you. It would have been better for you, I think.”

I frowned. I had no idea what she was talking about. “How so?”

“Well… When we first met you, you had this perpetual smile. Even when you were staring off into space, the corners of your lips twisted upwards. Like, it was just the most natural thing in the world. And we’d be sneaking behind your back, playing you. Say that we were destroying the drugs when we were really stealing them to resell. Now… You don’t seem to care if we grab the drugs. Sometimes, you even ask if we remembered it. And you don’t really smile much anymore. I mean, you do sometimes, but… I expected you to be grinning your head off over Defiant, and you just sort of shrug it off.

“I don’t think that Angel Grove was kind to you.”

“I liked it,” I said with a nod. “Good, hard work, in a good, hard community.”

That made her frown more. “Jordan, I worry about you. You’re like a big brother that I never knew I wanted.”

“I get that a lot.”

“But you’re also so stubborn and dumb sometimes. Like why do you keep…”

Her words trailed off, her eyebrows twitching together for the briefest of moments before she dove into the tent. I calmly set my bowl aside, rising to my feet. Trouble of some sort. Idly, I grabbed my halberd and helmet. I’d just gotten it on and secured when I heard a man’s voice call out.

“Jordan!”

I turned and was met with… Fucking Wardens, what the shit? Five cadets and a handler. I sighed heavily as I put the faceplate down. “Didn’t I just deal with a group of you a week ago?”

“Three.”

Had it been three weeks already? Where did the time go? I remembered when I was a little kid, time seemed to move so slowly. Now…

“You’re wanted for questioning regarding the massacare of New Fairfax. Will you come peacefully?”

I carefully set my halberd on the ground before straightening out, lifting my hands far above my head to stretch my muscles and work out the slight kink in my back. I stayed like that for a long moment, long enough that one of the cadets began to walk towards me.

“Yeah, no. I’m on vacation, so fuck you.” I hoped that Brenda had her mask in there. I hadn’t been in the tent since I’d set it up, giving her some privacy. I’d been sleeping in a tree.

I glanced at them, just to find a woman right on top of me, swinging for my helmet, an odd shimmer around her fist that felt oddly familiar. Thankfully, she telegraphed too much.

I ducked under the swing, giving a left cross to her floating ribs. Her armor absorbed most of it, but I was already delivering a right hook to her armpit, putting my body into it. That only fueled a more devastating cross to her jaw. She was the only one wearing her helmet, but even still, she stumbled and began to fall… Right into the knee that I was bringing up into the other side of her jaw.

A simple defense-to-four combination. Already, the fight was out of her as she hit the ground. A Striker down, and four to go…

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Interlude 13.A

“Didja hear about the visitors?”

Carol looked over to Didi, raising her eyebrows. “We got visitors?”

Franklin was off the beaten track, and weren’t interested in joining the world at large. Twice a month, a caravan would show up for trade, but that was pretty much it. They liked it like that. Back when banditry had been a problem for most of the world they’d been spared by their remoteness, despite the sheer number of precious stones that they pretty much stumbled over. There weren’t much else of interest in this mountain pass, and not much beyond it.

Didi laughed. “No idea how long there were out there, but they just hung out right outside the walls last night. I’m starting to think that maybe we should put someone on the walls or something.”

That made Carol snort. “Why? We ain’t even got a real hotel! Where’re we gonna pull people from so that they can walk around all darned night? It’s not like you can trade for food, standin’ around.” She shook her head. “What they want, anyway?”

“Somewhere to rest, apparently.” Didi sighed. “Ain’t nobody tellin’ me nothin’. Was hopin’ that you knew more than me.”

“Nope. Things don’t get no better when you turn fifteen.” Which was stupid. They acted like they were kids, not wanting to tell them anything, but then once you turned ten, you were expected to work just as hard as the adults.

It was just so frustrating! Her dad expected her to be able to read, but she barely even knew what each letter was. Was she an adult to these people, or a kid? Did they even know? Did they even know what they wanted out of kids?

Carol knew the answer to that. But she had a nice stash of agate and malachite saved up. Maybe if she worked extra hard at the farms this year to save up some food, she could skip town. The caravans talked about how beautiful New Brockton was. She was plenty smart, as smart as anyone near her age. There weren’t anything on the farms that she didn’t know how to do, and she was ace at finding any kind of gemstone or mineral in either mountain range.

She weren’t sure what exactly New Brockton was like, but there was no way that she couldn’t find some way to keep herself alive there with skills like that.

She shrugged. “Well, I reckon it’s not like it matters in the end. Hopefully, they’ll get gone soon. If they don’t, or they got somethin’ planned, we got a lotta of guns and more than a few capes, and we won’t go down without a fight.”

Didi shot her a confused look. “You mean to say they might not be on the up and up?”

Carol shrugged a shoulder. “Maybe. Maybe not. I dunno. I do know that there ain’t no reason to come here unless you’re tradin’. Ain’t nothin’ on the other side a these there mountains but a whole lotta nothin’. And there ain’t nobody goin’ through anyway, not unless they wanna get sick.”

They walked in silence for a time. That suited Carol just fine. She liked the summer. Warm day, but a cool breeze came through the pass, bringing with it that odd earthy smell. It bypassed the walls to keep the wildlings out, bringing the deep mountains into their home. It wouldn’t last long, though. Everyone had stopped weeding the fields because there was a storm brewing down in the foothills – she had no idea how you could have a breeze coming from one direction, and a storm heading your way slowly but surely from the other, but sometimes, you just don’t ask questions.

“Maybe they’re from America?” Didi asked.

That made Carol snort. “Then I recon they’re fools. We done told them twice already that we ain’t interested in them. Them and those Dragon’s Teeth dips. You’d be thinkin’ that they’d use the brains the Lord gave ‘em to know that we ain’t joinin’.”

Didi shrugged. “Mama always said that city folk ain’t none too bright.”

“Work themselves to an early grave, yeah. Pa says the same.” Not that Carol knew anything about her mother besides what her father said when he was drunk. They didn’t have a doctor in town. Sometimes, the adults would talk about the beforetimes, when if you got a toothache folks didn’t reach for the plyers because the doctor would fix it up. She’d been lucky to miss that problem so far – the sobbing bothered her.

Her mother had died when she was too little to remember her. She’d been hunting copper ore when a small rockslide had happened. Her death had taken hours.

That’s why Carol and Didi went hunting the mountains together.

As they approached the church, Didi looked at her. “Still. If you’re thinkin’ about what I know you’re thinkin’ about, then it might be smart of you to talk with ‘em. Get ideas, you know? Make sure that the traders ain’t feedin’ us a line.”

Carol hated to admit it, but Didi had a good point there. She did worry that the traders weren’t completely honest with them; everyone worried about that, at least a little bit. But at the same time, her suddenly taking an interest in outsiders would be mighty suspicious. There were a couple thousand here, but they were all sorts of up in everyone else’s business. It’s what made saving up to leave so difficult.

“How’d I pull that off?”

Didi shrugged. “They’re outsiders, silly. You just walk up and say Glory be to Krigarguden!

That made Carol look at her best friend oddly. Only, Didi was giving her the same look.

He is the Light in the darkness! His Glory is what draws the Worthy together!

Wait, she was saying it, too. Were they possessed? She’d only paid lip service at church, but…

And it is only through Him that the Worthy will find paradise on earth.

The entire town was doing it. Were they possessed? It didn’t matter. It really, really didn’t matter. Both she and Didi ran into the church, where a few people had already gathered in fear.

And should you be unworthy…” Even Father Bradford was saying it. The outsiders. They had to be responsible. “…Then all you shall know forevermore is but the depths of the earth.

———————————————

Pain made Carol groan, only to immediately regret it. Breathing hurt. Simply existing hurt. She was dimly aware of pain in her lower back, of the way that her face was pressed into the ground. What happened?

Slowly, she lifted her head up. Immediately, she regretted it. What had once been a bustling town at noon was now choked in smoke and destruction. There was fire everywhere. Buildings were toppled like houses of cards… just like the wall that she had once been standing next to.

The town’s buildings were stone and their own version of concrete. How could they burn like this?

She tried to wipe her hair out of her face, only to find that her arm wouldn’t move. Her eyes sluggishly moved to look, only to find it trapped under a crossbeam. A crossbeam that seemed to move onto her back. She tried to turn to look, but that only made her body scream in pain and her head spin, forcing her to put it down for a moment.

What was happening? All that she could hear was the pounding of her heart, the roar of flames everywhere…

…and the screams.

That was enough to force her to lift her head again.

A blurry figure was moving. She focused, despite how hard it was, and made out a man. A man holding a rifle by the barrel. Why? If he had a gun, why not hold it properly?

She almost didn’t see the woman in the weird clothes that the man was running towards until he was almost on top of her. As he got close, though, a strange purple tentacle seemed to erupt from her chest, wrapping around the man, lifting him off his feet with a yelp. She regarded him for a moment before turning and walking in Carol’s direction.

Strangely, the tentacle had left the woman’s body, just hovering in the air. The woman slowly sashayed towards Carol, not seeming to care about the man she’d just captured. What was…?

Suddenly the man, one of the villagers, began to cry out in a new tone of pain, before he simply began to… turn into dust? What the hell was this cape capable of? What did she want?

Carol tugged at her arm again. She had to get free. Whoever the woman was, she was bad news. Had to get free. She tried to focus past the pain, past the way that it felt like her head moved way more than was humanly possible, like her mind was located a good two feet beyond her body.

“Well, well, well.” The strange woman had a husky, almost otherworldly voice. Carol looked back, only to find the woman’s eyes glowing oddly. How could black glow? “What do we have here? A stray dog, who doesn’t know when to die? Or something more?”

Carol’s body seized. She’d be dust soon. She couldn’t move, she didn’t have any weapons on her, she had nothing that she could do. Her eyes were drawn into those glowing black orbs.

One of the woman’s hands played with the ribbons that served as a belt. “Hmm… Are you Worthy of His Light? Or are you just a mewling quim? Let us have a closer look at—“

The woman’s words were cut off as a figure that seemed to be made of blue flame dropped on her out of nowhere. As the two tumbled to the ground, the new figure, almost feminine in form, let out an inhuman sound. It made several stabbing motions into the woman’s stomach before bouncing back up and running off beyond Carol’s sight, leaving only a corpse that leaked guts onto the ground in her its wake.

What… What was that?

Carol’s head drooped back to the ground.

Time was meaningless. Each pained gasp of air might as well have been an hour apart. It was hard to focus on anything but the pain. She had to, though. She wasn’t going to survive unless…

She lifted her head again, blinking rapidly. Slowly, blurry shapes took form. The fire was easy to make out, but everything else…

Two individuals. Men. One just stood there, while the other seemed to be… shadow boxing?

No. There was more going on. What was that? Some sort of disk on either side of the one that was just standing there? After a moment, a great boulder erupted from a disk, trailing fire. What was going on?

Another flaming creature, larger than the last, dropped from the sky, landing on the one standing still. The two disks disappeared instantly as limbs went flying in a wave of gore. The shadow-boxer turned, but it immediately leaped back into the air, streaking fire as it flew away.

The shadow boxer turned again, looking at something that Carol couldn’t see before throwing a punch. There was a great eruption of flame a long ways away from him. He threw another punch, and another. Each time… No, they weren’t erupting, they were just… Filling space? Filling a person-shaped space?

Finally, she caught sight of another feminine flame creature standing within a fire. The man punched, and it disappeared, creating a flame shadow in its wake.

He punched three more times before the flame creature appeared a foot above him. It seemed to hover for a moment before dropping, its hands lashing down. He fell instantly, his arm being sheared off in a blur. It spent a moment doing something with his body before turning to the remains church.

And then it was standing nearby. Just as on fire as ever. This faceless creature, this demon, turned its head directly towards Carol and began walking slowly towards her. Occasionally, it would point, and the flames would die down to nothing.

Couldn’t run. She’d been saved by the other flame creature, but that’s because it was focused on someone else. Now, it was only her. She whimpered, putting her head back down and squeezing her eyes shut tight. She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want whatever it was going to do to her.

For the first time in her life, she called out to God in full sincerity, silently begging Him to save her. To protect her. Even as she could feel the heat of the demon on the back of her neck, she prayed.

There was a boom, a feeling of the air being sucked away from her, and the heat was gone.

Carol wasn’t sure how long she silently thanked God before lifting her head.

The flames were dying down a little. Somewhat. A man ran down the street, only to be enveloped in some beam of light from behind him, one that had a vortex of flame twirl around its entire length. When it stopped, there was nothing left of the man.

More work of the demons. But God was protecting her. She wasn’t sure that she deserved it.

Another man approached from the direction that the one had come from. He seemed nervous, but determined. After a moment, she saw why.

Another flaming demon, standing in a wall of flame. This one had its arms spread wide, only one arm was impossibly long and thin, a strange blur at the end. It walked out of the flames, looking powerful and evil.

Silver lightning crackled into the man’s hand, and he gripped it like a sword. As one, the two charged each other.

With one sweep of the demon’s arm, the man’s head disappeared. It didn’t knock the head off, the head simply vanished as that blur touched it.

It was too much. Carol put her head down…

———————————————

Carol awoke in bed, her eyes snapping open as she realized that she’d let herself fall asleep with the demons around. She was on her back, a sheet tucked in around her. She tried to sit up—

It didn’t last more than a mere lifting of her head before pain shot through it like lightning. With a groan, she relaxed back onto the pillow.

As her eyes opened again, she made out where she was – home. She was at home, in her bed. Was it all a dream? If so, why did her everything hurt? Did she trip or something?

“I wouldn’t try to get up,” a man’s tired voice said in an odd accent.

She carefully, carefully rolled her head to look at the source of the voice. A man was laying in her father’s bed, the sheet tucked in tight around his neck. He turned his head to look at her. “You aren’t critical, but you are badly hurt. You should remain laying until help arrives.”

She didn’t know this guy. He didn’t look local. Bald, only stubble around his jaw. The men in town all wore beards. He looked tanned. That was about all that he had going for him, though. He was an ugly guy – ears that were too big, a nose that was both large and weird, his teeth sat oddly in his mouth even when it was closed, five oddly-colored pock marks on his face, the kind of circles under his eyes that spoke of never getting enough sleep… No, this wasn’t the kind of guy who was going to win over girls with his looks. Even weirder were the streaks of black paint on his face and scalp.

“Why’re you in Pa’s bed?” she asked. She kind of regretted it; her throat was bleeding raw.

The man regarded her silently for a long moment before he looked back up at the ceiling. “I did what I could for everyone. I had plenty of medical gear, but there were so many. So many. I had to prioritize the people who were hurt the worst. I… I don’t think some of them are going to make it, but I had to try.

“Others were putting out the last of the fires, and it seemed like every few minutes, someone else was being pulled out of the rubble. Every time that I’d start to help someone who wasn’t as bad off, I’d have to run to someone else who might not make it another five minutes. But I worked, and I worked.

“But the human body has its limits. It can only run on adrenaline for so long before the exhaustion kicks in. I was tending to your back when I… I kind of fell asleep on you. Your father insisted that I nap in his bed. So here I am.”

She realized that she had an arm in a sling, but at least she wasn’t naked. Still, it felt weird to be sleeping in a nightie in the same room as a guy who wasn’t her Pa.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Hurts.”

“Good. Can you wiggle your toes?”

She tried, wincing. “That hurts, too.”

He visibly relaxed. “Good. I was worried about you being paralyzed. I didn’t feel anything broken, but I couldn’t be sure about spinal damage. You could still have spinal damage, to be honest, but we’ll wait for the Dragon’s Teeth to come. We called them, and they’re sending a full medical team.”

That made Carol frown. “How did you call ‘em? We ain’t got no radio.”

“I don’t need one.”

Weird. But there were more important questions. “What…. What happened?”

“You were in some sort of church when—“

“No. I mean to say, what happened to the village? I remember…”

Mr. Fugly made a displeased noise in the back of his throat, but didn’t look away from the ceiling. “Fyrtorn happened. A dangerous cult who likes to kidnap people and leave destroyed villages in their wake as a rite of passage. The people taking this one seemed to be the B team, thankfully. Their last one took forty people in addition to the town’s guards to defeat, and one of those people was completely empowered by as much as Valkyrie could give him.

“Not, uh, not that most people know that bit. Everyone just called him Eidolon Reborn. Anyway, we think that this attack was mostly about destroying most of the village. We’re pretty sure that they wanted it to be ugly and nasty, but to leave a few people alive so that folks could spread the word. They lost some rep with how they were defeated last time, so they needed to rebuild their threat.”

The guy talked too much. He could have stopped with the explanation as to who this Fyrtorn was. But she also wasn’t complaining. Having someone actually take the time to explain things to her was nice, even if she didn’t understand most of it.

“Thought I was gonna die.” She paused. No, that wasn’t quite the truth. “Knew I was gonna die.”

“I tried.” He somehow sounded even more tired. “I tried so hard, you have no idea. If I could have—“

There was a knock on the door. “Relentless,” a man called out.

The man threw the sheet off and sat up, revealing that he was wearing some sort of weird cloth armor covered in large metal pieces here and there. No, it wasn’t cloth, but… What was that? “Come in.”

The door opened and two people stepped inside, making Carol’s blood freeze in her veins. Those faceless helmets…

“Lacuna, paint me. Archimedes, report.”

The woman got out two cans of greasepaint, moving to the man. Meanwhile, the other man, demon, Archimedes, began to speak.

“We tried to let you sleep as long as possible, but the Dragon’s Teeth are about ten minutes out. Lacuna teleported to see them at first sight, and we found out that they had to set down and move on foot due to the weather.”

“And the people that I worked on?”

That made Archimedes pause a little. “We lost one. But only one. Considering what we had to work with, that’s damn good numbers.”

Relentless flashed him a glare as Lacuna smeared black greasepaint on him. “So far. There’s no guarantee that we won’t lose more.”

“Damn, and I thought I was the pessimist.” Archimedes shook his head. “Anyway, more good news: the fires are all out. That rain shower that we had did the trick. Unfortunately, we’re all out of those extinguisher pellets, the fire pellets that we smeared on ourselves, and medical supplies. We’re going to need more. The village well… Well, let’s just say that we’ve been purifying water, and that I hope that the D.T. are bringing some Abrams special screens, you know?”

Relentless frowned a little as the woman stopped with the black greasepaint, reaching for the other can. “Poisoning the well. Because of course Fyrtorn would be bastards like that. We’ll have to have the Dragon’s Teeth do a full sweep of the area—“

“Done,” Archimedes interrupted. “Schrodinger did a full pass of that. The well’s the only thing that she’s found.”

“Small favors. How’s she holding up?”

“Badly. Migraine, but that’s to be expected. Not as bad as after the Simurgh.”

What? That was a name that Carol knew, at least. These demons… These people fought the Simurgh?! As in, the Endbringer?!

“Good. Anything else on the need to know?”

Archimedes shrugged. “Your spear needs a proper recharge, but other than that, not so much. I’m thinking that the village is done for.”

Relentless was silent for a moment before responding. “No. There’s a wealth of mineral resources that are here. The Dragon’s Teeth will encourage and help with the rebuilding process. When I informed our mutual friend of what happened, he informed me that he was sending some agents to invest in the town.

“They’ve only been exporting raw gems for the most part, but there’s heavy concentrations of sulfur, copper, and other necessary materials here. If they were to make hydrochloric acid using sulfuric acid, they can easily make potassium chloride out of potash, and then use that to make potassium chlorite with electrolysis. With a proper urine collection and processing facility and a couple of other things, they could easily be turning out matches in short order.

“Come on. Let’s go.” Relentless stood, revealing that not only had they made his face completely black, but they’d painted a white skull on it. Carol only got a glimpse of it, though, before he slid the helmet on, closing it to make himself just as faceless as the others.

As Relentless and Archimedes moved out the door, Lacuna turned to her, putting a fist on her hip. “Hey, I’m glad you made it!”

Carol’s throat was so very dry and swollen now. Painfully so. She opened her mouth, but no words came out.

“Aw, cat got your tongue? Don’t worry. I just saw you after ganking that one dude, and wanted to make sure that you were okay. Those Fyrtorn fucks, they got this ribbon Tinker tech that does weird stuff. One of those ribbons protects the wearer from heat, like fire and junk. Or so I’m told. Schrodinger showed Sagittarius and I which one it was, so it wasn’t nothing for me to just drop some of my fire extinguisher pellets around, just in case, and then put a ribbon around your neck. You were one of the ones that I was worried about.”

She paused for a moment, waiting for a response. When Carol couldn’t give one, she shrugged her shoulder. “Anyway, I oughta get going. Relentless doesn’t like it when I dally too much. You take care of yourself now, alright?”

Lacuna almost made it to the door before Carol found her voice. “Wait! You… You’re demons.”

That got a laugh out of Lacuna. “Hells yeah! We’re fearsome and deadly. But only to fucks like Fyrtorn. Life’s funny like that. Sometimes, the people that you want on your side, the people who will kill themselves to help you? They’re the demons. Learned that the hard way, from watching Relentless. Anyway, no time to chat. Bye!”

As the door closed, Carol had no idea what to think. Maybe… Maybe she could think after another nap…

Ninsun 13.6

“Puh-please…”

I looked down at the guy that I was sitting on. “Do you really want me to start rubbing your face in the sand again?”

He whimpered softly.

“That’s what I thought.” I sat up straight, sighing softly. It was strange. I felt less than usual about the job, about finding out that the people were bribing the local Wardens, and then kicking the crap out of three of them. True, it barely counted as a fight, but even still.

I clenched my fist, then let go with a sigh. Something was missing. Maybe all of this was just becoming routine?

I didn’t like that thought. I didn’t like the idea of me getting used to all of this. If I had to push myself even harder to feel that moment of honest life… No. No, that wasn’t happening. I wasn’t going to walk down that path. I knew what happened to people who had to push themselves harder for a thrill like that. Sarah had talked about it once. I was not going to turn into a psychopath.

“Hey, Red, how are we doing?”

Almost done,” John said. “Everything alright over there?

“Peachy.” I glanced at Emi through the open door as she was rummaging. “Gold is doing her thing. All three are tied up.” I paused. “Oh, there was a fetish para.”

Kinky,” he muttered.

“Not that sort of fetish. Like, needs an item to use their power.”

Ah, fetish in the physical item sense.

“Why do they use the same word for the sex stuff, anyway?”

That made him laugh to himself. “Well, they both tie back to tribal where a trinket was necessary in order to perform a ritual or for it’s magical properties due to having a spirit in it. With paras, something special is needed for their power to work properly. For the sexual connotation, something special helps to grant them their jollies.

“Like you and bears?”

John snorted. “My preference for large, fuzzy men is more of a physical attraction than a fetish.

I frowned a bit. “I don’t really see how.”

Give it up,” Kathy muttered. “I really think this sort of thing is better suited for far more philosophical minds than us.

I couldn’t argue with that, though it still bothered me for some reason.

John spoke back up. “You’re being chatty. Is there a reason why?

I shrugged even though he couldn’t see it. “You remember that thing that we talked about?”

We talk about a lot of things, Jordan.

“What are you talking about?” one of the other Wardens asked.

I responded by throwing a rock at him, earning a yelp of pain. “I’m talking about you finding a certain someone for me to talk to.”

There was a pause.

Right! The shrink!

I rolled my head back and sighed. “I’d of preferred it if you hadn’t said it out loud.”

Relax, none of the goon squad is close enough to hear.” They weren’t the only ones I was worried about hearing it. “Kind of. I have several, but I’m waiting to find the right one before sending you to them. It wouldn’t do you any good if they immediately flipped out upon realizing who you were, mmm?

That was… Honestly, it was a really good point.

Is there a reason why you ask now of all times?

“I’m bored.”

Brenda gasped from inside the local Wardens HQ. “Who are you and what did you do with Jordan?”

“I know, right?” I leaned forward to put my elbows on my knees, and the guy underneath me squirmed. At least, until I grabbed his hair, when he got very still again. “I’ve just been feeling… listless lately.”

Emi poked her head out the door. “Maybe something with your indigestion?”

I winced. “Noticed that?”

Maybe it’s an allergy?” John asked. “I used to eat tomatoes all the time, but now I can only have them when they’re cooked in something.

“The doctor gave me a clean bill of health.”

Except for those marks on your face,” Kathy reminded me.

I sighed. It wasn’t like I was going to win any beauty contests before now anyway. “Stupid color matching. Maybe we should just have her skin me and—“

“No!” the four of them said nearly unanimously.

I lifted my guy’s head, forcing him to look at me. “See what I have to work with here?”

————————

I really wished that I’d get used to teleporting. The odd tingle in my gut wasn’t helping matters any, either. “Emi, do you feel any disorientation when we do that?”

“Nope!” She was far too perky about it. But it also made sense, with her being a teleporter.

Kathy made her way through the door, Brenda on her heels. “I do. Hey! We’re home!”

Aurora and… The guy without a kid hurried into the kitchen. “Hey! How’s it going?”

“Nice to have an easy job for once,” John said as he pushed through the door, shifting himself sideways to get the duffle bags he carried through the door.

“I was worried about that,” Aurora said with a slight frown as I stepped inside. “They said that you all killed the Machine leadership and disappeared.”

I set my bag down. “It was self-defense, I swear.” I moved to pull off my helmet.

“Really?” She folded her arms. “Because the last time that I saw you, you were preparing for full-out wa-Oh my God! What happened to your face?!”

“Self-defense,” Emi said dryly. “We cleared that place right and proper. And despite a certain someone being lazy, I made sure to check every single room, nook and cranny. One moment we were alone, and the next we were under full attack.”

I shrugged as I set my halberd on the hooks they’d put in the wall. “Para tried to rip out my spine, and when that didn’t work, she must have tried to rip off my skin.”

The guy was staring at my face in shock. “It almost looks like you got shot in the face a bunch.”

“One for each finger in her hand, yeah. Don’t worry, they all got theirs.”

“We still got a bunch of information out of it,” Kathy added. “Nexus paid us really well for that.”

“Where’s…” I paused as I struggled for her name. “Where’s my blacksmith?”

“She and Jim went to grab some lunch,” the guy said. “Took Michelle with them.”

Aha! Names! Now all that I needed was his name and her name. Three out of five wasn’t… terrible, right?

“So it’s true?” Aurora asked as we all went into what probably was supposed to be a dining room, but served as our briefing room. “The Machine works for Teacher?”

“Worked,” John stressed as he put the bags on the table. “Past tense. With what we did, rebuilding their little niche will be hard. Most likely, other gangs will absorb their assets one way or another. There’s no telling if Teacher will sink his teeth into someone else or not.”

“I’m guessing he will,” Kathy admitted, and John glared at her.

“For once, you could you be positive?”

Pot, meet kettle.

“But you’re okay?” my nameless male employee asked.

I rolled my eyes. “I’m peachy. The doc gave me a clean bill of health.” I dumped my own bag down.

“Okay, cool. Because your brother would be pissed if you weren’t.”

That made my eyebrows lift.

Aurora positively beamed at me. “We’re in touch with Chris. Next month, after he finishes up an order for the Dragon’s Teeth, Michelle is going to go visit him under the pretense of a business deal. Really, it’s to talk and get him up to date on everything. And so that you can have a better idea as to what’s going on with him than whatever your sister told you.”

She paused for a moment to grin at me. “The way that I see it, if he’s going to get married, it might be worthwhile for us to be able to tell you. That way, Relentless can go there to do something and stumble on the wedding.”

Emi perked up, her eyes sparkling with delight. “Can his entire squad come?”

“Sure!” I grinned at her, before turning my attention to John. “You wouldn’t have to if it would break character or—“

He waved me off. “Hell no. Don’t even try that with me, Jordan. There’s too much pain in the world, and a moment of happiness is a worthy thing. I love all weddings except shotgun ones. You’re good.”

He grew thoughtful for a moment. “You said that the Dragon’s Teeth greeted you with open arms during Christmas. Our armor is obviously based off of Defiant’s basic design…”

I nodded. “And it shares a bunch of similarities to the armor that they’re testing there. I get what you’re saying. Approach them saying that we’re asking about the design tests, and then just happen to invite ourselves to the wedding?”

“And if we want to come?” Aurora asked.

I frowned, but Kathy laughed. “We don’t need an absolute answer for everything immediately. We don’t even know when it’s going to happen. However, I do see a flaw in this plan.

“If they find out, and there isn’t much time, how are they going to let us know?”

“They can contact our fence?” Brenda asked.

“Export specialist,” John corrected. “And though I’m loathe to ask him to play messenger, as he’s likely to charge us, that… is probably the best option.”

“Right,” Kathy said. “He has his own comms array, so he can talk plainly.”

That made me blink. “Those are expensive. How did—“

“Habib.”

Oh. Right. I forgot that Habib could reproduce damn near anything.

Wait. “Um… How much do you think they’d charge for Habib to make one of those arrays? It, uh, might be handy if our people had one?”

Kathy looked to John. “I never considered that.”

“True. It would be most beneficial for all of us… But it would also be expensive. Still…” He stroked his chin. “We can talk with them. We’ve made the two of them significantly richer since the start of last year.”

“Rich enough that they’ve upgraded the automatic defenses,” I agreed.

Everyone turned to stare at me.

“What? Did… Did you not notice?”

“Jordan,” Emi groaned.

“What? I mean, I didn’t notice at first, so I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with you if you didn’t.”

“What kind of defenses?” Kathy asked curiously.

“Uh… Four more retractable turrets, six more containment foam sprayers, and a bunch of other sprayers of some sort. There’s also…” I screwed up my face in thought. “Two directed pulse emitters of some sort, and a host of hidden weaponry. Pretty much anywhere they stand now, they’re able to defend themselves.”

Kathy shook her head. “How do you notice this stuff, and can’t even tell when I’m wearing a new color of lipstick?”

Aurora laughed. “He’s a guy, honey. Don’t stress it.”

Right, distraction needed, now. I turned to what’s-his-name. “How are things on the homefront?”

“Pretty good. We’ve been taking turns at that terminal that Dragon set up. She jammed so much into it that it isn’t even funny. Jim’s getting as much time as he can in, studying videos on medicine and stuff. I’m starting to wonder if he missed his calling as a doctor.”

Brenda smiled. “Or maybe he finally found it.”

My man grinned. “Maybe. I’ve been learning a bit about chemistry. Okay, so maybe I’ve been mostly watching videos of chemical reactions, but I’m honestly starting to understand the explanations of what’s going on.”

“We’re all studying stuff,” Aurora said. “But I’ll be honest, other than Jim, we don’t exactly have any specific goals. Is there anything that you want us to go after specifically, boss?”

I shook my head. “It’s going to sound like a waste, but just… go with what feels natural to you. Find what works and go with it.”

“Actually,” John said slowly. Great, he was going to override me.

“I’m thinking. I wonder if, should we get that interdimensional comms unit, Dragon could use it as a modem? Then she could transmit more to all of you, and you could find even more things of interest.”

Okay, not what I was expecting at all. He never failed to surprise me.

“It’s a good thought,” the guy said. “And we might want to look into that before you talk to your guy about the comms thingie. I mean, Dragon gave me a way to contact her. Or you could use your own gear.”

Kathy held up a finger. “Our own…?”

The guy and I shared a look before I turned back to her. “Did you forget that the armor that Defiant and Dragon made for us can talk to them?”

“N-no,” she said hesitantly. “I mean… Yeah, I kinda did. I haven’t really played with it much and—“

Emi snorted. “Jordan and I have been practicing with it. Oh. My. God. It has so many cool features. I really can’t wait to get to try out the targeting system, you have no idea!”

I nodded. “The learning program is pretty good. Fairly intuitive, and it teaches you how to make those leaps of logic necessary to use everything.” I sighed softly. “If we had it here with us… Which, really, I kinda think that we should start carrying it with us everywhere? Like, when we do a job?”

John frowned at me. “Jordan? Even if you empty your pack, you might be able to fit in two suits of armor, if you’re lucky. And even if you do, it’s going to be heavy as all hell. Those suits aren’t light. We can’t carry them with us and be able to bring as much back.”

Damn. He made a point. I was used to carrying a lot of weight, but everyone else wasn’t. There had to be a way…

——————–

Kathy glanced at me as we walked. “How’re you feeling?”

“Good. No indigestion the past couple of days. Not since we got back. Maybe I just needed some R&R time?”

She snorted. “You don’t do R&R. You’ve been active as ever.”

“Fine. Time to decompress. Let life get back to normal. Stress can do things to a person’s body, you know?”

“Yeah.” She winced. “Poor Brenda freaked out a bit because she missed her period. I’m chalking it up to stress.”

Because the alternative was kind of gross, yeah. Sarah had explained that it was possible a long time ago, and ever since Defiant and Dragon had first appeared in my life again, things had been fairly hectic. Hard to believe that was almost a month ago. Still, we were calming down now. Soon, there wouldn’t be nearly as much stress in our lives.

Kathy moved ahead, opening the door and entering first. “Fenix!”

“Hey!” He ran a hand over his beard before leaning on the counter. “Good to see you two! How are things going?”

“If Habib isn’t done, then it’ll be another lazy afternoon.”

“Ah!” Fenix stood straight again, clapping his hands. “He’s busy with another client’s order at the moment, but he is, he is. One moment and I’ll get it.” With that, the bear of a man hurried into the back.

Meanwhile, a faint memory was drifting through my head. I turned to Kathy. “What’s a splif?”

“Marijuana and tobacco, if I remember right.” She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Why? Do you want one?”

I made a face. “Anything that changes brain chemistry can be addictive. The only things that I want to be addicted to are food and water.”

Her lips quirked. “Yeah, those are two powerful ones. Weaning yourself off is a bitch.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but Fenix was already coming back into the main shop, carrying a metal box and some papers stapled together. I took the box, surprised by how light it was despite the fact that it seemed to be made out of steel. It was a bit shorter than my arm, and about as wide and deep as both my hands. One side had a long digital display, and another had a door. I handed it off to Kathy before taking the papers.

When I’d described our armor problem to Habib, he’d gotten that Tinker look to him. That look that said that his passenger was offloading an idea. Sure, it took a little work to get there, but at least I still had that skill. But I’d made him write down everything that he could about how he made it and how it worked.

Essentially it was a fusion between an interdimensional storage medium and a miniaturizer. It had a power source, but it wouldn’t need recharging – the very act of creating the interdimensional bubble somehow created bleed-off energy that was enough to supply the device itself. A quick scan of the rest of the papers had the back of my head tingling.

Somewhere in this was a clue as to what Habib’s Tinker specialty was. The perfect repair was secondary, I was sure of it. What was his primary?

I wasn’t seeing it offhand though. Maybe once I had a chance to really dig in and analyze everything.

I smiled at Fenix. “Thanks. Habib does good work.”

He returned the smile. “And I’ll make sure he keeps on doing it for as long as possible.”

——————–

I tucked myself behind the tree, looking around. This forest didn’t offer a lot of cover. The shrubbery was too sparse, there weren’t enough leaves on the ground, and there wasn’t even any outcroppings for me to use. Which meant that there was only one way to go.

I turned around and jumped, pulling myself up the branches. I didn’t stop, though, climbing up another set before settling in on a thicker one. I laid on my stomach, trying my best to blend in.

That didn’t stop Mom from walking right under the tree, hooking a thumb under her dyed green hair to push it out of her face as she looked up at me. “Good. Good. People rarely look up.”

I smiled at her praise.

“That said, you would have done better with that branch there. It would break up your profile more.”

Damn. I closed my eyes and sighed. As I opened them again, I pushed myself off the bench and onto my feet, stretching and looking around Angel Grove’s dining hall. Something about it was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what. Not that it mattered.

I moved past Mom, who was eating her meal, and made my way to one of the restaurant stalls. “Hey Nexus.”

He turned to me, cleaning a mug. A grin spread across his face. “Hey! Did I catch you sleeping?”

“What’s up?”

He shrugged. “I had a chat with your girlfriend.”

That made me frown. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”

His grin grew twice in size. “A little girl named Gina, perhaps?”

I wasn’t sure how I felt with him being in contact with her. On one hand, she could always use more information. On the other, I wasn’t sure any more how the Wardens would react if they knew. “How’s she doing?”

“Good, good. Well, busy, which is good for her. But here’s the thing… There’s trouble. And I want to hire you and your crew to help take care of it.”

Ninsun 13.5

“You’re probably only still alive due to Manton Effect,” Dr. Redford muttered as she worked with some sort of laser device on my back.

I made a thoughtful noise.  With how hard I was working to hold still and control my breathing, it was the best that I could manage.  The local anesthetic wore off five minutes after she’d applied it.  While that was up from the two minutes of the previous applications, I didn’t think that it was worth mentioning.

Cord, the cyborg that had been called in to help her, was pacing as he looked at a tablet.  “I’m still trying to figure out the specifics of the power that was used on you.  If, uh, if what I’m reading is right, when her power hit your subdermal mesh, there was some sort of energy discharge that it tried to dissipate across a wider area.  However, it looks like that same energy transferred to the cybernetics located in your deeper tissue.”

At least they were talking to me, giving me something else to focus on besides the pain.  This was only the third round of surgery.  Only.  By my guess it was around noon now.  How was Dr. Redford still going?

“I’m more concerned about the other powers,” Cord continued.  “These logs say that they encountered a different energy pulse and…  Something.  I’m not completely sure about Bonesaw’s–”

“Riley,” I made out.

I could only see his legs from how I was laying, my head framed by the weird bed that I was laying on, holding it in place, but he turned to look at me for a long moment before continuing.

“Right, uh…  I’m…  I’m not sure about Riley’s shorthand.  I’m pretty good with the materials that I was given, but there’s a lot here that I just…  I mean it’s a lot of technical logging, and I can get the overview, but…  I dunno.  I mean, I guess that I should expect inconsistent documentation from a little psycho like–”

Jax,” John said sternly from the observatory.  He’d insisted on watching.  “It would serve you well to shut your mouth before I come in there and rip off your arms.

That made him turn, apparently looking at the window.  “I…  I’m sorry?”

It will be far gentler than what Jordan would do to you if you were to continue that line of thought.  The woman saved his life, and as much as I am of the opinion that she is not to be trusted, I do agree that she is owed a modicum of respect in front of a man whom she literally put together again from chunks of meat.  And I know that Jordan feels the same way.

“Yup.”  Even if we had differing opinions about her, John was a good friend, and a good man for defending her for my sake.

I felt Dr. Redford’s hand on my bare shoulder.  “I need to take a five minute break or my hands are going to start shaking.”

“‘Kay.”  I took a deeper breath.  “Cord.  How’s your new leg working out?”

He turned back to me.  “Uh…  I…  I’m surprised that you noticed.”

“Your weight distribution while walking’s totally off.  You’ve upgraded one leg, but not the other.  I’d imagine that you’re having a hell of a time with it.”

He moved closer to my bed, making me roll my eyes.  Now all that I could see were his boots.  “Yeah!  I mean, it’s hard on the hips for now, and my knee’s killing me, but I should have the right leg done by the end of the year.  I didn’t want to wait forever like I did with my arms.”

“I installed them for him,” Redford admitted.  “I would have preferred it if he would have let me do the leg, too.”

I closed my eyes.  “I’d imagine that making your cybernetics is time consuming and expensive.”

“Oh, yeah!  Just the stuff for my knee actuator set me back a cool grand.”

“And I know you haven’t made anywhere near that from my checkups.”  I paused, but Cord didn’t say anything.  “I can’t help but wonder–”

Jordan,” John said, just as firmly as he had with Cord.  “Relax.  Cord isn’t the type to work with Teacher.

“He isn’t,” Redford confirmed.  “Dev can sense a Student from a mile away.”

I finally lifted my head from the crook to look at her.  “You’ve had to deal with them before?”

She nodded gravely.  “A couple of times.  Dev’s a lazy twit, but I keep him around for that ability of his.  The first time I told them to get lost.  The second time…  Let’s just say that breeding wildlings isn’t just for spare parts.”

I thought about it for a moment before putting my head back down.  “Fair.  I’d imagine that the breeding rates are a problem.”

“Wouldn’t you believe it.  There’s only a few times that I’ve encountered ones that have breeding seasons.  Most of them will pump out the puppies whenever.  I even have to be careful who I let socialize — they seem to be able to cross breed no matter how different they are, though not all of the kids are, uh, viable.

“I got lucky that there’s a few other breeders out there that I could ask questions.  It seems like it would be easy to get the bits that you want if they breed so easily, but it really isn’t.  Sometimes, you have to go backwards in order to go forwards.”

That didn’t make sense to me, but admittedly, genetics weren’t my thing.  I liked studying wildling anatomy, figuring out how they worked, but anything deeper wasn’t my cup of tea.

“Any cute ones yet?”

She laughed.  “Still worried about your wildlings?  Nah, nothing that I’d count as cute or friendly yet.  If I ever do, though, I promise you that I won’t use ’em.  I might breed ’em with each other, and if they’re as cute as you say they are, I’ll probably start naming them.”

“That’s what I did.”

Cord coughed softly.  “I just wanna say, talking about them like this?  It’s kinda weird.”

You get used to it,” John said, all of the sternness in his voice replaced with amusement.  “You sound like you miss them, my friend.  Have you ever thought about going back?

I felt a pang of longing now, thinking about them.  An empty, hollow longing that seemed to sink so far deep into my chest.  I pushed it down, all the way down into the void.  “No.  I mean, I’d love to see them again.  They’re my friends, so it’s only natural.  But St. Louis is too dangerous.  I got lucky to meet them, and without them, I never would have lived.”

Always the practical one,” he said with a chuckle.  “Some day, you’re going to have to crack that–

The way his voice broke made my head snap up.  Trouble.  I looked to the observation window just in time to see Emi look back at me before teleporting into the OR, my gear in her hand.

“Hey!” Redford barked.

Emi didn’t even look at her.  “No time, Doc.”  I hopped off of the bed, ignoring the points on my back that stung.  “J-man, we’ve got Wardens on the inbound.  Full squad of cadets and a handler behind them.”  She held out my armor, ready for me to get in.

I noted that Cord’s metal arms gained a slight blue tinge to them as she said that.

Dr. Redford looked between us as I climbed in, wringing her hands.  “They’re coming here?”

Emi glanced at her.  “Got anything to hide, Doc?”

“Emi,” I growled and she focused on helping me into my armor again.  “We’ll take care of it, doctor.”

“I don’t have anything to hide,” Redford said.  “At least, not now.  But some of my–”

He said we’ll take care of it.”  I glanced at John, and he was already getting his red mask on.  “I trust that you don’t want violence this time?

I nodded.  “Preferably, yeah.  This is a hospital.  Can you all follow my lead?”

I knelt so that Emi could put my helmet on and slap down the faceplate.  “You got it, J-man.”  She was grinning from ear to ear as she grabbed her own mask.  She was enjoying this too much.

“Please be careful,” Redford said.  “I… won’t help you fight them, but…”

“Wouldn’t ask for it.”  I nabbed my halberd.  “Blue?”

Just got my radio on,” Kathy said quickly.  “Two minutes at this rate, looks like they’re headed for the lobby.

“We’ll meet them there.”  I looked at Dr. Redford and Cord.  “Stay here.  If there’s any trouble, I don’t want you caught in the crossfire.”

Without waiting for a response, I was moving through the OR doors and down the hall.  Emi was right behind me, and it didn’t take long for John to catch up.  “Red, I want you to get the door for them.”

That made John hurry a little more to catch up.  “Me?!”

“You’re the most social out of all of us.  I want you to be welcoming.  Inviting.  They’re expecting a fight, so throw them off their game.  Make them wonder what’s going on.”

“And my ability to change density?”

“Will come in handy if they try something, yes.  Try to keep them from doing so.”

John adjusted his shirt as he walked ahead of us, a bit of a swagger in his step.  The key was to find the right person for the job.

As I walked into the lobby, we didn’t have long before they’d arrive.  Thankfully, Kathy stepped up to take charge.  “Emi, that corner by the door.  Play with your fingernails, but don’t use a knife.”

Emi tilted her head back and forth in irritation but did as she was told, leaning in the corner and crossing her legs.  Meanwhile, Kathy grabbed me and placed me against the wall opposite the front door.  “Angry?”

“Yup,” I said with a nod.

“Cool.”  She moved to a nearby chair and flopped down, practically sprawling in it.  How could she sprawl in a chair like that?  It was beyond me.  I knew she was still sore from her fight by how she moved, and she had to be tired, but here she was, sprawling like it wasn’t anything in the world.

And then came the wait.  Somehow, I had the feeling that I’d never get used to waiting.  Why couldn’t things just happen the moment that we all got into position?  At least the receptionist had the decency to flee before I even got there.  Instead, I simply crossed my arms, lowered my head, and adopted a passively-aggressive stance.  Not a passive-aggressive one, but one where I was visibly on the edge of turning aggressive.

Finally, John opened the door, calling out in a pleased tone.  “Ah, our esteemed Warden friends!  How good to see you!  No doubt, we know who you’re here to see, and he’s waiting for you!  Come in, come in.”  He stepped outside, holding the door open.

A cadet said something that I couldn’t make out, but John laughed and stepped outside, holding the door open just out of sight.  “No, not at all!  No shenanigans, nothing like that.  This is a simple offer for me to hold the door for you as you enter.  Come, come.  They’re all waiting for you.  And I promise that I won’t try anything from behind.  You have my word of honor.  Please.”

I was happy that my helmet was on so they couldn’t see me smirking.  Slowly, though, one by one, they came inside, looking at me warily.  My helmet didn’t help matters any.  The human mind seeks out a face, and to be presented with a head without one was disturbing on a deep subconscious level.

Valkyrie sent cadets after me for two reasons; to be able to say that they were trying to catch me, and so that I could teach them a thing or two.  They’d made a mistake, and class was now in session.

Once the five of them were inside, along with their handler, one stepped forward nervously.  “Jordan!” he called out with false bravado.  “You are–”

“You’re in violation of Article Six, 13.B of the standard behavior protocols of the Wardens.”  I didn’t bother to try and hide the venom in my voice.  “As such, no matter what agreements the city may have, your actions here are illegal to the Wardens and you’ll suffer full reprimand upon returning to HQ.”

I hadn’t moved, but the lead cadet, probably somewhere around my age, took a half step back as if I’d just made a threatening gesture.  “Uh, I-I…”

Emi snorted, making a couple of them jump and spin to look at her.  “I don’t even know the rules, but even I know how you fucked up.”

“‘Oh, we have to go after Jordan,'” Kathy said lazily.  “‘Oh, he’s at the doctor?  Perfect!'”

Now the guy was all but trembling.  “Th-this isn’t a licensed medical facility!”

“Doesn’t matter,” John sing-songed as he calmly closed the door and leaned against it.  “Most places of medicine in the world these days?  They aren’t manned by people who have actual medical degrees.  Or if they do, not in the traditional sense.  Folk cures, dentists, veterinarians…  Anyone with a knowledge of the body, pressed into service as a healer of sorts for a community.  Those are the doctors that you will find.”

The man looked to his handler.  “But the rules say–”

“A recognized medical facility,” she finished for him.  “Many cadets make the mistake of confusing ‘recognized’ with ‘licensed.'”

“Definitions need changed,” I said coolly.  “Or better defined.  There’s several rules for licensed medical locations when it comes to what to do if someone is hurt.  It confuses people.”

She shrugged, looking utterly unphased by any of this.  Unlike the cadets, she was probably seeing straight through our ruse.

“The rules exist for a reason,” I growled.  “Fight in a hospital, of any sort, and not only do you risk innocent people getting hurt, but property damage to the hospital.  Which means that none of the people who got hurt can be treated properly, and a lot of expensive equipment gets ruined.  How do you think that makes the Wardens look?”

Kathy grinned at them.  “I can see the headlines now.  ‘Five dead, twenty wounded, all expected to die of gangrene because of the Wardens.’  There’s a reason why only idiots don’t consider hospitals hallowed ground.”

I hadn’t planned any of this with them, but everyone was rolling with it perfectly, like I’d educated them on proper Wardens protocols.  If I’d been told three years ago that my best teammates would be con artists who knew next to nothing about fighting, I would have disagreed.  Now?  Well, they were getting better at fighting, which was icing on the cake.

The leader turned back to me, trying to find the right place to look on my smooth helmet to where my eyes would be.  “You still have to come with us as a person of interest in the New Fairfax murders.”

I blinked.  Was this the quality of cadets these days?  “I don’t think that you fully appreciate the level of fucked you are right now.”

One of the other cadets spoke up, her voice betraying her fear slightly.  “We know you aren’t triggered.  We know about your Tinker tech.  If we attack you, we have the advantage.”

“Right.  First off, how many people do you see in this room?”

That made them all start to look around.

I didn’t give them a chance.  “Right!  There, right there.  That’s why you’re fucked.

“First, you didn’t assess the situation.  Red invited you in, and you came.  You know that I have four teammates, and there’s only three.  You let yourselves get surrounded.  Even if Red keeps his promise to not attack until you look at him, you’re still surrounded.  You’re in a prime position for a pincer attack, with one person still not visible.  You have no idea where she is, but we’re all prepared for your arrival.

“Right now, you have us on numbers.  You have us on information…  But you’ve lost literally every other tactical advantage that you could have had.”

The leader started to turn towards his handler.

“What the fuck are you doing?!”  They all just about jumped out of their skins, one guy raising his hand towards me.  “You’re looking at her?!”

Kathy giggled.  She giggled.  “I’m not even a Warden and I know she isn’t supposed to help you.  Fucking seriously.  What are you looking at her for?”

“Jordan,” Dr. Redford called from the back.  “Either kick their asses or get them out of here.  Your colon is supposed to be inside you, not on this counter.”

Don’t laugh.  Don’t laugh.  Emi might be laughing and John might be fighting it for everything that he was worth, but I couldn’t even begin to show it.  Whatever I did, I couldn’t laugh.  I didn’t even know why that seemed so funny.

“Well.”  Kathy hopped to her feet, rotating her shoulders.  “I guess you five have a choice.”

I took a step forward, snapping my halberd into a proper two-handed grip.  “Either run with your tails between your legs now, or I take you down hard and fast to get my…  My pooper put back in.”

Words that I never thought would come out of my mouth.

The leader looked around us nervously before glancing at his handler again.  She couldn’t look any more bored.  Without any guidance, he looked back to me.  “If we leave, you won’t, uh…”

“We won’t accost you,” John said pleasantly as he opened the door.  “However, should you return?  Should you try and attack us in this village again?  We won’t hesitate to break out the firearms.  Understand?”

He hesitated for a moment before heading for the door.  “It’s not worth the lawsuit,” he grumbled quietly.

As the others followed him, one girl held back.  “I, uh…  I have a tutor in the Wardens.  He said that if I ever had to face you, uh…  He’s sorry that he made you shoot him, and that he had it coming.”

What?  I had no idea who she was talking about, but I bowed my head respectfully.  “Thank you.  No hard feelings.”

She nodded once before hurrying out, far too glad to not have to be near me anymore.  She passed the handler, who waited a moment before nodding, flashing us all a grin.  “Nicely done.”  With that, she slipped out, too.

Which only left me one thing to worry about.  “Keep an eye on them,” I told the others.  “But don’t go outside.”

With that, I turned and went into the OR again, finding a nervous Cord and Dr. Redford.  “What the hell was that?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, nearly hysterical.  “I just…  I just panicked and thought that maybe if I said something…”

I pulled my helmet off.  “My colon?!”

She shrugged.  “I don’t know!  I just…  yelled the first thing that was necessary but wasn’t, like, the heart of something!”

Cord was still absorbed into the display on his arm.  “I, on the other hand, got a few readings.  I think I know what’s up with your cybernetics not dissipating energy right.  I think I can adjust some settings to fix it, but since I’m not Bo…  Er, Riley, I can’t do any major fixes.  You might still have problems in the future.”

“That’s fine,” I muttered as I opened my armor.  “If you can make it better at all, that will be an improvement.”  And maybe some day I could get to Riley to have it properly taken care of.  If she did have upgrades, those would be handy, too.

I pulled the armor off of my torso, and felt five points rip out of my back.

This is what I got for putting it on before the doctor was done with me.  Son of a bitch…

Ninsun 13.4

The pain died down almost instantly, but even as I turned, I found my hand empty.

My halberd was gone.

I spun to elbow my attacker in the face, but found a woman that was already ducking down. She slammed her elbow into my ribs hard enough to make me stagger a few steps.

Pain radiated through my chest; my enhancements actually had to work to absorb that one.

Being driven back was both good and bad.  Good because it gave me a chance to look at my opponent; a woman in her thirties, lean and athletic with short hair… and my halberd coalescing into her hand.

Bad because it put me within range of my own weapon.  Oh, this bitch was going to hurt when I was done with her.

“Jordan,” she said, pointing my halberd at me.  “We don’t want to fight you.”

“Says the woman who did something to my spine,” I growled.

“My power went off accidentally,” she said in a soothing tone.  Bullshit.  “I don’t have complete control over it.”

“Jordan?” I heard Kathy call out from two floors below.

“We don’t have to fight,” the woman continued.

I narrowed my eyes.  “I already know about the plan to deal with me, to get me close so that Teacher can sink his teeth into me.”

She studied me for a moment, weighing her options.  I didn’t dare put up my firsts or get into a stance.  That might put her into a more aggressive mood.  I was naked, I had no weapons, and was injured.  I could feel the blood welling in five places on my back.  I had no idea if my halberd could cut through my subdermal mesh, but finding out would be bad.  It was better to see how this went.

Finally, she made her choice.  “Attack,” she barked before thrusting my halberd at me.

Her attack came up short, giving me enough time to dance further back and out of her attack radius.  She tried to spear me again, but this time, I didn’t retreat.

Her thrust was sloppy, indicating that she wasn’t used to a polearm.  I slapped the shaft aside as I lunged forward.  As I drew in, my left arm came up to elbow her in the face, instantly reversing into a backhand that connected with a solid sound.

As she reeled, I grabbed for my halberd.  As I yanked, though, it disappeared, making me stumble.  Before I was able to recover, her boot slammed into my gut and I was sent flying a short ways down the hall. I impacted with the polished hardwood floor, skidding another couple of feet.

I gripped my gut.  That was… going to leave a bruise at the very least.  Brute and a Breaker.  Maybe a Striker.

I looked up as she advanced towards me, my halberd in her hand.  A sense of thoughtless calm washed over me.  There was too much swagger in her hips — she had me, and she knew it.

And then she tossed my halberd away, phasing it out as she did so.  I could still see it as it spun through the wall, and heard it clatter against another wall in the room beyond.

Well, that was dumb.

As she drew closer, she lifted her arm and opened her hand into a claw, no doubt ready to strike it down on me.

Instead, I kicked her just below the knee with all my might, and she stumbled back with a yelp of pain.

As I kippuped to my feet, I could hear a crash downstairs.  Her attack comment echoed through my head — the others had their own problems.

No time to worry about that, though.  She was already bringing her arms up and putting one leg out further than the other, still squared directly towards me.  Muay Thai.  I was facing someone who actually knew a bit about martial arts, and could take a hit.

A tremble of excitement coursed through my veins.

I threw an experimental jab, trying to see just how good she was.  The quick strike was deflected by one forearm and before I could pull back, her other hand snatched out to grab it.  The moment her fingertips touched my skin, pain shot through me.

I lashed out with the other, catching her just in time for her other hand to connect with the center of my chest.  It only lasted for a brief moment, but my entire chest exploded with pain.  It seemed to be carried by the mesh below my skin.

But I’d connected with her hard enough to make her release me.  Both of us stumbled away from each other.  Blood oozed out from where her fingers had literally dug into my skin.

Her first attack had tried to damage my spine, but had been stopped by my subdermal mesh.  This fight was going to get a lot longer.

In that brief moment, I understood perfectly.  I couldn’t grapple with her.  When she used her power, some sort of feedback would fire through my mesh, making it hurt worse than if she’d just punctured my skin.

She lunged, lashing out with an elbow.  My own blocked her forearm, helping to use her strike to snap my fist into her head before dancing back again.  Don’t give her a chance to get a grip on me.

“We could have done this peacefully,” she growled.

What?  Now she wanted to talk?!

I leaned forward, and she edged back a hair.  “Yeah, because I’m the one who struck first.  Sure.”

She snarled, and her knee jerked up a bit, making me dance back.  “He can help you, Jordan.”

I feined a kick to her shin, only to direct a quick one to her hip before backing off.  This was a dance, feeling each other out.  “Nobody can help me and I know it.”

She made two quick elbow swiped and a jab, forcing me to backpedal.  I was getting close to the stairs, which was a bad place to be.  If I was forced down them, she’d have the higher ground, and while that meant a more precarious position for the both of us, my ability to attack forward would be hampered.

“He can give you what you want!”

“I want him to leave Dragon alone.”

I lunged with a straight punch that connected solidly.  Unfortunately, pain seared my arm as she got a grip again.  Before I could respond, I doubled over a bit as her knee slammed into my crotch.

Now her fingers sank into the back of my head, blurring my vision.  The knee to my face didn’t help that at all.  But she let go, and I found myself stumbling back, almost to the top of the stairs.

The ache of my groin made standing straight more difficult.  Bitch was using one of my own moves!

“He can give you powers, Jordan.”

The pain ebbed out of me as I glared at her.  “At the cost of my free will?  No thanks.”

She shook her head quickly.  “I still have free will, and he helped me to control my powers.”

I couldn’t help but snort.  “I have a less than one percent chance of getting powers according to Alcott.”

That made her pause in surprise.  “He can–”

“My brain’s been altered!  His power might not even work on me.”  Where the hell did that come from?  It didn’t matter.  Nothing mattered.  “You wanna talk?  Call off your goons.”

I finally made out my armor on the floor, half sticking out of a doorway.  So her power couldn’t imbed things in the wall?  If I could just make it over there and get one of my firestarter pellets…

A sudden pulse of energy came from downstairs, making my organs feel odd.

My opponent took that window to move, and my body automatically did the same.  Instincts kicked in, automatically deflecting her elbow.  My fist impacted with her floating rib.  My body twisted to take her powerful knee to my hip.  Her fingers tore into the skin of my chest just as my fist connected with her throat, forcing her to stumble back.

Total time?  Three and a half seconds.  With the echo of pain that ran through my ribs and lung, I wasn’t sure which one of us won that exchange.

“You’re slow,” she said, backing away a little further.  I took the chance to move forward.  “If I could get my fingers into you, you’d already be done already.”

“Yeah, well…”  I struggled for something to say.  “Fuck you.”  Smooth.

Another energy pulse went through me, and the woman backed off a little more.  Things might be getting heavy down there.  I wasn’t sure, all of my attention was on this floor.

“I can keep this up all day.  Your hits are like bee stings.”

That was a lie.  The subtle shift of her body told me that she was feeling that punch to the ribs.  “Enough bee stings can kill a person.”

“Give up,” she said with a smirk.  “We don’t want to kill you.”

“Fuck you.”  Oh, yeah.  I was on a roll.  But despite the weirdness in my gut and chest, I was trying to think of a way to get past her.  Just because I was out of handcuffs didn’t mean that I didn’t have a lot on my suit that couldn’t help.

“What about your friends?”

I swung at her, far short, but it was to keep up threat.  She backed off a bit, giving me even more clearance from the stairs.

“There’s six of us down there.  The three of them won’t last long.”

“They’ll surprise you,” I snarled.

That made her smirk.  “Give up and I’ll spare whichever bitch is–”

I roared as I charged.  Fuck her!

She tried to snap kick at me, but my fist slammed into her just below the knee.

I plowed into her with all my might, knocking her off her feet.  The two of us hit the floor.

My knee was driven right into her crotch, making her scream.

Her hand was on my face, but I didn’t feel anything.  Instead, I bit down into her thumb knuckle with a sickening crunch.

She screamed again.  Good.  More.

Half of my vision was red as my fist pounded into her throat.

As she reached for it, I was on my feet.  A stomp to her face greeted her as I walked past.

My hands grabbed my armor and I practically flew back to her.

A kick clean to her jaw.  If she wasn’t a Brute, it would have shattered.

It didn’t. Good.

My body was on top of her again.  My hand on her face, twisting it to look at me.  I could barely see her through the red.  My hand clamped over her mouth, and I punched just under her jaw.

I felt the pellet burst.  I could feel the heat under my hand.  Her eyes went wide.  Her body thrashed under me.  Her fingers desperately gripped.

Burn!

More downstairs.  More.  Kill every one of them.  Kill…

——————–

My eyes stung.  My top lip was wet.  My body was in exquisite pain.

In my hand was bone.  Underneath me was a pile of flesh and bone that once had been a man.

Looking down at it, I felt sick.  The bone slipped from my fingers as I looked around.

There was… a lot of blood here.  But there was John, pulling one leg free from the floor, blood smearing his clothes and a portion of his skin silver.

Kathy was in much worse shape.  Part of her mask looked like it had been aged a hundred years, and she was clutching her ribs.  Emi had hers off, and a smear of blood was under her nose.  Her lips were caked with a browish substance.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out what.  Her eye was swollen, and she was cradling her hand gingerly.

My entire body convulsed for a moment.  There was a metallic taste in my mouth that I didn’t want to think about.  Instead, I focused on each muscle group, tightening, then relaxing.  Tighten… then relax.

“Jordan?” Kathy asked.  “Are you back with us?”

I opened my mouth to talk, but as I tried, my throat felt like nettles.  My senses were returning, and I wished they hadn’t — I didn’t have words to describe the smell of the gore.

“Teleporter,” I made out finally.  “Armor.  Upstairs.”

Emi looked, and teleported away.  As the pain made me close my eyes, I could hear her teleporting several more times.  Didn’t matter.  Nothing mattered.

I rolled off the body, flopping onto the ground.  My everything hurt.  My armor hurt, and I wasn’t even wearing it.

“Are you okay?” Kathy asked, hurrying over to me.  “What…  What happened up there?”

“No…  Idea…”  I forced my hand up to look at it, the blisters on the palm.  What the hell?  “Red rage.  Can’t… remember.”  I turned my eyes to John.  “Shrink.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” he said eagerly, finally getting himself free.  As Emi appeared, he held out his hand to her for my armor.  “But I think that a doctor would be the most expedient course of action, don’t you?”

As he took the teleporter and began to fiddle with it, Kathy knelt next to me, her fingers almost touching my chest.  “Did…  Did you suppress what happened?”

“Not the time,” Emi said, her voice heavy with worry.

“No.”  They deserved an answer.  “Get too… angry.  Black out.”

And unless someone stopped me, I killed everyone in my way.  They hadn’t.

John held out the teleporter to Kathy.  “Gold, help me with getting the big man up.”

Emi gaped at him, clutching my halberd.  “Ask the short girl to–”

“She’s hurt more than you are!” he snapped.

Kathy pushed the teleporter towards Emi.  “Bags in the basement.  Get them, then meet us out back.”

Emi nodded and teleported off.  Kathy took my hand to haul me up.

“Elbow,” I made out.  My throat and tongue felt so thick.

Kathy’s posture was curious.  John instead leaned down, grabbing me behind the elbow, and so that I could do the same to him.  Since I couldn’t explain how this allowed for better leverage and control while also minimizing the chance of hurting the subject, it was good enough.  She got the hint, and even with John doing the majority of the work, she still gasped in pain as they hauled me up to my feet.

John was instantly throwing one of my arms over his shoulder, and Kathy did the same, more to steady me as they dragged me out the back door.  As my head hung limply, I could see streaks of silver on my skin.  Just what powers had I been hit by?

Within moments, Emi was trailing behind us, grunting with effort as she carried more bags than were healthy for her.  As soon as we were clear of the house, though, she hit the button, and we were somewhere else.

“What the hell?” she barked.  “Why the fuck aren’t we at Mother’s Hospital?”

John spoke in a dark tone.  “If you believe for one moment that I’m going to let Bonesaw get her hooks into Jordan again, you’ve got another thing coming.  For all we know…  Never mind.  Bang on the door.  If nobody’s awake, fix that.”

As they began to drag me again, all that I could see was the ground beneath me.  Over the blood rushing in my ears, I could hear Emi teleport again, followed by banging.  After a moment, the door opened.

“Shit,” I heard a man say.  “Get inside.  I’ll get the doctor.  Do you know where the–”

“We know the OR quite well,” John called out.  “Thank you.”

All that I could do was watch the ground as we moved past the threshold.  At least the floor was tile as they dragged me through.  All of my strength was completely wasted — too much rage and too many wounds, no matter how superficial they might end up being, had sapped my strength.

They dragged me through a set of doors and down another hall with a different type of tile.  Easier to clean, I noted.  Funny how you notice minor, inconsequential things like that.

They had just gotten me dragged into a room when I heard another voice behind us.  “Can I help you?”

John and Kathy turned, and I was able to force my head up just enough to see a woman in casualwear staring at us.  I put together who she was just as John spoke.

“Ah, Doctor Redford.”

The one who had operated on me back when I’d gone through the Tinker corridor, who had also been selling me the neuroplasticity elixirs.  She kept trying to get me to call her Janet.

“Get him on the table,” she barked as she moved for a closet.  “What happened?”

“We aren’t sure,” Emi said quickly, trailing behind the doctor.  “I mean, we know some of it, but…  He’s tired, he’s having trouble talking, and he had a ton of powers used on him real quick-like.  We don’t even know why he’s naked!”

John and Kathy worked to get me up on the table.  I could feel John’s density change to give him the boost of strength necessary to haul me up.  As soon as my torso was on, they both let go, and he focused on getting my legs on.

Kathy turned to the doctor, panting in short breaths and clutching her ribs again.  “We’re all gonna need you to take a look at us once we’re done.”

Now clad in a labcoat, Dr. Redford moved to a sink.  “I’m only good for grafting or synthesis.  Remember, I’m not an actual doctor.  You’d be better off at Mother’s Hospital.”

Emi glared at John, pointing at the doctor.  He very pointedly ignored her.

“What I can do, at least, is use antiseptic and give you something to help with healing.”  She turned her head towards the door as she began to wash her hands.  “Hey!” she yelled.  “Get Dev!  Call Cord, we’ll need him!  And then have him get in touch with Nexus!  Jordan’s here!”

“We don’t need Nexus,” John grumbled.

“Oh?”  She turned to look at him.  “So you’re willing to pay for all of this yourself?”

That made him pause.  “Let’s… discuss that when we’re done.”

She shook her head as she grabbed a pair of rubber gloves, making her way over to me.  “Jordan, Jordan, Jordan.  Is this going to become an annual thing?”

“Not… my fault.”  Now that I was laying again, everything seemed to hurt even worse.  “Try an’ get… killed.”

She snorted.  “Sense of humor’s better than usual.  Alight, everyone into the observation room.  Let me work.”  As everyone began to shuffle out, she hunched over my body.  “You’ve done a doozy to yourself.  Looks like I’ll have to do a lot of little patches.  This is going to hurt like hell, you realize.”

Right now?  What didn’t?

Ninsun 13.3

Emi whispered to John as we walked towards the three-story building.  “I’ll wait until you get the window open, yeah?”

“That’s what I was thinking,” he said with a nod.

I frowned a bit.  “I really wish that Brenda were here.”  Though it was honestly for the best — I’d come to rely too much on her power.  Being able to see a multitude of probable futures was such an insanely huge boon to us, but it made me lazy.

Kathy sighed.  “I’m upset that she felt the need to lie to us.”

I frowned a bit, and thankfully, Kathy explained.  “That whole ‘I’m sick’ thing.  We already agreed that she didn’t have to join us on this, and trust me, she was faking it.”

“Don’t be too hard on her,” John said softly.  “She opened up enough to tell us that much.  The fact that she fell back upon bad habits and routines as soon as her fear grew worse is to be expected.”

I nodded a little.  “She doesn’t talk about her past often.  The fact that it scared her enough to tell everyone about it…”

“Check,” Kathy interrupted.  We all glanced in separate directions without having to be told where to look.  Those elixirs were paying off.  But nobody was saying anything, so we were all in the clear.

With a nod, John got a little bit of a running start, increasing his density for a split second before lowering it and jumping up to the third story.  Meanwhile, I followed Kathy to the door, waiting as she worked on the lock.

It was strange.  Here we were, breaking into a building, about to take on a gang that might have ties to Teacher to get both revenge and justice.  This should have felt scary, or even exciting, but it felt horribly… normal.  Mundane, even.  I didn’t have any real emotions on it one way or another.  Maybe I was just getting used to this sort of work.  Was this how they felt on a con?

Maybe it was the mild bit of indigestion that I’d felt earlier.  It wasn’t giving me any trouble now, but still.  You could get weird when your digestion was off.  Funny how the human brain seemed to be connected to the stomach.

As the door opened, the lights were off.  I slipped out of my robes, clicking the halberd head into place as I stepped inside.  The lights were low, but they wouldn’t have summoned me if people hadn’t been here.  I moved deeper in, where a collection of furniture was clustered around a radio.  Fairly typical sight.  A way to keep people entertained while important people kept busy.

One guy sleeping on one of the couches, his head tilted back and his mouth wide open.  The only one that I could see offhand.

I opened the pouch with my handcuffs before heading to the window.  I ran the drapes against my halberd blade, requiring only minimal effort to slice off a strip and offer it to Kathy, who was opening her pistol holster.  She shook her head, making a gimmie motion.  Fair enough.  I cut off another strip, and she nodded before I handed both of them over and set my halberd down.  As we moved to the couch, her behind it and me in front, she took the time to carefully arrange the two pieces of cloth and tie them so there was a large square knot in the middle.

A moment later, we both were in position.  As she brought the fabric down so the knot went inside the guy’s mouth, I grabbed both of his wrists, twisted, and lifted.  Immediately he was awake and making sounds of pain into the improvised gag.  Unfortunately, he also began to try and rise from his seat because of how I was holding his hands.  This particular grip was incredibly painful.

I had to improvise so that Kathy could tie off the gag, quickly putting a foot at the guy’s throat.  Kathy took the time to make sure that the knot was tight before calmly drawing her gun and putting it to his head.  Her finger wasn’t on the trigger, though — the lessons on trigger discipline were getting through.

I let go of one hand, pulling the other a little more as I reached for the handcuffs.  As soon as I had one wrist cuffed, I released with my foot, brought him to the floor, and dropped one knee into the small of his back.  Grab the other hand, cuff it, grab one leg, cuff an ankle with another set of cuffs, then cuff that to the chain between the other handcuffs.

It felt…  I wasn’t sure how it felt.  Like nothing, really.  Like eating a microgreen salad when you wanted steak.  You did it, but you didn’t really get anything out of it.  I wasn’t complaining, though — I’d rather have that damn emptiness than have to worry about Kathy getting hurt.

I retrieved my halberd and joined Kathy along the patrol of the main floor.  My employee, whose name I couldn’t remember, one of the two women, had given us a very good set of plans for the building, and some of what to expect.  The first floor was basically a lounge with kitchen, the second floor was workspaces and storage, including the armory, the third floor held some bedrooms, though the leaders didn’t use them.  They were free reign for people who had proven themselves in the organization.

The basement was the big unknown.

We’d just gotten the dining room cleared when John’s voice whispered in my ear.  “Third floor clear.

And we weren’t even done with the first.

We probably could have cleared the first floor a lot faster, but we were going slow and careful. I’d go into a room to check it, being cautious to make sure that every place where a person could hide was checked, and Kathy would hang around outside to make sure that nobody came sneaking up behind us.

Ideally, I would enter first, heading for the nearest corner to my left, and then either Kathy or Emi would immediately enter, heading for the nearest corner to the right.  We’d still scan the other corners, of course, but still.  Then, whichever of the two didn’t enter would stand in the doorway, at the ready in case someone popped up.  Behind them, John (and maybe Brenda) would be standing guard in the hall.

That was the proper way to do things, but you worked with what you had available.  We needed to clear the building as quickly as possible, and we didn’t have the people necessary to handle properly securing it all.  Plus, we were trying to be sneaky.

As I moved to another room, Kathy whispered.  “Is it just me, or is it pretty dead in here?”

We had two up here,” John whispered.  “They were fucking, so I don’t think it’s a trap.

“It’s still pretty quiet,” I said.  “Far more than a big gang HQ at this time of night should be.  Maybe we’ll get lucky.”  Though, which way we’d get lucky was beyond me.  Would there be nobody?  Or would we find them all downstairs and a couple of my firestopper pellets would disable all the brass?

Soon enough, we were done with the first floor and making our way to the doorway to the basement.  Now I had a small tingle of excitement; we were heading into the great unknown, where countless dangers lurked.  Entering a building was one thing, but going down into a basement?  Only one avenue of entrance, which could easily leave us open to attack?  That was enough to get the adrenaline going.

I held up three fingers, two fingers, one finger, and opened the door…

Only to find darkness down below.  I frowned, looking down into it.  Already, my adrenaline was fading.  There were advantages to darkness.  We were upstairs in the light, so our eyes would be adjusted to it.  We couldn’t see down there.  We couldn’t know what was lurking in wait.  They’d have another layer of advantage.  As I stood there, Kathy slowly growing impatient next to me as the seconds slowly turned into a few minutes, I knew that there was one major disadvantage to lying in wait in darkness.

Sight worked both ways.

At the five minute mark, I flipped the heavy light switch on the wall, lighting up the basement.  Because I’d been staring into the darkness, my own eyes hurt as I charged down the stairs, halberd at the ready.

I found a what was best described as a war room down there.  Large tables that must have been a bitch to get down the stairs with papers and maps covering them, a multidimensional radio in the corner, the walls covered in corkboard with notes and maps on them…  For how low-tech it was, they were obviously running a sophisticated operation out of the basement.

As Kathy made it down behind me, she gave out a soft sigh.  “Bust?”

Bust.”  Emi sounded irritated.  She’d been looking forward to a fight.

“Bust,” I agreed.  “I take it you two are done up there?”

John snorted over the radio.  “No, but we can read the writing on the walls.  Was there anyone downstairs?

“One guy,” Kathy said.  “Sleeping on the couch.”

And we only found the two making the beast with two backs.  We left them in their compromising position, after adding some inconvenient bondage.

“Interrogation time,” Kathy said, making her way back upstairs.  With a sigh, I followed her.

The guy we’d gotten was writhing on the floor until she roughly grabbed him by the hair.  “Hello.”

I flipped my halberd around, slamming the spearpoint a good three inches into the floor right next to his head.  “The Machine got on my shit list.  I’m here to collect.  We’ll make this simple.”  I nodded to Kathy, and she undid the gag.  “You do something I don’t like, you get hurt.  You lie to me, you–”

“They’re at a wedding!” the guy spat out.

He couldn’t see anything but my boots from how he was laying, and even if he could see my head, I was wearing my helmet with the faceplate closed.  That didn’t stop me from raising an eyebrow.

“You aren’t here for us small fries, and I get that.  You want the bosses, right?  They…  They aren’t here.  They’re all at a wedding.”

I pulled my halberd out of the floor, moving to sit in a chair so that he could see me if he turned his head, which he quickly did.  “And the two upstairs?”

“One of our whores and a guy who just got made.  He’s a flywheel now, so he gets one romp a week.”

Ask him if he’s made,” John said.

What did made even mean?  I could ask later.  “Are you made?”

The guy shook his head.  “I’m just a cog, yeah?  There’s usually a few of us here to watch the place and keep people from bothering the bosses, you know?  They, uh…”

“They took off,” Kathy said.  “While the boss is away, the mice will play.”

“Somethin’ like that, sure.”

I nodded slowly.  “You know who I am.”

He nodded.  “Jordan.  Survivor of St. Louis, Hero of Agamemnon, Butcher of New Fairfax, Savior of Bentonsworth, and Scourge of Corruption.”

Wait, they were adding more lame titles to me?  The last one was extra lame, too.

“Right.  Well.  You know what happens when folks cross me.”

“W-we spent forever worrying about you.  Honest.  The bosses were holed up in the basement forever, trying to figure out what to do about you.  When you started focusing on the people using your name and the corrupt Wardens, we finally relaxed.”

Kathy let go of the guy’s hair.  “And when they came up, did they have a whole mess of ideas on how to deal with him?”

The guy nodded, turning his head to look at me.  “Yeah.  They had, like, scripts of what to say, how to act if you got hostile, all that stuff.  They drilled it into our heads, man.”

I took a slow breath.  “Do you remember any of it?”

The guy shook his head.  “We dropped it before winter.  They said that if you hadn’t shown up, you weren’t gonna.”

If they were working with Teacher, then he’d told them everything that they needed to know on how to deal with me.  Unfortunately, this guy was worthless.

I got to my feet.  “Gold, I want you watching the guy down here.  Red, check storage, see if there’s anything valuable.”  I looked to Kathy.  “Blue, downstairs, see if there’s anything we can use.”

Kathy’s eyes went wide and she scrambled in her messenger bag for her mask.  Because that’s just how tonight was turning out.  To be fair, I’d forgotten to remind them myself.

“As for me, I’m going upstairs to interrogate.”

There’s duct tape in one of the workshops,” Emi said quickly.  I could hear her coming down the stairs.

At least there was something that I could use here.

——————–

“No, we weren’t supposed to mention your family at all, man.  We were warned that even saying word one about ’em might put you out for blood.”

I nodded thoughtfully.  Smart.  Back then, I probably would have.  Now that I knew that Chris and Sarah were in good hands, though, things were a little easier.

Emi and John had done a… passable job at securing these two, but they’d almost made it out of the bed by the time that I’d gotten up here.  Some duct tape had fixed that.  Then I’d duct taped a sheet around the two of them to provide them with at least a little modesty.  The woman seemed to appreciate that more than the guy.  The guy just appreciated the fact that I was more interested in asking him questions than attacking him.  From there, though, I’d duct taped them to the bed for extra security.

I tapped a finger against my leg.  “So, all in all, the plan was to play nice, and entice me into making reparations.  Interesting.”

“Every script they made me memorize said that we were supposed to tell you that those people got what was coming to them, and that we never gave the order to take you on.  I swear.”

“And I believe you.  I really do.”  I paused.  “So, I tell you what.  No beatings, no killings.  You’re playing extra nice.”

He breathed out a sigh of relief.

“But one last thing.  Teacher.”

The guy grew silent for a long moment before shaking his head.  “I know that they’re talking to someone, somewhere, that’s helping them with their plans, but I didn’t think it was Teacher.  I mean, if it was?  I’d think that Nexus would be throwing the whole fucking world at us.  I know he’s got some mad hate for Teacher ‘cos of how he triggered.  So…  Yeah.  I never bought into the whole Teacher thing.”

I nodded as I rose to my feet.  “Alright, that makes sense.  Thank you.  You’ll make it through this with only some chafing.”

I touched my fingers to my helmet.  “Red?  Blue?”

We’ve got some goods,” John said.  “Information and money.  A decent amount of gold, too.  Sulfur acid, some sort of weird jar with wires sticking into it that looks like it was holding water–

“Any cotton?” I asked, not correcting him on the sulfuric acid.

Two different stashes.

“They’re making gun cotton for some reason.  A better explosive than black powder.  It can also be used to make a form of smokeless gunpowder.  It’s hard to say what their goal is, unless you’ve found something?”

No,” Kathy said quickly.  “We’ve only been skimming these documents, and they’re up to a whole hell of a lot.  But I did crack open a hidden safe we found.  Some of these notes say that they’re working with Teacher.

I nodded thoughtfully.  Giving those to the Wardens or Dragon’s Teeth might not do any good.  Most people weren’t willing to start another war with Teacher, and I couldn’t blame them.  Of course, Nexus wasn’t one of those people.  He might pay a pretty penny for those.

“Right.  Pack up.  Grab everything, and I do mean everything.  Every map, scrap of paper, all of it.  Along with everything else.  I promised these two that I wouldn’t kill them, or else I’d be tempted to say burn the place down as we go and let the gun cotton do the rest.  That’d hurt them a bit.”

The man made a nervous noise.  I had to give the woman credit, she was keeping quiet.

Or,” Emi said slowly, dragging the word out.  “We could just carry everyone outside and then burn the place down.  I mean, get far enough away, and it shouldn’t be a problem.

“I only said tempted.  The gun cotton, depending on how good it is and how tightly it’s packed, might hurt anyone in the surrounding area.  And that’s assuming that they don’t have TNT or something in the building.  Heck, if they’re producing nitric acid, that’s bad enough — any oxidizer plus flames equals bad things, believe me.”

That’s why I mentioned it,” John said.  “The setup seemed strange to me.  They weren’t making drugs, but there was chemistry involved.  And the fine arts of modern-day alchemy are, alas, a foreign affair to me.

I nodded.  “Chemistry is hard, even when you know what you’re doing.  But I suppose that I can take a look at it and see what I can figure out.  If nothing else, someone out there should be willing to pay for nitric acid.  I don’t know the difference between regular cotton and gun cotton, though.  I think I can figure it out.”  There were downsides to having only read something and not actually having done it yourself.  I’d seen people use gun cotton, but I’d never personally handled it.

I looked back to our captives.  “Relax.  I’m a man of my word.  I said that I’d make The Machine pay for attacking me, but I said I’d let you live, so I’m gonna.”

I stepped out into the hall, rubbing my halberd shaft with my thumb.  Now I had to do something a little extra to get at them.  Maybe dismantle their workshops, or if–

My line of thought was paused as I felt cold air against my body.  Against my entire body, which shouldn’t be possible with my sealed armor.  I didn’t have time to register anything else, though, as my back exploded into pain.

Ninsun 13.2

“Are you sure you don’t need more backup?”

I threw the knfe, hitting the target just left of the bullseye.  I was getting used to the weird way that Nexus’ power worked; every time, I’d remember appearing somewhere in some sort of weird situation, as he talked to me.  It wasn’t like I was experiencing it in real time, but more like whatever weird scenario had already happened, and I was just remembering it.

Considering how weird the scenarios were, it was almost like a dream.

“I’m fine,” I said with a nod.  “We’ve got this.  Besides, I’ve got a good cover for going after them, and you don’t.”

Mom threw the knife back, getting a bullseye.  As I pulled it free, Nexus paced past me, frowning deeply.  “Oh, I have cause.  Even if the Machine hadn’t shot up a city that I had employees and their families in, I’d have plenty of cause.  Especially if you’re right that they’re in cahoots with Teacher.”  He sighed, shaking his head.  “I don’t know why the Dragon’s Teeth didn’t tell me.”

“You aren’t so surprised about the Wardens not saying anything?”  A little high, but I got it closer to the bullseye.  Even though I had to play with his scenario, whatever it was, I had some control.  Mostly for myself; I couldn’t change the scenario itself, but I was in full control over what I did.  At least I could use these talks for training.

“Nah.  They try not to let me know what they know about Teacher.  Which is… difficult, to say the least, especially when they call on me to see if they have one of his people in their ranks.  Though, to be honest, if it weren’t for that they probably would have gone after me a long time ago.”

I raised an eyebrow at him, not bothering to look as I heard the knife impact; surely Mom got a bullseye.  “I’ve always wondered how that works.”

He grinned at me.  Had he always had that slight gap between his teeth?  “Are you familiar with the devil you know?”

“I don’t think I know any devils,” I said, pulling the knife free.

“Fyrtorn.”

I considered that for a moment before nodding.  “Yeah, but any of them that I meet would die quickly.”

“Point.”  His grin grew a bit as I hit the outer edge of the bullseye.  “Anyway, I’m a known variable.  My people have always worked to improve whatever community they’re part of.  It’s one of the rules of being a member of my organization, but it serves us in multiple ways.  We help the community, they’re more willing to turn a blind eye to what we do.  We deliver information to the authorities, no matter what kind, and they hesitate to turn against us.

“It’s better to have us around, peddling drugs, helping them whenever possible, paying at least lip service to the law, than to have others doing whatever they want.  They know what to expect from me, and how to ask me to do things, or not do them.  I’m safer.”

“You’re easier to manipulate, too.”  Mom got a bullseye.

Nexus leaned against a vague outline that I quickly recognized as a birch tree.  “Well, I guess?  I don’t hide the fact that I’d give my left nut to put a bullet in Teacher’s fucking forehead and fuck the brain hole.”

“How pleasant,” I deadpanned.

He shrugged dramatically before continuing.  “Does that make me easier to manipulate?  Sure.  Does it make me worry about them manipulating me?  No.  The people I’ve sparked can all tell when they’re dealing with a Student, and if they abuse my hatred of the bastard, I’ll know.  Besides, I’m helpful when dealing with Students, and my power, and the information network it provides me, is valuable to them.  Plus…  Hell, I’ve been establishing a regular supply run for the city that the Simurgh parked herself over.

“Now imagine what happens if they take me down.  Not only do they lose everything that I was offering them, but it creates a power vacuum.  It’s only through my power that I can keep everything from falling apart.  But someone will move to pick up the pieces.  Either it’ll be my own people, or another actor in this game.  Straighten your back.”

I blinked at him for a moment as I pulled back.  Right, my form was off.  I adjusted before throwing again, his time getting it more solidly within the red.  Still, I was better than this.

“So if they take me down, not only do they lose the things that I offer them, but they also lose the predictability that I bring.  They know where I stand on things, but if someone else fills the void?  Well…  They’re kind of screwed.  But you don’t pay attention to politics, do you?”

“Nope.”

Mom notched an arrow and I hefted my halberd, getting ready.

Nexus pushed himself off the wagon.  “Oh!  That reminds me!  Gina’s worried to death about you.”

The arrow was loosed, but a quick swipe knocked it off course.

Catching an arrow was hard.  Really, really hard.  Almost impossible.  However, deflecting an arrow was infinitely easier.  While most people preferred using guns for obvious reasons, this was a skill that was handy to keep sharp — some powers could also be deflected.

“I doubt that’s what she said.”

“It isn’t, but I’m good at reading between the lines.”  He grinned.  “Very profanity-laden.  It doesn’t change the fact that the only reason that she isn’t on the warpath is because Valkyrie sent word to her.

“Anyway, somehow I doubt that this was a social call to let me know that you’ll be assaulting the Machine’s leadership.”

“Oh?”  I glanced at him before focusing on Mom again.

“Yeah.  See, if it’s a social call, I’m always the one to contact you.  You don’t worry about keeping me up to date on what you’re doing.  You only call me if you need something.”

I frowned a bit.  “Sorry.”

“Hey, no worries!  I’m a busy guy, and you’ve got a ton of important stuff going on.  I get that.  Even if it’s just recovering from almost getting your head squished by the Simurgh and having to fight Defiant, you need time to handle your thing.  To be honest, the only reason why I wasn’t forcing contact with you was because I heard that Dragon found you.

“So, what’s up Jordan?”

I might as well come out and say it.  “I was hoping that you could give me any information about what sort of numbers they have.”

That made him frown.  He motioned to a table and we both settled down.  “I can get that for you.  I’ll radio Fenix and–“

“You can’t just give it to me?  I would have figured you’d be ready to take them on.”

“Okay, see, if I would have known that they were associated with Teacher, I’d be all over that.  But I’m only one man, Jordan, with a huge organization at my command.  An organization that’s expanding into Asia as we speak.  I can’t know everything offhand, and I can’t just give you hard numbers like that.”

He was never willing to give me hard numbers when we were talking like this.  Damn it.  “I’m not near Fenix.”

“Okay,” he said thoughtfully.  “Well, then, are you near a radio?”

I shook my head, and he frowned more deeply.

“You’re in the town and ready to begin, aren’t you?”

I flashed him an apologetic shrug.

“Because of course you are.  Listen, can you hold off for, say, a couple hours?”

“Sorry, Nexus.”

He sighed.  “Nothing simple is ever easy with you.  Alright, I’ve got a contact in town.  I’ll get in touch with them, and if they see you before the assault begins, they’ll give you the lowdown, alright?”

“Thank you.”

Nexus flashed me a dark, feral grin as flames sprung to life behind him.  “Give ’em hell, Jordan.”

I yawned, wiping the tears from my eyes even as they formed.  When I opened them again, John was peering at me curiously.  The forest was getting dark quickly, but I could still make him out for the moment.

“No numbers.  He doesn’t know offhand.”

John sighed softly.  “Too much to ask for, I suppose.  Well, at least we have the location.  You good to go?”

I nodded.  “You got a way inside the city?”

“It’s a village, Jordan, not a city.  Anyway, since you don’t mind scaling walls, it isn’t a problem.  Everyone’s ready, too.”

I nodded and adjusted my grip on the halberd.  “Let’s go, then.”

As we began to walk through the forest, I couldn’t help but feel some level of anticipation.  They’d insisted that we wait a week and a half after Defiant and Dragon had left, and that had been almost painful.  We had something to do, and they made me wait, supposedly for rest and recovery.  Complete and utter bullshit.

Now, though, we were finally getting active again.  I could really do something besides find quiet moments that they weren’t watching to train.  That alone was worth all the violence that we were about to dive into.

“So,” John said after a few moments.   “Might I trouble you for a small heart-to-heart chat?”

I shrugged.  “I guess.”  I’d rather not, but chatting while heading back to town was better than nothing.

“So, I’ve been thinking–”

“Always a bad thing,” I interrupted.

I made out a smirk on his face in the twilight.  “Quite.  However, I do believe that you’ve been a bit more… eager to charge into combat as of late.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

John glanced at me.  “Well, it’s just a growing trend.  To thrust yourself into more and more dangerous situations.”

“I’ve always done that,” I noted.

“True.  But…  I just worry about you.  After Angel Grove, you can understand my hesitation.”

I blinked at him.  “Angel Grove?”

John spun with surprising speed, grabbing my arm and forcing me to face him.  In the dim light, I could barely make out his eyes boring into me.  “No.  The others may put up with this bullshit, but this is important Jordan.  This might not be the time, but there’s never a good time.”

Okay, this…  This wasn’t like him at all.  I nodded weakly.

“You hardly smile any more.  You had a full mental breakdown back there, and rather than deal with it, you’ve suppressed it all.  I mean…  Since the start of this year, how many times have we gotten into a fight with the Wardens?”

I paused, focusing… and came up empty.  I had nothing.

“Exactly.  Hell, do you remember that Eidolon expy?  Kudos, incidentally, on knowing such a word and using it in its proper form.  I would have expected you to think of it as an expressway.”

I frowned a bit.  “I heard it at school.  But, uh…  What’s an expressway?”

He sighed softly.  “Never mind.  Listen, Jordan.  Answer the question.”

“Yeah, I remember reading about him in–”

“That was you.”

That made me blink at him.  Why the hell would I forget something like that?  And, more importantly, how did that happen?  I didn’t look anything like Eidolon, did I?

“You keep charging into things and forgetting them.  And the way that you’ve been fighting…  Part of the reason why I wanted that vote was to try and shock you.”

What vote?  But he was still talking.

“You’ve been… way more brutal lately, and charging into fights that…”  John shook his head.  “Really, that you shouldn’t have.  Fights that I know for a fact that if we wanted to do them without you, you’d do your best to talk us out of.  You also haven’t been taking care of yourself.

“Jordan, by all that is right and good in this world…  I’m worried about you.”

I sighed.  “I’m fine, John.  But if it’ll make you happy, I’ll go back to the shrink and–”

“He’s dead,” John said flatly.  “In the Fyrtorn fight.  I don’t know what Valkyrie juiced you with, but you could feel the power just rolling off you… and that didn’t compare to what it was like after you saw his body.  And what you did after that will haunt my dreams for a long time.”

My head snapped around, looking for the nearest Fyrtorn fuck.  She was running.  She didn’t get far.  Her feet left the ground as she flew back to me.  My left hand caught the back of her head as I lowered back down, almost touching the ground.  I held her there, above the twisted corpse, forcing her to look.  Even as her limbs stretched out, I forced her to look.  Even as bones snapped and muscles tore, her screams becoming gurgles, I forced her to look.  As skin tore from being stretched impossibly far, light poured out of her body.  Plasma gushed from her open mouth.  But I wasn’t done yet.  Not by a longshot.

I blinked rapidly, tasting bile in the back of my throat.  What the hell was that?

“I’m just worried that you’re carrying that still, even if you can’t remember it, and…  I don’t know.  Pushing yourself harder than ever, and if you push yourself too hard…”  He sighed.  “There’s gonna be a fight that you won’t walk away from, and I don’t want to see that happening.  The world has so few lights that shine as bright as yours, and it would be a shame to see it be snuffed out.”

I ran a hand over my chin.  I would have ran it over my head, but my helmet was in the way.  “Alright, uh…  Can you find another shrink?”

John tilted his head.  I was glad that he didn’t raise an eyebrow — i wouldn’t be able to see it clearly.

“You don’t think that anything’s wrong with you, do you?”

“Nope.”

“But you’re willing to humor me.”

I shrugged.  “You’re my friend, and you’re worried about me.  If going to see a shrink will make you feel better, then sure.”

John chuckled and let go, walking for the city again.  “You’re a weird guy, you know that?”

“I’ve been told that a time or two, yeah.”

We walked in silence for a while before John spoke again.  “I’m glad that you’re still my friend.”

I glanced at him and he shrugged.  “You’re a good kid.”

“I’m twenty-one.  I’m not a kid any more.”

“You think you’re twenty-one, but they aren’t a hundred percent on how old you were when you got to the Orphanage.  But I’m old enough to be your dad in a teenage sex kind of way.  Anyway, you’re a good guy, Jordan.  Here you are, hanging out with thieves and con artists, but you’re still every bit a good guy.  You’ve got every right to lash out at everyone and everything, to merely fuck off to your own devices, but you still stick with us, and still do the right thing even when we don’t want to.”

“Yeah, well…  You still do it.”

“Indeed.  Kicking and screaming, true, but still.  Besides, you were adorable around Defiant.”

I blinked at him.  “Zweh?”

“I expected gushing out of you, but…  You just sort of looked at him like you were desperate for his approval, when he was giving it the entire time.  He said jump, and you did.  He said take charge, and you did a mighty fine job at it.”

“I felt like I was going to puke the entire time,” I confessed.

“Sure.  But you still did it.  Like I said, a good guy.  Maybe too good for this cadre of rogues.”

“What’s a cadre?”

He snorted.  “There you go again, brilliant, putting me to shame, but somehow woefully uneducated at the same time.  A cadre is a kind of a group of people.  Usually with some level of skill towards a particular task.”

Rogues were sneaks and thieves, I knew that thanks to Sarah’s games, so he was describing our group as a bunch of them.  That worked.

I could hear the city up ahead.  Best to do this fast.  “You’re good folks at heart.  Emi’s always stepping up to help me–”

“Because she likes a little bit of the ultraviolence, especially when she can get a bit of golly out of it.  But no, I kopat what you’re going to do, listing off all our positive traits.  No need to do that, old chum.  Besides, we’re close.”

I split my halberd shaft in two, sliding it under my robes to attach to my back.  I followed John as he lead the way to a section of the city wall, taking a moment before he easily jumped on top of it, then gently hopping down.  I felt a pang of envy over how easy he made it look.  Meanwhile, I had to work a bit more, getting a running start and half jumping, half running up the wall and pulling myself over.

At least the outhouse provided nice cover.

He lead me through the city, not even bothering to hide us.  I pulled the hood of my robes up, trying not to get irritated — if they saw me, then the Machine leadership might hunker down to fight or attempt to flee.  But here he was, calm as day.

“Everything alright?” I asked quietly.

He nodded.  “This is a free village.  Not quite libertarian, but more of a perversion of their ideals.  Unfortunately, they hadn’t planned on criminal elements taking advantage of their initial organization methods and corrupting them to their own purpose.  Now, after such oddities as what happened to Nero, folks wizened up and didn’t try to directly run such places, but make no mistake — this is a safe haven for all manner of criminals.”

John glanced at me, and in the ambient light of the village, I could make out his grin.  “I like it here.”

If they didn’t have Wardens or Dragon’s Teeth, then they probably had an alternative method to preventing all out chaos from burning the city down.  It was hard to tell from what little I was seeing, but I doubted that it was something like how the Mistress kept the peace in her city.

He seemed content to fall silent after that, leading me through the winding, random streets until we finally reached an alleyway.  I immediately caught sight of Kathy and Emi.  Brenda had come down with something the previous day, and convinced us to go ahead without her — we had money, but we needed a good score to get back into the swing of things, and she might need time to recover afterwards.  John had agreed, not wanting to wait another week before acting.

He claimed to not like violence, but he seemed to enjoy a “job a week” attitude.

Meanwhile, Emi had enjoyed the chance to dress up the three of them.  They all looked absolutely thuggish.  It wasn’t a huge shift in wardrobe, but she’d somehow done little things to make them seem more standoffish.  Combined with how I knew they could act, and people probably left them alone.

“How’d you do?” I asked quietly as we got closer.

“We’re out of meth,” Kathy said chipperly.  “We still have some pot, though.”

Courtesy of Fenix.  I tried to ignore the fact that he had that so readily available.  “And the stakeout?”

She nodded towards a building across the street.  “Some coming and going, but nothing major.  I think it’s late enough, you ready to do this?”

Surprisingly, I was.  Taking down the people who had hurt so many innocents, and who might be affiliated with Teacher, who apparently had Dragon spooked?  Hell yes, I was actually looking forward to this.