Interlude 15.C

The bell rang as the door opened.

A can of peas weighed eighteen oz, including the can itself. A glass jar of tomato puree weighed twenty-eight oz. Drop basket, take can in left hand. Shelves are old, top heavy, suffering years of strain. Push with right hand. As soon as center of balance is reached, kick shelf behind. First two targets slowed by minimum of thirty percent. Turn forty-five degrees, throw can. By size and movement, target three will be disabled. Continue turn, bending over to grab flour. Rip top, throw at target four. Most likely, target four stumbles back through door. Temporary blinding, sixty-three percent likelihood, depending on throw trajectory. Jump on topped shelving unit. High probability of broken bones in target two. Grab glass jar, throw through the narrow window. Grab second jar, prepare for reactionary movement. (Negligible chance within fifteen second time frame. If no opponent shows resistance, keep for weapon.) Wait five seconds. Proceed through broken window. Route three back to home. Activate defensive plan two.

David closed his eyes, taking a deep breath through his nose and holding it.

“Hey girl,” the new guy said cheerfully. David could both hear and feel him walking through the small general store towards the cashier. “Where’s the folks?”


“Getting the back reorganized,” she said cheerfully. “We’ve got a big one coming in.”


“Aw, nuts. I had some news.”

Slowly release the breath through the mouth.

“Oh really? Rumor, or real?”

“Maybe both!”

The temperature was 64 degrees Fahrenheit, 17.4 Celsius. Outside still had some evening light, which made it feel warmer, though the breeze of 3 miles per hour (4.8 kph) offset the warmth of the sun. David’s shirt was loose against his skin except for his neck — he had a silk mock under his collar to help make it feel extra smooth. The largest scar running down the left side of his back hurt from how he’d been hunched over today. The cashier’s voice was high-pitched, but not unpleasantly so. The man’s voice had a slight rumble, no doubt from the faint whiff of cigarette smoke that wafted in as he entered.

“You know how that fella took over Fyrtorn? Well, apparently he’s sending them to their deaths — they say that he sent a bunch of them into St. Louis and came back with a bunch of wildlings.”

“Not surprised. Don’t you know who he is?”

“Yeah, but that’s not the wildest part. They say that the wildling attacks are going to go down.”


David tuned out the conversation. His heart rate was still approximately 130 BPM. Instead, he focused on his breathing, slow but steady.

He shouldn’t have come here today. He shouldn’t have come here period. Tony could have come. But he’d wanted to do this. To prove that he could. They said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that was a lie. Having your arm chopped off might not kill you, but you won’t be stronger for it. Right now, he wanted to drop to the ground and cry.

A buildup of emotions. The brain was releasing too many chemicals, the names of which escaped him at the moment. Crying was a way to release those chemicals.

David opened his eyes at long last, only to find an old man staring at him oddly. He turned away, looking back down at the shopping list in his hand. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He was so fucking stupid. Nobody with an ounce of common sense would have let him come here on his own. It was a recipe for disaster! Why did he think for just one moment that he could do this without drawing attention?

That guy knew. He knew just what David had been thinking. He had to. Why else would he look at him like that? Knowing just how weak he was…

There was the heavy scent of flour, both corn and wheat, in the air. The general store sold some in a paper package, but there was plenty of self-serve as well. The woman’s parents probably worked the counter most of the time while she cleaned the perpetual dirt and dust that must have infused the store. She’d bitch and complain, but she secretly enjoyed it. It gave her a chance to talk to others.

Okay, so that was partially extrapolation from when he’d seen her working before, when he’d come with Tony. The two of them chatted, as Tony always did, taking longer to get out of there than David would have liked.

David ran through every grounding exercise that he knew as he slowly plodded through the store. Within five minutes, he had everything that he needed, but the two of them kept prattling on about wildlings and if the Relentless Legion were either good or bad. He couldn’t just interrupt them! That would be rude! Those other people, they had no problems doing that, but David just couldn’t! So for the next twelve minutes, he kept going back through the shelves, carefully scrutinizing any bottle, jar or bag that had more written on it than just the contents.

Finally, though, the two of them said their goodbyes and the guy started his way out. He hadn’t even made it to the door before David had his basket on the counter, focusing on it so that she wouldn’t think that he was staring at her breasts.

“Hey you,” the woman said, just as cheerful as ever. “I haven’t seen you here without your boyfriend before.”

Someday, someone was going to catch him on a bad day and and accuse them of being a couple, and he’d stab them, and then he’d go to jail, and then he’d get shanked in the shower for not showing enough respect to the right people and then he’d die of exsanguination laying on the shower floor as his blood mixed with the water and went down the drain…

“He’s… He’s not my… We’re not…” David swallowed, fighting to find the best way to explain.

“Oh,” she said, sounding genuinely upset. Why would she be upset? “I’m sorry! You two don’t look like–”

“Different fathers,” he said, smiling apologetically as he continued to stare as she took the items from the basket.

“Of course” she said gently. “I don’t know why I jumped to that conclusion.”

Because two men living together who are comfortable with physical contact between each other would draw the immediate and obvious conclusion that they were a couple. He hated it, but he could perfectly understand why someone would jump to that conclusion.

And then came the silence. So fucking stupid. He’d gone and fucked everything up again. “Sorry,” he said weakly. “I’m not good at… at talking.”

“It’s alright,” she said soothingly. “I’d ask what you thought about the whole Relentless Legion thing, but–”

“Eighty-three percent chance that it falls apart within a decade,” he muttered. It wasn’t his calculation, but a Thinker’s that he’d found out about through Tony, but it sounded right. “As the religious elements are phased out over time, and without the charisma of their former leader, their cohesion will erode and infighting will start. Until then, however, it’s better to leave them be, allowing them to do what they can. Thinker analysis indicates that Relentless is genuine in his desire to improve global threat ratings.”

He glanced up to find her staring at him in surprise. “I’m, uh… I’m not a Thinker or anything. Not a para.”

“But you work for them, right?”

He nodded a little. The factory accounting job fell through, but the Wardens could always use another data analyst. David liked the numbers and comparing reports to each other. He didn’t like to think about the contents of the reports and the meanings behind the numbers, but he could compartmentalize. It was harder to accept that it was essentially busy work, a job to make sure that Tony would stay with them in case they needed him against another S-class threat.

The woman gave him a sympathetic smile. “You really aren’t comfortable, are you?”

No, he was just ready to run out of here so hard his skin got left behind because he left the flue open on the cat. But he couldn’t say things like that. It wasn’t right. Wasn’t polite. Instead, he just tried to smile again. “No. It’s not your fault. I… I’m not good with people. I’m sorry.”
She finished marking everything down with a sympathetic smile. “Eighty-three dollars and fifty three cents.”

A little over nine in New Brockton coin. Fifteen-sixty in Orphanage money. Six-hundred and fifty-two in… He blinked the thoughts aside, getting his wallet out and fishing out eighty-four dollars in local currency. “Keep… Keep the change. Pay it forward.” Make someone else’s day a little better.

That got a new smile out of her as she pulled his canvas bag out of the basket to fill for him. “Do you need any help getting this home? I can get Pa to cover the counter for me.”

She was one year older than him. Most likely feeling some degree of guilt. Thought that he was an invalid. Compared mental issues with physical. Trying to be nice. By previous observation, her father had a bad back. Pushed himself too hard in his youth, caused permanent damage, but nothing too debilitating. Preferred working the counter. Mother was the strong one.

David blinked again. “I’m fine, thank you.”

She offered him the bag. “You have a good day, sweety. And if you need anything…”

“Thank you.” He took the bag, being careful not to snatch it from her. He didn’t need her thinking any worse of him than she already did. “H… Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

As he made his way out of the store, he began silently cursing himself anew. He’d cocked it up, damn it. It was supposed to be a simple trip, and now everyone was going to think that he was crazy. Over twelve hundred people in this township, which made it decently sized, but not big enough. Word would spread about the weird guy who couldn’t look at anyone and spent almost an hour shopping for ten minutes worth of stuff. He shouldn’t have come, he shouldn’t have come, he shouldn’t have come.

David knew, logically, that there wasn’t any point in berating himself like that. His rational brain knew that he was ultimately doing more damage than good. Unfortunately, knowing something and feeling it, accepting it, or actualizing it were completely different things. What it did do, however, was give him something to focus on besides the people around him. It allowed him to focus his attention to the point that the world sped by in a blur, until he found himself in the apartment-like building that they called home.

As soon as the door closed, he was screaming all the way to the kitchen. “Mother fucking bugger load fuckstick dipshit poopie cock shitlord cumstain! So! Fucking! Stupid!”

He slammed the bag down on the counter and began to kick the counter, tears welling in his eyes. He was never going to be well, he was never going to be worth more than a brain in a jar to anyone. When was he going to learn? Besides, you couldn’t hurt a brain in a jar. Brains didn’t feel pain, and he wouldn’t be nearly so much of a burden on anyone. It would be better for everyone if he’d just find someone to do it to him. Then he wouldn’t be holding Tony back.

In through the nose. Hold it. Let it out slow.

The emotions were getting to him. He had to think rationally. Logically, and not let the emotions dictate his thoughts. People would need to maintain the life support. A Tinker would have to maintain life support, which would take both materials and time that could be better spent on other things. Being a head in a jar would only make things worse.

David sighed and started putting everything away in its cupboards. The place was a bit on the smaller side, which suited him just fine. He didn’t like open spaces — the need to hide was too strong, the desire to rearrange too great. Everything had its place, either for maximum efficiency or somewhere to duck behind. Tony occasionally moved stuff around, which was frustrating, but he kept reminding himself that he had to be considerate of the wants and needs of others, no matter how those wants and needs interfered with his own life.

He didn’t want to be a selfish asshole. He wanted everyone around him to be considerate, and understood that it was a two-way street. Nobody would be considerate if he wasn’t, they’d just angrily put up with him. But it was really, really hard sometimes. Most people didn’t think if they were being considerate or not most of the time, which was annoying. Just another layer of stress when dealing with people.

The fact that he automatically assumed that people were going to hurt him didn’t help matters any. Logical thought didn’t always help with that, though.

What would help would be tea. The city had a very, very limited infrastructure, focusing mostly on basic necessities. They had indoor plumbing powered by two mechanical windmills as compared to electrical ones. He’d been able to identify that the moment that he’d seen them. Mechanical turbines had a lot of blades in order to produce more torque, allowing them to perform mechanical labor more efficiently. Electrical turbines needed fewer blades for speed, not requiring torque. Early electrical experiments with wind power hadn’t known this, resulting in massive wind farms of eight-bladed windmills that could be easily replaced with just a couple.

The lack of electricity, or a wood gas infrastructure, meant that the wood stove would be necessary in every household. He opened the windows and got to work. A nest of dried grass with a fireplug made of roughed up grass formed into a ball and dipped in wax would work for a tinder bundle. He wasn’t sure what kind of wax it was — he once could identify every single type with a touch, but the Orphanage had spoiled him.

He carefully stacked the twigs, and then the small pieces of wood on top. Then came the hard part.

Starting a fire with flint and steel was always an option. Char cloth was easy to make, being little different from charcoal, but with infinitely more surface area to accept a spark. However, that method was hard, requiring time and labor to make sure that a fire started. Matches were a far easier option — while not a guarantee that a fire would start, it made the entire process far, far faster. He honestly couldn’t imagine trying to use one of the harder methods while sick.

The downside was that there was no lead up to the flame to get himself comfortable with it. He struck the match, and immediately froze in place, the small flame dancing on the wooden stick. Fire. House. Shotgun going off. Screaming.

David tossed the match on the bundle of kindling, forcing himself to watch as the wax and grasses took the flame readily. He could control it. He could control the fire, keep it in place. He was the master, he told himself.

Even still, he placed the back of his wrists against his forehead as he stood up, squeezing his eyes shut. Stupid, so fucking stupid. He should have known better. Should have waited until Tony got home and had him do it. He’d had enough stress, he knew better. He should have known better. So fucking worthless. Couldn’t even make a fire. Pathetic. Tea was too good for him. Should have stuck with just water.

“Hello, Dave.”

David’s eyes went wide. Darkness, controlled breathing. Yelling, screaming. Thirty feet away. Animal trails all around, made for good running. Instead, curled up in a tree hollow in a tight ball. Screaming. Epitaths. Never find him. The sickly crunch of ribs, the loud snaps of limbs. Pained breathing and pained breathing. Anger and anger. And then gurgling. And then nothing but frustrated breathing. Called her a bitch. Ants and millipedes and spiders crawling over skin. Moving down a trail. Wait half an hour. Listening. Nothing. Quietly crawl out, every movement so loud. Head the opposite way into town. Pass by the blood on the ground, all that remained of Mother. Keep moving. Keep moving away.

He was shaking like a dog shitting razor blades as his eyes darted towards the source of the voice. He wasn’t so tall as he remembered, but still just as powerful. Still just as terrifying.

“Hello father,” he said weakly, but even that took every ounce of strength that he had.

Where were his plans? Those carefully constructed plans that he’d spent so long working on? All the possible attack vectors, escape routes, ways to kill the man standing just ten feet away. None of it came to his mind. How had Father made it so close? How had he gotten inside?

The man smiled, and looked so close to tears. His bushy beard was just as fearsome as he remembered. Scary. That’s why Blackbeard was scary, a big beard and wild hair and he’d weave hemp in and make it smolder so that smoke came out. How was Blackbeard here?

“You remember.”

David’s entire body twitched, what tiny bit was in his bladder releasing. “How c-could I forget?”

The barrel chested demon of a man nodded, not quite taking the step closer, but by the tiny ways that his body swayed, he wanted to. “I’m sorry that I didn’t come sooner. I had to find you after you left.”

Father would have made a good detective. “O… Orphanage. Letter.”

Time. He hadn’t looked at a clock in a while. What was the time?

Father’s smile dampened. “You got it? Oh, I’m so sorry. I… I was going to come and take you away, but… Education is important. After I sent the letter, I decided that… Oh, Dave. I wanted to see you so badly, but I couldn’t just take you away. You were getting a real education, and they say that the Orphanage is one of the best out there, so I… I decided to wait. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have sent the letter.”

He shouldn’t have. Made everything worse. Everything. Everything.

Speak. Talk. Force the words out. “What…” Focus. Focus! “What have you been up to?”

“I… It doesn’t really matter, does it?” Father sighed, and David forced himself not to wince. How was he rooted in plac so hard? “I’m here now. We’re a family again. Do… Do you have a job yet?”

“Yes.” Take a deep breath, ignore that eyes are so wide open that they hurt. “Factory. Accountant.”

Father’s smile came back, showing all his teeth. Worse than before. Teeth were bad. “An accountant? Do you have your CPA?”

CPA. Certified Public Accountant. Old world term when standardization was more common. Head swimmy. Hard to focus. Grasping. “Basically. Took classes. Numbers easy. People hard.”

“People aren’t so hard when you get to know them. It’s so easy… Don’t worry, I’ll show you how.” Please don’t. “But I’m glad that you’re good with numbers. I never was.”

Of course. Monsters not good with numbers.

“Fashion,” David made out. Keep talking. “I like… Designing clothes. Might do that. Eventually.”

The smile dampened a little, but Father nodded, thinking it over. “There’s good money in that, isn’t there? I mean, I know that there used to be, but…”

Lie. “Yes. Big shows. Lots of money.” Door opening. Keep talking. “Where have you been?”

“Here and there. I had to keep moving around a lot. There’s still people looking for me, I think.” Motion, ninja. “I took whatever work I could find, and times have been hard. But it doesn’t matter now. I’m here to stay. I’m not going to go anywhere.”

“You’re wrong,” Tony said quietly.

David’s heart froze in his chest. “No!” Father could trap people in an extradimensional space, whole or ground up into meaty bits. Drippy, meaty, fleshy, bleedy bits.

Father didn’t even get to see who spoke before Father exploded, turning into strands of flesh. Those same strands flew to Tony, briefly coalescing around his body before moving to his hand.

His friend looked dangerous. Angry. Mean. He made a fist with his new human hand, then released it slowly. He took a breath, then looked at David. The anger melted away, replaced with concern. “Are you okay?”

David fell to the ground, his feet spastically kicking, pushing him towards the wall. The corner. The corner. The corner.

The corner. And the world spiraled. Father was dead. He was free.

Things wouldn’t get better. Ghosts and echoes and demons and memories. Twisting up in his head. Twisting. Twisting. The smile. Father’s smile. Family. Hand. Father in hand. Father in hand. Father was here. Here and now and forever and now and hand.

As the city sheriff entered the kitchen, pistol drawn, the world fell away from David, and he screamed.


Gehenna 15.3

I would never enjoy waiting. Standing around waiting for something to happen was a unique hell that had somehow found a new way to torment me. Instead of just waiting for something to happen, now I had to worry. There were a thousand and fifty things that could go horribly wrong, and I was forced to not even be a passive participant. I could have stepped in, to affect what was going on, but I had set my own rules — I had to stand by and wait.

I had to wait. I had to make sure that no matter what happened, these people could continue down the path that I’d laid out for them. We had a slow growth of an economy, as awkward and confusing as it might be. We’d never compete with New Brockton or even Angel Grove, but we had at least something going for us.

Over the past few months, the former Fyrtorn residents had come to accept outsiders. Not all of them, and it was slow, but we were making huge strides. As much as I had been prepared to have to personally form teams, integrating paras and untriggered, they were taking it upon themselves. They were forming and reforming themselves left and right, constantly competing and trying to find the right person for the job. They wanted to please me, and now that they had an admittedly twisted idea as to what I wanted, they were eager to prove themselves.

Not that everything was going smoothly. Backing off on the religion was an almost impossible process. While some were slowly edging away from it, they were actually starting to convert some of the new people. New faces there when I was forced into performing a ritual or a service was always disconcerting, even moreso than having to stand in front of everyone and give the speeches that Archimedes wrote for me.

I was responsible for everyone here. Their mental and physical health, be they part of the Legion or civilians. And here I was, watching the people newly-formed comms room with hands that I’d tied myself. Watching as people got hurt trying to take out a gang of a dozen powerful paras.

Civilians. What a strange thing to have here, but I was insistent. The families of those who served were to be treated as full members of the community without being pressed into service. The new economy was making it difficult, but one of the new para recruits was going to be diving into it.

As I watched a man’s head blossom into gore and helmet pieces on a monitor, I flexed my arm reflexively, feeling the separation in my bicep between muscle and whatever I was turning into. Despite it creeping down my arm, my right index finger had started to change. I’d considered cutting it off, but ultimately decided against it. I was going to need that finger soon enough.

Someone else should have been leader. I wasn’t the right person for this. I made a good figurehead in this case, but even now I was mostly doing what others directed me to, only telling them when I didn’t like it, and I didn’t even do that as often as I probably should have.

Damn Marcus. Damn him to hell. Damn him for insisting on dying. There were a thousand smarter ways that we could have gone about this. He could have shaped these people far better than me. Let him be the figurehead, relying on his experience and their worship of him to ensure that we moved in the directions that we needed to. The crew and I could have guided him, worked with him.

Not that it would have been easy. Even with me in charge now, there were apparently a lot of people out there who wanted the authorities to come in and arrest everyone. A new leader spouting new propaganda wouldn’t be believed by everyone. To say that opinions were divided about me in the outside world was an understatement.

A woman literally turned inside out on another monitor. This would be easier if the Dragon’s Teeth hadn’t told us that we needed to take them alive. For those same political reasons, showing the world that we were trustworthy, we had to let our people die on this fool’s errand. Damn them.

I didn’t mind that people didn’t trust me. It was pretty understandable. They didn’t know me. All that they knew was what they’d been told. All that they knew was that some psycho that had destroyed New Fairfax was out there, that he’d broken so many laws and apparently killed so many people, attacking Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth. That he’d been granted a reprieve as Relentless, and now was the leader of one of the biggest cults in the world.

Why the fuck did anyone trust me?

They didn’t. That was the obvious answer. Nobody who wasn’t here trusted me, and even then, some of them didn’t either. I was all too aware of the Khepri cultists and the “ethics committee” from Mexico watching over my every movement. Silently judging. No doubt, ready to try and assassinate me if I did something that they didn’t like. Which, again, was fine. Nobody should trust me. I was a wild card. Someone closer to the days of old than the modern age.

I’d only gotten this far, in anything, because I was politically convenient for people. Miss Militia’s United States had shown us such support because they couldn’t afford to take on the other contenders to the title right now. But they could afford to bleed the others dry trying to match their generosity towards the Legion. Which suited me just fine. I didn’t care what anyone thought they were going to get out of me. I’d stated my intentions, and if anyone tried to force me into something else, they’d be put to the blade.

No, not kill them. I blinked a few times to get that thought out of my head. Where had that come from? The pressure must have been getting to me.

I watched on the monitor as a good four feet of ground turned to mud, dropping the opponents and a couple of our people into it, only to suddenly re-solidify. Trapped as they were, my people began to swarm them. At last, they were fighting with their heads instead of with brute force. I was willing to bet it wasn’t any of the Fyrtorn folks who had come up with that. They were good at following directions, but had been taught that lateral thinking was bad. They just couldn’t work together.

I turned to one of the people who had been assigned to the command center. “How many did we lose?”

“Thirteen, Lord Relentless.” Ah, a cultist. It was hard to tell, now that all of them were outfitted in Christopher’s armor and wearing helmets. “Sixteen seriously injured. However…” He looked up to me, and when he spoke, his voice was beaming with pride. “All of the enemy should be fit to stand trial.”

I glanced over to Schrodinger, who nodded silently. I’d wanted to wait until after it was all done before utilizing her power. She’d accepted it wordlessly, the same way that she’d known that I didn’t want her helping with this mission. Being able to see multiple futures would have given us an edge, but I had to make sure that they could do it even without our help.

I opened up a private comms channel to her. “How does it all end?”

“The same way that it’s always ended. In tears. But… Good ones, I think.”

Good enough for me. I signaled to Archimedes before stepping out of the command center. Almost instantly, both our squads were joining us.

It was weird, having my own squad. I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want it. Three paras, one of whom was a cultist so my job was automatically harder, and one untriggered. It was mostly for show, despite the firepower they brought to bare. A crack marksman, a Brute who wore a weird exoskeleton over her armor and never removed her helmet, a Changer with Wardens training who turned into an inky substance, and a teleportation Mover who could choose if someone was reconsituted properly from the spaghettification that their teleportation caused.

Sure, together we could take on just about anything if we spent more time training together, but they had other skills. The Brute and Changer were good with people, the Mover was surprisingly scary good with paperwork, and the marksman had almost parahuman levels of being able to tell if someone was going to be a problem. I relied on her a lot to help single out individual cultists that I needed to personally address.

Sagittarius and Archimedes had hand chosen them for me. What’s good for the gander is good for the goose, or so they said. If they needed to have their own squads, then so did I. Which was fair, I supposed.

Archimedes was rapidly typing on his bracer as we walked. I glanced at him for a couple of times before sighing. “Let’s get to the teleporter, and then you can finish.”

“Speeches aren’t quick, you know.” He sighed. “I’ve been making elements for you, but… Let’s be honest here, you need a proper scriptwriter. With how I’m having to go out and attend trials to see if we can get the criminals, I just don’t have the time…”

My teleporter piped up cheerfully. “Plus, Relentless goes off script a lot. But he does it so well, and with such quiet passion that it always works out for the best.”

Because of course the fucking cultist would say that.

My Brute nodded. “You’re better at oration than you think. Those classes you took at the Orphanage paid off finally.”

“The did,” I admitted. I turned my attention back to Archimedes. “See if you can find someone. Either from the, uh, locals or our recruits.”

He gave a melodramatic sigh, looking up to the heavens. “Fine. Always with the more work.”

“You’ll rise to the occasion,” one of his squad ribbed playfully.

I wished that they’d all take this more seriously. Time to get them back on track. “That new guy in the control center.”

One of his other squadmates spoke up. “New recruit, just showed up last week. Minor outstanding warrants for his arrest, nothing major. Was a teen during Scion and all, I think. Maybe a little older. Not much in the way of personality, but he’s good at what he does. We already did a test, and it turns out he’s good at figuring out where to attack and stuff.”

How the hell did they know so much about the guy? Wait, that was the Thinker in Archimedes’ squad, good at knowing when to find stuff like that out. Plus, he was wearing an anklet that signaled him as a criminal serving their sentence with us, so he probably paid attention to people like the new guy.

Archimedes looked at me. “There a reason why you’re asking?”

“He’s not a team player, exactly. He was doing fine, but he was uncomfortable. Holding himself back. Not that it matters, but I wanted to know if there’s a reason for it. Moving right along, do we have a way to use that legion voice effect yet?”

“Legion voice?” my Brute asked.

“It’s part of what inspired the Relentless Legion,” Archimedes explained. “When Fyrtorn would attack, they’d hijack everyone to make them sing Krigarguden’s praises.”

“Oh!” My cultist lit up as he looked to the Brute. “Yes! It was one of our ribbons. Very empowering, to hear an entire village do that before…” He caught himself, quickly looking to me in fear. “Forgive me, my Lord. I know that we’re not supposed to take pleasure in that any more.”

Okay, maybe there were advantages to my position. Maybe I could teach them to be better people just by making them think that they had to do good things to please me. That wasn’t an abuse of worship, was it? Molding them to be better people through absolute devotion?

Wait, that didn’t sound right, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.

We reached the teleporter, which was already powering up. I turned to Archimedes, only to find him already focused on my speech again. Good. So… Time to address the embarrassed guy.

“I don’t expect change overnight. A lifetime of service, of being told that you were doing the right thing, behaving the right way, is hard to overcome, and I get that. But every time you’re worried that you’ve offended me, I want you to think about why I’m offended. Because you were not actually serving the will of Krigarguden, but serving the will of his high priests. High priests who corrupted his will to their own devices. He never actually wanted those villages destroyed. They were the ones who perverted his wish into destruction.

“In private, I want you to meditate on that, and what it might mean for everything that you have been told to do in his name. Do you understand?”

He bowed his head reverently. “Yes, my Lord. I hear and obey.”

Whatever. Instead of continuing to make him feel like crap, I turned my attention back to the teleporter. It was still powering up. Making it vertical instead of horizontal and capable of a sustained portal wasn’t working as well as I’d hoped.

Finally, however, the disc formed, and people started pushing themselves through. We’d deliver them to the Dragon’s Teeth, as they’d been the first to request our aid, then let them worry about who got these chumps. Archimedes would make the call if we’d step in on the trials and see if they wanted to join. I was so thankful for him and Sagittarius, who was currently making the deals with Dragon’s Teeth and preparing the templates for the official reports to those villages these twelve had attacked.

If I would have said that it was a good first outing without me leading them into battle would be a lie. We’d lost thirteen and more wounded. I’d have to get them trained on small group tactics. Maybe I could use that as my next sermon…


When we’d first taken Fyrtorn, Valkyrie gave me a month without needing to sleep. I was starting to wonder, though, if something else had happened to extend that further — it was three months later, and I still wasn’t feeling the slightest need for sleep. Not that I was complaining, of course. Before then, my sleep hadn’t exactly been restful. Just a dreamless downtime that I could do without.

There were downsides, though. I never really appreciated how little happened when I was sleeping. Before, I could have read or trained, but my new body didn’t seem to get much out of training. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, especially since the only books here were of a bullshit religion that I didn’t give two fucks about.

Why I found myself under the teleporter, working away, was beyond me. I wasn’t a Tinker, but I felt like my hands were guided by an unseen force, moving and doing things that I didn’t actually understand. I wasn’t complaining, though. It was almost enough for me to miss the fact that two people were approaching me.

“Should you be doing that?” a man asked in a rather bland tone. I glanced up to find the new command center guy helping to support a rather sorry-looking woman. She was bent over unnaturally, like her back had been broken at some point and healed wrong, and her arms were warped and bent. She was dressed in something akin to the outfits that the people in Fyrtorn seemed to prefer, modified as best as possible to match her deformities.

But he was questioning my actions. In a way, it was a relief. It wasn’t someone outside questioning me, and it wasn’t someone from inside blindly believing that I could do no wrong. A welcome change from what was depressingly becoming the norm.

“Dunno. But I’m doing it, so we’ll find out, won’t we?”

The man looked at the woman. “I told you that he was an odd one.”

“Odd,” she conceded, “but magnificent.”

Wait, did her lips move?

“I’m not sure that’s the term that I’d use,” the man mused. “I suppose, coming from you, that’s the best that I can hope for.”


My brows furrowed, and I was glad that they couldn’t see me squinting at them under my helmet. “You two know each other?”

“From long ago,” the woman said in a musical tone. “Before you were born, or so I’m told. It’s fitting, in a way. Krigarguden was born before Gold Morning, so it’s only natural that Relentless was born after.” No, her lips definitely weren’t moving.

Still… “But you recognize him?”

“The moment that I laid eyes on him, I knew exactly who he was. My old friend. A brother, in a way. The dam broke, and though things are hazy, I remembered everything from before I was saved, brought into Krigurguden’s grace.”

Right, because it was too much to hope that she wasn’t completely crazy.

“How did you get away?” the man asked.

“Oh, it’s simple to make people think that I’m someone else. Especially when seen from behind. I knew the way the winds were blowing, the way that I’d been sacrificed. The way that Jack’s words didn’t hold as much sway as they had just moments before. I got out while the getting was good.”

My eyes went wide as it hit me — she had the ability to manipulate sound at range, and he had a Thinker ability that allowed him to do calculations so advanced that nobody else would be able to understand them. And by the way that his eyebrow barely quirked at me, he’d calculated that I knew.

“Screamer and Harbinger,” I said quietly. By Harbinger’s age, he had to be a clone. He had to be. Far too young to be the original.

“Oh, our Lord Relentless is a smart one!”

I frowned. “Why are you two here?”

“Because I was chosen.”

Harbinger sighed. “I should have expected that response. I’m here because it’s the safest place for me. There was another of me, but… Well, age teaches dirty tricks, and our elder took offense to him. Despite your connection to his employer, I calculated that this was the best place for me to both lay low and get what I want.”

“And what do you want?” I asked carefully.

“A challenge. Petty crimes and murder held me captivated once, but now… They’re just boring to me. No doubt why my other joined Cauldron, and why he later took up work for Nexus.”

“Now, now.” The woman’s hand fumbled, trying to pat his arm. “You’re a different person than he was or is. You’re you, number Six.” She tittered to herself at that, far too pleased over something.


What a pair. “So… What brings you here to me?”

“I hear things,” Harbinger said. “In passing, and I thought about the directions that it might take, the permutations that come from it. I heard that you were curious about the way that they produced the voice of legion effect.”

“Through study of me,” Screamer said proudly, projecting her voice into my ear no doubt. “At least, initially. Once I was wounded spreading the will of Krigurguden, they began to study others together with me. A little wide-range weak body control combined with my ability to project precision sounds exactly where I want them, tied into the ribbon Tinker’s tech? Oh, yes. Oh, yes.”

Harbinger glanced back at me. “From what I can tell, the combination of the wounds, her biology as a clone, and the nature of their study warped her body as we see it now.”

“But I still served,” she insisted. “Have you not heard the choirs during service? Everyone’s voice, added together in perfect harmony, sounding just a little bit better than it could in nature? I still did my part.

“And I’m willing to do it again. The Tinker may be dead now, killed in your holy purge, but there are others. Other Tinkers, you see. It’s a beautiful thing. So many of us together, so many that have similar powers to some extent thanks to the empowering process… I can find you another to make devices that will emulate it, and help them to project it in the perfect way, so that all will hear of your Glory.”

That… would be handy. Only I could stand less religion involved. “We’ll choose the words.”

“Oh, of course, of course.” She turned to Harbinger. “I told you. I told you.”

“You did,” he replied in the patient way that a parent would tell their child. “I calculated that this would be the best time to approach you. And because I hoped that it would remove my anklet.”

I ducked my head back down, letting my hands get back to work. “Nope. I can’t do that for the sake of people on the outside. We had a deal to make this work at all — we accept criminals, but we keep tabs on them. A show for the people on the outside.”

I took a slow breath, feeling like I was making a deal with the devil. “But I can loosen some of your restrictions. I’ll see what I can do.”

There was a pause before he spoke again. “Can I at least get a standing desk?”

A standing desk? “Sure, I don’t see why not.” It was a strange request, but at least it was something that I could handle. With everything that was going to be out of my hands in the next few missions, I could use being able to actually do something.

Soon. Another month, when our rep was high enough, I’d be able to go on my last mission. I just had to put up with crazies and some of the most dangerous people who ever existed in the meantime. Far from the hardest thing that I’d ever done. And easier than the guilt that I’d have to deal with from the next mission that I was sending out.

Interlude 15.B

The hardest part of dealing with Roy wasn’t how rude he was, how loud he was, how lazy he could be, or even his snoring. The part about Roy that got Amy the most was how he looked at you. That unblinking stare like he wasn’t looking at you, but looking through you. It made her skin absolutely crawl, especially since he used to spend most of his time staring at people more than on the road.

When he finally spoke, it was almost a relief. “You seriously want me to go to Fyrtorn?”

Amy took a slow breath. “No, I want you to go to Second Chance. The pay is good, Roy; more twice what the gas route used to pay you, and no having to worry about going through Tattletale’s goons. The employer is coming along with us, but he’s going to be keeping his mouth shut. And–”

“Are you sure this isn’t a booty call?” he asked with a sneer.

Her gut tightened, but she forced herself to relax. That’s just how Roy was. Blunt. And… she really should have expected that in the first place.

“That ship’s sailed. Listen, Roy, the reason why I’m coming to you is because I… I heard that you were between jobs, and I thought that it’d be nice to have us all together again. Not quite old times, but–”

“To see Jordan.” He folded his arms over his ever expanding chest. Jesus, how the hell did he put on weight like that when most people struggled to maintain a decent weight. “You had an excuse when you were drooling over him, but what’s your reason now?”

That made Amy blink in surprise. “Excuse me?”

“No, I’m not coming. Because Jordan’s fucking psycho, and always has been.”

“Jordan’s not–”

“He is,” Roy stressed a little too loudly, sneering at her. “You don’t have the slightest idea, do you? Still thinking about his hard body or something.”

She seethed, but he didn’t give her a chance to cut in.

“The way that his smile never reached his eyes, and how he always had it on his face? We talked about that once while he and his sister were training, remember? How weird that was? Surprise, it did reach his eyes on occasion. When he was fighting. People, wildlings, it didn’t matter. Get into a fight, and his eyes lit up only for as long as the fight was on. The moment it was done, back to normal. And the way that he was ready to throw down and kill anyone who even suggested that his family were anything but perfect?

“He may have been an ugly fucker, but I get the drooling. He made the good act of being a boy scout, but it doesn’t change why he did it. Him and me? We’re a lot alike.

“We only have the fighting.”

Amy sighed. This wasn’t what she wanted “God damn it, Roy.”

“I heard that the two of you were an item for a while. Who broke up with who? And why?”

Now that was uncomfortable. She looked away, but something in her forced her to answer. “I… I realized that he’d always go charging in whenever there was trouble. That… That it was what he lived for. He wouldn’t be happy running caravans his entire life, and it wasn’t fair for me to ask that of him.”

If the fat fucker could look any more smug… “That you’d always be second to the fighting, and that you’d always be somewhere worrying if he was alive or dead.”

Protecting. He’s not killer.”

“Only because he found an outlet. A way to focus himself.” His laugh was annoying, condescending. “Take it from me, once the fight gets in your veins, civilized life is impossible. You can fake it for a time, but you’re a ticking time bomb. My crew before I hooked up with you? We cracked the code. The violence is always there, building, and you gotta find an outlet before you end up the next Nine. We ran as mercs to vent, only coming back to town to eat, drink, and fuck.

“Jordan found his fucking outlet. He was going to be a hero. Dragging his sister along into the violence like it was nothing. Now he made a crew, went to Fyrtorn, and is now the overlord. He’s pretending that peeps like you and me are equal not because he wants to change the world, but so that he can have to step in when things fall apart. Trust me, he’s worse than I’ll ever be.”

People like the two of them? Paras and untriggered? Amy’s hackles raised.

Roy pointed at her. “You go to visit him? You’ll get dragged in somehow. You’ll just see that hard body, see what you want to see, and you’ll start dripping. Count. Me. Out.”

“Fine.” She turned on her heels, marching out of the building.

Almost instantly, Gram was walking next to her. “Didn’t go so well?”

“Roy’s an asshole,” she snarled. “Don’t stress his fat ass. We’ll find someone else.”

“One step ahead of you.” She gave him a look. “While you were hunting down lardass, I found another three people wanting to go and sign up with him. We’ve got enough people to protect the caravan now.”

Amy sighed. She wanted Dad and Manuel here. Hell, Melody was even on this trip with her spawn. Amy wanted a proper reuinion with everyone. With everything that had changed over the last few years, was it too much to want to have a happy reunion for once?

Fyrtorn falling had been a breath of relief for everyone. One of those little pressures on their back was gone finally. Jordan forming the Relentless Legion, offering to help anyone and everyone free of charge was another good thing. But it was impersonal, and everyone needed a bit of personal pleasure on occasion. Spending a bunch of money on a piece of chocolate, for example.

A reunion where she could stand to make some money off of it was even better in her mind. But Roy had just gone and ruined that.

“Gram? Do you think that Jordan’s psycho?”

Gram was a little younger than her, but not by much. He still suffered from some acne, and his hair was perpetually greasy, but she figured that it had something to do with his Changer abilities. However, in the short period of time that they’d known each other, he’d established himself as a deeply philosophical man, capable of a great deal of thought so quickly.

He offered her a half smile. “There’s an old saying in my village. ‘All the best cowboys have daddy issues.’ It basically means that if you’re going to excel, then it’s going to come with some sort of baggage. Maybe depression, maybe anxiety, maybe daddy issues, who knows? Different strokes for different folks. It doesn’t mean that you’re crazy, it just means that sometimes you have to accept that the people who are the most useful to you, or mean the most to you, are going to have issues.

“So, yeah, I think Jordan’s got issues. Anger issues especially, and I’m saying that from first-hand knowledge. But psycho? Nah. The fact that he works so hard to keep from killing people says a lot. He could have killed Dean, but even in his rage when he didn’t know what he was doing, he held his hand and only wounded him. If everyone had that level of self-restraint, the world would be in a lot better shape.”

That made Amy frown a little. Gram picked up on that far too quickly.

“Look at us. I smother and poison people. I’m told that you can take out two Wildlings with a double barrel, pop the breech, reload, and kill two more before most decent mercs can kill two with a pump action. There was a time that the two of us would be looked at like we were crazy or freaks, but here? We’re normal. I did six months in Twain, and they’d think that you’re off your rocker and suicidal just for doing a wagon caravan. It’s all relative.”

He paused for a moment. “But that’s not really your problem, is it?”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, drawing herself up again. She had more steel in her than most people might think. “Come on, let’s see how ready our employer is.”


Two weeks of riding from where they’d been able to teleport to. Half of these people just weren’t fit for travel like this, forging new trails. Maybe they’d taken day-long trips between communities, maybe they were just soft. Amy didn’t know. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to know, either. All that she wanted was to get there, see what was up, maybe stay a few days, and then take her handful of mercs and the wagons and get back to driving with Dad.

Fortunately, as they finally broke through the treeline, they were within sight of Second Chance. There were no trees for a good twenty miles, so at least they could see where they were going.

Not that it did much good. All that she could see was that there was some sort of settlement in the distance, with a large golden tower stretching into the sky that radiated light. The namesake lighthouse.

Amy got chills just looking at it, and she couldn’t even put her finger on why.

As they began the slow progress forward, careful of the tree stumps that littered the ground, she took note of a globe of light taking to the afternoon sky. As it drew closer, she noted that it was joined by four darker dots.

Next to her, Karen drew her rifle, but put it in her lap. “Incoming,” she muttered, loud enough for everyone to hear.

“We’ll be fine,” Amy said, more to reassure herself than anything. Still, she was keenly aware of her own shotgun holstered next to her and how tightly she was gripping the reigns.

Within moments, the five figures landed ahead of the horses, startling them a little. One woman who seemed to be composed entirely of light, a man and a woman in blue shirts that had a gold-colored stripe down the center and a yellow sash around their waists, and two figures in heavy power armor that looked brand new.

“Who goes there?” the light woman asked.

Amy jerked her thumb behind her. “Supplies, some people wanting to join, and two looking to set up here. We’ll need to see Relentless for them.”

The light woman looked like she was going to say something, but one of the people in power armor spoke first. “Radio signal! Patching it in.”

Schrodinger to Reticle Actual,” a pained woman’s voice said over the suit’s speakers.

The light woman, apparently Reticle Actual, sighed and turned to face the armored figure. “Go ahead.”

Reticle Actual, there’s wildlings to the north. Dispatching another squad to deal with them. Your team is to provide support for the caravan and destroy anything that might threaten them. I’ll have Relentless waiting upon arrival. Upon delivery, please be advised that your squad will be undergoing evaluation. That is all.

The woman made a fist, but slowly unclenched it. “Understood.” She wasn’t happy with the orders, and neither were the two in their weird uniforms. The unspoken Fucking Thinkers hung in the air. Instead of bitching, however, she looked at the two in power armor. “How’s your fuel reserves?”

The other one coughed. “Good. If they move faster than walking speed, I can make it back before I need topped off.”

“Ditto,” the other said.

“Alright.” Reticle Actual turned back to Amy. “We’ll provide overhead support and let you know if there’s any danger. Go as quickly as you can, given the terrain.” She turned back to the rest of her team. “As soon as we get back, you two refuel. And the two of you…” She folded her arms over her chest. “I saw that expression on your faces. We’ll have a talk while they’re refueling. For now…”

Flying paras took to the air in all sorts of manners. Reticle Actual launched herself off like, well, a streak of light. One of the other flyers warped space around himself briefly before rocketing up, and the other simply seemed to glide upwards. The two in armor adjusted their stance as their armor let out a high-pitched whine before rocketing upwards, light shooting from their feet and backs.

Amy, shook her head, trying to get the weirdness out. There was something odd about that entire interaction that she couldn’t put her finger on. But that could come later. She had a job to do.

“Stay on my ass, folks! No need to piss off the locals by lollygagging.” With that, she focused on finding the best path possible, only dimly aware of what the woman next to her was saying to her husband.



“You’re already working!”

“Just some, uh… notes?”

“It looks like a design to me.”


“Uh-huh. And what for?”

“Solar power that should be at eighty-nine percent efficiency!”

“I should have fucking known. …What’s the standard efficiency?”

“I dunno.”

“Right. Uh, what does efficiency even mean with this?”

Amy tuned out the rest of the conversation after that.

Thankfully it was only another twenty minutes before the land cleared of stumps, and they could get back up to a good twelve miles per hour. Which meant that in an hour, the city really began to come into clearer view. And it was massive! It had to be bigger than New Brockton!

The entire thing seemed to be built like spokes leading out from that golden lighthouse temple. At the end of each spoke was a massive statue of a naked guy, his arms raised in a welcoming gesture. Which was kind of ironic, really. At first, Amy thought that the statues were weathered, but as she got closer, it became apparent that the guy was heavily scarred. Probably Krigarguden, and she was willing to bet that they were rather… complimentary to the dead bastard.

The buildings themselves were unique, though. She’d expected a cult to have run down buildings on the verge of collapse, stuff that even the Sons of Bitch wouldn’t want to set foot in. Instead, they were grand, glorious things. Amy wasn’t the type to know much about buildings, so she wasn’t sure if they were Gothic or Victorian in design, but she’d never seen such large windows in her life, nor so many of them.

And even before they got past the first huge statue, she could see so many gardens filled with smaller statues ahead. They would have been beautiful, if they didn’t have big mounted weapons in the middle, pointing towards the sky.

She never thought that she’d ever visit Fyrtorn, but it wasn’t turning out anything like she’d imagined it would be.

She was brought back to task at hand as a man in that same blue shirt getup hurried to meet them. “Welcome to… Second Chance,” he called out in a cheery voice, trying to hide that moment’s hesitation. “Schrodinger told us of your arrival yesterday. I am Finlay Gray, and I have been chosen to welcome you! Please, come, come. This way. Relentless himself will be coming to greet you.”

Just like that? No explaining who they were, what they wanted? That was weird.

Or maybe not. If that Schrodinger woman had warned them of their arrival, then no doubt they were ready. Except that group who greeted them seemed to have no idea what was going on. The whole thing struck Amy as weird.

The man, Finlay, was walking, though. No choice but to follow. At least he seemed talkative. “Relentless will be so pleased that you’re here! I bet that you’re all excited to meet him!”

Yeah, maybe excited wasn’t the right word. She wanted to, but she’d also had two weeks to think about some things. What Roy had said, what had happened, what she’d been like… Now there were butterflies in her stomach as the prospect of actually seeing Jordan again was a real thing.

Gram called out for them. “I know that I’m looking forward to seeing him again.”

That made Finlay turn, walking backwards. His face was positively glowing in delight. “Oh? You knew Relentless before he became…” There was that hesitation again. “Our leader?”

“Yeah. He almost killed me, too.” Several people on the street turned to look at him, suddenly suspicious. Smooth move, dipshit. “Uh, no hard feelings on my part. He wasn’t in the wrong, I wasn’t in the wrong. Just those, uh… Those things in life that you can’t really control.”

“It happens,” Finlay said loudly, to make sure everyone overheard. “I believe that we have one other here like you, who followed him because of a previous… altercation. He’s a trusted member here. A great proponent of wearing a cup.”

Yup, that guy fought Jordan alright. Amy saw Jordan do that enough times to know it quite well.

Rather than listen to Gram put his foot in his mouth even more, though, now she jumped in. “We’ve got ten new recruits for the Legion. Are we the first?”

“Goodness, no!” Finlay was back to his insanely cheerful self. “Every week, we get more and more. Here soon, we will begin meeting with communities to discuss allowing their criminals to serve, to allow them to be elevated from their criminal past and join us as brothers and sisters.” He paused. “Sorry, I’m not supposed to say that anymore.”

Were… Were these brain drains worshiping Jordan? Would wonders never cease? Going from an occasionally shy, almost bashful man to someone worshiped?

“Pull in here,” he said quickly. “Relentless will be here shortly, or so I was told.”

The three wagons pulled into the small courtyard as best they could. Ten recruits, a bunch of metals and cloth, two passengers, and then five drivers. Everyone was more than eager to pile out and stretch their legs, though. No matter how much she enjoyed the drive, it was always nice to reach their destination.

“Christopher Abrams!”

Amy spun, and suddenly everything clicked into place. Jordan had always been good at taking something silly and making it dead serious or even impressive, and he still didn’t disappoint. There he was, in a weird fusion between his cloth armor and knight’s armor, carrying a two-pronged spear on the end of that old familiar shaft, and wearing a helmet that barely left his mouth exposed. Even weirder, he looked like he was wearing black and white paint on his lips? Everything below the ribs looked a little looser than she knew he preferred, the cloth not being tight against his body, but the effect was still awe-inspiring.

No wonder these people worshiped him. He was magnificent.

Chris grinned, looking positively giddy. “Hey!”

“What are you doing here?” Jordan’s voice was deeper and rougher than she remembered.

“Well, your people are going to need armor. I can mass produce it at home, sure, but having a second workshop here is a lot easier, especially until we get proper transport figured out. Plus, I’ve gotten so many idea in just the short time that I’ve been here! How are you all doing on electricity? I’ve got a new idea that–”

Jordan held up a finger a moment before the area over his mouth snapped shut. That finger moved to his helmet, over his ear. Just the way that he moved was so much more impressive than how other people did. The little motions of his head letting you know when he was and wasn’t talking, the way that he stood with his feet shoulder width apart, his chest puffed out, looking like the epitome of strength and confidence. For once, he looked like that when he wasn’t getting into a fight.

Maybe all of this was good for him.

The helmet opened to expose his mouth again. “Apparently, we do actually have a workshop for you.” He sounded… annoyed by that. Fucking Thinkers? “And as for the rest of you. Recruits, this is Nathalia. She’ll take you to be interviewed and accepted. I only ask that you answer all questions truthfully, without hesitation. We won’t judge you, no matter your background — it’s for your own protection.

“As for the caravaneers…” Amy couldn’t see his eyes, but she could have sworn he looked right at her, and then past as if she wasn’t even there. “Lacuna will see to your needs while the wagons are unloaded. I thank you very much for your efforts.”

He turned his attention back to Chris. “We’ll grab your stuff here in a little bit. Lets get you to your new lab. I can’t wait to see it myself.”

Amy and Karen shared a glance before the woman moved to join her husband and Jordan.

She looked back to the three of them, feeling a strange pain in her chest. She could only mouth the word “Jor” as the turned and began to walk away.

Her pain was too short-lived, though, as a woman in an outfit like Jordan’s moseyed up next to her. “Hey! I’m Lacua! And you are?”

“Uh…” She blinked several times. “Hi, I’m… I’m Amy.”

The woman put a hand on her helmet and snapped the visor up so hard that her head jerked. Despite the weird but pretty skull paint on her face, the woman’s eyes were wide with shock. “Amy… Like, you knew him before?”

She nodded.

Lacuna instantly grabbed her elbow, leaning in close to whisper. “Don’t mind him. Crazy crazy crazy day. Suicide over a perceived slight against him, then his brother shows up? He’s in it deep. I’ll send someone to nab you for dinner, though, so we can all eat together and you can get some face time, ‘kay?”

Amy nodded, a little baffled.

“Excellent.” Lacuna turned to address the other four. “Well? What are we waiting for? You all look like you could use a bath! Come on, chop chop! Grab your stuff and let’s go! The water’s hot, and you all get your own tub!”


The knock on her door broke Amy from her reprieve. “Uh…”

It would have been nice if her room had a lock. Instead, the door just swung right open, and that Lacuna chick stepped in with a smile on her face, a plate of food in her hand and a purse on her shoulder. “You didn’t come, but that’s okey-dokey. I brought you some myself.”

“Uh… I’m not really hungry,” Amy said, adjusting herself in the sole chair in the room.

Lacuna kicked the door shut behind her, and continued to speak in that cheery tone. “I don’t care.” The smile dropped from her face as she held the plate out. “We need to talk. Take it.”

When in a place that worships your ex-boyfriend, and a person tells you to eat in a serious tone? Amy took the plate quickly.

Lacuna smiled again before settling on the edge of the bed. “Thank you. Geeze, Amy. Finallly, I get to meet you. Been wondering about you for a long, long time.”

“I…” Amy swallowed. “You know who I am?”

“Sure. Jordan’s talked about you on occasion.” She put the purse in her lap and took a deep breath. “Name’s Emi. The whole code name thing is fun at first, but it’s not… I dunno. You gotta be you sometimes, am I right?”

“Sure.” As if today wasn’t surreal enough.

“And it’s nice to call Jordan by his name with someone who ain’t gonna be all freaky about it. Again, fun at first, but bleh after a while.” She tilted her head a bit, regarding Amy for a moment. “Hurts that he just walked away, don’t it?”

Amy ducked her head.

“So, uh… You and he…”

“Used to be an item, yeah. Which is why I told the guy you sent that I wasn’t going.” Amy sucked in a breath. “I… I’m not exactly…”

“It’s cool.”

“No. Damn it, let me say this out loud.” She put the plate on the small desk before moving the chair to look at Emi better. “I… When you’re surrounded by guys who are always tough and tumble but all bravado, sometimes it’s the one who isn’t that stands out the most. Most guys that I ran with on the wagon, they pretended that there wasn’t any pain to them except for when they thought that nobody was looking.

“Jordan? No matter if nobody was looking, he was always the same. That same… smile that made you think that deep down, something was wrong, but he wasn’t going to let it get him down. You could tell that there was something wrong there, but that he was constantly trying to push himself past it. And those seizures of his, and the way that he’d limp and stuff…

“You’d think that it’d turn me off, but he was so much more…” She shook her head. “Even if he was hiding his pain, he was so much more real about it, and it was like he was hurting all the time. If it wasn’t his knee, sometimes the way he’d catch while stretching, or just those eyes of his. And he just…”

Amy drew silent for a moment, trying to figure out how to say it. “I think that one of the reasons why I fell for him was because I thought that maybe I could help him, you know?”

“Maybe.” Emi shrugged a shoulder. “Seems like a shitty reason to shag a guy, though.”

“That’s not why I fucked him. At the time, I think that I had a different reason for it, but…” She sighed. “I’ve spent the last two weeks asking myself all sorts of questions, and I think that I had an even shittier reason for it. Maybe if I blew his mind, he’d… He’d give it all up for me. Decide that he needed me as much as I wanted him.”

Emi didn’t say anything for a long moment. When she did, she was surprisingly monotone. “Damn.”

“Yeah. Like I said, though, that’s not what I was thinking at the time, but… I think that I was being a complete bitch without realizing it.”

“No, no, I get it. It isn’t even a gender thing. Sometimes, everyone wants something, but they make these really cool reasons in their head that sound completely legit, but they’re really bullshit. Trust me, I used to have to use that against people a lot.”

What did that mean?

“But it sounds to me like you realized it, and now you can’t even talk to your friend?”

Amy shook her head. “It’s because it hurt so much when he didn’t even recognize me. Because I thought I was over him, but right then? Right there? If he would have smiled at me, I probably would have tried again. But because he didn’t…” She shook her head. “He’s probably so far over me that I’m a memory. With everything that’s happened, I’m probably not even a passing thought.”

Emi stared at her for a long moment before reaching into her purse, only to toss a locket of hair onto the bed. “Hope that you don’t mind.”

Amy’s heart skipped a beat.

“He ain’t said nothin’ about it, but because he tends to dive head first into trouble, he asked me to hold onto that for him. Little leather bundle to protect it, a note asking him to come back to you, blah blah blah. I knew there was an Amy out there that meant something to him, either now or at some point, but I had no idea who you were until you said your name. Just some things that you don’t talk about.”

Amy reached out to pick up the little snippet of hair, smiling sadly to herself. “You’re full of shit, aren’t you?”

That got a bark of laughter out of the other woman. “Hell yeah.” And just like that, she was sober again. “Not this spring but the last, we were leaving a place that we’d holed up for the winter. He’d had a rough go of it that winter, even had a nervous breakdown. When we were getting ready to go, I snuck into his room and nabbed this out of his trash along with a few other things.

“I think he gave up on everything before meeting up with us, and was saying goodbye in his own way. But there’s a lotta good that came from his life before, well, Agamemnon. I didn’t want him to say goodbye like that, so I held onto it. Didn’t do any good, though. He barely even celebrated this last Christmas. I don’t think he even met with his family.”

She raised a painted eyebrow, the effect looking odd with her pink and white skull painted face. “When’d you give it to him?”

Ah, memories. Painful, bitter, but also sweet memories. “Right before he left for St. Louis Bet. We got a really good drawing done of the two of us, and while he was paying, I slipped it into his pack.”

“And he held onto it for two years.”

The two of them lapsed into silence for a bit. Amy wasn’t sure what to think. Or what to say. Finally, though, she offered the lock of hair back to Emi. “Keep it. Maybe one of these days, when he’s in a better place…”

“Yeah, okay.” She took it from her hand, then grinned. “He’s shaving his head now.”

“Oh, thank God!” Amy laughed. “His hair was always awful! I always thought that he’d look better with a shaved head.”

“Yeah, but also no. Now his hair doesn’t look bad, but his ears look even bigger!”

Amy pictured that in her head, and that only made her laugh harder. “Oh, I can see that now!”

She wasn’t sure what Emi’s relationship was with Jordan, lovers or just friends, but oddly, she felt like he was in good hands. Maybe, with friends like these, things would work out in the end.

Gehenna 15.2

My subdermal mesh shouldn’t have cut this easily. True, it still took some effort to cut it, but I had the serious feeling that I shouldn’t have been able to cut out the area around this damn lump in my chest with just a normal knife. Also unfortunately, I had to cut closer to healthy skin than I would have liked, making me occasionally wince.

Eventually, though, it all came free, pulling the weird bulge that had developed with it. I frowned at it, looking this way and that. The lump was about the size of a large egg, though metallic, and not connected to the subdermal mesh in the slightest. It was probably titanium, with all sorts of exotic Tinker tech inside. If it hadn’t come from inside my body, I’d probably find the cybernetics fascinating.

Instead, I set it on the table, turning my attention to my chest itself. I watched at the black, almost matted skin inflated in time with my heartbeat. The weird approximation of my lower ribs stretched the skin until it was almost a mockery of ribs, with the impossibly deep valleys becoming off-white and the highlights of the ribs taking on a bluish tone, making the ribs seem to stick out further than they really were.

I took a few experimental breaths, but I didn’t feel any pain. It felt weird, but in the way that my entire body felt weird. I could feel textures through my new body, but they felt off in ways that I couldn’t put my finger on. I could feel it through my suit, even. The new flesh felt both impossibly heavy and impossibly light somehow, almost like it both wasn’t there and there was far more there than met the eye at the same time.

I wondered if anyone was equipped to put words to what I was going through. I somehow doubted it.

A knock on the door made me whip around, startled. Crap, I must have spent longer fussing with this than I thought. “Just a minute!” I turned to hide the flesh and egg with the other flesh…

Only to find a stack of materials on the old table. Metal, plastic, what looked like pencil lead… What the hell?

I hurried to the box under Marcus’ old bed where I’d hidden the other flesh that I’d cut away recently, only to find the rest of it was exactly the same way.

What the hell was going on?

No time to dwell on it, though. I had someone outside Marcus’ old home, waiting for me. I flipped down the cloth neck guard and got to work sealing my armor over it before throwing on my helmet. As I made sure that I was presentable and that the makeup on my face wasn’t smudged, the words from my dream echoed through my head.

Save yourself, kill the world.

Yeah, fat chance, that. I hadn’t come this far just to turn genocidal. I snatched up my spear, feeling better instantly, before opening the door. The man in his forties on the other side was far too familiar to me. One of the many people that I was keeping an eye on.

“Sir, she’s ready for the presentation. By your gr…” Thomas winced, which looked odd given his eyepatch. “Whenever you’re ready.”

I nodded once. “Let’s go.” I closed the door behind me, not worried in the slightest about anyone sneaking in. The old Fyrtorn guard would tear anyone who tried to break in apart.

As we walked, I glanced at Thomas. He was only a little bit younger than me, but his shoulders and back had a natural hunch to them. I wasn’t sure if it was from psychological or physical trauma. Both were likely, but I could only help with one. “Thomas. Don’t beat yourself up. You caught yourself, and after what you’ve been through…”

He gave a bark of bitter laughter. “No, I shouldn’t even slip up like that. They were still putting their hooks in my mind, trying to get me to trigger and to worship…” He glanced at people watching us. “…the mighty Krigarguden. But I held out. The last person down there. Why am I slipping up now?”

“Have you talked to the shrink about it?” As the last remaining captive who hadn’t converted to the false religion, Thomas was a high priority. Ultimately, he’d take less work than the others.

On a more political note, rehabilitating him would serve as an example to the rest of the world what we were trying to do, showing that we weren’t trying to be a repeat of Fyrtorn.

“Yeah, but he just says that it’s going to take some time. No real answers, just talking about feelings like I give a crap.”

I knew that was a load of bullshit. Right now? Doctor patient confidentiality didn’t count for much around here, and he was far from the only person that I had to keep close tabs on. Those who had resisted the order to kill the high priests and the others that Marcus had tagged for death had to be tracked, because they might rebel against me. Those people who were potentially violent in peaceful circumstances had to be watched, the people who had most recently been indoctrinated had to be watched…

Privacy? What was that? I felt like I had to keep tabs on everyone just to make sure that the rest of the world weren’t going to come down on us like a ton of bricks.

The past three weeks hadn’t made anything easier, though. If I wasn’t meeting with politicians, I was meeting with shrinks. If not them, then those religious mercenaries that were here as the first round of the ethics committee. At least they seemed to understand why I had to make the sacrifices to social liberties that I did.

If I wasn’t dealing with any of them, then there were the cultists. I wanted to scream at them that they could just stop with the living god bullshit, that there weren’t wicked thoughts driving them astray that they had to be ever vigilant for, that they could think for themselves and not worship the ground that I walked on.

I didn’t want to lead so many ceremonies in the high temple. I didn’t want to preside over their damn weddings, give my blessing to whatever bullshit they needed, or anything like that. I just wanted it all to stop!

But then everything would fall apart. We’d have a bunch of people who fetishized combat to a religious degree declaring me a false god, an usurper, and wiping out anyone who wasn’t one of them. They’d turn against us the world, becoming more radical and violent than ever before.

And Schrodinger had confirmed that we needed them for later.

At least… At least I could see to people like Thomas. Thomas, who ranted, raved, and cried to his therapist, but put on the tough guy persona to the outside world. The torture that he’d suffered had been incredible, enough to break anyone, but he’d persevered somehow. That much was worth respect.

“I’m no shrink,” I said carefully, yet once again having to take up a cautious political mantle. “But I have a theory, if you wanna hear it.”

Thomas scoffed. “Sure. What’s your answer?”

“You aren’t fighting it anymore. You don’t have to fight that continual edge in the back of your head, have to fight their knives or powers, so you’re letting your defenses down. They’d made chinks in your armor, but you can’t see that while you’re wearing it. It’s not until you take the armor off that you can see how bad of a beating you took. Now that stuff’s bubbling to the surface.

“But that’s a good thing. It’s like trying to fish out the last bow noodle out of soup — if it’s down below, getting at it with a spoon is hard as hell. But when it floats to the top, if you’re careful enough, you can fish it out without any problem at all. It may not be as fast as you like, but it’s gonna go a lot easier.”

Thomas looked at me with a quirked eyebrow. “Where’d you learn a metaphor like that?”

“Nowhere,” I admitted. “I’m just talking out my ass and trying to sound all wise and junk.”

That earned a laugh out of him. Good. It was easier if he was in good spirits. I took the chance and changed the subject. “Two of the people who came with me, a brother and sister who came here because her husband was taken by the locals. Before your time.”

Thomas nodded eagerly. “Right, John and–”

“Shard,” I said insistently. “I know too damn many John’s, and I’m gonna get confused if we don’t call him something.

Thomas grinned a little. “Right. That makes sense, with his power to make crystals that explode.” That smile fell, though. “They’re having a rough time. The dude doesn’t even recognize his wife and best friend, so it’s draining for them. Any time they push him, he says that they’re trying to corrupt him and shuts them down. They ask me questions sometimes, which is annoying, but I get it. They’re trying to figure out how to help him. But I still got hope. If those fucks hadn’t killed my entire fucking village, I’d give anything to have someone that I knew here to help.

“Still, they might have a breakdown before then. If I were you, I’d find a way to give them a break of some sort. They’ll fight it, but if they haven’t made any progress in three weeks…” His words trailed off with a shrug.

Huh. He looked more like he belonged as a Dragon’s Teeth trooper than someone with a brain.

Time for me to make my own play. “You know, you don’t have to serve with us.”

He snorted. “Where else am I going to go? Everyone I knew is either dead or indoctrinated, I don’t even know where could use someone who likes to fiddle with stuff, and honestly? I don’t have a lot of good skills outside of fiddling. Mom wanted me to be a doctor, but I don’t know enough for that. And I kinda agree with what you’re doing here. So unless I get some skills under my belt, this is… kinda all that I have left.”

Not that the Stockholm syndrome helped with that, of course. Just because he wasn’t fully gone didn’t mean that he didn’t have any at all.

But I nodded sympathetically. “Well, I still think that you’re being wasted as a message boy. That said, all those meetings with the politicians might be paying off for something. When you’re feeling up to it, and if the next round of fucking negotiations go alright, I might be able to send you to the Orphanage for some electrical engineering classes.”

He tilted his head curiously, so I explained. “The electrical grid here is ramshackle, cobbled together by the needs of different Tinkers with different ideas on how to do things. I honestly think that you-know-who must have had something to do with keeping it from all burning down with his grab bag of powers.

“But we need to set it up so that folks can honestly live here, and that means making a unified electrical system that won’t leave me worried that we’re all going to die if someone sneezes wrong or leans against the wrong wall. I’m not saying that I’d give you a position of authority or anything, but…”

Gears turned and clicked in my head, ideas falling into place. “My basic idea is that when you’re feeling a bit better, we send you to the Sons of Bitch. Their electrical grid is fairly simple, powered by gasoline of all things, but a simple system like that is a good way to let you figure out if it’s something that you’d like to do or not before you get to the Orphanage, you know?”

Thomas gave me a lopsided grin, reminding me vaguely of the cultists. That unnerved me a bit. “Really?”

“Sure. Why not?”

In truth, it would get him to the shrinks that the Sons of Bitch had, easing some of the stain on our own. But on top of that, if he could get on his feet fast enough, I’d have the Orphanage see if he’d be any good as a liaison between us and the Dragon’s Teeth. We were going to be doing field tests of designs by Defiant and Dragon for the D.T. so it would be nice to have someone who could deal with them directly.

And to keep me from having to do it myself.

We paused as some of the former mercs marched by, escorting a few of the Fyrtorn cultists, all of them singing a song as they tried to whip them up from fevered cultists and make them into an actual fighting force.

Family always let me down
I left them in that dusty town
Girlfriends stabbed me in the back
I dropped them and picked up the axe
Could count my friends on just one hand
Now I spot my friends by the yellow band

“What’s that drummer drumming for?
Legion’s ’bout to go to war
What’s that army marching toward?
Legion’s ’bout at your front door.

Huh. I wasn’t expecting cadences after less than a month. Honestly, I hadn’t expected a cadence of any sort before Phase Four of the plan activated. Even if Phase Three felt like it was stretching on forever. Phase One and Two of the plan had been to gather troops and then take Fyrtorn. Phase Three was to secure Second Chance, consolidate power and influence, and prepare for Phase Four.

Hopefully, Nexus and Sagittarius were the only ones who knew what Phase Four of my plan was, and even then, that Nexus only knew that one sentence of it. I worried about Tattletale, though. She could easily throw a wrench in my plans.

We were content to walk in silence the rest of the way, me pondering how much Tattletale knew and how to adjust if she did or said something that would screw me up, and Thomas… Well, I wasn’t sure what he was thinking about. Maybe he was just one of those people who could walk in silence without having to have something to focus his attention on.

At least I was getting used to the looks of reverence and restrained worship from the Fyrtorn cultists. One of the shrinks was helping me come up with things to say during the religious services to help step them down slowly, but there was only so much that we could do without the risk of revolution. But they weren’t quite so open about fawning, at least. They still did it, but I didn’t have to worry about them sending women to me. Which was good, because it made me so mad I could spit.

And while I still felt like I had no damn good reason to be the one doing it, so far the only highlight of being here was presiding over Nathalia’s wedding. Even if I was going to get her killed, at least I had improved her life to some degree. Maybe some more lesbians would want married, too. That’d be nice.

Nathalia had come to me twice now, each time with some conflict between Krigarguden’s rule and mine. It was never anything big, not to me, and she always seemed so hesitant to do it, but she always walked away… Not necessarily happier, or any less conflicted, but more confident. Maybe she’d be the first of the entrenched cultists to break through.

About the time that I was finishing up that line of thought, we were arriving at our destination. Once upon a time, this had been the sight of so many bloody rituals. Not bloody in and of themselves, but their intent, to go out and do what Fyrtorn had been so feared for. The entire courtyard was done up in beautiful marble, wood, and so many other materials. Statues of Krigarguden ran the perimeter of the circular courtyard, and in the middle, the teleporter.

A woman in her late thirties stood with her back straight and her head high as I approached. I wasn’t sure how Thomas had known that he wouldn’t be needed, but he wordlessly excused himself so that the two of us could talk in peace.

“Relentless,” she said, her voice oozing with pride. “I was sure that you would want to see my life’s work in person sooner or later. It is such an honor to present it to you.”

There was a part of me that wanted to slap that smugness out of her. If this was her life’s work, then she was responsible for so much pain and grief…

Instead, I smiled faintly, reminding myself that I needed her. “Of course. This is how the Fyrtorn sent their…”

“Those who were to undergo their rite of passage, becoming full citizens of Fyrtorn, yes.”

Right, because everything had to be ritualistic. Still, I nodded, and she took that as a chance to continue.

“The ribbon tech that we produce is powerful, but only to a point. That works by distributing the load across individual elements, allowing–”

“The more that are in proximity to each other, the more powerful the overall effect,” I finished for her. “While with traditional teleportation inhibitors, no matter how many you stacked in one location, you could overpower them with a strong enough teleporter or Mover, with the ribbon tech both the range and the strength of the inhibitor increases.”

Her eyes lit up. “Are you a Tinker?”

“No.” I looked around. “I assume that it’s located within the center of the courtyard?”

She nodded. “It’s a ring composed of superconductors, allowing for precision interdimensional wormholes to be formed. Our teleportation ribbons have a limited range, but can act as beacons for it. We could, in theory, teleport a hundred people to the moon and then bring them back.”

“Right. But what I need to know is, can it be sustained, or is it a quick, split second thing?”

Now she frowned. “The power requirements are immense, and if I were to set it to a sustained wormhole, it would blow out the control capacitor in only a few seconds. I’d need to completely rebuild it from the ground up. At least seven capacitors, I think.”

“I’ll work on getting us the power we’d need. Do what you can to set it up. And I want it standing vertically, not built into the ground like this, if at all possible.”

I was aware of Lacuna teleporting in, stumbling as she did so. She was enjoying the different heights of the buildings and the varied architecture, allowing her to teleport all over the place in new and interesting ways, but sometimes it caused her difficulty if what she teleported onto was slick or just not good enough for her to stand on. It seemed weird to me, but if she was having fun doing it, then so be it.

I didn’t have time to focus, though, as the Tinker was nodding eagerly. “Yes, I can do that. Let the world see the glory of my work! Thank you, Relentless! I’ll–”

“No icons,” I said quickly, seeing the ways that this could go horribly wrong in my head. “No symbols other than what’s needed, no sculptures, I don’t even want to see astrological signs on it. Let, uh… Let the world see the gory of your work as it is, you know? I… I think you deserve that, right?”

She looked like she was going to cry. “Thank you! Thank you! I–”

“Let me know what you need. Or, uh, let someone know to let me know what you need or… You know.” I really didn’t need to deal with her gushing. “I… I have matters to attend to. But I at least wanted to do this in person. I… I have to go.”

As she continued to squeal behind me, I hurried over to Lacuna. “I really, really wish that I woulda brought my spear,” I whispered.

I couldn’t see her face, but by her posture, she was amused. “Come on. Our first convoy’s almost here.”

My eyes went wide. “Now?! Why didn’t anyone let me know? Which way?”

Thankfully, she took point. “They tried, apparently? But you didn’t answer?”

Oh. Right. When I was dealing with… “My bath.” Things clicked in my head. “So then they got in touch with you, you went looking for me, didn’t even think that I’d be at my house–”

“Since you never sleep anymore,” she clarified.

“–Then you remembered about the tracking function on the armor, called that up, and I was here. Right.” Brilliant. At least I was getting enough of a grip on the situation that I could guess what was going on behind the scenes. At least, when it came to Lacuna, I could. “Double time.”

It turned out that double time wasn’t needed. They weren’t quite here yet, but it gave Lacuna a chance to head out and get my spear for me.

I walked up to Sagittarius, keeping my voice low enough that only she could hear. “Please tell me you’ve got some good news.”

“Just like we planned,” she said. “Our people here to escort them, housing set aside, everything’s in order.” She paused, cocking her hips a little bit. “You sound like you’ve already been having a rough day.”

“Draining. Between the updated proposals, dealing with everyone, trying to keep things moving, memorizing the speech for my next service… It’s insane. If I would have known that it was going to be like this, I would have made Marcus make sure that we both died.” Not quite accurate. We had actually discussed it, but had ultimately agreed that this was the best way to save the people here for the time being.

“Relax,” she said soothingly. “Things might be more… complicated than we originally planned, but we’ve got this. John’s having a blast, and even I’ve got to admit, as frustrating as all of this is, we’ve got the con of a lifetime going. Convincing the world that we’re the biggest badasses around, that we know exactly what we’re doing, and that even when things don’t go according to plan, we’re in complete control.”

Lacuna appeared with my spear, and Sagittarius took it from her, offering it to me. “Go on out there. Meet them before they get to us, so we don’t have to worry about what you say being overheard. Keep in contact with me, so that I can let people know what to do.”

I took the spear and instantly felt a bit better. A bit stronger. The head might be different, but the shaft… It was an old friend. I wasn’t big into the personification of items, but when you spend long enough putting your life in the trust that something won’t do you wrong or fail on you, and you feel a sort of familiar connection to it.

I nodded, and began the march out towards the caravan, focusing on my breathing. Calming, soothing breathing. Enough to almost make me forget about the worship, the changes my body were going through, the weird thing that happened to the cybernetics… Almost enough. I lifted my faceplate. There were so many ways this could go wrong, but at least they could see my face.

Admittedly, the skull painted on it might not help, but still.

As we drew near, however, I noticed that the lead wagon had two cultists in the lead. Not mine, of course, but Khepri cultists. It was enough to make my heart sink again. One in robes, and one with just an ornate necklace.

“Hail,” I called out, mostly because I had no idea what else to say. How the hell had I blanked on what to say to a caravan?

“And well met,” said the driver of the first wagon. People in all of the wagons were trying to get a good look at me. Instead, I focused on the driver and his scarab necklace. “We hear that you’ve pacified Fyrtorn.”

“You hear right.”

The woman in the robes lowered her hood to look at me. “And that you’re welcoming families of those taken by them?”

How was she not sweating to death in that?

I sighed. “It’s not as easy as you might think.” I turned, speaking loud enough so that everyone could hear. “They’ve all been brainwashed. The only way that I’ve been able to keep them… focused, is by going along with their religion for now. This isn’t some miracle cure. The death of one man can’t magically eliminate months, years, decades of conditioning on how to think. Most of them probably won’t even recognize you, having abandoned their old lives.”

And there were so many people losing hope. Visibly losing hope.

“But we have a bunch of psychologists working on helping them. It’s a painfully slow process, but having loved ones there will help. Even if they don’t realize who you are, some part of them will still remember. And realizing what all has happened to them will be traumatic. Having someone there to help them through it will only make the recovery faster.

“I won’t blame you if you don’t think that you can handle the pain. And it will be painful for you. But if you want to come, then we will provide for you. Everything you need, for as long as you choose to stay, so long as you help with their recovery.”

“Thank you,” the woman said, sounding sincere.

“I hope that you don’t mind,” the man said, “but we’re also here to observe you.”

“Sure.” I shrugged a shoulder. “I mean, it’s not like I don’t have the Wardens, Dragon’s Teeth, New Brockton, Twain, the United States of America, the United States of America, the United States of America, the Sons of Bitch, Mexico, Canada, France, an ethics committee, and almost everyone else that you can think of watching me like a hawk for my first indiscretion. What’s one more?”

I sighed. “Come on, let’s get you in.”

I had been looking forward to the families arriving. Nexus had worked to set that up. He hadn’t quite told me that Khepri cultists were coming, too. That was the last thing that I needed. If a clash between ideologies happened, I was going to skin that bastard alive.

Interlude 15.A

Simply put, growing old sucked. This was something that Alloy was intimately familiar with. He had decades of cape experience when Gold Morning had happened, and almost 23 years later, he wasn’t getting any younger. Finding the energy to go through the day without a nap was starting to get harder — even though he worked a fairly cushy job, there were days where he’d go home and just nap for an hour.

The worst part was that he had to deal with a problem that most paras liked to pretend didn’t happen — as one got older, their powers tended to weaken. Once upon a time, with just a smartphone, a pair of glasses, and four hours, he could make a wearable digital display that responded to voice commands, augmented reality, and a host of other computing features. He’d then stacked other things into them, taking as much time, so that they were indispensible, especially these days.

Now? With his 51st birthday looming, it would take hours for the bundle of elastic in one hand and the hunk of palladium in the other to properly combine properties. Anything much more than joining the properties of materials like that could take days to finish properly.

But that was fine. That was mainly what bought him a seat on the council, being able to provide the Tinkers with everything that they needed. He’d done that a lot for Tinkers, back in the day, and had known plenty of big names in those circles, providing them exotic forms of materials that they needed. And he was pretty sure that he was the only one remaining.

That, he credited, to what was either his core personality trait, or a side effect of his power. He could see the way that things fit together, came together. It wasn’t at pure Thinker levels, no, and often required quite a bit of thought and internal debate, but it was there all the same. Mechanics, chemistry, politics, no matter what, with enough thought, he could see how various things interacted with each other.

It made him one of the slowest members of the council to vote on any particular topic, but his votes were some of the most valued, and his opinions were listened to. It’s also what made him participate in today’s little exercise.

As the door opened, he almost didn’t look up. There wasn’t a need, truth be told — his secretary would only allow one person to come in today. Still, there were rules of politeness.

The woman was a pretty young thing, in her mid-twenties, and probably got far with that if she knew it or not. He knew that Wanda quietly lusted over her, but he doubted that she knew that anyone on the council wanted her body. A little on the short side, with pretty auburn hair, the barest hint of a tattoo peeking on her neck under her business suit, and she filled those ear gauges that were coming back in style with plugs that could be confused for earrings. Her rack that always seemed to threaten to explode out of her blouse didn’t titillate Alloy, though — instead, his mind always considered the back problems that she must have and winced in pain.

Too young for him anyway. These days, he tended to get his kicks from conversations with women twice her age.

“Mrs. Inmann,” he said respectfully.

Mrs. Inmann fiddled with the bottle of wine in her hands. “Mr. Alloy. I brought–”

“Set it on the table. For pulling you away from the no doubt busy schedule, I followed protocol and got you a little gift myself, there on the table.” As tradition dictated — almost everything here happened only by greasing the wheels with gifts, no matter how grand or mundane.
Well, they called them gifts. Alloy preferred to think of them as they really were: bribes. Everyone else might be too polite to use the real word, but it was best to keep things in perspective.

Mrs. Inmann peeked inside the box as she set down the wine, her eyes going wide. “Mr. Alloy…”

“Please, we can gape later. Come now, join me. They could give us clearance at any time.”

She nodded, hurrying over. “I’m, uh, still not sure what we’re doing.”

“Ensuring the survival of Twain, Mrs. Inmann.” Ah, but enigmas did neither of them any good. “Tell me, do you know why I chose you to accompany me?”

She regarded him for a moment. Yes, this would be the point where she would state the obvious, and not think deeper. Everyone did that, and her history would be the first thing that came to mind.

“You want them to be distracted by drooling over my tits?” she said, flashing him enough of a smirk to let him know that she was joking.

Which was a good thing, or else he might have ordered her to get out right then and there. Instead, it gave him an opportunity to chuckle, the both of them to laugh a little at her joke. Clever. Clever indeed. He’d say that her skills were wasted in the foreign relations department, but that would be a lie. Even if, for now, she was little more than a tour guide who occasionally did negotiations, it was exactly where she needed to be.

“No, that was something that I hadn’t actually considered, truth be told. Besides, you’re not wearing the right outfit for that. No, I have deeper concerns than that. Tell me, what do you think of the future of Twain?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “It’s going to continue on. My parents describe it as too big to fail. With how much we produce, we’re pretty much necessary for the rest of the world for the Wardens or Dragon’s Teeth to let anything happen to us. And it’s not like we have to worry about outside attacks. If mega packs of wildlings can’t get to us, then we’re pretty much safe.”

Alloy nodded. “Safe from outside effects, yes. But what about interior?”

That made her uncomfortable. “I, uh… Well, there’s always going to be rumors about revolution. I don’t think that you can have a government that doesn’t make noise about that.”

“Not to the point where security gets involved,” Alloy pointed out. “Not when the council doesn’t dare allow the Wardens or Dragon’s Teeth get involved.

“These bribes, the emphasis put on Tinkers and Thinkers over anyone else, the slow but steady destruction of any form of middle class, the policies that the council puts forth, it can’t sustain itself indefinitely. Eventually, something has to give, and when people start getting turned into ash puddles in the halls, it will only incite more and more people into revolting.

“Which is why I’m going to this meeting.”

Mrs. Inmann tilted her head curiously. “Because… Jordan took out Fyrtorn?”

The light was still red. What was taking them so long? “Relentless, my dear. Does my insistence on being called Alloy seem strange to you?”

Again, that hesitation. Earning his ire would be disastrous not only for her, but for her entire family. But she straightened a little. Good, there was that steel that he knew she had. “Yeah, a bit. You don’t wear a costume or anything anymore, so calling yourself by a name like that is a bit odd.”

Alloy grinned. “Good. I’d be disappointed if it didn’t. I had another name, once. I had it as a child, and I even used it after I triggered. However, over time, I became less and less that name, and came to identify as Alloy more than ever.

“At first, it was just a cape name, a name that I used when out fighting bad guys. As I began to deal with Tinkers, though, it became more important. I had to talk to people as Alloy, deal with them on a daily basis.”

He paused as the memories came flooding back. Yes, this was a good moment. “There was a particular woman who would plague Kansas City. The PRT had her pegged as a Master, controlling all manner of beasts. I knew her, however, by a different name than the one that they gave her — as the Breeder. I never saw her setup, but she sculpted all manner of beasts, growing them diligently. But her equipment would burn out quickly, forcing her into more crimes, rather than doing what she loved, growing more of her pets.

“Which is where I came in. I could fuse properties for her, give her materials that had the… durability of something far stronger, while having the properties that those other materials lacked. And she paid me well for it. I knew that she didn’t actually live in Kansas City, and that the van that she used was actually one of her pets, but it wasn’t until long after Gold Morning that I figured it out.”

Mrs. Inmann was a smart kid, she’d figure out what he meant sooner or later.

“As time went on, I became Alloy, with that other name just being what I signed on my rent check or when I dealt with loved ones. Because, you see, I had to be Alloy. If I was that other person at the wrong time, I put people that I cared in danger. As well, it came with it a different mindset. I did cape things, I negotiated important things. Alloy didn’t think about who they’re going to vote for, the cost of eggs, or any of those mundane things.

“Now, think about how uncomfortable Jordan was when he and his sister were being paraded around Twain. He stepped back and let her do all the talking. But look at Relentless, taking a forward position. Much like the young man that I was before I triggered couldn’t do what Alloy did, using the mantle of Alloy as an almost barrier…”

“That’s what Relentless is doing,” she finished for him, nodding.

“Exactly. Now, back to what we were saying before we got distracted. The Dragon’s Teeth and the Wardens have each made a bid on Twain by protecting it. Metaphorically speaking, they’re drooling over the prospect of a revolution. I’m not saying that they’ll back the rebels, but…” Alloy trailed off, waiting for her to add two and two.

It took her a moment. “Well, if the council were to collapse and chaos were to reign, they’d have to come in to keep the peace. They’d flood this place with people…” And then true realization dawned, her face paling. “They’d pick this place apart.”

“Not quite,” Alloy conceded. “But that’s close enough. And it could very easily lead to some battles between them. There’s bad blood between each of them, you see, as well as some deeper sociological politics involved.

“A little birdie tells me that Relentless is offering something else. Where triggered and untriggered are treated as equals, though he’ll have some uphill work ahead of him given where he’s set up camp.”

Mrs. Inmann snorted. “Yeah, I’m not looking forward to going to Fyrtorn at all.”

“Neither am I, but it’s for the best. The issue is that the council believes that their reign is supreme, and that these pesky rebellion murmurings will be squashed in due time. They’re completely oblivious to how serious things are, despite my warnings. So. If they wish to act like children and ignore reality, then I have to take matters into my own hands. The rebellion will come, and I intend not to save my own skin, but to save Twain itself by looking to a third option.”

“If it goes well,” she pointed out. “Rumors say that he’s accepting criminals into his ranks.”

Alloy scoffed. “The reason why the criminal unit of WWII broke down wasn’t because they were criminals, nor the danger of the missions that they were sent on. It’s because they weren’t given any recovery time between missions. If he can keep cohesion, then there won’t be a problem.”

“Right, because felons are going to be lining up for expendable missions.” She sighed, and only then did the gravity of the situation hit her. “Wait… You really think revolution is coming?”

“Indeed. I expect that within two years, Twain will fall to chaos. And I want you to be our liaison with the Relentless Legion when it does, to keep the buzzards from picking us clean. That, my dear, is the reason why you’re here.”

He let the room go silent as she processed the heavy information. It might not have been the best thing to drop on her immediately before heading out, but the both of them were suffering from busy weeks. There simply wasn’t the time to do anything else.

After a few minutes, the light on the teleporter turned green.

“Are you ready?”

“I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

He smiled. “There is always a choice. However, the other alternatives are bad ones. Come. Let us go.”

With that, Alloy nudged the button with his fist, and the world changed.


Theo whistled some more Yellow Submarine himself as he fixed a sandwich. There was little in this world as glorious as a day off when you had the house to yourself. You didn’t have to put on a shirt, didn’t have to put on pants, you could do whatever you wanted. As much as he liked a full house, moments like this helped remind him that he had the good life.

At least, until there was a knock on the door.

Theo suppressed a sigh. He wasn’t the type to go out on missions very often, not with his old injuries, but his day job was still pretty stressful. Tracking and dealing with the Cultists was a pain, even more so because he’d spent so much time around Weaver. Having a day off meant the world to him, giving him a chance to relax and recover.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” he yelled, quickly hurrying up the stairs of his duplex, taking them two at a time. Just because it hurt didn’t mean that he couldn’t do it when he had to, and there was no way that he was going to answer the door in just his boxers.

He was still pulling on his shirt as he came back down, trying to put his irritation out of his head. It was either something big, which was worth interrupting his day off, or a personal visit. Maybe one of his friends coming over with beer. That sounded about right, and something that he could completely get behind.

The heavy oak door stuck for a moment, but when it popped open, he wasn’t greeted by the sight of one of his grinning friends or a grim looking Warden. Instead, in was a mousy, short brunette woman in rather cheap-looking breeches and shirt under a wool jacket, gripping her arm and biting her lip nervously. She looked younger than him, maybe in her early thirties, compared to his 40.

He opened his mouth to say hello when he actually saw her. When it hit him, making his heart freeze in a block of ice. Old pain flared up as he looked at her.

“Hello Theo,” Kayden said meekly, unsure of herself.

It took Theo another moment, but he launched himself into her, hugging her as tight as he could. He would have been sure that he was crushing her, but she was hugging him back just as fiercely. 23 years was a long, long time. The cold outside didn’t matter. All that mattered was the hug.

When they finally parted, she had tears in her eyes as she looked up at him. “Are you…?”

Right, his feet were freezing. He hadn’t put on shoes or socks. “I, uh… Yeah. Come in, come in.” He practically hauled her inside, closing the door behind him. “Sorry, I, uh…”

She laughed weakly, clasping her hands. “It’s okay. I’m a little…” She let go of her hands, and clasped them together again. “I’m overwhelmed, too. When I got out, and they told me about everything that happened, they didn’t know if you’d survived or not. I just found out…”

Theo ran a hand through his hair. “I… I… How did you get out?” He wasn’t a big player like most of the other people in the Wardens. It had taken him a long time to recover, and his requests to have Valkyrie help the people trapped by Gray Boy hadn’t gone very far.

Kayden smiled in surprise. “You don’t know? There were reporters and everything not too long after we were freed. Relentless did it.”

“Ah. Relentless.” He sighed. “Sorry, there’s been a bit of a commotion lately, and I haven’t had a chance to keep up to date on the whole Relentless thing for the past few months.” Since the initial reports, to be honest. He knew that there was a lot going on there, and that they’d not only conquered Fyrtorn but created something about a legion, but beyond that…

“If I would have known, I would have dropped everything, I swear.”

“It’s… It’s okay.” She smiled weakly at him, paused for the briefest moment, and then smiled again.

Years of therapy, of sitting and watching the howling and the tears, the murmuring to herself, of everything that Theo thought that he’d come to grips with came flooding back. Not quite as a flashback, no. He wasn’t seeing the moment in question in his head, but he was experiencing the same emotions that he had back at that fateful day.

He took a slow breath, focusing on his anchor from that time; that dog. He wished that he knew its name, but he remembered that moment perfectly. Bitch might have not been a good person by most people’s measures, but he would forever remember her fondly for that one moment of kindness. Funny how those things worked.

It was the way that Kayden repeated her motions that had taken him back. The loops. Relentless had rescued her from Gray Boy’s bubble, but had something gone wrong? Or was it that she’d just spent so long repeating the same moment in time that repeating herself was second nature?

Did it matter?

Nervously, she turned, looking at the pictures on the wall. “Is that your daughter?”

Shit. Now he was feeling like an asshole. “Yeah. Her, uh… We named her Aster.”

Kayden’s smile turned bitter. “Thank you. I’ve… actually known for a few days now.” She looked back at him, tears in her eyes. “Relentless knew that you survived, but he made me wait until he knew about everyone else. He actually ordered me to come, if you can believe it.”

Theo smiled a little, as much as he could manage. “So, you’re working for him now? You know that he’s…” Stupid. He shouldn’t have brought that up.

“I know. I…” She laughed, though it was strained. Probably just the stress of the situation. “Some things don’t change, Theo, as much as you might like them to. And they worship him so much, you have no idea. Just because his lineage is so messed up, though, doesn’t mean that I’m not in his debt. He saved me, after all.

“He needs people like me, Theo. Someone to watch him like a hawk, to make sure that the power doesn’t go to his head and make sure that he keeps on the straight and narrow. Who better than me? And until then, so long as he uses us the way that he says he will… The world’s somehow even more messed up than before. Someone has to draw the line.”

Maybe it was too much to hope for progress, but at least her heart was in the right place. Even if he thought it would all end in tears, at least she was trying to do the right thing instead of the twisted thing. “What do you think of him?”

She snorted. “You and me, we understand, but the kids? They ask why he wears the face paint, why he acts the way that he does. He’s a proper cape. Troubled, and in a position where everyone is either idolizing him or eyeing him with suspicion, but I’ve seen worse.”

“You’ve seen Leet,” Theo joked. They both got a tiny chuckle out of that.

“Still… He’s magnificent in ways that I can’t describe. Those people that worship him? I’m not sure if he’s playing it up or trying not to upset them too much, but he’s doing it so well that I can almost buy into it. Almost.”

Theo couldn’t think of anything else to say, and apparently she couldn’t, either. After a moment, she turned back to the pictures. “Is that her mother?”

He nodded. “Ava. We laugh about her name now sometimes. Ava Anders.”

Kayden laughed, but it didn’t last. The laughter turned to an uncontrollable shaking of her shoulders as she turned back to him, tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry…”

Theo’s eyes went wide. He wasn’t good at comforting people, but at least he could hug her.

“I was a terrible mother,” she sobbed into his chest. “You did everything that you could for me, but even after your father died, you were always an afterthought. I didn’t realize it until after we left you behind, and then…

“Twenty years is so long. And the others are out, but Justin is so broken, and the others are… Well, they’re bad. And all that I could see for twenty years was that same moment, looped over and over, but I spent so much time thinking. It’s all my fault. Maybe if I would have treated you better, equipped you better, taught you better, you could have… Could have…”

“Shhh,” he whispered. “Shhh. It’s alright Everything is alright.”

“It’s not fair.”

“Little is.”

She hiccupped against his chest. “You’re not allowed to be more mature than me.”

Theo thought about it for a moment. “Well, I am arguably older than you now.”

He wasn’t sure if that earned him a laugh or a sob. Somehow, though, he had the feeling that they’d pull through this just fine.


“We’re not budging on salvage rights,” Archimedes growled. “We’re a charity, but we aren’t going to bleed ourselves dry on this.”

Alloy resisted the urge to smirk as Chevalier rubbed at his temple. The poor man was having a rough time with this. “Please, see it from the outside view. You look like a bunch of violent scavengers.”

Mrs. Inmann jumped in quickly. “If a settlement gets attacked, by the way that you’re wording it, you get to lay claim to everything in the settlement. There’s no way that we can support this!”

“That isn’t what they’re intending at all,” Tattletale mused. “However, I do agree that the wording is a little ambiguous.”

Ah, things were finally at the point that they needed to be. Alloy’s power brought two items together in interesting ways, often in ways that wouldn’t make sense to people. At its prime, it could combine a traffic flashlight and a toy collapsible sword into something that was akin to a glowing, collapsible sword worthy of combat after only four hours. Or a laser pointer and a taser into a device that created an ionized beam of air that allowed one to shoot electricity down. He could then take the two things and make an item that combined elements of each to create something comparable to a lightsaber.

That device had taken him a total of twenty hours to make back when he was in his twenties. Now? Now it would take days.

The bulk of the time wasn’t the fusion. No, that took but a moment. Instead, it was the time spent allowing his power to analyze the two items, figuring out how to combine them and what properties to transfer. It was a little faster when he let the power itself decide how they would combine, but he could control it.

In a flash, the elastic and palladium altered in his hand, forming into a spool of elastic that had all the properties of the metal. It sounded so simple, but Tinkers back home gobbled it up. And with that, it was his opportunity to make his move.

“A simple solution is to include a clause which dictates that salvage rights are viable so long as they do not cause undue changes to the quality of life for the impacted people by those affected by the combat. Likewise…” He turned his attention to the politician from one of the United States. He wasn’t sure which one offhand, since there were three different groups claiming that name here. “Including another clause stating that personal effects should be returned to the next of kin.”

The politician nodded. “I can agree to that.”

“As can we,” Relentless said firmly. “Archimedes?”

“Yeah, that’s perfectly fair. That way, we can still recoup resources spent, beyond the people who might die in combat, but the precious snowflakes can still feel secure.” He jotted down a few notes.

“My next big concern is criminals,” Chevalier announced. “I understand that you’re offering a safe haven so long as they agree to be part of your so-called expendable army, but I think that everyone here can agree that having known criminal elements run around without supervision could easily lead to a situation where they come here to avoid the law, and then leave at their first available opportunity.”

“I made a promise,” Relentless said firmly.

“And we respect that,” Brigadier General Gill said, smoothing his rather long beard with a hand. “I think that we can all agree that we don’t wish for you to go back on that promise, however, perhaps a more well-defined minimum service period depending on their crimes would be in order.”

“That’s a tall order for one day,” Archimedes mused. “But I see the logic in it. Relentless?”

“I’m uncomfortable with it,” he admitted.

“Perhaps I can make it more appealing,” Gill added, making Alloy fight not to wince. Relentless was going to capitulate despite his discomfort. Gill was playing his hand too much. “Should the Dragon’s Teeth put criminals to trial whose crimes, or honest personal guilt over their actions, would make their sentencing unduly harsh, we might be able to come to an arrangement where we offer them the chance to instead serve with you.

“We can claim to victims that justice is being served because those who accept such an arrangement would be facing situations where they might very well be meeting their ends. For them, it would mean a lack of prison sentence, and enjoying a better quality of day-to-day life.”

Ah, and he didn’t actually tip his hand at all! He was trying to avoid overpopulation in prisons. Clever.

Alloy turned his attention to the American representatives and Chevalier. “I would have to meet with the rest of the council, but I think that we’d be perfectly content with this.”

Chevalier nodded slowly. “I think that it’s safe to say that we all would need to discuss it. We’ll add this to the table of things to discuss again at our next session, but I’m tentatively going to say that I’m in favor of it.”

There were nods all around from those in a position to make decisions like that. Tattletale looked perfectly content with it, which wasn’t surprising. In a weird way, Alloy got the impression that despite how little she added outside of being a Devil’s advocate, she had a lot at stake in this meeting.

“Then I gots something,” Mr. Lindt said. He was, sadly, about what Alloy expected from the boy, though with a few surprises. The shirt and slacks that he wore looked like a hastily-made attempts to look professional with whatever the Sons of Bitch had on hand, and showed off his tattoos and scars a little more than they were obviously meant to. He hadn’t bothered to remove his piercings, either.

On the other hand, it was a decent representation of his organization. Rough and cobbled together.

“So, I know that you all gots your shrinks, but you’re spread pretty thin. You wasn’t expecting so many Fyrtorn folks to live, and I get that. While we was waiting for the show to start, I asked one of ‘em, and they told me they ain’t got no pets.

“So, here’s what I’m willin’ ta bargain with ya. If’n you’re sendin’ people out as if they’re expendable, then they’re gonna come back with some baggage, yeah? First off, we’re willin’ ta give ya some therapy dogs, mebbe for a dog park or somethin’. People feelin’ the weight, they can go there ta relax and sh… Stuff. Second, we got a lotta therapists and junk. If the weight’s gettin’ ta people, you send ‘em ta us fer a bit. We help ‘em work through the baggage, or try an’ give ‘em tools fer it, then send ‘em back.

“In exchange… Ya said that we could call on ya ta handle any non-political threats that we didn’t feel comfortable with, or ain’t got jurisdiction or whatever. That’s fine, and I ain’t gonna argue that, but I think that we should have an open exchange. One a us calls on ya, or ya head out on yer own, ya at least gotta drop us a line and let us know before you do, yeah?”

The boy was making an offer that all of them would benefit from. Interesting, and Alloy could already see the political ploy beyond the simple offer. Mr. Lindt was craftier than he looked.

Relentless leaned back in his chair, his painted face frowning in thought. Almost instantly, the rep from the Orphanage spoke up. “I’m in agreement with this, however, in the interest of fairness, I believe that everyone who wishes to get these reports offer something in exchange. How are Second Chance’s textiles?”

“Thin,” Archimedes admitted. “They all wear that same damn outfit, and there aren’t really any options for anything else, outside of some armor.”

“Then we’re willing to offer some new options in exchange for this information exchange. I’d need to check and see on the specifics…”

Alloy nodded. “I’m hesitant to offer materials, but if you were wanting to establish a trade agreement, I could see about getting you a discount on the tariffs.”

“Lumber,” one of the representatives from the Americas added quickly. “I saw that the forests are a good distance from here. We’re willing to establish a shipment of lumber in exchange for this.”

As others began to make offerings, Alloy smiled to himself. This was a rather clever show of support for Relentless, while also playing the paranoia of the others against them. Many of the groups here had some level of distrust against each other, and would want to offer something unique that the others weren’t providing to make sure that the Relentless Legion weren’t used as a tool of war. They had access to both the warriors and the technology that had made Fyrtorn so effective, so there was a quiet undercurrent of fear there. If one person made an offer like that, then they were compelled to do the same, else they lose favor in this alliance and run the risk of being attacked.

Once everyone made their offers, Relentless nodded. “Talk to your individual governments and work out the details. However, I’m tentatively in agreement. I do want to make it clear, though — in an emergency situation, we need to respond quickly.”

“I’m down,” Mr. Lindt said with a nod and a lopsided grin.

Relentless clapped his hands against the arms of his chair. “Excellent. I feel like this was very productive.” Liar. He hated every moment of it and wanted to be off doing anything else, but he was making an effort to be diplomatic. He seemed like the sort who hated politics, and hated negotiations more than anything. “That said, I think that we’re at the point where we should stop until the next meeting.”

Archimedes turned his attention to the female US representative. “While we ultimately shot down your request for us to pay our people, I still think that you’re right. It’s just not feasible at this moment. If you, or anyone, could bring a proposal to turn this from a theocratic socialist dictatorship, as you put it, into something that’s easy to put you at ease, I’d appreciate it. However, we currently don’t have an economy at all. Any proposals to turn that around, in a way that won’t cause revolution from the cultists, would be wonderful.”

“I’ll see what we can do,” she said. Alloy made a point to do the same. Surely, they had a Thinker who would love to sink their teeth into that.

“For now,” Relentless stressed, taking control again, “I think that we should draw it to a close. We’ve been at it for hours, and we have a lot to think about. Let us see what we can do, get a better gauge of our changing situation, and then we’ll contact all of you to arrange a date for another meeting. Dragon? Can you make sure that everyone gets a copy of the transcripts from this meeting?”

The monitor that displayed the AI’s face nodded. “Of course.”

Alloy already had the transcripts, thanks to his glasses, but he was still appreciative of the gesture.

As everyone stood to either make their leave or talk to others, Mrs. Inmann leaned over to whisper to Alloy. “I think that went well.”

In the four and a half hours that they’d been here, there had only been two arguments, and only one had yelling, which made it far better than any council meeting back at Twain. He credited that to Relentless — the man had a presence about him that made people just listen when he spoke. At least, Alloy did.

It was still a mess, however. Nobody here had fully known what would be discussed or what anyone wanted exactly. Relentless had experience with contract negotiation but hated it, and Archimedes was a smooth snake when he wanted to be, but ultimately had no experience in this area. There hadn’t been any form of structure at all.

Next time, people would be more equipped with their own agendas. Relentless looked drained from this outing, but it would only be worse the next time.

“Better than expected,” he mused quietly. “But we also have a lot of work to do. If I assign you to dealing with Second Chance permanently, it may mean regularly traveling here, either a day trip or for extended periods. I need someone to understand this place, the culture that is developing here, and who can assist me when we have these meetings. Can you handle that?”

She nodded once. “Yeah. Come to visit, try not to get weirded out, file reports, help in negotiations. Kind of different from what I have been doing, but I can do it.”

“Especially with a raise, I’d think.” That got her to look at him in surprise. “Your job duties are expanding, the pressure for performance is raising, especially with what we talked about before, and so I wouldn’t dream of asking you to do this on your current pittance.”

She smiled widely. “Thank you!”

He gave her a warm smile back. She wasn’t paid as well as she should have been for the work that she did, simply because she wasn’t triggered. But people like her were a vital cog in the machine of Twain. Alloy accepted that his back might be against the wall when the revolution came, but the least that he could do was help people like her until then.

Everyone had a place, a role to play. And he would help them find it.

Gehenna 15.1

As reality changed around us, my entire lower body exploded into pain, making me plant the butt of my spear into the ground to support myself and almost dropping the bottle in my other hand. Immediately, Sagittarius grabbed me, helping to support me. Which was good — the way that it radiated from my core down to my one remaining toe made it hard to stand. Even worse was that I could feel another tendril form towards my solar plexus. I was used to pain, and while this was different, I’d get used to it, too.

“Jordan?” she asked, a tone of fear in her voice.

“Relentless,” I snarled through the pain. “As long as I have… the armor on, I’m Relentless.” Forever, for the rest of my life, I’d be Relentless. I had to be.

Saving so many of the residents for Second Chance was a good thing, but it came with certain disadvantages. If some of them might not ever be able to be deprogrammed, they’d need their figurehead god for the rest of their days. Which was… complicated. Even with Marcus’ last great request, I had expected splintering, either from the faithful or the people we’d brought. So far, it hadn’t happened.

And over fifty people of my number had chosen to stay, most of them volunteers or criminals. More had said that they’d return, but they had other obligations to tend to first. At least, so Sagittarius told me. It was a good sign, but not enough. Counting the faithful, I now had the fourth-largest dedicated fighting force in North America. I needed to push that up a little bit, at least tie for third. I needed more untriggered to pull off what I wanted.

As the pain began to subside, I straightened myself, blinking the pain away. Sagittarius rubbed my back, her posture showing concern. “Are you okay?”

Concern. Drawing conclusions. Drawing associations. The indigestion, the fight, the pain. I could use that. I hated to lie to her like this, but she had lied to me when they’d first recruited me. And they had tried so hard to teach me how to lie. How to con.

“Fine,” I made out, sucking in a slow breath. “I suppose it’s time to fess up.

“You know that indigestion? It’s not that. It’s pretty rare, but apparently, some people can contract something called teleporting sickness. More, uh, more of an allergy, really. Travelling between realities causes some issues. Not… Not immediately lethal, but, you know…”

I shrugged a shoulder. “Given enough interdimensional teleports, it might.”

Sagittarius shook her head ever so slightly. “How did you… You didn’t–”

“I didn’t go to Mother’s Hospital, no. But my doctor got in touch with them. It’s pretty rare, and it isn’t really understood. There’s no treatment, no cure. It’s why I’ve been trying to keep the teleports to a minimum. And part of the reason why I wanted to do this. So that I could do some good before…” I let the words hang in the air, letting her draw the conclusions. Another lesson they’d taught me.

Sagittarius took a step back, shaking her head ever so slightly. “Then… Then it’s done. After we go back, you aren’t going anywhere from that point on. We’ll see if Dragon can make more comms units like are in our suits and–”

“No go. We have that meeting later this week, we’ll have other meetings, we’ll have other jobs… There’s too much that demands my presence away from Second Chance right now. I just… I just have to weather it and keep the teleports to a minimum.”


“We can discuss it later. Come on, Nexus and the investors are waiting for us.” I was honestly just stalling. I didn’t want to talk about it. The fewer lies that I had to tell, the better it would be for everyone involved.

“Right.” She sighed. “Honestly, you should have…”

I blinked at her. She’d just stopped and was staring at me. I waited a moment before asking, “I should have what?”

She sighed. “Petit mal.” Oh. Right. “You should have brought… Have brought Archimedes. The crazies know me as your second in command. It would have made things easier if things went wrong.”

Oh. I… I hadn’t considered that. That was an excellent point. I forced my feet into walking. “Well… We’ll keep that in mind for next time. Honestly, though, you seem more lenient towards Nexus than he is. They have this weird subtle undercurrent of antagonism between each other that I can’t put my finger on.”

She snorted without any mirth. “Yeah, that’s one way of putting it. He tolerates Nexus, but doesn’t like the idea of anyone knowing who he really is. If the Wardens know, like Valkyrie suggested after the Simurgh, I’m guessing that he thinks Nexus knows. That’s even before all the usual suspicions and paranoia.”

Fair enough. I could honestly respect that. Caution was important, after all, and I was glad that someone was exercising it.

It didn’t take much longer for us to arrive at the front door. I didn’t bother to knock. If they didn’t hear us entering the foyer, then something was seriously wrong. I switched to thermal as we stepped inside, showing five people in the sitting room, only one of whom was getting to their feet. Yeah, nothing to be paranoid about. The only thermal signatures outside were animals, so I wasn’t worried. Still, as I reached for the door to the sitting room, I set my sensors to alert me if there was an energy spike. It’d drain power, but that wouldn’t be a problem.

Immediately, the four that hadn’t already stood got to their feet. I recognized Nexus, his bodyguard and secretary. It took a moment for me to place the other woman present — Miss Willbourn herself. Unexpected, but not surprising in many ways. The last man, a Hispanic gentleman, was a complete unknown to me.

“Relentless,” Nexus said in a broad grin. “Come in, come in, have a seat. And Sagittarius, filling out that armor beautifully as always.”

“I brought a gift,” I said, offering him the bottle. “Fyrtorn mead.”

“Mead?” the Hispanic gentleman asked, curiously.

“Honey wine,” Sagittarius offered. “They drink the stuff by the gallon there.”

“It’s not actually honey,” I quickly clarified. “A byproduct of a para’s power, but it’s nearly indistinguishable from honey, and it ferments the same.”

The others seemed a little put off by that, but Nexus was already going for glasses. “I should have figured that they had something like this, but I never even considered it. You kind of just think of them as assholes in monks robes, spending all their time twirling their mustaches and thinking about how to fuck over the world. Figures that they’ve got, like, culture and stuff.”

Tattletale turned her attention to me as Nexus poured, offering me her hand. “I’d like to apologize for our last meeting. I understand that I came off as a bit… antagonistic.”

She was trying to ingratiate herself to me, get on my good side. She figured that I’d figured out something. That half of what she’d offered me so long ago had been set up by others. Most of what she’d given me but the questions and money were already in the works by others. She’d done the same again, twisting the situation to her own end, and was trying to cover in case I figured it out. And it clicked what it was.

“Forgiven. The Dragon’s Teeth were prepared to attack in case we failed in our assault. Nexus here had to keep you up to date in case things didn’t go well, and you fed that information to the Dragon’s Teeth. The plants in my organization didn’t have to report it the day before the attack, because you’d already kept them up to date.” More clicked into place as she blinked in surprise. “And the Wardens. The Dragon’s Teeth had the heads up from when Defiant and Dragon contacted them, arranging us to get those criminal volunteers, but the Wardens were alerted to our plans as well. Valkyrie inserted herself into our organization in that first group of criminals, all because of you.

I took her hand firmly. “Likewise forgiven. I’m glad to see that you and Nexus are getting along.”

Her lips pursed, but it was Nexus who answered as he started handing out glasses. “We aren’t. This is a business relationship only.”

“We have a long ways to go,” she clarified, “but it’s a start. I know that I have a lot of work to do to repair our relationship, and that I can fuck it up so easily. But just this much is more than I ever suspected that I’d have, or deserved.”

“Now you’re just sucking up,” he said bitterly, betraying the bright smile on his face. Instead, he turned to the third investor, a man with a far softer build than either of the other two. Too much food, too much laziness. “This is Isaías Lacasa.”

“I represent the Gimmel State of Mexico,” he said, offering me his hand. I knew that they did a lot of manufacturing and provided a lot of medical goods, but I wasn’t sure about the particulars. I did know that Scion’s rampage had destroyed Mexico, but that those who traveled to Gimmel had somehow transformed the region into something infinitely more stable than it had been before.

Strange that the great reset had been a good thing for some people.

“It’s a pleasure,” I said, taking Lacasa’s hand.

“The pleasure is mine,” he said in a thickly accented voice. “I assure you that I am grateful. I am sure that you have noticed how many people in Fyrtorn are from my region.”

I was glad that he wasn’t able to see me glaring at him through my helmet. Why were people making that sort of assumption? “Nope. I was there for a little more than ten hours, and even now in Second Chance, I don’t really pay attention to ethnicity unless I have to.”

He gave me a confused look, which made Nexus snort. “I warned you! Semantics are everything.”

Sagittarius nodded as she shook his hand. “We have to live the scenario that we’ve created, utterly and completely. Our squad refuse to call each other by name, even in private. We have to make the distinctions, because if we don’t, nobody else will.”

He smiled warmly as he lifted his glass. “That I can respect. Well, then, to Second Chance.”

“To Second Chance,” we chorused before taking a sip. I still didn’t like this stuff, but everyone else smiled.

“This is amazing,” Nexus said in appreciation.

Sagittarius lifted her faceplate, smiling. “Good. We’ll see if they can increase production and ship out to the three of you. We don’t have the most that we can export, but we’d like to help you recoup your investment as best we can. We understand that the three of you are business people at heart.”

Tattletale smiled. “Speaking of, shall we get to business, then?”

“Please,” I said firmly, still not lifting my faceplate. “There’s still so much that we have to do.”

We all settled down, everyone taking a few more sips of their alcohol.

It was Lacasa who spoke first. “So, you don’t have much in the way of exports?”

“That we’re aware of so far,” Sagittarius clarified. “We have thousands of people, and we have to cut through the religious bullshit in order to fully appreciate everything. We’re still slowly struggling through initial psychological assessments of all the residents, and that’s a top priority. It’s going to take time.”

“Any good word on that front?” Tattletale asked.

I shrugged a shoulder. “There’s good hope for the people who were still undergoing indoctrination. We hope that the majority of them will be back to a semblance of normalcy within the end of the year. For everyone else? We’re looking at years before we can clear them to leave.”

“If they ever can,” Sagittarius clarified. “The thing is, they’re fighting it. I’ll spare you the religious trappings, but anything that might cause doubt in their faith system causes them to double down on it, and they have some pretty tight bonds with each other to prevent doubt from taking root.

“Splitting them all up might help, if we could. Unfortunately, it’s also likely to cause them to turn violent at this point. Theirs is a warrior’s religion, idolizing the fact that they are superior. They’re struggling just to accept the changes that we’ve made, and that’s with the physical successor of their god giving those mandates. Maintaining peace is tricky at best, and neither the Dragon’s Teeth nor the Wardens are able to handle suddenly getting so many fanatical paras at once. Right now? Our best, and only, option is to just do it the hard way.”

“Fair,” Lacasa mused.

“That actually bring up something that I wanted to address,” Nexus said, eerily businesslike. I wasn’t used to seeing him so serious.

“All of us wanted to address,” Tattletale clarified. “We’ve already discussed this, even before you were able to keep so many live. We want an ethics committee formed from the outside.”

“Done,” I said without the slightest hesitation. “The three of you form your own committees, and we’ll rotate them through. We’ll do the same with the Wardens, Dragon’s Teeth, and anyone else who wants in. I don’t want the people stationed there to become complacent — I want them to have time in a normal location, to ensure that they see everything with clear eyes and not those that overlook things just because they’ve come to see it as normal.”

“We have nothing to hide,” Sagittarius said, more soothingly. “We want the world to see that transparency, and if that means that we have to have people constantly watching us to make sure that we behave on the level, so be it. However, before making hard rules about acceptable behavior, I’d like to urge simple observation for the time being. Find out what the baseline is, see if we’re encouraging any violations of basic civil rights as we try and make what progress we can, and then slowly institute any and all changes necessary.”

Lacasa looked surprised. “You’ve put some thought into this.”

“We have,” I confessed, “though we didn’t expect you to be the ones to stress it. We want to stress that Second Chance is just that, a second chance. But as they say, once bitten, twice shy. We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”

“I’d like to back up for a second,” Nexus said, pausing to sip his drink again. “The criminal portion. Tatts and I talked about this, and we’re kind of in agreement.”

She nodded once. “While we understand that you want to make it open for known criminals to have a second lease on life, we want you to establish a minimum service period before earning their freedom.” She must have seen my reaction with her power, because the corner of her mouth twitched upwards and her eyes came alive as she looked at me. “This is amusing, huh?”

“Darkly,” I admitted. “I’m sitting in front of two known criminals who have avoided serving time for their deeds, but want other criminals to serve time one way or another.”

“Three,” Lacasa confessed. “My father was in the cocaine trade even before Gold Morning. He died for it, but I turned his cartel into legally producing drugs.”

My mind made connections. Cocoa had been discovered to make malasotrin, a vital antibiotic, during the pre-Gold Morning tech boom. While fully reverse engineering Tinker technology was impossible, by studying their technology all sorts of more mundane discoveries had been made. I wasn’t sure how I knew this, which was odd, but I could worry about that later.

Nexus grinned a little. “Believe it or not, all of us do believe in justice, but that’s not the only reason. We’re thinking ahead on this. We’re all on board with your mission statement, doing what the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth can’t or won’t, but if everyone else isn’t on board, then we’re kinda SOL. And sure, we’re okay with you giving criminals an out. But will everyone else?”

I tapped a finger against my knee thoughtfully. He… made a depressingly good point. I was focused on making joining us desirable to them, but we hadn’t put much thought to the outside world.

“Can we have time?” Sagittarius asked for me. “We need to have some time to discuss it. This is something that I think is best described in the next time we meet with you, Miss Wilbourn.”
She looked between Nexus and Lacasa. “I’m fine with this. Nexus, would you be willing to keep the three of us in touch during that meeting? That way, we can have full input?”

“De nada. So long as I have input, I don’t mind. You?”

Lacasa nodded. “I can respect that. We’re asking you to change some of your plans, so I can appreciate discussion. However, I do have one concern.” I tilted my head a little. “I’d like to see your eyes, Relentless. It’s easier to talk about these things when I can see someone’s face.”

Fuck. I’d hoped to keep everything but my mouthguard closed to help prevent Tattletale from being able to get a read on me. Still, I had to play nice. I didn’t like negotiating, but I understood that it was a game of give and take, and one of trust as well. I couldn’t actually fault him.

He smiled as I raised my faceplate. “Thank you.”

“Alright,” Sagittarius said slowly. “We’ve covered the basics of our economic situation, ethics committee, and touched on how to handle criminals. What’s next?”

“Public relations,” Tattletale said firmly. “Very few know about my involvement, and we’ve worked hard to keep both Nexus’ and Mr. Lacasa’s involvements out of it.”

“My name wouldn’t cause any problems outside of Mexico Gimmel,” Lacasa confessed. “However, it could cause me all sorts of political issues back home. I knew this going in, but I also knew of your reputation, and if you could pull this off, I felt that it would be worth it. As it is, transferring the money to the cause was hard enough to do without raising suspicion. If it were to come out…”

I nodded once. “Of course. I have no problems keeping silent as to who invested in this project. There are a few that know Nexus — Defiant and Dragon, for example, but they can keep a secret. But it doesn’t do me–”

Relentless,” came Schrodinger’s panicked voice on the radio. “I tried to stop it, but the migraine slowed me down too much.

Fuck, just what I needed. I slammed down my faceplate and activated the comms with the eye tracking software. “What’s the matter?” Sagittarius quickly closed her own. Apparently it was being transmitted to the both of us.

They know you aren’t here and are panicking. I tried to follow the branch, but the pain…

“It’s alright,” I said quickly.

At the same time, Sagittarius opened her helmet. “We have to go. The issue with having a city of fanatics is that they’re fanatics.” She pointed at Tattletale. “Archimedes will brief you on what happened when he makes the rounds to confirm the next meeting.”

Perfect. “We’re on our way. Expect us in five.”

You have ten, but you usually get here before then.

“Is everything alright?” Nexus asked. Funny, this was the first time that I’d ever seen him look genuinely worried.

“It’s fine,” Tattletale said. “Urgent, but fine. Go. Handle your cult. If you need our help, we’ll stick around for the next hour or so.”

She didn’t say it, but I could hear it in the back of my mind. Sagittarius’ exasperated growl of Fucking Thinkers. And for once, I kind of agreed with her.

Already we were on our feet and heading to the door. Most likely, Lacasa would ask if we were always like this, leaving without saying goodbye. Nexus would laugh, or at least chuckle, and Tattletale would explain that we were taking priorities. We were people with a mission, and keeping things from melting down because I wasn’t there took priorities over being polite. That I could be very polite when I needed to, but whatever task occupied my attention consumed me.

At least, that’s what I liked to think as we cleared the building.

Sagittarius spoke over the radio to me as we moved to the safe distance to teleport out. “Are you going to be alright when we teleport back?”

The answer, of course, was no. “I’m going to stand there, feigning righteous fury until I can move naturally again. Then we’re going to find the problem and put a stop to it.” It was a simple plan, a vague one, but sometimes those were the best plans. Naturally, I hated them.

Sagittarius, though, was one step ahead of me. “Yeah, but this incident is perfect for us. I don’t want you teleporting any more than you have to.”

“It’s only between dimensions,” I reminded her. “In-dimensional teleportation–”

“And I don’t care. Listen, if those people are going to go into a tizzy whenever you leave? Then we make people come to us. We have a legit excuse now, and it keeps you healthy. I’ll get Archimedes on it immediately, but we aren’t telling him about your health… allergy… thing. There’s no telling how he’ll blow his top.”

As we reached the spot, I looked at her. “I am so glad that I have you with me,” I whispered. And I meant it, too. Without someone like her, like all of them, supporting me, this wouldn’t have been possible. Only a group of experienced con artists like this, who could plan out something but also act on the fly with perfect unity, could pull this off, doing all the things that I couldn’t.

I couldn’t have asked for better friends. And that caused a dull ache inside.

She snorted. “If you weren’t wearing your helmet, I’d ruffle your hair.”

We spent a few prescious seconds just smiling at each other under our helmets before I hit the button on my teleporter, wracking my body with pain.

It was easier to just lock up. Stand rigid and wait through the feeling like my lower body was being torn into a thousand pieces and put back together. There were plenty of teleportation methods that felt like that, but for obvious reasons, people avoided them.

I was dimly aware of Sagittarius talking as all my effort was placed on keeping my stance just right that the slight tremble of my hand and the way that I leaned on my spear could be taken as rage.

Soon enough, it passed, and I turned to look at her. “Where?” I snarled.

“One of the secondary temples, to the east. It’s a good two miles–”

I whipped around, looking at one of the fanatics who was trying very, very hard to look at the ground and not at me. “I need to get there. Now.”

He was suddenly starting to sweat, his eyes going wide. “I-I… I don’t know… I mean… Can’t you do it yourself, my Lord?”

Right. Because I was supposed to be as powerful as Krigarguden. Great. Brilliant. I didn’t want to appear weak in front of him.

Once again, Sagittarius came to my rescue, by getting up in the guy’s face. “Excuse me?! He’s trying to show everyone here that we must stand together, even through these confusing times! He could use the great power at his fingertips, or if he was trying not to show off, like he was before, he could use his teleporter. But no! He wants us to work together!”

She looked around. “Let it be known! We need a Mover who can get us there, and show that even in the event that Relentless is not here, we stand, we move… As one! One unified people!”

Surprisingly, there were people nodding with her, and not just the fanatics. I recognized one of those who stayed, squaring her jaw in agreement. Weird.

There was a streak, and a man appeared nearby, instantly putting a fist to his chest and looking like he wasn’t sure if he should just bow his head or fall to one knee. “My Lord Relentless. I am summoned?”

He could carry a good twenty of us where we needed to go. It wasn’t teleportation exactly, nor was it a traditional density manipulation Mover power. It more like skimming the surface between realities to move quickly. Excellent.

I began pointing, making sure to point at the doubter first. “You, you, you three, you two, you, and you, join Sagittarius and I as this fine fellow takes us to the eastern temple.” I looked at the Mover. “If you will.”

“Of course, my Lord.” As soon as everyone was in position, the world blurred, and a lesser pain filled my lower body, on par with when I thought it was merely indigestion. That discomfort was fine. I could ignore that, especially since it only lasted a moment. I could use that, channel it into anger.

I didn’t have time to contemplate it, though. As soon as we arrived, we found ourselves in the midst of a crowd of a hundred or so, almost all of them looking upset. The only one who didn’t was one of my volunteers, who instead of wearing the Tinker cloth armor and helm was wearing leather gear made up to look like the rest of ours. Interesting. For a moment, just long enough for me to take in our surroundings, everything held in place. A minor time slowing effect. Useful.

And then it broke. One man was talking, but was cut off in mid-word as he recognized our arrival. All that I could get was that he’d been using an angry tone. That wasn’t the telling part, though.

The telling part was that they all suddenly looked scared as they turned their gaze at me, like they could feel the anger rippling off of me. The anger that channeled into my voice as I called out, “What is going on?!”

There were shrieks of fear as people fell to a knee. I stood there, fuming, until finally one man managed to stutter a reply.

“M-my Lord, w-we… We thought that y-you had ab-bandoned us…”

I looked around the room, at everyone kneeling in fear as I flipped up my faceplate. It wasn’t them that caught my attention, though. It was a throne-like seat behind the alter. Right. I passed my spear to Sagittarius as I marched past everyone, heading straight for that throne. Thankfully, it wasn’t bolted down. It wasn’t even all that heavy, despite being made of thick wood and looking like it was inlaid with gold and gems. It wasn’t light, but I honestly expected it to be heavier as I picked it up and carried it back.

Setting it down in the middle if the aisle, I plopped my ass down and looked around. Everyone except Sagittarius and one of the volunteers who had stayed were still on their knees. Brilliant. “Get up,” I said struggling to get a calm tone to my voice. “Have a seat. I want to have a chat.”

I waited patiently as everyone filed into various pews, even the volunteer. Thankfully, Sagittarius moved to my side, just slightly behind me. Once everyone was seated, I forced myself to smile at all of them. “Did you love Krigarguden?”

Nobody said anything. The dissenters weren’t even looking at me. That made things more difficult. At least there was nodding. I could work with that.

“Alright. Do you love each other?”

“Almost as much as they loved Krigarguden,” the volunteer offered, her voice hesitant.

Good. It was true, according to the shrinks. They said that the love might not be physical, but everyone was encouraged into some sort of group love thing that I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around. But there was more nodding.

“Right. Of course you do! And some of you are worried. So much is changing. So much! And I understand that. But we must love each other, and part of love is support. We must support each other in these trying times. And so, as Krigarguden’s successor, I wanna know… What’s bothering you? Not me abandoning you, but what’s really bothering you?”

The silence was deafening. Right now, I could tell what was scaring them with the possibility of my wrath, my displeasure. They’d imprinted on me, for lack of a better term, to fill the void that had been left in Krigarguden’s wake.

It took minutes for one of them to speak up. “There has been no service since the night of his death.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “Ah. I had hoped that all of you would understand why there hasn’t been a service.

“The old high priests are dead because they abused their position, and abused Krigarguden’s grace. I must choose the next high priests carefully, to ensure that nobody ever again abuses you. But I had other hopes. Mourning is a terrible thing. I know that all of you have gone to see his interred remains. But I hoped that you all would talk to each other. To mourn in your own special ways.

“I don’t know how Krigarguden allowed you all to mourn, and should I tell you how, I don’t think that it would be appropriate. So long as you don’t leave, I think that you should find your own ways of mourning. Should there be a celebration of his life? Should there be days of quiet meditation and fasting? Should there be lengthy speeches?”

I looked at one woman. “How would you like to mourn?”

She hesitated for a moment. “By… By killing the unworthy, Lord Relentless.”

Yeah, which meant killing untriggered people. I sighed softly. “What if I were to tell you that Krigarguden had a dream? A dream that he was afraid to tell you about?”

That got everyone’s interest.

“He was afraid that you would have trouble accepting it, which would mean that he would become displeased. And he didn’t want to focus his displeasure on you. And so he kept it a secret, written only in his private journal. A journal that, as his successor, I have spent my time absorbing.”

Pure bullshit, but it sounded nice, and they seemed to be gobbling it up.

“He didn’t want there to be any unworthy. He named this place Fyrtorn, quietly hoping that all would come here, both the worthy and unworthy, to stand as equals. But the time wasn’t right. He didn’t think that you were strong enough. And while I believe that you are confused and afraid, I think that you are. I think that it will be uncomfortable, but that you will find that deep down, his strength is in you. My strength is in you. That’s why I might not seem worthy at times, because I have given all of you my strength.

“I mourn him by taking steps to see his vision come about. Today, I left, not to abandon you, but to see his will done. I am reaching out to the world, to share our glory, our strength, and to call them to us. They did not understand the significance of our name, Fyrtorn, so I had to change the name to Second Chance, in order to give them something they could understand. I am calling them here, to join us.

“And, in time, I may call upon you to take out the monsters out there. The wildlings. The people who would seek another destruction of humanity. You will have to work alongside those that you once called unworthy, and I will ask you to elevate them to your level, despite their…” I struggled to remember the term they used. “Their lack of being empowered. Some of them will be put in positions of leadership, and I will trust you to tolerate it, because you are strong enough to do so.

“Because that’s what he secretly wanted. Unity, of all peoples, worthy and unworthy.”

Words failed me. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Yet again, Sagittarius saved me. She moved to a man in a nearby pew. “What bothers you?”

The man bit his lip. “That… That we let unworthy walk among us, but… Now I think… I think that I understand.”

“But are you strong enough?”

He pressed his lips together for a moment before nodding. “I have to be, don’t I?”

“Good. Now, what bothers you?”


We missed lunch, and dinner was drawing close by the time that everyone was filing out of the temple. My final order had been to tell everyone they knew about what we had discussed today. As they filed out and down the steps, I closed my helmet and screamed. I didn’t dare let them hear my frustration over the situation.

After what felt like an eternity, there were only three of us left — Sagittarius, myself, and the volunteer, who was studying me intently. Finally, once the scans told me it was safe, I opened my mouthguard again, jabbing a finger towards Sagittarius. “Get the shrinks to find someone, I don’t know who, but people to act as the priests and start weaning people off this bullshit religion. Then find people to watch those people for abuse of power. I fucking hate this!”

“You could have fooled me,” the volunteer said quietly from under her poorly-made helmet.

Now that I studied her, the colors of her leather armor were all wrong. It looked more like Fyrtorn colors. “Where’d you get that armor?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “I asked the locals.”

And that opened a possibility. If they could make leather armor that looked close to ours in just two days, then they could do so much more. I was going to need that. I might need that for ways to pay back our investors, too. I just wasn’t sure how to use it. Something to discuss later. There was so much to discuss.

“Take off your helm.” I quickly called up the facial recognition software, with everyone that we’d brought to Fyrtorn.

She didn’t show up in that list, but I still got a hit. One of the rescues. I swallowed hard. Because of course the political bullshit wasn’t done yet. “Why are you here? You should be off… I dunno, living.”

Her face fell. “I… I don’t have anywhere else to go. I don’t…” She ran her bottom lip between her teeth before shaking her head. “I don’t have anyone. And I don’t understand everything that’s going on. So, I thought, why not follow the man who saved me? I owe you, and I pay my debts.”

Didn’t have anyone? Didn’t someone tell her?!

Later. I had other concerns. “I… Are you comfortable working for me?”

Her brown eyes focused on me. “Would you have me?”

“That isn’t what I asked.”

She took a slow breath. “People like you… need someone to keep you in line. So long as I don’t think you’re abusing the way that these people worship you? Then you’re good. If not…” She let the words trail off in an unspoken threat of violence.

“Good.” I stood up. “That’s about the only answer that I wanted.”

She hesitated. “Will you take me? Even with how… broken I am?”

“You didn’t suicide when we released you. You didn’t even try. That puts you miles better than some, some of your own friends. So, no, I don’t think you’re broken. Damaged, sure, maybe not even well, but who is? So sure, I’ll take you. But the thing is, before that, I have a very specific mission that I need you to complete.”

Manananggal 14.14

As we walked the perimeter of Fyrtorn, I glanced at Archimedes. “I’ll be honest, I was surprised that you walked through the portal. Whatever happened to you only doing public relations?”

He chuckled nervously, shrugging one shoulder. “I dunno. I felt like I had to for some reason. Maybe it was just the surprise over it forming in front of me, in front of all of us. I don’t really know. Do you think it helped?”

Now it was my turn to shrug. “I have no fucking idea. It was Marcus’ idea and–”

Archimedes coughed. “Names.”

I sighed heavily. “I can use his real name with you, can’t I?”

“Sure. If we’re alone and some place private. Right now, we’ve got too many eyes on us.”
I looked around and sighed. Sure enough, there were plenty of residents watching us as we patrolled the perimeter. Apparently, Krigarguden had done this walk around the city much nightly as a show of force, that he could keep everyone here safe. Which explained nicely why he hadn’t been at the temple.

However, given how many untriggered were wandering around the city, armed and keeping a cautious eye on the residents, Archimedes had suggested that I keep as much in line with anything that Krigarguden would have done. Keeping the peace, he called it. And, while true, it was terribly annoying to say the least. The bullshit ritual that I’d had to stumble my way through, doing this patrol…

For the first time in a long, long time, all that I wanted to do was curl up in bed and sleep. I was exhausted.

“This is going to get old fast,” I grumbled quietly.

It earned a chuckle out of my companion. “That’s what you get for making everything go pear-shaped. My speech is completely ruined, by the way.”

“Then you’ll have to write a new one for me by morning, won’t you?”

By his posture, I could tell that he was amused by that. Slowly, though, he turned more serious. “Things are only going to get more complicated from here.”

“We always anticipated that,” I mused. “We knew that we’d need the shrinks, we knew that we’d have to play the political game as much as possible. That’s what you’re for, after all.” Archimedes put a bit of a swagger in his step at that. “Some of your dismissive remarks were good before, but with so many people looking at me as the next Krigarguden, it might not be such a smart idea.”

“One step ahead of you. I’ve already switched to singing your praises. So how’s it feel to be a god?”

“Now that I’m divine, I can expect to be as miserable as ever.” He laughed, but I wasn’t focusing on him. Another of our people, Bridget, was moving towards us. “Go on, get. It’s late, and you have a lot of work to do by morning.”

“Permission to nab Sagittarius for help?”


“Righty-oh!” Archimedes was practically skipping off. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what must have been going on in his head.

As Bridget drew close, I gave her a nod. Thankfully, she didn’t make me stop, falling into step next to me. “Final casualty report. Five of ours dead, forty-three of theirs. Another seventy wounded to various degrees, but they’re expected to make a full comeback.”

“Less than four percent,” I mused thoughtfully. There were undoubtedly less bloody coups before, but it was still impressive. “How does that make you feel?”

“We won, sir.”

I looked at her directly. “Are you sure that you didn’t want more to die.”

I couldn’t see her face under her helmet, but I watched her briefly recoil, before straightening to her full height. Power oozed out from her, and her voice took a far stronger tone. “When did you figure it out?”

“While talking with Mar… With Krigarguden. He claimed that his mother, the woman whose powers empowered him, was here and helped me. It wasn’t hard for me to start putting two and two together after that. It gave me something to think about during that damn ritual besides of how worried I was that I’d screw it up.

“I thought about all of the times that you could boost my particular skills. Minor Trump powers at work. You claimed that you didn’t have control, but it was always precision control. But if we weren’t standing on solid ground, you could never boost me. You took the time specifically to close Jack Slash’s eyes, despite him being responsible for the apocalypse.

“Despite not having any reason to know before then, you did know that the Dragon’s Teeth had plants among us. When I pointed out that we had Wardens as well, you grew quiet, but not conspicuously so. You were trying not to draw attention to yourself.

“During the battle, I kept having Krigarguden’s effect wiped from my head, my strength and durability were boosted, so on and so forth. All that he did was repair my armor. Combine that with your records, which made you to be the perfect kind of person for us to recruit, and it painted a very specific picture.

“So, tell me, Valkyrie, are you pleased with how things turned out?”

She laughed, a musical sound. “Well done. Most people would never have figured it out. And yes, as a matter of fact, I am. I honestly don’t mind not carrying more dead. I’m no longer the faerie queen.”

I snorted softly. “No matter how few people believe you.”

Her humor disappeared instantly. “You’re right,” Valkyrie said in a somber tone. “They don’t. When the Wardens first began, I was almost excited by the prospect of rocketing to the top. With my power, how couldn’t I? But amnesty only counts for so much, and no matter what, people would always remember me as Glastig Uaine.

“It’s these moments, these quiet few, that let me actually do things without people screaming about how I haven’t changed at all. How I’m just coming for their souls, or trying to hog all the glory for myself. Even though so many rely on the powers of my ghosts every day, Chevalier understands that I need to prove, if only to myself, that I’m doing the right thing. Besides, working undercover like this allows me to experience what others do. A good thing, for one of my position.”

Valkyrie glanced in my direction. “And what of you? What do you think of my deception?”

“If I would have known, I would’ve insisted that you stay back. Other than that? I don’t really care.” I took a slow breath. “What do you think about everything that I did? You were there from the start, when I got my first volunteers. What do you think about the way that I did everything?”

“I reported back that you were very fair. That you treated everyone as equals, and worked yourself harder than anyone else. That you gave no apparent desires beyond the ones that you stated, even though it isn’t true, is it?”

I nodded a little. “This was just a phase in my plan, yeah. There’s more, but you’ll find out…” A yawn escaped me. “…about it tom–”

I caught sight of a ghostly hand poking up out of the ground ever so briefly before I stepped through it, making me stumble in surprise.

In that moment, though, all of the tiredness and physical exhaustion fled me. I blinked several times, feeling a lot better with every passing second. “Neat trick.” Hiding her ghosts underground where nobody could see them. She’d let me see the hand.

She giggled, though I was guessing it was for my benefit. “Once, I’d never dream of using that particular individual. It was a waste. There is nothing so grand as waking up from a blissful sleep.”

Wait, she’d completely misread my comment.

“The first time that I began to use it… I had become a woman, for the first time in my life. No longer was my body that of a prepubescent child. At first, I thought nothing of it, until I came to realize that with it came certain… urges and desires. I had not grown up with these, so I was completely unprepared. I had never noticed a man or woman’s physique before, but there was one gentleman from Africa… His smile so wide, his dark skin almost appearing golden on occasion, and he was completely fearless of me.”

“You fell in love,” I mused.

“Love is, perhaps, too strong a word. I was… enamored, though, yes. I began to have dreams where he would appear in them. As silly as it sounds, I came to look forward to those dreams. Those dreams of… family, unlike I had ever experienced before.

“And then, one night, I awoke to find my ghosts standing there. They, especially Eidolon, had done something. I knew not what, but it terrified me. They had never done anything grand before, but somehow I knew that it had been something that I would find significant. I never did discover what it was, but… Well, it was the last time that I’d slept.

“The effect should last a month, perhaps more. You will need that time, I believe.”

“Thank you.” I meant it. Both for not having to sleep and for not droning on about the past for even longer. Why did old people do that, anyway?

“So,” she said, sounding musical again. “What is your plan from here?”

“Complicated. Tonight’s events have thrown aspects off. It’s going to be both easier and harder from here on out. And yeah, I’m going to capitalize on it, but not in the way that you think.” I paused, looking directly at one of the Fyrtorn people who were staring a little too hard. He quickly ducked his head bashfully. “Will you be here in the morning?”

“My post continues until you release the criminals that you have pressed into service.” Jesus, she sounded like John tried to sound. Thank goodness I only had to deal with Archimedes these days.

“Tomorrow. Tomorrow, this phase ends. You’ll find out what we have in store during that announcement. I expect that in a week, we’ll be inviting the Wardens, Dragon’s Teeth, and anyone else who wants in to make it official.”

“Excellent. Is there anything that you would like of me, before I am released from your service?” Did she have to sound so damn impish about that.

Still… “Yeah. Yeah, since we’re being honest with each other, there is. I need some extra work done on that shrine…”


Everyone seemed more than pleased about the ration of mead that came with breakfast. Some of the people from Fyrtorn told me that it was customary to have some with every meal. I wanted to stop that — alcohol should be a special occasion thing, not a daily thing. Not yet, though. First, it still was a special occasion. Krigarguden was dead, and now I was the new leader here. Second, changing their lives too drastically too quickly might cause them to rebel against my leadership.

Only the people who had trained under me, who had been prepared to die for the cause, were sitting in this hall. The mercenaries, volunteers, and criminal recruits. I’d asked everyone from Fyrtorn to leave. I’d have to address my plans to them with even more pomp and circumstance than with these people. Thankfully, they all hushed as I stepped up to the dais. I didn’t have to worry about shouting — I was told that the design meant that everyone here would hear my voice as clearly as if I were standing next to them.

I pushed up the faceplate of my helmet, looking among them. “Friends,” I said, trying to make myself sound as impressive as possible. “Comrades. Thank you, one and all. I know that it might not have seemed so, but each and every one of you contributed to the destruction of Krigarguden. He could see through any lie, and as I recited the names of those who were here to fight him, he knew that I was telling the truth. This, more than anything else, lead to his death.

“So the first drink! To all of us! To victory!”

“To victory!” was returned to me by all as they took a healthy gulp of the mead. I was told that it was delicious. To me it tasted like sweet ass. At least the lie was going over well. I felt… more than a little guilt over that.

As they lowered their drinks from their mouths, I called out again, even more firmly. “The second drink, to Torr Strauch, Carlin Dooley, Grazia Chaganty, Glyn Copeland, and Curt Giovannetti. They sacrificed themselves so that the rest of us might live. To the fallen!”

“To the fallen!” It was more somber, but no less heartfelt. They were buying into it. I had no idea how or why they were buying into everything, but they were.

“To the mercenaries. You’ve earned your pay. After breakfast, you are free to go if you so choose. I would like you to stay, but I’ve lived by the contract before, and I know what it’s like. Your work is done, and I cannot hold you any further. To the volunteers—you are free to go. I will forever hold you in the highest regard, because selflessly offering your services, your lives for the cause, cannot be anything but the greatest gift that anyone could give to the world. I thank you on behalf of humanity.

“To the criminals who joined for a reduced sentence. I offered you one of two eventualities: your freedom, or your body bag. Those of you here today? You’ve earned your freedom. But always remember: should you find yourself on the wrong side of the law again we will come for you, and we will not stop. So long as you don’t, we will always welcome you with open arms.”

I paused for a moment to look over everyone. It all became a blur of faces, with nobody in particular standing out. I couldn’t read the room in the slightest. I just had to hope that Archimedes’ hastily-written words were going to pay off.

“You see, I believe in second chances. Everyone deserves a second chance, no matter how badly we screwed up, how bad our history’s been. I believe in punishment, and I believe in justice, but I also believe that people can change. People can become more, better than they ever were. They just need the right environment, the right people to enforce those changes. The opportunity to bloom.

“Given time, even a den of monsters can change for the better.

“You see, the truth is that almost every man, woman, and child here in this city was duped. Even Krigarguden, set up as a false god for the masses—he, too, lived in a nest of lies that he didn’t create. Those people we killed last night? They built this cult, just to destroy the lives of others.”

I sneered, shaking my head. “They did not get a second chance. They wouldn’t have repented. They would have tried to use the situation to their own ends, wriggle out of justice. No, they got what they deserved.

“Everyone else, though… They’re as much victims as the people that they killed. They were brainwashed into believing that they were killing in the name of a man who didn’t even know what they were doing. Once they have been rehabilitated, perhaps then, they will deserve a second chance.

“As of today, Fyrtorn is no more! Forevermore, may this place be known… as Second Chance!”
A great cheer went up. I didn’t think that I was that good at public speaking. I mean, I barely passed that class.

“Let all who wish to atone be welcome here. I will offer them what I offered you — redemption, or atonement by death. I will do what neither the Wardens nor the Dragon’s Teeth did. I will face the threats against humanity, no matter the place or dimension, those threats they cannot or will not. I will drive into the darkest hearts of the universe and cut them out.

“For too long, there has been a divide. Between para and untriggered. For too long, there has been a line in the sand that drove us apart, forced us to take sides. Do you believe that paras are simply better than everyone else? Do you believe that they are dangerous, that they shouldn’t be trusted? I say neither. I say it doesn’t matter.

“Those who join this vision will be the vanguard. You will be the first to stand and fight, to make the world a better place. Those who join will be free. You will receive all that Second Chance can offer for the rest of their days.

“If you choose to stay, we will welcome you into the Relentless Legion.”

I swallowed, my throat feeling dry. I didn’t dare take a drink yet, though. I didn’t want to interrupt the flow like that. I did, however, take a softer tone, even smiling a little. The notes had said to be friendly.

“Of course, you’re also perfectly free to walk out of here after your meal. You’ve done your part. What I’m asking isn’t for everyone, and I know it. Living in a city filled with cultists, ex-cultists, even, won’t be easy. So really, no hard feelings if you go. We’ll have transport waiting for you.”

My comms beeped, but I ignored them for now. I had to focus; I was almost done. Instead, I put steel in my voice again, growing serious.

“I leave you now to enjoy your meals. The only thing left that I can say is… Thank you. Thank you all. Good day.”

With that, I turned and made my way off the dais, quickly snapping my helmet down to hide the shaking of my hands. As I walked to retrieve my spear, I looked and blinked to open the waiting comms line. “Yes?”

A voice that I didn’t recognize spoke in a panicked tone. “There’s a bunch of craft on the inbound, claiming to be Dragon’s Teeth. Our anti-air isn’t working, and we only knew that they were coming because they radioed in to say–

“Relax,” I said, as soothingly as possible as I hurried out of the hall. “I… kind of expected this.” Just not so soon. “Direct them to land in the courtyard of the main temple. Spread the word, Relentless commands that all be polite and friendly to them.”

She didn’t say anything. Crap. I wasn’t sure… Right, press the religious angle.

“Let us show the glory of our people, not through action, but by the fact that we can tolerate their presence. We will prepare our mead to share with them, so that they may see that we produce the best in the world, and let them gaze upon our glory.”

Y-yes, Krigar… Relentless. I’ll let them know, and spread the word.

I hadn’t made it more than twenty yards when the transport craft began to fly overhead. Five of them, seriously? I sighed and hurried. I couldn’t sprint, that would be unsightly, but I could move fast. I had to watch myself with the cultists. The shrinks were still coming in, but it would take time before each individual had gotten even one visit with them. Until they were better, I’d have to appease their beliefs.

By the time that I made it to the courtyard, the craft had already unloaded, and the atmosphere was heavy. The cultists were accepting of my people for some reason, but they seemed to be tolerating the Dragon’s Teeth with clenched teeth. Meanwhile, the D.T. seemed to be unsure if they should lash out or not.

There were troopers, but most of the people there were in dress uniform. And in their forties.

Oh. Oh! Now things were clicking into place. I slowed down a little, having a better idea of what to expect.

As I drew near, one bearded man with a prosthetic leg stepped forward to greet me. “Relentless.” He looked familiar. He sounded familiar. How did I know that he had a prosthetic… Oh, now I recognized him.

I popped open my mouth guard. “Commander Van Dorn. I would have appreciated more warning.”

He gave me a thin smile. “I tried, but holding people back was… difficult.” He took a breath. “I understand that Krigarguden is dead.”

When I spoke, I hoped that it was quiet enough that he could hear, and not the cultists. “I regret to inform you that you won’t find Krigarguden here. However, I did find Marcus Magnusson. It was regretful that he died last night, but he did die a heroes death, to make sure that Krigarguden’s reign came to an end. For his nobility and sacrifice, I had his body interred.”

I heard the tell-tale sound of Lacuna teleporting in behind me. I turned to find her, halberd in hand, with Sagittarius hurrying behind. I waited until my second in command arrived before speaking again. “Sagittarius, I believe that you remember Commander Van Dorn.”

“Yes, sir.” She lifted her visor, smiling at the man. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

“And you as well,” he said, a pained tone to his voice.

“Sagittarius, would you please take the Dragon’s Teeth to see Marcus Magnusson’s tomb, and explain just how he sacrificed himself for the good of everyone?” That was what they were here for. Magnusson was a hero to the Dragon’s Teeth. It cost me nothing to humor them, to ensure that he’d gotten a proper tomb, clad in the armor that he’d kept in his home. Valkyrie had seen to it that it would be glorious, and that he would be preserved for pretty much ever. She even reconstructed his head, which was a nice touch.

She pulled off her helmet, slightly smudging her sugar skull makeup in the process. “Of course. This way, Commander.”

I glanced, and saw a woman, clad in a Commander’s black dress uniform, standing separate to the other Dragon’s Teeth. I got the feeling that she wanted to talk, and that she would be one of the last to go up to see the tomb. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but I did.

I snagged Sagittarius’ helmet from her hands, nodding once. “Go ahead. I need to take care of something.” I turned to Lacuna. “Keep an eye on the locals. I trust that the Dragon’s Teeth will be on their best behavior, but I want to make absolutely sure that everyone else is, too.”

“Gotcha,” she said, flashing me a thumbs up.

“Oh, and they’ll be bringing mead. Make sure that it’s ready for everyone when they leave the temple.”

She repressed a small shudder, but moved quickly to point to a couple of tense cultists. “Oi! You two! I need a table, ASAP. A big one. And all the mugs that we can spare! I want it set up here, chop chop!”

Good. She had everything nicely under control. As Sagittarius began leading them up the steps of the temple, I made my way towards the woman. As I drew close, I held out the helmet. “You look like you want a private convo.”

She hesitated, but she took it, and carefully put it on. I had to help her figure out how to seal it, and I took that time to open a private channel to it. Thank you, Dragon, for having thought of such things in advance. I closed my mouthguard. “We should be fine, now. Nobody can hear us outside of the helmets.”

The woman, Commander Schluter by her uniform, nodded once. “I never knew Marcus, so I volunteered to talk with you as a favor for William. Sorry about coming like this, but we’ve been holding position since last night in case you failed, and needless to say, people were getting antsy.”

That was… something. I wasn’t sure how to take that. “Holding since last night?”

“Practically every assault and transport craft that we had was in position to get us here ASAP. If you failed, we were going to follow up. Begin by bombardment with everything that we’ve been stockpiling for such an event, then flybys with beams blazing as the transports got into position, dropping troopers to fight. One way or another, Fyrtorn was falling last night. I’m actually glad that we weren’t needed — fewer deaths is always a good thing. That means fewer places go unprotected.”

Interesting. Very, very interesting. “I see. Thank you.”

“You’ve had a rough twenty-four. How are you holding up, Relentless?”

How was I holding up? I wanted to laugh. “I have thousands of people treating me like a god. Trying to remember not to call me Krigarguden. I wish I liked mead, because they keep forcing it on me. I found out that Valkyrie’s been in my ranks this entire time, along with the other plants by the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth. And no, I’m fine with that. I get it. But I’ve been up all night, doing rituals and speeches and everything else. Trying to keep the peace, trying to keep going, trying to keep everything from unraveling too badly.

“But the worst part? The part that gets me the most?” My posture didn’t change, but I laughed bitterly. “I killed a good man last night. A man who wanted me to murder him so that things could be made right. And I don’t even know if I can make things right. To make it worthwhile to everyone who died in this. I… I honestly… How do I handle that? What do I do?”

Schluter was silent for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was sad. “Keep going. Try to do everything that you feel is right, learn from your mistakes, and try to do them justice. I oversee the recruitment of so many people, and every year, some of them die because they signed on. People who would have lived otherwise. I just have to keep the faith that they chose this, that they died believing that they were doing the right thing.

“You have to keep going, Relentless. Because if you ever stop, those ghosts catch up with you, and that’s something that’s destroyed better people than either one of us.”


“And there’s nothing of your life before?”

“Why should there be? It was hell, a living hell, in a wasteland of filth, paranoia, and separation from everyone around me. That’s what the outside world is. Why should I want that? Krigarguden always provided us with peace and unity, and I’m sure that the new Krigarguden will do the same.”

“Because he was your god?”

“Gods… Gods are figments of the imagination, created by feeble minds. Krigarguden was so much more than that! He was between a god and Scion. Scion reborn, but even moreso! Born into a divine form, reflecting the scarring of humanity, knowing only compassion and love for his chosen! You never knew him! You can’t know!”

“You sound like you knew him yourself.”

“…We met once. I… I was chosen to be offered up to him for the night. He was always so much more than real, but to be so close to him… I would have done anything in that moment. Anything, so gladly. But he looked upon me, and he saw that I normally… Anyone but him, I wouldn’t desire a man, but he was different. He was… He was Krigarguden!

“But he somehow knew it, and so he refused my flesh. Instead, he sat me down and talked with me. We spoke of… Of Gloria. And how I was trying to… How I was trying to be with her. And he spoke to me about love and the beauty of it and…! To have someone so divine as him, desire so simply to help a lowly creature like myself in a matter of the heart? Do you have any concept of how glorious of a moment that is?”

I muted the speaker, turning to Lacuna. “You’re taking an interest in this one?”

She nodded slowly. “I… I just don’t get it. I watched her kill one of them because you said to, and it hurt her so much. Because… I don’t know. I just don’t get it.”

I put a hand on her shoulder. It hurt so bad to see her torn up like this, but… I had no idea how to help her.

She looked away, sighing. “I tried to sleep last night, but all that I could see was her crying, moaning Krigarguden over and over. I don’t know… How long do you think before she starts to get better? Before she isn’t batshit anymore?”

I sighed. “Months. Years. Maybe longer. If we could devote one shrink to a handful of people it would be easier, but we just don’t have enough to go around like that. And… Well, they say that some people might not ever get better.”

Lacuna’s shoulder slumped. “It’s not fair. They didn’t choose this. And even if they did, they didn’t know what they were getting into.”

“No. No they didn’t.” I sighed. “Listen–”

I was cut off by the door opening. The woman stepped out, and the moment that she saw me, her face lit up in practically orgasmic delight. “Krig–” She crossed her arms over her chest, and lowered her head in reverence. “Forgive me. You requested that we call you Relentless.”

“You are forgiven,” I said, trying to sound… Well, godly. “Lacuna here tells me that you were… conflicted while carrying out your duty last night.”

The woman bit her lip for a moment before speaking. “Even before I felt your grace, Krigarguden requested that we treat you as he. When he spoke, we followed. You gave the order of who to strike down, and I did my duty.”

“Even though it hurt?”

She winced. “Forgive my lack of faith, my moment of weakness. Doubt will bring destruction upon us all.”

My glanced up at the shrink, who gave me a resigned nod of approval. Well, at least someone who knew what they were doing was giving me the go-ahead.

“You are human, and all humans are flawed creatures. But we must always strive to be better. And in that, I hope that you will take everything that the doctor here says to heart. She may not be one of us, but she will not lead you astray. If it seems like she might be, meditate on her words. And if you are conflicted, I give you permission to seek me out, and speak to me personally.”

The woman looked up sharply, her eyes full of surprise and wonder. “I… I would not waste your time like that! That would be–”

“My will,” I stressed firmly. “What’s your name?”


“Nathalia. This is Lacuna. She is one of my closest and dearest friends.” I gave Lacuna’s shoulder a squeeze. “You will assist her from here on out. You will see to it that she is protected here, in case someone else’s faith is lacking. Should she need anything, you will see to it that it is done. Should her squad need anything, you will help. However, you will not allow them to abuse your assistance. Should you feel that they are being lazy, or are being improper to yourself, or her, you will get me immediately, do you understand?”

Now she dropped to one knee. “Yes, Relentless. I fully embrace this task that you have given me.”

Gag me. “Right. Now, at the same time, I don’t want you to do this task to the point that your own life suffers. Do you have a family?”

Her head ducked even more, as if she was afraid to look at me. “Not… Not as such, no.”
She couldn’t see it, but I narrowed my eyes. “Because as I approached, I heard–”

“Women are allowed to… To liaison, especially for the witness of the high priests, but we are not allowed to become… family.”

I took a deep breath, feeling my heartbeat in my temples. “Okay, new task. Find any mention of rules on that, and bring it to me. I want to know exactly where it says that, why, and everything regarding it.”

“Yes, Relentless.”

This was getting old too damn fast. “Rise, Nathalia. When we speak, I want to see your eyes.”

When she rose, her eyes were wide. A combination of fearful and… hopeful, perhaps?

“Good. Good. Whenever possible, stand tall. Now, go with Lacuna. She’ll help you sort through the laws and… whatever. I’m sure that you two will become good friends.” Just friends, but good friends all the same.

Lacuna stepped forward, grabbing Nathalia’s arm and beginning to drag her off. “We’re gonna get along great! Just no mead, it tastes great, but ugh, I’ll be blowing chunks so hard within, like, five minutes.”

“Oh, me too! Something about my gallbladder. But I’ll show you some tricks so that you don’t actually have to drink it.”

Oh, please, teach Lacuna that trick, so that she could teach it to me. Please, oh pretty please.

As soon as they were out of earshot, I turned to the shrink. “Please tell me you have some good news.”

“None at all,” she admitted. “Listen, they used to have specialists to deprogram cult members. Me? I specialize in child psychology, not cults. I’m going to be doing the best that I can, but… I’m not trained for this. None of us are. People are trying to find books to help us, but it’s harder than it sounds. So I’m not sure if I’m going to have any good news for a long, long time.

“The closest thing is, since you gave the order for them to see us, they view it as their divine duty to meet with us. They aren’t fighting, which helps, but that won’t last. As we start to chip away at their faith, they’re going to fight with all their might. Until then… Just to keep things from going batshit, you’re going to have to low key be the god for them. You did alright there, all things considered. I think. Again, I’m not completely sure. Just keep going the best you can, and I will, too.”

I groaned. “Brilliant. I was hoping for some good news before tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” she asked.

“Fighting was the easy part. All this, all of it? Easy. Tomorrow, things get hard.”