Interlude 14.D

Nothing was the same anymore. In a matter of days, the world had been destroyed. Maybe not in a literal sense, but it might as well have been — everything that had come before was gone. Scion, the world’s greatest hero, had turned against humanity. Rumor had it that the Endbringers had decided to throw in with humanity, the same people that they had spent so long crushing under their heel, to stop him. Governments were destroyed, entire nations simply gone.

In the days since, a lot of things had become disturbingly common. Fights over food and basic resources when there were still plenty to go around. People declaring that the government had failed them utterly and completely. New cults were forming as people desperately searched for any sort of answer.

And, of course, the suicides, which were Terrance’s main concern, and why he was quickly hurrying up the steep incline.

It wasn’t out of any sort of altruism on his part. He’d set his home up on the base of the cliff, more to get away from the sobbing than anything. People were a bunch of whiney bitches, and he wanted to focus on surviving and not just whining about how none of it was fair. It wasn’t until people started throwing themselves to their rather messy deaths that he realized his mistake.

Today’s subject, at least, was new. Terrance was used to people throwing themselves away with mementos, the memories of whatever they once cared about on their person. It was disgusting how often those things were inconsequential. He never understood the pictures of dogs, for example.

This time, the man was different. He was completely naked, for starters. The fact that his body was still oozing with burn scars covering most of him, leaving him with only a few strands of singed hair, left him a sight that really wasn’t worth looking at. Neither was the way that he hugged himself from the cold rain, making him look utterly pathetic.

But, hey, at least it was new.

“Hey,” Terrance called out, keeping a healthy distance just in case. “Do you need some help?”

The man looked over his shoulder at him, his eyes sad and pathetic. “It didn’t mean anything, did it?”

Terrance was completely unprepared for this sort of thing. He wasn’t good with people. But he also didn’t want someone crashing through his little shack. “The end of the world does that. Shows us what’s important.”

The man looked off into the distance again. “I tried, you know? I tried so hard. I wanted to show people that we still mattered. That we weren’t useless. I didn’t want us turning out like India. And I loved them all. Not, like, sex or anything. Well, there were a couple of ladies that…”

He trailed off, leaving Terrance even more uncomfortable. But he had to keep them talking. Talking people didn’t jump. “Yeah, I get that.”

“We don’t matter. We… They never mattered, not in the end. I… I guess I’m one of them now. One of you.”

Terrance took a step closer, still cautious. He’d lost all of his gear when the bitch had fucking hijacked his entire body. If this guy was crazy, then he had no way to defend himself. “I don’t follow.”

“Capes,” the man said, the word ripped from his chest. “Capes are the only thing that matters in the end, aren’t they? Normal people don’t matter for anything anymore, do they? Only capes can make any changes.”

Uh, duh. But he didn’t need some guy going crazy and killing everyone in the village. “So, uh… You’re a cape, then?”

The man snorted. “You’re a Tinker, rank three or so. But… Whatever empowers you is so much more. You’re a source of boredom to it. It’s figured so much out that it regrets attaching to you. I can see both the way that it interacts with you, helping you to make things that are vaguely interesting to it, only applying part of its mind to you, as it focuses the bulk of its efforts on others.”

Terrance wasn’t sure if the guy laughed or sobbed. “I have no place with normals, do I?”

“I dunno.” But this guy obviously had some sort of special power. He wasn’t sure what, but it was dangerous. More than just seeing what a person’s power was. Maybe… Maybe he could use this, to keep people from whining so much. “Listen. My name’s Terrance. What’s your name?”

The man turned towards Terrance, squaring his shoulders back. “I once was Marcus, but that seems… Insignificant now. If I’m a cape now, I should have a cape name, don’t you think? Maybe something foreign-sounding.”

Terrance shook his head. “I… I got nothin’.”

He deflated. “Neither do I. But I need something… If I’m going to protect people, the people who aren’t capes, I’m going to need some sort of name, don’t you think?”

Terrance forced a smile to his face, extending an arm. “Yeah, sure. Come on, let’s… I got some tea. Let’s go get some.”


There were less than ten people in all of Fyrtorn who were immune to Krigarguden’s constant power. The numbers changed on occasion as people came and died, but there were three who stayed the same no matter what thanks to the tech that they wore. The high priests to the false god that they had created. The puppet god who they’d kept in the dark about his own religion and the full implications of it.

Those first few years, Terrance had tried to walk the straight and narrow. It wasn’t until some Master died fighting Krigarguden that everything changed. The three of them had quietly figured out a way to make sure that he always radiated that aura, and how to keep themselves from being enthralled by it. It wasn’t long afterwards that they’d developed the serum to keep him from being able to see people who weren’t triggered.

After that, Fyrtorn had really taken off. They just had to keep Krigarguden believing that out there was a hellhole of raiders and death. It wasn’t always easy, but he trusted them, especially Terrance. There were days as he wandered the underground pens, listening to the whimpers and cries of the people who were constantly exposed to Krigarguden’s power and forced to listen to the constant drone of praise and songs to their god, that he felt a pang of guilt.

It never lasted, thankfully. They had a sweet setup here, and he wasn’t about to risk it for the sake of a few pathetic wretches who took a little longer than the others to trigger.

With that “grace” that Krigarguden had, it was disturbingly easy to convince people of his divinity even before he used his other powers. The man didn’t just gain access to their power, he gained greater access to the creatures that provided those powers, tapping into them so that his array was wider. And for paras who actually challenged Krigarguden would quickly find that he was immune to their particular power if he so wanted.

He was invulnerable, apparently omnipotent, but not omniscient. Thank goodness. The jig would be up rather quickly if he knew the truth.

As he hurried through the temple halls, Terrance found himself wondering when it had gotten so much harder. He used to move so much faster just a few years ago. Fortunately, Kilo seemed to be keeping tabs on the situation, watching down the bronze stairs at the scene below.

“What’s going on?”

Kilo didn’t even look away from whatever was going on. “While you were getting your knob polished, someone’s challenging our boy. And he isn’t dead yet.”

Terrance looked below, where he could make out the two engaging in some martial arts bullshit. It wasn’t as impressive as movies made it out to be. Honestly? It was kind of messy to watch.

“How long have they been going at it?”

“Half an hour or so.” Kilo glanced at him. “Is Kriggy suicidal again?”

It was a reoccurring problem. Surrounded by people brainwashed into thinking he was a god, dealing with the false knowledge that there was nothing in the outside world worth saving except for those who made themselves to the lighthouse, took its toll on Krigarguden now and then. He never tried to commit suicide, but he’d let fights draw out in the quiet hope that someone would remove him from this mess.

The sad part? He didn’t even realize that he wanted to die.

“Not that I know of. He’s actually been tempted to go on the warpath since those raiding parties got killed.”

To Krigarguden, the raiding parties that went out were looking for supplies. While Fyrtorn was mostly self-sufficient, without select people with powers they would easily collapse. Easing the use of those powers was a trivial task — the utter destruction of a village meant that nobody knew about the goods that went missing. Sulfuric acid and lye were two that were constantly in desperate demand, with salt not far behind. They should have gotten a place closer to the ocean.

The raiding parties themselves were convinced that they were simply bringing in the worthy as a rite of passage, and the ritual that they’d composed for Krigarguden to perform was just ambiguous enough to keep both in the dark. Burnouts were frustratingly common these days, people simply dropping dead, and they needed the warm bodies to keep people coming. Kilo helped — with the ribbon tech to allow the raiding parties to see if someone was likely to trigger, it helped Kilo’s power of encouraging triggers not kill the poor saps in the process.

After they were suitably brainwashed, of course. The cult had been an excellent use of Krigarguden’s aura, along with some old-fashioned psychology.

Terrance activated one of his ribbons, linking into the decentralized network to handle the processing and functionality to allow him to enhance his vision, zooming in on the fight. That man… He didn’t get a long look before Krigarguden erected a golden field around them, obscuring the two of them.

“I think we have a problem.”

Kilo raised an eyebrow. “No shit,” he said dryly.

“No, it’s bigger than that. Remember those two raiding parties we sent that died? I think this guy was involved with one of them. Franklin, the mining town. He, his crew, and those Wardens wiped them out, and we barely got Mitchell and those supplies out of there.”

Kilo frowned a bit. “You sure about that?”

“I’d need to double check the transmissions from their ribbons, but yeah, I’m pretty sure. Like, ninety percent sure.” He looked back down at the sphere, which rocked and shook violently. No doubt, they were really going at it in there. “And if he’s here…”

“Okay, okay.” Kilo squeezed his eyes shut, thinking. “Okay. Maybe… I mean, what are the chances of anyone actually killing Krigarguden?”

Terrance shook his head. “Honestly? It would take a miracle of biblical proportions. An act of an actual god at this point. You saw what he did to that winged bitch with the ghosts, and I’m pretty sure that she was Glaistig Uaine. But what I’m saying is that if he’s here…”

“There’s four others with him,” Kilo pointed out. “Just like before. So if you’re worried about them–”

“I am, but not in the way that you’re thinking. Those four could be anyone. And if this guy made it in, who’s to say that they’re the only ones. We could have a bunch more people skulking about that we don’t know about.”

That made Kilo pale. While, sure, they had thousands of people willing to fight and die on the mere whims of Krigarguden, it didn’t mean much if a bomb were planted, or if they were targeting people like the two of them. Without their guidance, the lies would unravel, and either Krigarguden or the sheep would revolt. More importantly, the two of them would be dead.

“You’re thinking that we should get to the shelter?”

“The seven of us, yeah. Just in case.” It was located in the temple itself, giving them an excuse. As the high priests, the sheep would understand their prayer and meditation, and they could explain to Krigarguden that if they stayed and watched, they’d want to get involved. Meanwhile, they could watch how everything played out. If it went well, then they’d come out and start a service to the glory of Krigarguden or whatever. If not, they could hide for up to a year in that secret shelter, or take the back way out if need be with all of the money and valuables that they could carry.


The waiting was the worst part. Three miles away, listening to burst transmissions, but not seeing. Anticipating the moment when they all had to teleport in. They’d spent months trying to get ready for this moment. Two hundred people, ready and willing, but forced to wait for the moment that Krigarguden was dead to teleport in there.

Emi’s palms were sweaty, her fingers tingling, her heart racing, her head vaguely swimmy. She wanted in there now. She wanted to move, she wanted to fight. She wanted to lose herself tonight in the combat. She loved it so much. It was the ultimate rush, and as much as she hated to admit it, as much as she denied it, taking on Fyrtorn had been both some of the best and worst moments of her life.

Jordan empowered that rush. From the first cons, there had always been the chance that things would go wrong. More wrong than even the usual cons. Here he was, in there, fighting Krigarguden with the hopes of giving the snipers a chance to blow his head off, and she couldn’t be there supporting him.

John wouldn’t be there when they all teleported in, the coward. But still…

One minute,” Brenda’s pained voice said over the radio to all of them. “Portals will open. All of us are to step through them. Please don’t ask me questions, I have to program your targets.

“What?” Cranston asked to her left. “Portals?”

He was one of the untriggered assigned to her. His armor was fitted with an experimental short-range teleporter with a high-capacity battery. Twenty feet or so, but it was enough. Her entire squad were Movers, or people who had the Tinker tech to emulate Movers. They were Harassers, designated specifically to quickly engage and get the hell back out again.

At least, that was the theory.

She quickly turned to him. “Hey, it’s like Relentless says, no plan survives first contact. Shit goes south fast, and you gotta adjust. Hell, maybe he finally triggered, I dunno. But we got one minute before we gotta get in there. At least now we know.”

“Yeah, but–”

“Yeah, I got a butt, and so do you. Don’t stress it. We’ll figure out what’s going on when we get in there. Just hit the people that your helmets tell you to, and keep on moving. We’ll be fine. Fine-ish. If we’ve got targets, then we’re probably gonna win.” Or at least do enough damage that Fyrtorn wouldn’t recover. “Just focus on the job, yeah?”

He didn’t look convinced. Portals didn’t make her feel any better, either. She didn’t like what all it might be suggesting, but honestly, anything was better than waiting. Jordan never should have kept her in reserve like this. Maybe her power, her ability to disrupt others when she teleported, would have helped against Krigarguden. Instead, here she was, waiting.

She wished he still sang. She wished that he would have sang while training them. Maybe then she could have done one of his weird songs to force people to all be on the same page, focused and ready to go.

Do not engage the enemy until ordered to,” Brenda announced to everyone. “Ten.

Now that wasn’t helping anyone’s mood. The seconds seemed to fly by, though, before a square window appeared in the air in front of everyone. Without hesitation, Emi stepped through, only to find herself smack dab in the middle of Fyrtorn, surrounded by thousands of mindless cultists.

Jordan, or rather, Relentless had his arms spread wide. Five feet away from him, a shirtless man that was more scar tissue than skin was smirking behind a veil of blond hair. Krigarguden himself.

She wasn’t sure which one of them was more impressive. As two hundred men and women suddenly appeared, even John, nobody dared attack. Somehow, just seeing the two of them squared off with each other stayed everyone’s hand. They were magnificent…

Krigarguden turned, calling out, some power letting him be heard by everyone. “I expect you all to keep to my promise,” he commanded. “Just as I expect Relentless’ people to keep to his. No matter who wins, or who dies, the others will join. Either he will become the new Krigarguden, or I will become their new Relentless. No matter what, two become one!”

Oh, wow! He was really eating this challenge up! Emi grinned to herself, nodding. Two large hams going at it, Krigarguden playing the crowd while Relentless played the strong but silent type. Hype. Total fucking hype.

And then Relentless ruined that image by turning to his own army. “No interference,” he boomed, shocking Emi. At the same time, even if she’d never met him before, she still would have done what he said. In this moment, he was just that much more than real. “We will respect Krigarguden, and those of Fyrtorn! Do you understand?”

Agree,” Brenda commanded over comms, but it didn’t actually take much. Emi found a wordless cry of agreement already leaving her lips, lifting her halberd in the air. She was far from alone. So many people were doing the same. It was heady, overpowering.

Could she break it when the order came to fight?

The two men turned to face each other again, and a moment later, they were clashing. Relentless was always impressive to watch, but this was even greater than usual. The way that the two of them locked together, kicks and punches flying… Emi had never seen a movie, but she couldn’t imagine it being any better than this. She couldn’t imagine anything being more mesmerizing than this.

The brutality, the grace, the way that the two of them moved was like poetry in motion. Time was meaningless as they tried to kill each other.

Finally, Krigarguden pushed Relentless away with enough force to make him tumble end over end, making her breath catch in her chest. Even though Relentless effortlessly rose to his feet again, it took Emi a moment to realize that Krigarguden was holding one of the two knives that Relentless had strapped to his chest, testing the weight and balance.

With his usual larger than life flourish, Relentless drew the other. “I take it that we’re ending this?” her friend asked.

“Yes. Let us see who is better, once and for all.”

With that, the two charged each other. As they clashed, two things happened simultaneously. The first was that a person-shaped glow moved from Krigarguden and into Relentless.

The second was that Relentless’ nanothorn blade activated the moment that it touched Krigarguden’s head, turning it into a fine mist.

And like that, it was over. Before the body even hit the ground, a deafening cry of defeat echoed throughout everyone there, including Emi. She’d just watched a god be murdered effortlessly by another god. A god who looked down at the corpse of the monstrous one with pity, even sympathy. She couldn’t see his face, but you learned to read the subtle cues of body language with Relentless.

After an agonizing moment, she realized that her visor was blinking. Somehow, she managed to turn her head up, following the icon until it locked on the monument. Automatically, it zoomed in, showing her two individuals running inside.

“Krigarguden is dead!” she heard Relentless call out. “And with it, comes a change of the guard. I am now the new Krigarguden, and I shall lead you to a new era, honoring all that Krigarguden was. However, there are disbelievers in our midst. People who would undo the legacy of Krigarguden, of what he built Fyrtorn to represent.”

She was dimly aware of people glowing red. Emi didn’t care. She ran her tongue over her teeth, her entire body priming anew at levels that she’d never felt before.

“I ask all of you to respect each other… as you kill those who would undo this great legacy, this new future that awaits all of us!”

Yes. Yes. Kill. She could kill. And she knew who she had to kill.


He didn’t need to tell her twice. She reached out and pulled herself to the doors of the temple that she’d just seen those fuckers at. Immediately, she reoriented, seeing a trail of glowing red footprints, and reached out again. And again. She wasn’t sure if these halls were made of gold or bronze, and she didn’t care right now. She had her targets.

It didn’t take long to see them literally running down the hall. She turned her body as best she could, finding that her knives were already in her hands. All that she had to do was reach out, and she couldn’t see them anymore. There was that same old resistance, making her turn to face them fully harder than it should have been…

Only one slammed into her outstretched blade, driving the knife deep into his chest and making him gasp. The other rushed past her.

As her victim fell to the ground, struggling to take a breath with his ruined lung, Emi found her head clear. That fanatical furor was gone, and in that moment, all that she could see before her wasn’t someone who had to die, but a man pathetically fighting for his life.

It only took one more stab to end that fight.

But she’d been given two targets. She spun and teleported again, moving to a new doorway… only to find him cut down by one of the Fyrtorn cultists, holding a blade of pure energy. The woman’s face was twisted into an expression of grief as she looked up to Emi, tears streaming down her face.

“Glory b-be to Krig… Krigar…”

As the woman fell to her knees sobbing, Emi blinked several times. What the fuck was going on exactly?


Manananggal 14.13

I went for a snap kick only to find his foot squarely in my gut, sending me tumbling.

Krigarguden was infamous for his powers, but his fighting ability was barely a secondary legend. The fact that he was even bothering to challenge me was impressive; he’d never once seen the Dragon’s Teeth in actual combat. Perhaps that was because of his past, but given how he seemed to relish a good fight, there was a theory that none of them were good enough to warrant him clashing with them.

The fact that he was willing to take me on was a small point in my favor.

I rolled barely enough to avoid the heel that came crashing down where my groin had just been. Good enough for both of us. I thrust myself up, driving my fist into his crotch and making him stumble back, coughing in pain.

Someone shouted, but as I got to my feet, Krigarguden was already turning to face them. “No! It’s only fair! I tried to attack the groin, so he did the same. If it ever turns unfair, I’ll let you know.”

Sir, we don’t have LOS on the target. We need you to get him into position and keep him from moving for at least three seconds.

Easier said than done. The snipers were armed with experimental Tinker ammunition from Twain, turning their rifles into something comparable to railguns. Each of them only had one shot, with the expectation that even with all of the Tinker recoil compensation, they’d still shatter bones like tissue paper. If this were any other situation, I’d go ahead and attack while Krigarguden was distracted. More and more of his zealots were showing up by the moment, and I didn’t want things to fall apart before my people had their shot, even if there were no promises that it would actually work.

He turned back to me, taking up a basic CQC stance. That was dangerous. The confidence of the stance said that it was one that he was extremely well-versed in, having probably spent more hours practicing that one stance than I’d probably spent training in my entire life.

Bruce Lee said that someone who practiced one kick a thousand times was far more dangerous than someone who knew a thousand kicks. And from what I was experiencing? It was true.

He moved for me again, coming down low for a takedown. I was able to uppercut him in the face, making him stumble back again. That… shouldn’t have happened. I reacted by reflex, but I knew that I telegraphed that as badly as he did. As he held the front of his mouth, he was staring at me curiously. Odd.

He lunged again, this time, not going for my lower body. The flurry of strikes that he threw at my upper torso made me go on the defensive, backpedaling quickly while I moved to deflect. Damn, he was fast. I was good, but he was simply magnificent, operating on a whole different level from me.

And then he missed.

I’d leaned back farther than I’d wanted to, and somehow, beyond all conceivable thought, the self-fashioned god of combat somehow threw a hard punch that went too far wide, leaving him wide open. Even more surprising was that I felt bad for him, bad enough that I had to force myself to deliver a hard elbow strike to his jawline, one strong enough that it should have shattered his jaw and knocked him unconscious. Instead, he staggered again.

Something was wrong. Something was drastically wrong. This man was a magnificent work in action, and from what little I saw of him, he deserved every ounce of rep that he had as a combatant. He was tough, strong, fast, and capable, but somehow he was making very simple mistakes. Someone as praiseworthy as him shouldn’t be missing.

This man was a parahuman god fighting a humble, mortal man… and the mortal man was landing blows. Something was seriously wrong.

I didn’t take the time to try and figure it out. Those long sight lines to the temple would give my snipers a shot to take him out once and for all, as regretful as it was. I didn’t want him to die, but we had to. And in order to do that, I had to keep the pressure on him. I pressed my advantage, apply my sambo to throw a flurry of blows at his chest and neck. Somehow, I never swung for his head, despite my gauntlets being able to take it. I spun to deliver a kick…

…only to find myself grabbed by my leg. With contemptuous ease, Krigarguden had caught my leg, and the tossed me away. His followers backed up as I hit the ground, trying to give us space to fight.

As I rolled to a stop, he called out to me. “Relentless. It’s a neat trick you have, and one that I can’t put my finger on. What are you, a Breaker?”

I scrambled to my feet. “No, sir. Sorry, sir.” This man, covered from head to toe in scars, who was desperately wanted dead by the Dragon’s Teeth, who was so magnificent, was accusing me of being a para? I wasn’t sure if I should be humbled by that or not.

Kicks. It struck me suddenly. I edged towards him, taking up a muay thai stance. He responded by going back into that CQC stance. Right. Everything that he did would come from that. As I drew near, though, instead of following a single rule of muay thai, I instead leaned forward and snapped a quick jab for his nose, and connected. He hadn’t tried to block at all. He hadn’t even flinched.

What Krigarguden did do, though, was snap both palms into my gut with enough force to lift me off the ground, sending me tumbling again.

I went head over heels once, but caught myself on the second. Things clicked into place, though not everything. He had a hard time with my punches, but my kicks were apparently effortless to block. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I didn’t need to. I had a weapon against him. If I could summon the fear or anger to force my body to go into autopilot, I might just stand a chance, but unfortunately I didn’t even feel a hint of eather thing.

Krigarguden shook his head, getting the cobwebs out. “What are you?”

“Relentless, sir.” And with that, I charged again.

For a period of time, we fell into a strange sadomasochist routine. We’d meet each other, and I’d give him as strong of blows as I could, trying to keep him off-balance for as long as possible. Inevitably, he’d find an opening, or effortlessly make one, and send me flying again.

I landed again, and I felt a crack running from my gut all the way to my sternum. Whatever I was turning into had expanded, snaking a tendril into my chest. As I struggled to my feet, feeling the combination of the last blow and my expanding corruption, Krigarguden lifted a hand into the air and snapped it into a fist. Instantly, blue light filled the area. As soon as it appeared, though, it seemed to turn into a blue powder, clinging to everyone, myself included.

That made Krigarguden grin at me. “There we are. Your Stranger tricks won’t work on me now.”

Stranger…? Wait, no. I looked at my hands, trying to puzzle through what he just said. Was that why he hadn’t been able to defend himself against my punches? Because he could see… He couldn’t see my arms? Could he only see my lower body or something? Could he only see the corruption in me? That was… sad. I wanted him to see the best parts of me, not the worst.

There was no time to dwell, though. Already, he was on me again. I was forced into a defensive game, finding an opening and utilizing what little hapkido I could, using his own momentum to toss him. Not that it made things any easier. He was a Brute, a Mover, a Shaker, and everything else all wrapped up into one mighty package. Within five minutes, he had me winded. We were in position, but I couldn’t get him to hold still long enough. I couldn’t even get a grip on him long enough for a joint lock.

As the growing crowd sang a chanting song to Krigarguden in a familiar-sounding language, we met time and time again, me doing everything in my power just to keep going and giving us space. That was ruined with one powerful punch to my helmet, sending a crack down my visor and throwing me to my back again.

My head spun for a moment. I’d been cutting away the cybernetics as my flesh had separated from… whatever that was, but it was all on my lower body. The cybernetics in my skull that kept me from getting a concussion helped with that one, but not enough. I had to struggle to get back to my feet, even as my head cleared.

I was going to lose, but I couldn’t think of a better person to lose to. Hopefully, he’d hold my body aloft on steps of the temple or something, giving my snipers a chance to kill him.

With an unreadable look, Krigarguden held out his scarred hand towards me, and a ghostly ray that somehow made me think of souls of the damned shot out. I only had a heartbeat to brace myself before it slammed into my chest.

At least, I’d expected it to slam into my chest. Instead, the crack in my helmet faded and disappeared. I didn’t have long enough to process it before I felt a tingle in my foot. That tingle spread through my entire body, making tired, aching muscles feel as good as new, and the exhaustion of almost fifteen minutes of fierce fighting fade from my mind. I felt like a new person, alive and well. I blinked at the strange feeling…

And completely missed Krigarguden’s incoming haymaker.

Instead of being floored or my helmet cracking again, this time I only stumbled back a single step. I blinked again and looked up at Krigarguden, who suddenly smiled. It was the kind of smile that made me feel good inside, like an old friend who was proud of me. I responded in kind, returning the haymaker to his face.

The big man stumbled back a step himself before laughing. “Yes! Yes! Thank you, Mother! An even playing field at last!” He laughed again. He pushed his long, stringy hair away from his face, his joy seeming oddly placed against his deep burn scars. “Come on! Have at you, Relentless!”

I put up my fists and took a swing at him, unused to how fast and hard my arm moved, throwing myself way off target. Immediately, he caught my arm, going for a joint lock. I slammed my free arm on his and yanked my arm free before he could clench the lock, following up with a lightning fast three hit combo. My reward was a headbutt. I returned it in kind.

Now matched, my mind felt oddly free. I saw the man before me not as some magnificent representation of humanity, but as a man whose body was as much scar tissue as flesh who threw himself into me with expert abandon. He was skilled, he was powerful, but he was just a man.

And with each blow that we exchanged, I stood more and more of a chance. I could get him in position now. If I could get an opportunity, I’d get him in a lock, and then it would be over.

We never parted from the blows that we exchanged. The entire village seemed to be singing, the words ripping their way out of everyone’s throats a little harder with each punch, each elbow, each knee that landed. I had versatility, able to move in unpredictable ways. And while I could predict so many of his blows, he’d mastered them to a level that I’d never seen before.

I doubted that I could win. Especially not with how more cracks seemed to be forming in my gut. As sped up, stronger, and more durable that I was now, we were holding even. If my body didn’t wear out, then his might not, either. If that didn’t happen, we could probably keep this up all night and day. At best, I was looking at a stalemate. If only he would get winded.

But after what felt like fifteen more minutes, he moved for another grab, only for his fingers to slide off my shoulder uselessly. My elbow impacted with his jaw again, making him stagger back a step. I didn’t give him the time to recover. Instead, I spun quickly, lashing out with my foot.

The very moment that his hand caught it firmly, a golden sphere formed around the both of us. “Hold!” he demanded.

I jerked my foot, only to find that it might as well be bound in solid concrete. Right. He’d been holding back in hopes of an equal fight.

“Hold on, Relentless.” After a moment to make sure that he had my attention, Krigarguden let go. “I wanted a moment to talk.”

“Talk?” I parroted. I wasn’t even breathing hard, but right now, everything felt so utterly surreal. “Talk about what?”

He tilted his head a bit. “Are… Are you alright? I thought that you were a Stranger at first, but… Whatever’s happening to your body is spreading. It’s… It’s kind of freaky. Are you a Case 53?”

I gaped at him. I was here to kill an absolute monster who was responsible for so many people’s deaths, and here he was, asking if I was okay. How the hell was I supposed to respond to that?

“No. No I’m not. I… I’m just…” I shook my head. “Too many experimental procedures to keep me alive. Too many heavy triggers. Too much exposure to weird Tinkers and all sorts of stuff.” I licked my lips. “I mean, I’m not a para.”

That only made his hairless brows draw together. “Para?” he asked curiously.

I frowned. Right, he was from the before times. Better to use old terms. “Cape. I’m not a cape.”

Krigarguden’s face lit up a little bit. “You mean… There’s still some people who aren’t capes out there?”


I stared at him in disbelief. What the hell did that mean?

When I didn’t answer, he tapped a finger against the wall of the sphere, making it sound like someone slammed into it. “So, uh… Your body… Your upper torso is missing. What happened there?”

“Uh…” Shit. This was going all sorts of wrong with each passing second. We were talking. That was the last thing that I wanted right now. “No. No, it’s all there.”

Krigarguden shook his head. “No, I can see through your armor. Your legs and gut are weird, but your upper torso, arms, and head are gone.”

Okay. Either this was a trap, or something was up. Carefully, I lifted my faceplate. “See?”

He shook his head.

“Wait… Are you seriously telling me that you can’t see my face?”

He frowned. “Can other people?”

“Everyone can! I… You…” Things started to click into place. Fuck. “Alright. When you first saw me, I was with my squad. How many people were there with me?”

“Two,” he said with the utmost confidence.

I tilted my head back as far as it would go, squeezing my eyes shut. “Of course. You literally walked through that squad of Dragon’s Teeth.”


“And you did it because, for whatever reason, maybe a power that someone’s using on you or because of some screwed up reason when you triggered… You can’t see anyone who isn’t triggered.”

“No, no!” Krigarguden looked like he was about to cry. “Back up! The Dragon’s Teeth are still around?”

I jerked my head down hard enough for my visor to snap shut again and stared at him, stupified. “Y… Yeah. Yeah, they–”

This man, whose name made people’s blood run cold, who was in some way responsible for so many communities being torn asunder, responsible for so many deaths, responsible for so many people disappearing, let out a primal scream of grief, turning and slamming a fist into the golden bubble, causing it to ring loud enough to make me wince.

I took a slow breath. This was all falling apart. “Listen, Krigarguden, they–”

“Please,” he whimpered. “Please, call me Marcus.”

“No,” I said firmly, my throat tightening. He looked at me, searching for answers in my featureless helmet. “Marcus Magnusson died after Gold Morning. He died a hero. One of the greatest names that the Dragon’s Teeth ever held in their ranks. One of the first troopers, who helped train the vanguard who were trained to fight the Slaughterhouse Nine. Who helped keep the ranks until the assault on Scion. Who quietly stood guard in some of the most unconventional situations. And who saved twenty lives, directly and indirectly, at the cost of his own well being. For this, they award the Magnusson Star posthumously to those who go above and beyond the call of duty, sacrificing themselves for the good of the many.

“And he was killed by Krigarguden.”

He shook his head slowly. “That… That… That’s some Star Wars bullshit.”

“I have no idea what that means,” I said bluntly, and he looked even more crestfallen over that.

Everything was falling apart. I’d come here to kill a monster, not deal with a real, living, breathing human being. There were reasons why you didn’t talk to your opponent. There were things that you just didn’t do. It was so much harder to kill a person that you could empathize with. I didn’t want to know this guy. I couldn’t know this guy.

So why wasn’t I attacking?

I sighed. “Anyway. Yeah. The Dragon’s Teeth are still around. They’re somewhere between a military, peacekeepers, police, and a supplementary government. Heck, in some places, they are the government. The Wardens are trying to keep the peace, the various governments are fighting petty wars and trying to secure their own power. Various nation states, cities with no allegiance, are only working to stay alive or make a profit.

“The Dragon’s Teeth are trying desperately to get the world back on track. They’re getting trains running. They’re trying to make communities into something like before, but it’s an uphill battle.”
The tears were still flowing, but at least Krigarguden wasn’t sobbing. That would have been even more awkward, not that this wasn’t awkward enough.

When he spoke, it was almost a whisper. “So they’re still around, and doing good. Fighting the good fight. I… I thought they were all gone.”

I narrowed my eyes. “All gone? What do you mean?”

“I… I thought that there was nobody left. Just rogue groups of feuding parahumans, fighting each other, raiding each other. That’s why I named it Fyrtorn.”

“Which means lighthouse,” I mused to myself, not entirely sure where I knew that from. Still, gears were turning in my head.

“Yeah.” Krigarguden sniffled and shook his head. “I wanted to collect everyone together. Everyone who was tired of… everything out there, under a banner of–”

“Bullshit,” I barked with a sneer. “Please. If someone told me that I actually had willingly killed everyone in New Fairfax, no matter how hard they tried, I wouldn’t believe them for a moment. I know that I had a role in it, but I wouldn’t believe them, because I know the truth.

“You? You’re accepting what I’m saying way too damn easily.” My hands balled into fists. “On some level, you knew.”

Krigarguden’s chin tucked down, his hair hiding his face. After a long moment, he nodded. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “Yeah, I… Deep down, I think that I kind of suspected that something was up. I… I didn’t know, not for sure, but…

“Nobody’s born a parahuman, so why were we only getting parahumans? Shouldn’t we have gotten new people, too? And whenever I would see a new face, they’d already be worshipping me. It was so damn frustrating, everyone treating me like a god all of the time. And when people returned…” He looked back at me, eyes pleading. “They weren’t searching for more parahumans, were they? There was a ritual element, but…”

“Fyrtorn is universally feared. They attack villages, collecting those who are triggered or are likely to trigger. Anyone else? They’re killed. Not always, sometimes people slip through the cracks or are left alive for a reason, but for the most part, they only leave ashes in their wake.”

His bottom lip quivered. Apparently, he was putting things together. “Somewhere around here are holding pens, aren’t there?”

I nodded. “We suspect that they’re under your home, but we aren’t sure. I didn’t understand why until I met you. You have some sort of aura to you that makes you wonderous. The most magnificent person that I’d ever seen.”

“Until Mother and I empowered you,” he mused.

I tilted my head, and he explained. “I look at people and sometimes I… know things. I think that it’s related to my power. But I know that without her, I wouldn’t have triggered. My empowerer is related to hers somehow. I knew it the first time that I saw her.”

Passenger. He was talking about his passenger. There was a theory that passengers could attach themselves to multiple people. His passenger was attached to someone else, and then targeted him either right before Gold Morning or right after.

Ultimately, though, it was unimportant right now. Time to resort to the other form of warfare. “Marcus Magnusson was a good man.”

He smiled sadly. “I… I tried. It wasn’t always easy. I about defied them when they pulled me off of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

Because he was fit for the known members, but once the clones were revealed, his psychological profile made him a liability, with Screamer taking a top priority. He’d handled it apparently well, operating in the background to help coordinate the troopers and the PRT, especially after Dragon was shut down.

“During Scion’s… well, genocidal spree, I was there when they released everyone from the Birdcage, ready to foam people if they needed it. I doubted that it would do any good, but… I was there in the background, at least. I don’t think anyone even saw me, though. And it hurt to see Defiant like that, but… I don’t know.

“And we tried so hard against Scion. The predictive program helped so much, but not enough. I realized that he was doing something different, and tried to save as many as I could…”

“You took the blow so others didn’t have to,” I said, forcing a sympathetic tone into my voice.

He nodded. “They didn’t tell us how they beat Scion, other that the parahumans had done it. Everything that we’d done was ignored in a minute because some cape killed him, and they wouldn’t even tell us who. Do… Do you know?”

I shrugged a shoulder. “Skitter. Or Weaver. Or Taylor. Or Khepri. It’s complicated, and in all honesty…” I knocked a fist against the golden sphere. “We probably don’t have time for me to explain it all.” I didn’t know that they hadn’t told everyone immediately, though. That seemed… odd.

“Yeah. You’re right. They’re all waiting for the epic battle between us. I could… fake it, for a bit? If you wanted to talk more?”

I didn’t, not really, but I nodded. “If you want.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. “They might get suspicious, but I think that we have more time than we did before.”

I nodded a little. “Who has that power?”

“Nobody,” he confessed weakly. “Well, not anymore. If someone dies near me, I gain their powers permanently. Kind of. Like you said, it’s complicated and we don’t have the time.”

Ah. That explained the death aspect.

Still, we had to focus. “You were played.”

“I know.”

“People used you, making you into a puppet god for their own power trip.”

“I know. I guess I always knew, deep down, but I didn’t want to admit it.”

“I know what that’s like. There’s a lot of things that I never wanted to admit.” Like that I was never going to trigger. Like my entire life was a lie. “But the thing is… I came here to murder Krigarguden in his sleep. When he wasn’t in his bed, I challenged him so that snipers could take him out with rounds designed to do damage to Endbringers. But instead, I find myself dealing with a guy who got taken advantage of. And now I don’t know what to do for sure.

“What do we do, Krigarguden?”

He was silent for a long moment. Slowly, he straightened, squaring those scarred shoulders back. That same strength that had kept him alive when his suit had partially melted shined through his eyes.

“First off, call me Marcus.”

Manananggal 14.12

Sensor array’s down.

Still waiting for the chance at the main suppressor. I may have to take this bitch down to get at it.

“Only if you absolutely have to,” I hissed under my breath. I really should have drilled them better on proper radio communication. Make sure to communicate when you’re finished talking, cut the unnecessary chatter. Even after dealing with my friends for two years, the chatter still distracted me a little bit.

As a heavily tattooed man stepped out of a building, puffing on a pipe, I made a quick left. I didn’t need him hearing us. The display in my helmet showed that the woman trailing me followed suit. The map displayed didn’t show the full extent of Fyrtorn, only a few blocks radius. We could change it if need be, but for now, being able to move with precision was more important.

They didn’t have a full suite like myself and my friends did. The average person in my people only had a basic, a comparatively cheap display, a local positioning network, a medium-range communications suite that was sadly easy to disrupt, and only the most rudimentary predictive analysis program, and were armed with High Point pistols. Only the good ones, my elites like who were accompanying me, were armed with halberds forged by my smith. She was only one person and could only do so much.

It was terribly cheap compared to my own setup, but that was kind of the point. Defiant and Dragon had talked Muramasa into helping us, but he could only spare so many supplies, and we could only afford so much ourselves. Sacrifices had to be made.

Then again, everyone here was kind of expecting to be that sacrifice.


“It’s so big!” Lacuna said, gaping.

Archimedes snorted. “No, no it isn’t. Even New Brockton is small time.”

Sagittarius ignored them, focusing on me. “What do you think?”

I didn’t look up from the huge wall of maps and pictures in front of us. Fyrtorn was 30 square miles, almost the same size of New Brockton despite not having nearly as many people. And that was without the spread-out nature of New Brockton. Of course, the temples and the farms being within the city helped with that. There were no walls to protect anyone from the outside, only the occasional gilded tower. In fact, it could have been rather easy for someone to just walk in…

My eyes flicked to the closeup of the building marked Sensor Control. That was the problem. Getting within range of Fyrtorn was difficult at best. There was a grand teleportation suppressor that they could apparently ignore, anti-air batteries, massive sensor arrays… Getting within two miles of Fyrtorn by foot and fifty by air was typically impossible.

Just looking at all of their defenses was enough to boggle the mind. When I’d first taken a look at the wall, I’d been overwhelmed. Bridget had used her power on me, and now it was much, much easier to put everything together. To see all the details that I needed to.

“We take out Sensor Control, we can move in. We take out the suppressors, we can get our people to where we need them. Schrodinger can handle coordinating the teleporing.” Unfortunately, that would burn out our teleporters. We wanted quality, but you work with what’s given to you. We’d gotten 33 teleporters, plus mine, so we were having to make due.

Sagittarius folded her arms, and the way that her shoulders were held, I could tell she was frowning. “And how the hell are we going to get people there?”

“I’ll have Nexus get in touch with Abrams. Almost everyone is armored, so once that’s done, we’ll call upon another of his products.” I looked at everyone. “He can make a fabric sheath that.. Well, to call it an invisibility suit would be wrong. Technically, it just prevents any form of radiation from inside the sheath, including light. Instead of having an outline of the blackest black that ever existed, it instead warps light and mimics all forms of nearby radiation to give the appearance of invisibility.”

“There’s a difference?” Lacuna asked. “I mean, between it and invisibility?”

“Yeah. Invisible only refers to the ability to visually perceive something or someone. This? When active, Only touch escapes, and even then, it takes more effort than usual.” Maybe powers, too, but we had no way of testing that. “We called it invisibility cloth only because it was easier than coming up with the real thing.”

Lacuna laughed. “That’s awesome! The Wardens and the Teeth are probs creaming themselves over it.”

“No.” I still wasn’t taking my eyes off the maps and pictures. “It’s fragile, extremely flammable, and has several other distinct disadvantages. The least of which being that we’ll have to risk the positioning array to keep track of where we are. There’s reasons why he used a completely different method to make our helmets go invisible.” I didn’t bring up the radiation issues.

“Your helmets go invisible?” Romeo asked curiously from where he was listening in. As one, all of us except Schrodinger demonstrated for him, making his eyes go wide, and even making Bridget stand a bit straighter. “That’s cool, yeah, but a little creepy, y’know.”

Sagittarius snorted as she looked back at the wall. “Relentless has been doping us with something to teach us physical stuff more quickly.” I turned to look at her in surprise, but she didn’t stop talking. “It doesn’t teach a lot of the mental stuff as well, but it’s still there. In a year, we’ve probably had ten of training at this point.”

My mouth tried to form words three times before succeeding. “You knew?”

Archimedes snorted. “It wasn’t that hard to figure out. You haven’t been paying attention to Lacuna’s knife tricks, have you? We’ve all picked up a few things beyond your training thanks to that.”

I shook my head. “And here I am, still trying to figure out what kind of guys you’re into.”

That got a frown out of him. Crap, I’d said something wrong. I turned back to the wall, focusing again, making out more details. “Myself and a couple of teams will get as close as we can before activating them. We’ll rely on Schrodinger’s and Ms. Chad’s powers to let us know when we need to turn it on to get past the sensor array. After that, we’ll separate and take out our targets.”

I pointed. “Sensors.” I pointed again. “Suppressors.” I targeted another building deeper in the city. “Anti-air coordination. While those are being taken out, the rest of us will focus on getting into position for stage two.”

I picked up several blue pins and began jamming them into rather ornate buildings. “According to intelligence, these are the highest lieutenants of Fyrtorn. They’re the people who exercise Krigarguden’s will, and who lead the people in worship.” I put a white pin in another home. “This is apparently a confidant according to the Dragon’s Teeth. Someone extremely close to Krigarguden. They’ll be a tertiary target. As for our prime target…”

I would have expected the biggest, most ornate building in the city to be his home, but it turned out that the building was instead a temple. Surprisingly, Krigarguden’s home was rather simple and plain, with a large garden surrounding it. It was suspected that the holding pens were underground, leading to right below the house. “According to Valkyrie, he’s a powerful Trump who can gain the basic gist of the powers of anyone near him.”

Schrodinger nodded.”Kind of like my power gets stronger the more paras are nearby.”

“Kind of. He isn’t a thief, and not quite a copycat, but I didn’t see anything that explained it clearly. There’s also a mention of him having a death element to his power. She was damnably vague, though.” My thumb tapped a pouch on my belt absently. “With that in mind, an assassination attempt will probably need to be made by someone that isn’t a para. Given how good of a fighter he is–“

“We’ll have to send our best,” Sagittarius finished for me. “In other words, you. So, let me guess. We time it for the middle of the night, so that we’re catching people asleep and murder them in their beds.”

I turned off my helmet’s invisibility. “Yup.”

I didn’t have to look to know Lacuna was pouting. I could hear it in her voice. “I was hoping for something more interesting than skulking for hours.”

“You won’t be,” I clarified, turning to them. “This is only the first stage of the plan.

“Stage two is to raise the alarm. We create a series of distractions. First, Branson uses his power on a bunch of guinea pigs and sets them loose over the city, setting off the explosions once Krigarguden is dead. Then we teleport people into strategic locations, dressed in Fyrtorn clothes over their armor, making it look like a revolution. We play both sides, leading groups into fights against each other, making use of the chaos and disorientation and lack of leadership to take them down.

“However, we avoid direct confrontation whenever possible. We don’t have enough containment foam to hit everyone, so as much as I hate to admit it, we need to hold the squads with those in reserve until numbers have been thinned out. However, maximizing the chaos and manipulating a group of cultists devoted to one person will take skill and finesse.”

“Which is where we come in,” Sagittarius said thoughtfully. “Yeah, I can see that. Attach each of us to a squad that we can lead. We’ll have to see what we can dig up in Krigarguden’s files and what little we’ve gotten from members before they offed themselves. Schrodinger, you want to coordinate in Fyrtorn, or out of it?”

“Outside,” she said quietly. “I can help more squads when I’m not having to worry about my own neck.”

Lacuna tapped her foot. “So, more boredom and anxiety, but we’ll be fresh to be awesome when it happens.”

Sagittarius shook her head. “Here’s the thing. You’re good at winging it, but when you plan like this, you’re usually much more in-depth than this.”

I nodded. “Let me finish the overview and we can work on the details. This is Operation Thunder Eyes. Next up, Operation Riding Demise.”


Thankfully, the door was unlocked. I’d learned to check these things before trying to pick a lock. Sagittarius tended to curse herself silently if she started on a lock and ended up only finding out that it wasn’t needed. Opening the door was frustratingly difficult, but at least it didn’t tear the sheath of fabric over me.

Quietly I made my way inside, the night vision automatically activating on my helmet. Inside was almost Spartan, with three doors. The house was somewhere between a shack and a cabin, but at least the floors were made of wood. The room that I entered was bare, save for a couch, two chairs, and a small table. Not what I expected in the slightest. Were they sure that this was the right place?

As I opened the door to the northern room, I confirmed that it was right — Krigarguden’s old armor was there, ruined and battered as it was, but it was still polished to a shine. The rest of the room was filled with pictures, trophies, and other relics of a long life dating back to well before the end of the world. While the other room was almost bare, this was where Krigarguden probably spent the bulk of his time, reflecting on days past.

None of my concern. I went back into the living room and tried the door to the south, only to find a small kitchen and a methane generator. I could see an open door leading to a bathroom. Which left only one door. I hurried to the living room and opened the eastern door, revealing the bedroom.

The bed was huge and well-used, and completely empty. No sign of Krigarguden anywhere.

“Operation Broken Sword is a go,” I hissed into my comms as I made my way back out.

Wait,” Lacuna said. “Are you sure?

“There’s no mistake. This is his home, but he’s not here. Operation Broken Sword is a go.” I made my way back outside, altering my map. A quick warning appeared in the corner of my vision, a warning that radiation was starting to get dangerous. Well, it wasn’t like I was ever going to have children anyway.


“That’s a terrible name,” Archimedes grumbled.

I ignored him, pointing out a courtyard in front of what looked to be the main temple. “Here. There’s plenty of clean sight lines all the way out of the village.”

“Shit,” Romeo said, approaching the map. “Yeah, I see whatcha doin’.” He pointed at several locations outside of the city. “‘Port ’em here, here, an’ here, yeah?”

I nodded.

Sagittarius shook her head. “And that isn’t helping me understand what you’re planning.”

I looked to Romeo and nodded once. With a grin, he explained for me.

“Y’can’t assume that errythin’s gonna turn out the way ya plan, y’know? Big man here’s trying t’ come up wif s’mthin’ that he can use if that’s the case. If’n Krigarguden ain’t home, then you gotta get ‘im ta show up. Takin’ him out’s the big one, right? So ya somehow get ‘im into a place where ya can get ‘im.”

Everyone stared at Romeo for a long moment, processing what he’d just said, before turning their attention back to me.

“Myself and a handful of volunteers will take position in the courtyard, set the temple on fire or otherwise draw attention, and then challenge Krigarguden directly.”

Archimedes snorted. “Rising Demise? Hell no. This is Operation Broken Sword, and if I’m putting two and two together right, it’s a bad plan.”

Did I really have any others?


Since we couldn’t see each other, we had to rely on the positioning software to get the six of us in place. It was surprisingly difficult, getting us into position.

Suppressor down.

Parkes Team in position.

Nitrate Team in position.

Nobel Team teleported in, getting in position. Over.

Finally, someone who could use basic protocols.

The confidant isn’t home,” one of the infiltrators groused. Well, it wasn’t that important. We could manage.

It took a few moments for the last dot to quickly move up to us, trying to get into position. “A full step back, half a step to your left.” He moved, and I sighed. “A full step to your other left. Appearances matter.” We needed to be in perfect position — a five point star, with me taking the leading spot. As soon as he was in position, I nodded once. “Hit it.”

I’d promised Branson when I’d recruited him that he wouldn’t have to use his power on humans. We’d tested his power on gerbals at first, discovering that he had a minor Master aspect to his power. If he hadn’t have killed fourteen people when he triggered, then accidentally killed another two as he’d tried to flee, he might have learned what he was actually capable of instead of going to prison.

All the guinea pigs that he’d placed inside the temple exploded at once. No doubt, he’d placed them so that nobody would actually be hurt by the explosions, which was fine. I didn’t need him to kill people, to have that killer edge, I needed him to cause great fireballs that would draw attention. And indeed, they were.

Almost instantly, before I was even done rocking from the three explosions, the alarm was called and people were running. We held still, ignoring the people who were rushing to put out the flames, the people staring in shock, the men who got within sight of the gilded building only to fall to their knees and openly sob.

None of them were important to me.

It wasn’t until Krigarguden practically glided into view that I took note. How couldn’t I? The man had a massive build and long, flowing dirty blond hair. Even from this distance, I could see the scars that covered so much of his body. I knew that he could have healed them, but he didn’t. No, he wouldn’t. They would be a reminder of his greatest moment, and his greatest failure.

He was magnificent. I could feel the power radiating off of him, making my lips part in awe.

Focus. His magnificence made it hard to do so, but I put it out of my mind.

“Three, two, one. Go.”

As one, the five of us hit the firestarter pellets, splitting them open and setting us ablaze. That fire caught the invisibility sheath ablaze, taking what should have been a limited blaze and turning it into a bright, but brief, inferno. We took the moment to grab our weapons, putting them together. By the time that the brightest light finished, the five of us stood in that star, four with halberds and me with my spear, the butts of our weapons on the ground, standing tall and at attention.

I set my speakers to maximum level. “Krigarguden,” I yelled. “I challenge you directly!”

The big man, the man who was responsible for so many deaths and worse, stopped in his tracks, turning to stare at us. The look on his face was one of confusion as he squinted.

“It’s a simple challenge,” I continued. “You and me, one on one, to see who the better fighter is. To the victor goes the spoils. Should I win, I gain Fyrtorn and all inside. Should you win, you…” Lying to him was hard, but I had to. I had to. “You gain my full army without question.”

The terrible, magnificent man suddenly straightened and laughed, deep and from the gut. He walked almost casually towards me, somehow seeming even more impressive for it. “A challenge? From something like you? Are you kidding?”

I took a slow breath. “No, sir. I’m dead serious.”

He laughed again, clapping his hands together. “Awesome! Excellent!” Everyone who saw him seemed to bow, to move out of the way. Somehow, that irritated him. I hated to see him like that. “All of you! No dallying! Get those fires out, and see to the wounded!”

With that, he turned his attention back to me. He was only ten feet away now. If it wasn’t for the scars, he’d be an ugly man, but with them, he looked… I wasn’t sure. The fact that he was smiling felt good, though. Really good.

“Tell me, what is your name?”

I couldn’t stand any straighter, or else I would have. “Relentless, sir.”

He seemed… disappointed. It wore off quickly, though. Instead, he put a hand to his chest. “And I am Krigarguden, survivor of Scion, lord of this land, and the hope of humanity. All who hear this! Do not interfere! This is a challenge that I gladly accept!

“And now that introductions are done…” He took up a tight, compact stance.

I took a breath, and suddenly he didn’t seem so impressive. Well, not in the way that he’d seemed magnificent a few moments before. The stance was still impressive; it was firmly controlled while still being loose enough to be adaptable. He probably had more experience than all of us combined.

I spun my spear around, jamming the point of it into the ground. I mirrored his stance, more for the gathering crowd of people than anything. Until I got him into position, I had to make this look good.

And with that, the two of us charged each other.

Manananggal 14.C

Inga smiled softly to herself as so many people crowded around the boy.

“It’s not going to be the same without you!”

“I’ll come back and visit, don’tcha worry!”

“You still haven’t met my boyfriend…”

“Who’m I gonna get to dork dance with?”

“You’re gonna be awesome, man!”

It was too cute in a way. Here was a guy who didn’t even count as a man yet, off to do an adult’s job, surrounded by people his own age or younger… And all of them were being so supportive. There were tears, sure, but there was a casual optimistic energy from the boy that seemed to infect everyone around him.

As she turned around, though, Inga was reminded that not everyone was infected. His brother and sister stood fifteen feet away. The shorter boy’s head was pointed towards the ground, eyes bulging, and his fingers were locked like claws, twitching under a strange strain that they were under. The skin of his face was pulled so taunt that it looked like it was going to tear. The sister had her arm intertwined with his, smiling happy in stark contrast to the brother’s… something.

For a moment, Inga’s instinct screamed that the brother was under the effects of a para, but she pushed it aside. For her, it was all too easy to assume that any oddness around her was a para at work. Too much time on a capture team. She took a step towards the pair, only to be stopped by a hand on her shoulder.

“David is holding up rather well,” the Matron said quietly. “Don’t you think?”

No, no he certainly wasn’t. But Inga understood. “Yeah, I’m proud of him.” They were saying it for David’s sake, not their own. “He’s very brave.”

That made the Matron smile. Inga had been doing personnel deliveries for a long time now, and rarely had to deal with the former Brockton Bay resident. When she did, though, the woman seemed to be intimately familiar with the more troubled charges under her care, knowing just how to treat them. How the hell did the woman keep track of so many people.

“Fruit bar?” the sister asked casually, a hint of pain in her voice contrasting the happy smile on her face. Of course it hurt, her brothers were leaving.

David nodded jerkily, and she pulled two pieces of fruit leather wrapped in wax paper out of her pocket. David took one, deftly unwrapping it with one hand before taking far too large of a bite out of it, barely chewing before swallowing and taking another bite. But it made sense now — part of the unnerving effect of his appearance was due to how he was clenching his teeth.

“You’ll bring him back every month?” the Matron asked.

Inga nodded. “Yeah. Mr. Welsh was very clear in his contract.” He was taking a decent pay cut to make sure that David came back for meetings with shrinks and to refill his medication. “How did he hold up while Mr. Welsh was away with the final stages of his training?”

“Not as well as I’d have liked, but better than I expected. He has severe abandonment issues on top of everything else. A combination of desperation to keep people close and a deep-rooted belief that everyone will leave him, either by choice or by death. He almost completely stopped doing his homework for a little bit there, but we got through graduation in the end.

“The question is, do you have a job for him?”

“Yeah.” Inga was trying not to stare at the boy as he finished the fruit leather. “He’ll be able to work from home, crunching numbers for one of the local businesses. They don’t have the space for another office, so it works out well for them. When they found out that we were bringing a math wiz from the Orphanage, they snatched him right up.”

Which was a white lie. The Wardens had tried hard to find a place to put David — no honorific, since he had no surname. He refused to take his father’s surname, but didn’t know his mother’s maiden name. That made things more difficult with the businesses, who didn’t understand how common of a thing it was here in the Orphanage, even more common with those children who were allowed to choose their own names for whatever reason.

If Inga had a coin for every time that she’d escorted a person named Kilo out of there…

It had taken a lot of pressure to get a business to hire David, but again, Mr. Welsh was insistent. Honestly, Inga was glad that they’d negotiated a decade-long contract with the township, because it would take seven years to start pulling a profit thanks to these two, not counting maintenance costs. But after the Medusa incident, it had become abundantly clear that the Wardens needed Mr. Welsh to help with S Class threats. She was specifically informed that she could play the reluctant game, but she couldn’t actually say no to any of his requests.

Except the hot tub full of geriatric strippers to be installed. And a uranium Atlas replica. And the Dragon clone reprogrammed to be David’s girlfriend. And the Simurgh clone that is 100% accurate to be Mr. Welsh’s. And…

Okay, there were a lot of requests that she’d said no to, but that didn’t stop him from grinning as he asked. She honestly had the feeling that if she’d said yes to any of them, he would have been disgusted with her.

She liked that. It reminded her of Cassandra a lot. You joke about the terrible things that you’d never do. Unlike him, she joked about eating dead hookers, though they would get along with the long pork jokes.

The Matron surprised her by suddenly stepping forward, walking to David. “Are you ready?”

“No,” he said weakly. “Basic panic response.”

“Because of a new, scary location?”

He shook his head, paused, and nodded. “A little bit, yes. New life. Away from everyone here. Scary. What if I have another episode? He should go without me. I’m too weak. I–”

With a languid fluidity, the Matron placed a gentle hand on his chest. “David, please. You’re far from weak. Your episodes come fewer and fewer with each year. You can’t help that you are the way that you are, but with it comes the intense bravery of having to face those terrifying, mind-warping things that others seem to shrug off. The bravery of knowing how everything could go wrong, of your instincts telling you that everything is wrong, but you brace yourself and do it anyway.”

The boy shook his head in tiny, jerky movements. “No. I’m forced to. Peer pressure. Society pressures me. Not brave.”

The Matron smiled softly, putting her other hand on his chest. “Maybe. I’ve felt terror, more than the average person, and I still carry the scars from it. When I was reminded of it, put back into my dark places, I couldn’t do anything to protect my friend. I just cowered. But even as you were thrust into places just as dark as mine, if not worse, you stood up to save Tony from those wildlings.”

The boy’s face somehow pulled even tighter.

“I know to you it seems like just a pressure, a hassle, but to people like me, you seem brave. But that’s the thing — bravery rarely seems brave to those who have it. It seems like something else entirely. They have to for whatever reason. But–”

“Eighty percent,” the boy said absently.

The Matron paused. “Percent of…?”


Inga looked, and Mr. Welsh was still hugging some dude, that same lazy grin plastered on his gaunt face. By the time she looked back, the Matron was sliding her hands up David’s chest, pulling his hood over his head.

“I wish that zippers were more common. I think you’d enjoy a hoodie with a zipper a lot more.”

Inga fought to keep from rolling her eyes. It was too hot to be wearing hoodies anyway, even the cotton one that David was wearing. He shook his head quickly.

“One major company and only a handful of minor companies made them before Gold Morning,” he said in a detached voice. “Many were strained by the Endbringer attacks, including the biggest after the sinking of Kyushu and the exodus following the ultranationalists taking over Japan and the difficulties in California causing the company that invented them to shut down. Scion effectively ended global zipper trade even before the collapse of infrastructure due to death and population loss. People focused on base needs before going to work making zippers. Twain steps in. Not profitable enough. Dropped production to bare minimum. Foreign sources start. Too little trade.”

The Matron smirked a little. “My little Accord. Finding how to rebuild the world by analyzing how it fell.”

David downright pouted. “I’m not triggered. If I haven’t by now, I never will. Because of that, I’ll never be special enough to be taken as seriously as he was.” He looked up at Inga, glaring.

That wasn’t entirely true. The Dragon’s Teeth were doing amazing things, if you looked past their blatant racism. Not letting paras in. How egotistical could you get?

But David might do well with them, if he could make it through training. Why was he looking at her like that, though?

“Still holding on, even after so much time with Tony?” The Matron’s smile turned sad. “I–”

“Someone say my name?” Mr. Welsh asked, touching Inga’s shoulder as he moved past her. Inga noted that even though his face was covered in lipstick marks, not a single one was near his mouth. Even his nose had a touch of red!

The Matron grinned at David. “I thought you said eighty?”

David offered her the smallest of smiles. “Numbers, not time. You missed the high-five brigade.”

“Yeah, my hand still hurts.” Mr. Welsh looked at Inga and the Matron. “Shall we blow this joint?”

The Matron folded her hands behind her back and looked to Inga, blinking slowly in approval. Right.

Inga smiled, making sure to be as friendly as possible. “This way.”

It wasn’t far to where the Wardens had their teleporter. They were expensive to maintain, but for high-profile places, and places with high-profile individuals, the cost was worth it. The Wardens gained enough people from the Orphanage that it would be worth it for that alone, even if they didn’t send so many people here to train. Or if keeping the Orphanage from getting attacked wasn’t deemed so important.

As they approached, though, her eyes went wide with all of the baggage. “What the…?”

“I held onto everything in the cabin that I grew up in,” Tony said proudly. “My folks never got the G.M. sash, but they have the pins. But I don’t let go easy. So that’s a good portion of it…”

“The rest is mine,” David said weakly. “But, uh, I didn’t come with very much.”

The Matron provided the answer more clearly. “All children raised here receive a small stipend every week. Some of it goes to their allowance, and the rest gets saved for when they either graduate or leave. Tony donated some to David, who spent all of his to make sure that he could last a while away from a place of unlimited learning.”

“Books,” David said with a sheepish grin. “I got all the books. Ever. Of all time.”

“Until you read ’em all and have to get more,” Tony said with a smirk.

“They’ll have more books by then. Or else I’ll come back and conquer the world.”

“All hail our benevolent overlord! May he reign forever with an iron–”

Mr. Welsh’s words were cut off with a gasp as the sister latched onto him from behind, hugging him tight.

“Sad… girl… hugs… Stronger than… any Brute.”

“I’m going to miss you, you horsecocked jerk.”

The Matron’s amused smirk dropped like a stone. Even though Inga was confused by the whole horsecock thing, that expression only amused her even more.

“Miss… you too… And my spleen. And I don’t even know what it does!”

As she let go, he turned around to hug her properly, immediately forgetting the feigned pain. “Hey. Two years, and you can decide if you want to join us or not. Longer if you wanna have more education. And David will be back, and I expect you to be his anchor while he’s here. So you gotta deal with one of us. If I get vacay time, I’ll be back too, alright?”

He let go, and she craned her neck all the way up to look at him. He had the softest smile as his red, misshapen hand wiped away a tear. “It’s okay to be sad, hon. You’re saying a small goodbye, but not a forever one. You’ll always be in our hearts.”

The girl opened her mouth to say something, but whatever it was, she couldn’t bring herself to spit it out. As Mr. Welsh let go again, she turned to David and opened her arms. After a moment’s hesitation, he threw himself into the tightest hug possible.

“Sorry for everything,” he whispered softly. “If I would have known what I was gonna drag you into–”

Somehow, the girl choked back her tears. “Shhh. I’d go through it all again gladly. When I wanted to die, you helped me remember how to live. Don’t ever be sorry for that.”

They didn’t say anything else, merely hugged each other tight for what felt like an awkward forever. When they separated, the girl nodded. “Right. You two, go. Now. Let’s not drag this out.”

David turned to the Matron, who opened her arms as well. Once again, she was met with a tight hug. “We’ll always be here if you need us, David.”

“Hopefully, I won’t have to?”

If he was going to come back every month… Oh. They meant something more serious than that. She’d read the files on him, how he could be dangerous when he felt threatened, but they said that he wasn’t a danger to anyone who didn’t try to attack him. Was there something else going on?

She didn’t have time to really think about it before the two separated. Mr. Welsh’s contract was clear, and he’d already signed it. If she suggested that David shouldn’t come, it might be seen as a breach of contract, and she’d learned the hard way that Mr. Welsh was savvy enough to use that against her during negotiations.

The three of them made their place on the teleporter, squeezing in among the mountains of books and personal effects. With a nod to the technician, a glow formed around them and everything became blurry. Their surroundings overlapped, and when it cleared, they were in their new location.

“Welcome to your new home,” Inga said with just the right level of pomp. “Your house is–”

“Close?” Mr. Welsh asked hopefully. “I gotta piss like a Russian race horse.” Russian… Inga frowned, but that only made the boy grin wider, waggling his eyebrows. “And that’s not the only think about me that’s like a horse!”

Now the horsecock comment made sense. She met his gaze, her expression firm. No, she wasn’t going to let this kid steamroll her like that. He was a Warden now, and while she had to play nice, she could at least stand her ground. “And what’s that, then?”

“We both have brown eyes!”


David turned to look at him for a moment before groaning loudly. “Seriously?”

Mr. Welsh let out a wheezing laugh, bouncing with impish glee. “Finally! Finally! I’ve been saying that for more than three years, and finally someone asked!”

David put his head in his hands. “And I willingly live with this.”

Inga grinned a little. Despite everything, she had the feeling that these two would get along just fine.

Manananggal 14.11

My helmet was in my hands. I wanted to die. I wanted to be released from this mortal coil. I wanted anything but to be right here, right now.

“I think nut boy would make a good squad leader.”

“Nut boy?”

“Uh… I don’t remember his name. Anyone?”

“I know the look of agony from being nutted more than I do his actual face. I’ve seen it… Two? Three times now? But it’s a very memorable face. His name? Your guess is as good as mine.”

“No, I believe that I know who you’re talking about now. He asked me if I could get better cups for everyone.”

“Right. That sounds like him, yeah. I’ve heard him stressing it to people.”

“Anyway, I think he does have what it takes.”

“But he’s been sipping the Relentless drink since before now. Are we sure that we want him leading a squad? I mean…”

If I would have known that I’d be sitting in meetings like this, I would have set myself on fire. At least then, the pain is going to end. Having Romeo hanging around, watching everything with a slight smirk, didn’t help matters any.

“Yes,” I groaned. “His power is to either phase out inanimate or living matter. One or the other. We’ll pair him up with the Master Breaker who can create the earthen cages, the woman with the shotgun skills from hell, the guy who seems to be doing well with polearms, and the Master who creates temporary Brutes of himself.

“Form them into a close-range unit. Right down your throat. Put their squad name up to the squad, and force them to agree on it. If they can come to an agreement, even if it’s forced, they’ll have a certain level of unit cohesion.”

Munteanu nodded absently. “Their personalities shouldn’t clash too badly from what I’ve seen. Good.” He made a few more notes. “That’s it for squad matters.”

“Thank fuck,” I groaned.

“Now onto logistics.”

Lacuna groaned. “Seriously?”

Munteanu raised an eyebrow. “It needs to be addressed.”

“He’s right,” Sagittarius mused out loud. “We’re here, we have people focusing on teaching, and it’s better to get this out of the way than to try and wrangle everything together for another one of these this week.”

Archimedes nodded, folding his arms over his chest as he leaned back in his chair. “Then let’s get this done with. What’s on the agenda.”

“First off, we received a shipment of halberd blades yesterday. Thirty-five in total.”

Another seven squads. Less for those who wouldn’t be using them. I did the quick math in my head. Thirty-five out of eighty-three people.

“The numbers are too low,” Munteanu continued, as if it wasn’t obvious. “And they report that their supplier is having some small degree of trouble securing more iron of the proper grade at this moment.”

I fought the urge to rub my eyes. “Because of course he is. And unless one of you knows a place where we can scrounge up a ton or iron…”

“I’ll ask around,” Archimedes said thoughtfully. “I still have quite a few contacts that I haven’t tapped since I hooked up with you.”

“Do it.”

“Moving on…” Munteanu checked his papers. “The five of you cannot realistically manage all of these people on your own, especially with word coming in that we may be be getting over twenty more mercenaries and volunteers for review next week.”

Romeo groaned. At least that smirk was gone.

Fortunately, Sagittarius was already jumping in. “Please tell me that you have a list of people with the best leadership skills.” She looked around at the rest of us. “Take a hint from the military. Just like a squad leader is in charge of their squad, have someone in charge of four or five squads. Form them into teams of five so that they’re technically in a squad.”

I pressed my lips together as I thought. Five people per squad, we were currently at shy of ninety people with more incoming… “Five squads per person for four of them, while the fifth focuses on leading the squad, reporting to us.”

“Makes sense,” Munteanu admitted. “We’ll have that report for you by the end of the day. I’m finding that Mr. Lindt’s handwriting isn’t nearly so bad as I’d expected.”

“Thanks,” Romeo said dryly.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Actually, yes. And it ties into that.” He shuffled his papers again. “I’ll spare you the exact details, but between our scheduled shipments of food, the gifts from the Sons of Bitch, and the donations of people and communities that are eager to see someone other than the Wardens or Dragon’s Teeth going for Fyrtorn, we’re actually running a surprising surplus right now.”

He turned his attention to me. “I’d like to suggest that the five of you, along with those leadership squads, cook a dinner for everyone.”

My eyelids felt so heavy that they might actually be in the process of sliding off my face. “Why?”

“It’s a tradition in many cultures that those in leadership do that sort of thing. A way of giving back to the troops. However, there’s a more practical reason behind it. Everyone is getting worked hard, being forced to tax their minds and bodies as they train and learn everything necessary for the upcoming operation.

“While morale isn’t a direct issue at this point, it can’t last like this. Intra-squad squabbles have yet to result in violence, but it’s only a matter of time. An army with a morale debuff is more likely to break.”

“What’s a debuff?” Schrodinger asked curiously.

“Wargaming speak,” I said quickly. “A buff grants you a bonus or improvement in some area temporarily, while a debuff either removes one or applies a negative effect.”


I turned my attention to Munteanu. “How big of a buff would this grant?”

“Assuming that we’re rolling a d20? With a good, satisfying meal cooked by your superiors, I’d expect only plus one or two. However, that would be enough to keep the morale of most troops from degrading, essentially removing a natural debuff in the short term.”

I nodded. “And if we make it a weekly thing?”

“I don’t have any hard data, but I’m thinking that biweekly would be better.”

“Right, we want it to be a special night. And if we break out some alcohol? We’ll suffer a debuff for the next day, but…”

“A one-day debuff in exchange for a night of controlled debauchery will still grant a significant net gain.”

Archimedes grinned from ear to ear. “I like this guy.”

Munteanu ignored him. “I’ll leave that for all of you to decide, as I would imagine that it will take some discussion. However, I would personally suggest pizza.

“Next, we’re running low on .50 cal HEAB ammunition, but not enough that I want to call off the shooting. I’m told that there’s more on the way soon.” Good. High explosive anti-Brute ammunition would be something that we’d need if the primary plan fell through.

“What if we call it off for a few days?” Sagittarius asked. “I know your skills get worse if you take a day off from practice, but…”

“I have a certain level of reserves that I don’t want to sacrifice for training. Relentless already explained the importance of daily training. If need be, I have standard anti-material ammunition available so that they can keep themselves sharp. However, breaking up the monotony for our sniper squad would probably be a good thing.”

“Excellent. Danke.”

“Bitte.” He glanced at his papers. “That said, we also got in our first shipment of armor, with more promised–”

“Armor?” I tilted my head. “I… I didn’t… Armor was never part of the plan.”

Munteanu shrugged a little.

“What kind of armor?”

“Though it isn’t anything as good as yours, it came from Mr. Abr–”

What?!” Christopher was never supposed to be involved in the slightest.

“Relentless,” Sagittarius said soothingly. “Don’t do–”

Too late, I was already reaching out.

“Relentless,” Nexus communicated.

“I’m told that you’re involving my brother.”

“I didn’t approach him. He asked to be involved.”

“And you let him?”

“I wasn’t in a position to say no. This is a complicated situation that won’t communicate well. If you wish to discuss this, please call.”

“One question. Did you tell him no?”

“I didn’t deal with him, but I doubt that the people that he dealt with did anything but encourage him. I knew that you would be upset, but I couldn’t fight it.”

“Thanks for the honesty.”

“Now is not the time to be making an enemy of you.”

The memory of what was communicated between us was just that. A memory of information and nothing more.

“–anything that you’ll regret,” Sagittarius finished.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said quickly. “I’ll call him when I get the chance and we’ll discuss it in person.”

“Probably at the cost of sleep,” Lacuna noted, a deep frown on her face. “How much sleep are you getting?”

“I could probably stand to have a nap during the afternoon,” I admitted. Three hours of sleep was plenty, though, right?

“We’ll start doing them daily,” Archimedes said, finally taking a note himself.

“I dont–”

“Non-negotiable,” he snapped. “I’ll start announcing to the troops that you’re going to do it, and if I have to, I’ll post someone in your tent to make sure that you sleep.”

“Won’t that make him seem weak?” Munteanu asked.

“Not if we spin it right. We can figure out the spin later.”

I sighed. “Really, I’m–”

“Vote,” Sagittarius said. “Everyone who thinks that Relentless needs to start taking a daily siesta?” All four of my friends and Munteanu raised their hand. “Romeo, get your hand up.”

“Oh! Didn’t realize I got a say.” He raised his hand. “I say talk about how he’s doin’ his own personal trainin’ an’ a buncha paperwork all night. That or give errybody a break, encouragin’ ’em ta take a nap.”

“The latter is ultimately more appealing in my opinion,” Archimedes said, affecting that cultured tone to his voice. “But as much as I thank the two of you for your involvement in this, I do believe that this is something that the five of us should discuss in private. I fear that it might lead to… harsh words.”

I didn’t want them to browbeat me, but it didn’t sound like I was going to have a choice in the matter. The downside to having friends is that sometimes they forced you into things that you didn’t like.

“Very well. Then the last thing of note is that the collected intelligence from both the Wardens and the Dragon’s Teeth have come in. We now have everything that they know about the layout and defenses of Fyrtorn.”

Now that made me perk up. A major flaw in my plan was that I didn’t actually have a plan for the actual assault itself. All that I’d had were a few suspicions and ideas. Now I could finally start getting into that part.


“You must be tired,” I said as we marched across the camp. The sun had gone down hours ago, and most of the fires had gone out. We were doing our rounds, watching for people trying to run away, setting things up for tomorrow, and generally trying to stay ahead of the game.

There was a lot of work to be done. Always too much. I didn’t have free time, always having to do something, talk to someone, or examine something. I didn’t mind in the slightest; it took my mind off the fact that whatever was inside me had grown down to my knees and was starting to snake thin lines under my calves like varicose veins.

“I can keep going,” Bridget said quietly. “Don’t worry.”

I didn’t need her for most of it, but if someone was trying to run, I preferred to talk. People signed on, sometimes no understanding that everyone here was expendable. That if need be, none of us would survive. Talking people into things wasn’t my specialty. I was meat. But she was good at boosting my charisma, boosting that part of my mind that let me speak good.

Plus, sometimes when she was around, my need for sleep all but vanished. Always handy.

I nodded a bit. “You’re pretty into this for a woman who was serving eight consecutive life sentences. And who was offered the chance of deferred service with the Wardens and denied it.”

“My boyfriend was crazy, and good at convincing me of things. It was part of his power. He convinced me that they were horrible people and deserved to die. He always had these grand reasons as to how they deserved it. And I… Somehow, I didn’t realize it until he was dead.

“I believed that I deserved to suffer. I doth still do believe in such a sentence.” I frowned. She and Archimedes would get along, when he wasn’t doing so good at being Archimedes. “However, a mission like this, where all of us might be killed in the service of removing a great threat from the world… That suits me. Plus, like most everyone here, I have a vested interest in ending Fyrtorn. I’ll consider this part of my penance for my stupidity.”

I nodded. “If we succeed, the name Fyrtorn will be a distant memory. I promise you that. But… What are you going to do afterwards? Once you’ve earned your freedom?”

“I don’t know yet,” she admitted.

As we passed one of the few electric lights, I looked at her. Bridget was dressed in the Christopher’s cloth armor and helmet, leaving her faceless.

I gave her an approving nod. “That looks good on you.”

Her shoulders straightened. “Thank you. And thank you for involving me with so much. Though, your meetings with the rest of your squad…”

“We discuss confidential things.” And they sometimes partially dropped character. I wanted to respect their identities. They might not stay after this themselves. They might get tired of the killing, or being in charge, or having giant targets on their heads. I wanted to ensure that they had a way out.

“Except for Mr. Munteanu and Mr. Lindt,” she observed.

I shrugged a shoulder. “They aren’t there for all of them. And honestly? Romeo needs to learn when to keep your shoulders straight and when to relax.”

“Do you ever relax?” she asked curiously.

“No. Not right now. Not until all this is done. This is the culmination of the Relentless project, just not in the way that Defiant and Dragon imagined it. The Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth are too exclusive. Both alienate a group of people on purpose — Wardens take paras only, and Dragon’s Teeth take untriggered only.”

“Despite them hiring outside of those groups,” she observed. “There’s some hypocrisy there.”

“And I’m sure that they recognize it,” I admitted. “If they didn’t exclude each other so much, things might be better. Wardens should work more closely with the Dragon’s Teeth, and the other way too. The Dragon’s Teeth could make use of the Warden Tinkers, and the Dragon’s Teeth could assist with the areas that the Wardens need to hire out. It’d keep their exclusiveness, but show that the two groups can work together outside of fights.”

“But the Wardens would never agree to it,” Bridget said sadly. “The wounds, lies, and corruption of the PRT still run deeply in their memory.”

“And the D.T. feel the same way,” I admitted. “They feel like the bulk of humanity is marginalized just because someone had a bad day. They remember the corruption and the lies of the Protectorate, the way the Costa-Brown was actually Alexandria, a violation of the rules, and the way that their own troopers were treated as… Uh… Well, people to be thrown away just so that the Protectorate paras could show up and get all the glory.

“Both eye each other with too much suspicion, ready to pounce should they think that the other has become too corrupt. There’s a silent cold war going on there, one that will only end in bloodshed some day.”

Bridget looked up at me, her face unreadable. Now I understood how infuriating it must be for people to look at me with my impassible helmet, not being able to read my expression. “The Dragon’s Teeth have spies in our midst.”

“And so do the Wardens,” I said quickly. “We’ve identified a couple from both organizations already. Honestly, I’d be surprised if they didn’t. You can’t make a big play like this without drawing attention, and the sort of forces that I’m gathering would be troubling to anyone sane. I’m not worried, though. So long as I walk the straight and narrow, they’ll see.”

“They’re also worried about you training so many criminals,” she pointed out. “Letting people go after training them like this…”

I rolled my eyes. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not actually doing more than getting them in shape and teaching them how to work in groups. I’m not stupid. But some of that does include a little bit of personal fighting. I’m not worried, either. If we succeed, we’ll keep to our promise. They either appreciate the second chance that we gave them, or I’ll see to it that they’re brought to justice with maximum fury.”

I looked around, then glanced at my watch. Twenty till midnight. “Nobody’s running. Go and get some rest. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

She nodded. “Alright. Sleep well, Relentless, when you get there.”

I watched as she turned and headed for her tent. I’d let her have her own. She was going to be attached to me during the operation, and I wanted to give her at least a little bonus for the bigger bullseye than what most had.

As soon as she was out of sight, my hand went to the teleporter on my belt and hit the button.

Instantly, pain exploded in my lower body. I could feel precisely where it had changed, and precisely where another tendril cracked into being on my left calf. I flexed it as I waited for the pain to subside with grit teeth. Other than the effects of the teleportation between dimensions, there wasn’t really anything wrong with it. The parts of my new body worked perfectly with the rest. Perhaps too perfectly — I didn’t have to go to the bathroom anymore. Which was good, because I’d already had to cut those pieces of flesh off.

I didn’t mind losing anything down there at all. A small price to pay for not having to poop.

As soon as the pain started to subside, I moved for the back door of the building in front of me, snaking through the kitchen and into the main sitting room.

“Relentless.” Nexus greeted me with a solemn tone. “I’d expected you to come a lot sooner. It’s been a month. Listen, about your brother–”

“Don’t worry about it. Water under the bridge. In fact, I’m going to have to ask for more help soon.”

“Oh.” With that, his face lit up. Back to the old Nexus that I knew and… Well, knew. He let out a cackle, that old energy back with a vengeance. “Then sit, sit at the table. The roast is still hot and it’s magnificent! I love venison so much more than beef! And this has just the right amount of fat. It is magnifique! It’s probably going to be one of my better venison roasts yet, so sit!”

I found the table set for a crowd, even though it was just the two of us and his two bodyguards. He quickly set about serving the four of us, taking a place next to me.

“So! Two hundred people! And within the next few weeks, I’ll probably have even–”

“No more,” I said quickly. He paused, a chunk of meat between the fork and knife, hovering over my plate. “Food, yes. Keep the meat coming.”

As he continued to load me up, I explained myself. “Two hundred and twelve people is enough for now.”

Nexus looked at me curiously as he gave me a healthy dose of mashed potatoes before turning to serve the others. “Two hundred isn’t enough to assault Fyrtorn.”

“Assault? No.”

“Ah,” the male bodyguard said, nodding. “You’ve got a plan.”

“Indeed I do. There’s thousands of fanatical paras at Fyrtorn, all worshiping their leader as a living god of combat. It will be nearly impossible to take them all out. We’d need an equal sized army, if not double their population. Even with our snipers, we can’t manage that, and however they suppress bombing runs… No, a traditional fight isn’t an option.

“Assassination is the key. A quick strike to Krigarguden to take him out, let everyone know about it, and then seed enough chaos as we make them think that there’s an uprising. Let them thin out their own numbers, hoping that in the confusion, they can thin themselves out enough to let us finish the job.”

Not quite right. The base of the plan was true, at least.

“The key is to kill the leadership, and we have that figured out. We’ll have a strike team while they’re all sleeping. The team of ten or so will slip in under the cover of darkness, destroy the teleportation suppressors that we’ve identified from the satellite pictures that Dragon provided, and then take out the top people in their homes, starting with Krigarguden himself.

“Mount his head on a pike in a courtyard, declare that he’s dead, and then sow the seeds of chaos. Comparatively easy, but we’ll lose a lot of people in the process, most likely. At least a quarter of our numbers will be involved with that, and I don’t expect many to survive. Then, as the fighting begins to die down and they start to get a grip on what’s going on, we’ll begin the proper assault.”

“I like it,” Nexus mused, settling down. “Go ahead and dig in, I need to do something.”

As I lifted my helmet, he clasped his hands and closed his eyes, earning a raised eyebrow from me.

The female bodyguard laughed at my reaction. “His girlfriend has got him doing it.”

As he finished praying, he turned to look at her, lifting his fists. “Fight me.” She raised one before he recoiled in his chair, covering his head. “I forgot my flesh is soft and spongy!”

The three of them laughed, and I mad it a point to smirk before shoveling a fork of mashed potatoes into my mouth.

Nexus turned to me, grinning. “So! If chaos is your game, then I’ll imagine that you’ll need more hamsters.”

“We’ll upgrade to guinea pigs,” I said with a nod. “But yeah. He’ll be vital for that.”

“And what about your brother, hmmm?” Nexus put his elbow on the table, resting his head against his fist as he looked at me, that grin plastered to his face. “You made it sound like you didn’t need more armor out of him, so what else is it that you need?”

As much as Nexus tried to know everything, had his agents spread out to collect every ounce of information possible, there were things that he wasn’t aware of. Things that I knew Christopher was capable of. After all, what was a little bit of radiation when we all were going to die?

Manananggal 14.10

“I thought you was gonna teach us how to fight,” one man called out suddenly.

Brute and Changer. Basic stoneskin type — enhanced strength and durability. Basic package, nothing special or noteworthy.

“Uh, I am.”

He snorted. “Bullshit. All yous been teaching me is how to toss people. You can learn this shit from a book.” I seriously doubted he’d ever read one. “When you gonna teach us how to really fight?”

Thank goodness. I’d been waiting for someone to pull something like this. “You want to fight?” I asked. “Then please, come at me.”

He looked at everyone else gathered around, snorting. “You… You’re kidding.” Gauging by how the large circle of people surrounding me were glancing at each other, they were either agreeing or ready for an epic throwdown.

“I don’t kid.” I adopted a kickboxing stance. “Put up your power.” My head turned to look at Bridget. “Don’t enhance me.”

I’d quickly taken to attaching Bridget to me. A basic Trump who enhanced those around her in unpredictable ways. She’d gone to jail because of her boyfriend and seemed quite eager to atone, and I found that my mind just plain old worked better when she used her power on me. Sometimes I thought faster, sometimes I realized things faster, sometimes I had access to information that I otherwise wouldn’t.

She nodded once, squaring her shoulders back.

I turned my attention back to the Brute. “Come on. You and your power against just me. No tricks or anything. Let’s go.”

There was a pause as he took a confident step forward, his skin turning gray and rough. On his third step, he charged, throwing what I was sure was a mighty right cross.

I doubted that he even understood that I’d used it to throw him off his feet with a simple toss.

“Mediocre!” I barked. That did it. He was back on his feet again, charging me.

I spent more of the next ten minutes monitoring the reactions of everyone else than I did him. He was easy. Just toss him about, throwing insults on occasion, relying on keeping his rage and pride to keep him coming at me.

A little better than half of the people started out looking excited to see one of the two of us get our ass kicked, but quickly grew bored. Others seemed to grow more curious about what I was up to the longer that the fight went on. Only three or four seemed to get what I was doing.

Over thirty people, and only around ten percent got it. Depressing.

After ten minutes, his stamina was gone. I’d taken to shoving and slapping him in order to goad him into attacking. His rage and frustration was still there, but he’d burned through his reserves too quickly thanks to his anger, and his adrenaline wasn’t able to sustain him. His stoneskin was visibly softening, too. Yet another person too used to relying on their power rather than building honest stamina.

Time to finish it.

As he threw a weak punch, I just went for a quick hip toss, dropping myself on him. Even with his power, he was too feeble to fight me at this point. I could use leverage to pin both of his hands down with only one of my own.

“This is what I’ve been teaching you,” I said loudly enough for everyone to hear. “You wore yourself out, you left yourself constantly open to attack from the outside. And me? I’m not even breathing hard. And like this, even without my weapons…”

I put my free hand over his mouth, placing my thumb to close one of his nostrils. His eyes went wide as he struggled harder, a fresh surge of adrenaline hitting him. I didn’t let him get up, though. Not yet.

I looked up at everyone else. “I can smother him like it’s nothing. It’s simple. Me, without any powers, taking on a Brute who could probably hurt me bruised and bleeding. Me, winning, all by myself.”

And with that, I let go, hauling the both of us to our feet. I turned my attention to where Sagittarius. “Get him a good place to sit and something to drink, please. And he needs double protein tonight.”

She took him from me, a grin visible on her face thanks to her open helmet. She’d been the one who had suggested that we use a demonstration like this. It’d be something that everyone here today would tell others who thought to challenge me, that I could take someone down without actually attacking once.

I turned my attention back to everyone else. “Against a superior foe, you can win. Powers are tools, the same as your weapons, the same as your body. If you know how to use your tools in a better way than your opponent, you win.

“The method of fighting that I showed you is also good for group combat. If you have someone at your back, supporting you, you can put a person on the ground and let them take care of the rest.

“However, that’s only one way to fight. Another preferred method…”

One man stiffened. He did that a lot when I called for volunteers. Each time, though, his stance changed subtly. It wasn’t the fact that he stiffened, it was the way that he tried to protect himself.

“You,” I said, pointing at him. “Show everyone how I fight.”

He paused. “Excuse me?”

“Attack me. Show me how I’ve fought you. I’ll take whatever hit you give, no retaliation, but I wanna see how you think I fight.”

He took a hesitant step forward, swallowing hard. He was nervous, especially after the last display, but I wanted someone to do something like this. I wanted to show that I wasn’t angry with them, that I wasn’t unreasonable. Tough, but fair. That was the hope, at least.

So I was a little surprised when he kicked me in the codpiece.

It didn’t hurt. He hadn’t done it with much force, and my codpiece and armor absorbed all of it. It was just… surprising. I doubled over a little, more because it was the appropriate response than anything, and he grabbed my helmet, bringing it down into his knee. Even if my faceplate had been open and not just the mouthguard, it probably wouldn’t have even broken my nose.

I snapped upright as if he had fully connected, but he was already spinning around with his fists raised, as if he were about to take on someone else. I opened my mouth to congratulate him, and to ask how he knew that, only to be interrupted by familiar laughter behind me.

“It looks like someone does know Bossman’s fighting style.”

I turned, glaring at Archimedes. “How many more times do I have to tell you not to call me that?”

Archimedes laughed again. “At least four hundred and three.”

“Don’t call me bossman, don’t call me bossman, don’t…”

People were laughing. Good. John’s mouthguard closed, though, and his voice came over the radio. “A VIP arrived with the volunteers, talking about helping with our food. Munteanu’s trying to negotiate, but he wants to deal with you directly.

I nodded once, looking back towards the group. “Archimedes is going to take over for me while I handle something. Pay attention — he might not have as much combat experience as I do, and he might have an attitude, but he knows his stuff.”

I patted Archimedes on the shoulder as he stepped up, hands on his hips as he looked at everyone. “Alright! Now, unless anyone has any questions that they’d like to raise, and I truly can’t believe that I’m asking this, but who wants to kick me in the nuts?”

As I hurried towards the center of the camp, I heard one younger guy call out. “I get we can kick guys in the nuts, but what about women?”

Archimedes laughed behind me. “Oh, dearest child, you need to learn a lot about women. You see…”

I shook my head as I hurried. What were they teaching people these days?

Meetings like this were becoming frustratingly common. So many volunteers wanted my personal word that we were going after Krigarguden himself, and that I had a better plan to do it than anyone else. Which I didn’t, but people were so dissatisfied with the way that the Dragon’s Teeth and Wardens had failed to do anything significant about them that they were willing to believe.

Mercenaries supposedly wanted to look me in the eye. That was disgustingly unprofessional in my opinion. I turned half of them away — they were little better than hired killers, and I needed people who could perform operations. Others, like those who had sold us the last shipment of tents, had wanted to spend some time schmoozing me.

Did everyone in a position of leadership have to deal with this? I was starting to wonder how anyone got anything done.

As I entered Munteanu’s tent, a familiar figure leapt to his feet, slapping my shoulder with a grin.

“Relentless,” Romeo Lindt practically shouted. “Heard you saved that village!”

I nodded once. “Thanks for letting me go.”

“What I wanna know, yo, is how you knew what was going down. How’d you get there ‘fore shit went south?”

“It already was south by the time that I arrived. They’d already fired off localized EMP and the assault was underway. If they would have had teleportation suppressors, we might not have made it at all.”

Munteanu cleared his throat politely. “Gentlemen. I know that I had work that I was doing, and I think that it’s safe to assume that Relentless was in the middle of trying to make his people work together effectively. Mr. Lindt, I believe that you had an offer that you were going to make us?”

“Right.” Romeo hopped onto the corner of Munteanu’s folding table that he used as a desk, almost knocking over the hammer on it and earning a muted glare from the dark-skinned man. Romeo’s smile never wavered, though. “So, I got some stuff that I can share witcha. A few rifles, a few hundred pounds a pemmican, more jars a saurkraut and pickled eggs than I can shake a fist at, and trust me, I’ve tried. Yams, too. Hell, I know you hurtin’ for bodies, so I’m willing to throw in thirty of mine. All good at fightin’ an’ listenin’. Might take some pressure off of ya, especially if you gotta teach the other noobs how to shoot. I got some real good shooters.”

I nodded slowly. Two hundred pounds of pemmican would make things a lot easier for Archimedes and Munteanu. Feeding all of us must have been a chore.

“That sounds wonderful,” I admitted.

“There’s a catch, though.” Romeo smiled at me apologetically. “I gotta stay here and watch.”

That made me raise an eyebrow before remembering that he couldn’t see it. I hit the button to make my faceplate go invisible. “Why?”

His shoulders slumped and his head tilted down to look at the ground. “Last time we talked, yanno how Mom was thinkin’ that I might be good at the stuff she ain’t? Well… She thinks I might be smart at all that political stuff. The talkin’, dealin’… Someone’s been whisperin’ in her ear, tellin’ her that we been gettin’ the shaft since we don’t deal with folks too much.”

He sighed softly. “Which’s fine and all. I mean, I ain’t sayin’ they’re right, but I c’n see where they comin’ from. But now she’s thinkin’… I dunno. Like I ought to do that or somethin’. That diplomacy stuff. But I don’t know Jack ’bout that sorta thing. I can only keep pretendin’ for so long, yeah? But, like, I can’t go to school or somethin’ for this, ‘cos I’d look weak. So, I was thinkin’… You’re doin’ all the stand-up stuff right now, and I got an excuse, keepin’ an eye on my guys ‘n galls.”

I folded my arms over my chest as I thought about it. “You want to watch us to learn what to do, but there’s a problem with that. I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time.”

Romeo lifted his head, grinning suddenly. “Yeah, and that’s what everyone says, man. And I get it, it’s probably true, too. But I like havin’ an idea that you can fake it, or get enough experience to fake it. You gotta have a starting point. And I’m wantin’… I’m wantin’…”

He frowned for a moment before hopping off the desk, earning another glare from Munteanu. “I ain’t scared. But I also wanna do right by folks. And I don’t wanna go steppin’ on toes like an excited rottie. So I try an’ learn, but…

“Folks say that I gotta act confident, but when I act confident, I act like a thug, and that’s some toe steppin’. So I’m willin’ to put my neck out, but first I wanna learn some basics. Walk before you run and all that. And the others? They don’t respect me. You listened, you paid attention, and didn’t think less of me ‘cos of who I am, where I come from, or how I talk. So I’m stickin’ my neck out, makin’ you an offer, and…”

He shrugged helplessly. “Trying.”

“Your first problem,” Munteanu said slowly, “is the way that you talk. You slur your words together to the point that I sometimes have trouble understanding you, and I’m quite used to all manners of accents. Second, you mistake confidence for dominance. It’s a common problem that I see. People making up for their lack of confidence, like what you have, by trying to dominate anyone who might challenge them.”

“I’m glad that you see it that way,” I said, before turning to Romeo. “I’ll take your food, and your men. No alcohol while here, and you’ll be assisting Munteanu here.” Munteanu made a soft noise of protest, but didn’t say anything. “Until you get used to what he’s doing, I just want you to act as a presence. When he feels confident, or if he feels that you can get on well with those who he’s meeting with, he’ll begin having you directly interacting with people.”

I turned my attention to Munteanu. “I don’t expect you to teach him how to talk. If you’re handling the logistical side of things, feel free and try to find someone to send him to to help with that. I doubt that we have any speech therapists available, but see what we can do.”

Munteanu frowned. “Mr. Archimedes is probably too busy to help, but he seems the most eloquent when he chooses. I… may have someone else, but I’ll have to check the notes that I have for everyone. It will take some time, though. I’m warned that we have more people arriving today, and I may have to reshuffle some squads.”

“That’s fine.” I turned back to Romeo. “I don’t think that you’re childish for this. When I was young, I sought out the very best to teach me the things that I didn’t know. The things that I wanted to know. But experience plays more of a role in this sort of thing than you might think.” I offered him a hand. “Plus, I really need that food.”

Romeo took it with a lopsided grin. “Fair ’nuff, man. I’ll be back in three days with everythin’. You won’t be regretting this.”

If he was giving me thirty able-bodied people? I already wasn’t.


“Relentless?” Bridget asked. I glanced at the blonde woman. “What are we doing up here?”

Up here being on a set of scaffolding in the middle of nowhere. It was a fair question. She simply didn’t know — I’d hadn’t filled her in that today was the big day.

“No matter how this goes down, even if I fail against Krigarguden, I want to change the world for the better.”

She tilted her head curiously.

“After Gold Morning, there was a lot going on. Time and time again, things just became unimportant. The Wardens always had some sort of big emergency going on that needed their attention. Someone deciding to be a psychopath. Another attack. Fyrtorn. The Machine Army. Teacher. There was always something, and so some things just got pushed into the background. I don’t fault them for it, but it is a tragedy that so many things fell by the wayside. And everyone else had so many other things on their mind that nobody had reason to think about ghosts of the past.

“I intend to fix one of those things that just got completely forgotten about. And this is a test of it.”

Bridget looked around. “So… We’re up here waiting for something?”


“That Tinker that you hired?”


“Are you actually going to give me an idea before it happens?”

I sighed. “My childhood is ending.”

Bridget tilted her head at me curiously.

“They used to tell me… I was too nice. Too innocent. Too naive. That I held onto childish dreams, and should let go. They used to tell me that I needed to be thicker-skinned. That I needed to be more cautious. That I’d need to attack first. That I’d need to shoot to kill. That I could still be a good person, but I needed to be just a little more ruthless.”

Below us, I could hear so many people quietly whispering. I’d brought everyone. Nexus had made sure that I had reporters present. I didn’t want them to see this, but I needed them. They had to.

“But that’s a double-edged sword. There’s so much that you just can’t take back, not without powers. You can make amends after hurting someone’s feelings, but you can’t take back the incident. Someone can’t get their virginity back. You can’t save a man long dead.

“It isn’t a switch that you can turn on and off. Skin gets thicker by forming a callus. You can’t lose naivety without someone getting hurt and losing trust. Once that door is opened, once something happens the first time, it only gets easier. You just have to walk that road and see where it takes you.”

Thirty seconds,” said the voice on my comms.

I took a deep breath. “Can you strengthen my resolve?”

Bridget focused for a moment before frowning. “No. Sorry, I don’t seem to have that right now.”

It happened. Her power was unpredictable like that. Maybe.

Ten seconds.

I felt the platform that we were on shift even as air pushed at my back. Lacuna’s gentle hand touched my back. Bridget might not be able to strengthen my resolve, but Lacuna could. That was good. My hand lowered to my hip, and then he appeared before us.

He was naked. I wasn’t sure why he was naked, but there he was. Despite the fact that he was hitting middle-age, he was a muscular, lithe man. Neatly-trimmed facial hair framed his mouth. Thin cuts on his body that were fresh. And his calves were bisected by the wood floor of the scaffolding. We’d screwed up the height.

He had just enough time to look up at us, to register the pistol that I’d drawn, before I pulled the trigger.

The murmuring below went silent as his body slumped. After a brief hesitation, long enough for me to holster my weapon, Bridget reached out to touch him, barely getting a hand on his shoulder before I cut her off.

“Don’t bother. He’s dead.” I’d hit his heart. In my free time lately, I’d been practicing my shooting for just this moment.

I calmly climbed down the scaffolding. There wasn’t a need to hurry. Everyone would want an explanation. But as I reached the bottom, I found the speech that we’d written to be inadequate. Or maybe too much. I wasn’t sure. Really, it all condensed down to one thing anyway. I took a deep breath and called out to everyone that could hear.

“Jack Slash is dead.”

And with that, I began walking forward.

Manananggal 14.B

Ah, spring. A magical time. The temperature was warming up and the days were getting longer. Plants were blooming. Animals were screaming at each other to try and get laid. And John was being urged forward by a couple of Dragon’s Teeth towards the ground transport.

“Come on, man,” he said with a sigh, rolling his eyes. “I can only move so fast with the chains on.”

The female trooper snorted under her armor. “Yeah, yeah.”

Fuck it. “How about you tell me where you’re taking me, and I might move a little faster? Getting told to pack your shit and scramble doesn’t say much.”

“Wait,” she said, looking at him. “They didn’t tell you?”

“I ain’t heard shit.” His mouth was usually better than that, but just this once, he was willing to be crude for their sake.

“You’re being transferred to a minimum security location,” the male trooper said. “Effective immediately.”

John’s mouth closed tight. A minimum security location, eh? He’d done his crime, and was willing to do his time. He’d been angry, hurt, and had clung to that anger for a year. He’d deceived people, good people, and almost killed them. He was fine serving out his sentence. It had taken him a year to let go of the rest of the hate, but he got it. He deserved this.

Was that why he was being transferred? Did they just now figure that out?

Did good behavior actually count for something?

Prison here had been hard. Getting flown out to do hard labor here and there under the watchful eye of the heavily-armed D.T. was bad enough, but being caged up with other paras was even more dangerous. Even with all of the work that went into keeping people from killing each other, it still happened often enough.

Those who did, though, often got shipped out for “special duty.” Every once in a while, the ships would come back empty. John didn’t like to think about those times.

But it gave him time to think. To cope with everything. His temper might be worse than it used to be, but otherwise, he was more at peace. Just three more years, and he’d be free. Hopefully, freedom would help with the temper.

This, though, was good news. Maybe he’d be in a general population prison, where containment foam wasn’t always pointed at you, and the bars didn’t stun you if you so much as brushed up against them. That thought alone put some spring into his step and increase his speed.

He didn’t complain as he was loaded onto the large ground transport. Already, there was one woman and two guys on board. Each in their own little micro-cell — just large enough to strap yourself in, the metal grating tight enough that you couldn’t do more than poke a finger or two between, and a containment foam sprayer right above you. The cell didn’t look like it was one of the stunners, though.

Minimum security indeed!

As soon as they unceremoniously closed the cell, he turned himself around and sat in the seat, working to get himself buckled in. He’d learned the hard way his first time in one of the fliers that not getting yourself buckled in could get you in a heap of trouble. Fortunately, his nose hadn’t broken from when he’d fallen out of his seat, though the stunning make him wish it had.

As other inmates were loaded aboard, he took a look at the people on either side. To the right, he had no idea. To the left, he didn’t remember the guy’s name, but he knew of him. The para that turned people into living bombs, able to be set off at will.

John had it bad, but this guy had it worse. A broken trigger that killed twenty, then a panicked flight from the Wardens that had killed four more. Now he was practically a wreck. Deep bags under his eyes, a scraggy beard, perpetually hunched shoulders… The definition of guilt. John could respect that, and seemed to recal trying to talk to him once, but had been met with only a miserable look and silence.

Just like John had been when he’d first gone to prison. Just like how the guy looked at him now, before looking back down at his hands.

Instead, he focused his attention across the aisle to the only woman here. She was a pretty thing, with delicate features and long, blonde hair. Maybe early twenties, looking far too unconcerned with the cat calls that she was getting. She was noteworthy because she was simply here. Normally, men and women were kept strictly segregated, so her being on the same transport as the rest…

His thoughts were cut off by guards leading another woman. A familiar woman, with short brown hair and an all to familiar face. John moved to jump to his feet, only to groan as the seatbelt cut into him. At least she was close enough for him to watch in shocked silence as they maneuvered her into her own cell.

As soon as they moved away to collect the next person, John called out. “Beth!”

Beth looked up from buckling herself in, her eyes wide. “John?!”

“Ay, you know that fine piece of–”

John spun in his seat, eyes flaring with anger. “You fucking say one fucking word about my sister, and I fucking swear to you, I’ll take going on special labor to beat you down, you son of a–”

There was a tell-tale crackle above him of the foam sprayer powering up. They didn’t need to power it up like that, but it served as a nice reminder that it was there and that he was getting too loud and angry for the guards’ liking.

He took a deep breath, holding it for a five count before releasing it. Right. He was going to minimum security. He didn’t need to go back to regular security. He looked back up at Beth, ignoring that another woman was being put on the transport.

“You good?”

She nodded, looking weird with her short hair. The shortest that he remembered her hair ever going was down to her shoulder blades. Had something happened? Had she gone butch or something?

“Yeah, I’m good. Some rough spots. I hear the men’s pen is safer. But I’m okay.”

How the hell could the men’s be safer than the women’s?

“How about you?”

“I’m good. Good-ish. Few rough spots, few problems. I… Are you going to min?”

Beth’s eyes lit up. “Even better than that. Mm, but that’ll come. But yeah, you’re going, too?”

“We all are,” the first woman said in a voice like melted butter, with more than a hint of a weird accent. “Which is… odd. How long do the two of you have?”

Beth glanced at her. “Three years out of five.”

“Huh. A lot less than me.”

Beth’s face grew hard as she took a careful look at the woman. “I don’t recognize you.”

“There were three hundred women in our block.” The women turned her head to look at her. “I knew all of three.”

“The hole?”

The woman nodded. “Not for violence on my own part, but I used to… have a rep on the outside. One that the courts knew I didn’t deserve. Two of those three tried to kill me.”

Both John and Beth were nodding. Some things didn’t change.

John coughed. “So, uh. What’s going on that’s–”

He was interrupted by a bark from one of the troopers over the speakers. “Buckle up!”

Beth’s hands flew to the seatbelt before pressing on the sides of her tiny cell, a grin on her face. A moment later, the engine of the transport rumbled to life, shaking the entire transport. The look on Beth’s face was practically orgasmic.

John couldn’t help but smile a little at that. She’d always had a thing for internal combustion. They’d always said that with her love of ICE, it was kind of…

His thoughts ground to a halt as he remembered something. “Holy shit. Gas.”

The woman next to Beth laughed, looking at him. “You didn’t know just by looking at this thing?” She laughed. “The Dragon’s Teeth broke out some of the old PRT stuff from mothballs, it seems. So they must be making their own gas.”

PRT? That sounded vaguely familiar to John, but he couldn’t place it. Instead turned his attention to Beth. “Your hair!”

She raised a hand up towards her head as best she could in her chains. “You like it?”

“It’s short!”

Shit, he’d opened his fat mouth. She ducked her head a bit. “I, uh… Short hair is harder to grab. I saw a girl get her face parted by someone, and…”

Oh. Yeah, he’d seen, and experienced, similar things. “No, I get it. You didn’t, uh…”

“No, you?”

“No.” A small lie, for her sake. He hoped she wasn’t doing the same for him. Being the big brother was hard, especially since all that they had left was each other. “You, uh… I mean, it doesn’t look bad on you, just… different.”

They fell into an awkward talk, discussing what they’d been doing. The both of them had been sentenced to five years of hard labor, which was a blessing compared to what they could have gotten. What they almost had gotten.

He’d worked in limestone mines. There was always a call for cement or just lime for crops from someone, so it was always in high demand. The work was hard, but the Dragon’s Teeth who watched over them were surprisingly good about it. He’d expected to be constantly worried about death, but they had geologists constantly crawling over the place, were given plenty of rest breaks, and the bracers that the inmates wore warned them whenever their health was in danger.

By comparison, Beth had been working flax fields. Surprisingly, it was a year-round job — planting and caring for the crops through the season, and then in the off-season either creating linen thread or making linseed oil the old fashioned way. He was actually kind of envious, as it would have been a job more up his alley than hers.

In a way, it was funny. While there were still insults, come ons, and snide comments being tossed around to other prisoners, both from the men and women, the people nearby were willing to just listen, sometimes offering a word or three when one of them stumbled over their own words, or adding their two cents in helping to describe their duties.

“The worst part,” Beth continued, “was the pounding. You’d pound and pound and pound for what felt like hours, and it felt like you should have a wagon load of seeds ready to go, but you’d only have this big bowl of them. I hated that. But I only did that the first winter, thankfully. This winter, I was put on the cookers. You have to–”

She stopped mid-sentence as the transport suddenly slowed to a halt. John frowned as he heard troopers talking, and those that were posted inside rising from their seats. Was something wrong?

Was someone staging a jailbreak? His hand balled into a fist. No, not today. He’d take the spray gladly, but none of these people were escaping. He couldn’t maintain his power forever, but he could at least make it a lot harder for people to try and get out.

The rear of the transport opened, and the people near there shut up. John couldn’t see, but beyond the soft murmuring, he could hear slow, heavy footfalls. It felt like forever before someone walked into view. And in that moment, all the guilt that John thought that he’d moved past was back.

The armor. The color was wrong, but he recognized that weird armor in a heartbeat. Some of the troopers were wearing something like it now, probably something that Dragon had made by studying it. It looked like a rigid, tight cloth that hugged the body, but he knew from having felt it before that it was made of thousands of little hexagrams, little larger than the head of a pin.

The color was wrong. Red and blue had been replaced by red and green. The boots, shins, groin, forearms, upper chest and shoulders were all covered in a heavy, almost gilded metal. There was a helmet and a utility belt, which were new, along with the assault rifle slung over the man’s back. The weapon in his hand was a weird two-pronged spear, but the shaft itself was exactly the same.

Jordan. There was no mistaking him, even if John couldn’t see his face. It was something in the way that he moved, the way that he took a step, the way that the helmet briefly turned to look at him before moving on. Even without the armor, John would be able to tell him in a heartbeat.

Memories came flooding back of John’s brief time as a mercenary, of the young man with the weird smile. The guy who spent every moment that he could doing something. Of the weird, wordless songs that the guy would sing. Of the constant training, of the absolute, almost feral savagery that he’d unleash on wildlings.

Of Jordan laying on the ground, apparently unconscious, before hitting John in the back of his head with a revolver a few minutes later.

John’s breath caught in his chest. He’d heard that Jordan had taking on a pseudo-endbringer and won. That he’d killed a town full of paras. That the Wardens were hunting him, and he was wiping the floor with them whenever they caught up.

As Jordan moved to the end of the transport, he turned back around. A hand pressed a button on his bracer, and he lifted it near his head.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a deep, booming voice that was magnified by the transport’s speakers. Too deep… “My name is Relentless. I am here to offer you a chance to serve out the remainder of your sentence in a minimum security facility, in exchange for your service.”

“I’m not sucking your dick,” a woman that John couldn’t see yelled. Someone slammed on her cell, making her yelp.

“I am offering you the chance to redeem yourselves by assisting me in an operation,” he continued. “Before this operation, there will be no cells, and after the operation, you will be free to act as you see fit.”

A man interrupted him. “If it gets me out of these chains, I’m in!”

“I will warn you, however. This mission will not be easy, nor–”


“–safe. There is a possibility that some, or all of us may die in it.”

“Don’t care, asshole! I’m in!”

Jordan, Relentless, paused for a moment. “We aim to go to Fyrtorn and kill Krigarguden.”

“Out,” the man declared quickly.

Meanwhile, John was lurching to his feet. Or, at least, he tried before the seatbelt thwarted him again. By the time that he got it unbuckled and was on his feet, Beth was already on hers, gripping the front of her cell.

“We’re in!” she yelled.

“Ditto,” a man called out.


Everything made sense now. It wasn’t just good behavior that put him on this transport, but his history. Maybe everyone’s history.

Other than his pause, though, Relentless didn’t seem to care about what people were saying. “During your time with us, you will be fitted with an anklet. If you try and abuse my generosity, it will disable you. If you try and tamper with it, it will disable you. If you survive the attack, you are free. If I survive, and you commit any crimes after being granted freedom, I will come for you. I will not stop until I see justice served, and I will not be gentle about it.”

The stories of Jordan killing people who pretended to be him flickered through John’s mind. “He ain’t kidding folks! He’s a good guy, but he will take you down!”

Relentless continued when nobody else said anything. “But I will only accept volunteers. If you wish it, you can join. If you don’t, then you will be taken back to prison to serve the remainder of your sentence. If you do, then I will train, prepare, arm, and lead you into battle. You will serve in joint units, combining both triggered and untriggered, working together. I will show you how. I will work you no harder than I work myself. This is my vow, my promise.

“However, you only have one chance to decide. While some of you have made your decision already…” He cast a glance at Beth. “…I ask that you all take a moment to think about it.”

A hush filled the transport, as 28 people thought about what he said. After a moment, the guilt-ridden man in the cell next to John’s looked up.

“I won’t use my power on humans,” he said weakly. “Not ever again. Not even if they’re Fyrtorn.”

Relentless moved to the man, regarding him for a long moment before nodding. “Fair. We’ll find a way to make you useful.”

“How do we know you legit?” a woman called out.

“You don’t,” Relentless responded, turning to address her. “Beyond the Wardens and the Dragon’s Teeth both being willing to let me do this, all that you have is my word. You have no reason to trust me. You don’t know me. But you have my word, and you’ll find that I keep it.”

After another pause of silence, he nodded once. “Alright. Sagittarius, Archimedes! Bring the anklets. Lacuna, be prepared to stop them if they try anything. Schrodinger, give her as much advanced warning as you can.”

With that, he turned to the first woman. “Are you in or out?”

“I’m in,” she said quietly in that weird accent.

A man in armor similar to Relentless’ hurried over, carrying a bunch of anklets. As the cell opened, a trooper moved to unlock her chains.

It was finally happening. John’s eyes locked with Beth’s. She was grinning a bit, but all that he could feel was stern resolve. His best friend. Her fiancee. They were coming. It might be two years late, but they were going to save him.


Teleportation was always a disorienting thing, and something that Quincy never got used to. The brain couldn’t quite handle such an abrupt change in overall scenery. One moment, he was in New Brockton, and the next, he was in an open field dotted with tents.

He hefted his pack a bit as a man in armor strode calmly to greet him, a spear in his hand. “You’re the man that Nexus sent?”

“Yes.” Quincy met him halfway, offering a hand. “Quincy Munteanu.”

The man switched hands before shaking Quincy’s. “Relentless. This way to your tent.”

Relentless? So this was the man that Jordan had become? Quincy wasn’t sure if he believed it. This man was different from the Jordan that he remembered. Too official. Rigid, almost. Jordan had been fluid, a bundle of nerves whenever it was anything official. There were reasons why Ms. Abrams had handled it all.

But as they walked, Relentless wasn’t about to give him time to dwell. “Nexus was vague about what you were going to do for me.”

“Mainly contract negotiations,” he said, matching Relentless step for step. “You’re going to have a lot of mercenaries joining, and you’re going to need someone on hand to help with that and conflict mediation with them. I’m also going to help with logistics. An army can’t march on an empty stomach, and since I won’t be handling contracts all the time, I can pitch in there.”

“I’m glad to have you,” he said matter-of-factly. “Anyone willing to help me focus on what I have to is invaluable. I’ve already assigned one of the criminal paras to assist me where she can, but I’m already finding that there’s more paperwork than what I’d imagined.”

“And trying to wrangle criminals, mercenaries and volunteers on top of that is hard.” Quincy nodded. “I prefer to make written reports over verbal ones, but I’ll keep an eye out for you, and try to let you know if I see any problems coming up. I’ll warn you, my handwriting isn’t very good.”

“You’re not alone in that. Neither is mine.” They fell into silence for a moment before Relentless spoke again. “You don’t seem like the type of person to be sitting in an Illinois Gimmel field, doing this sort of thing.”

“What gave it away?”

“Your suit.”

His suit? He’d chosen to bring suits that he could afford to have destroyed. But he was going to be doing official business, and when you were doing this sort of work, you had to look your role. So to Quincy, it seemed a weird thing to be a giveaway. Now, had Relentless said that he was a bureaucrat, paper pusher, or anything else along those lines, it could have made more sense.

Oh. Maybe that was why. The suit was the mark of a bureaucrat. Quincy nodded to himself, pleased that he came to an answer so quickly, even if his little joke had fallen flat.

“My wife is pregnant again, and our house can’t quite hold six people comfortably without certain concessions. I’m being offered enough money to outright buy a new house.”

Relentless nodded wordlessly.

It was easy to think of him as Relentless and not Jordan, at least for Quincy. Jordan had always wanted to be a hero, and he idolized the heroes of the old world. It wouldn’t be unexpected for him to model himself after one so utterly and completely that he lost himself.

When Quincy had been told that Jordan wanted to challenge Krigarguden, he hadn’t been surprised in the slightest. That was a very heroic thing to do. When he’d been told that Jordan was raising an army to do it? No, that wasn’t right. That didn’t fit Jordan at all.

But it did fit Relentless. Jordan probably didn’t even thought of himself by that name right now. He was completely Relentless, focusing entirely internally so that he could do what needed to be done. That sounded like Jordan quite a bit. Putting himself through hell to do what he felt had to be done. Before, it had been completing the contract. Now?

Now, he was putting Relentless through hell.

As they passed a group of people being talked to by woman in similar armor to Relentless’, the bigger man nodded towards them. “Criminals and volunteers. So far, so good, but we need more bodies. More trained bodies. That’s where the mercenaries come in.”

“Of course,” Quincy mused. “I’ll have my work cut out for me. I’ll single out people who served in the military for you to possibly assist with training, but parahumans never worked well in military units as I recall.”

“No,” Relentless confirmed. “For the same reason why the Wardens hire so many consultants for their HQ. If you put enough paras in one location, things tend to erupt. The Russians mitigated this through infighting and some degree of brainwashing. And brainwashing isn’t an option for me, for various reasons.

“Things are better than they used to be since Scion’s death in many ways. Twain shouldn’t exist at all, and I wish that someone would do a study as to why it still exists. New Fairfax should be the same way. What I can do is rely on the Wardens model. Spread them out, encourage competition, and turn a blind eye to safe rebellion while cracking down when things begin to toe the line.”

Quincy frowned. “That’s going to be hard.”

“Thankfully, I have masters of human psychology with me. But if you notice, we’ve spread the camp out, and will continue to spread it out in the cellular structure. One unit per cell, spread the cells out. Give them space. Force each unit to live with each other for now, to encourage unity. At least, until our–”

A woman in armor appeared out of thin air in front of them. “Less, that Tinker you wanted is on the horn. She doesn’t sound like she’s biting on the job offer. Something about not thinking that her tech is possible for what you want?”

He nodded, silent for a moment before responding. “Get Bridget, have her meet me in the comms tent. We’ll see if she’s as good at boosting people as the files say that she is.”

“Gotcha.” And with that, the woman turned and was gone with a pop.

“Tinker?” Quincy asked.

“Multidimensional teleportation Tinker. She seems to focus on rapidly spinning electromagnetic fields, along with some gravity manipulation and other effects. I have a suspicion that I want to play out to increase our positive rep, something that’s been overlooked for far, far too long. We need all the positive that we can get right now.”

Relentless gestured towards a pair of canvas tents. “You’ll find a cot in one, and the other’s set up as an office as best we can with what we have available to us. I wasn’t sure what you need, but I have paper for now. We’ll look into getting you a computer.”

“Thank you. Records of everyone so far–”

“Already there,” Relentless confirmed. “I apologize for the lack of comfort, but…”

“It’s fine.” Quincy squared his shoulder back, focusing on the tents. “I survived Leviathan. I’ll survive this, too.” It was time to get to work.