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, 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?