As he doubled over in pain, I grabbed the back of his armor and hauled. Unfortunately, it seemed that I hauled too hard – instead of cleanly planting him onto his face, the armor’s straps snapped and sent the both of us tumbling to the ground.
Did the Wardens not teach that you were supposed to care for your armor anymore?!
As I crawled out from under him, I delivered a couple of punches to the back of his neck. Not enough to do any real damage, but enough to gently discourage him from getting back up and leave him tender for a few days. Maybe a week. Or two. I was on my feet again in a matter of heartbeats.
“Enough!” the handler barked, and authoritative tone to her voice.
“I can take him,” the first cadet growled, the one with the shimmering fists. I’d been surprised when she’d gotten back up the first time, let alone a third now. The first time she’d tried to attack me, I’d stunned her heavily. Did she have a grudge or something?
The handler wasn’t taking it, though. “I believe that Jordan has given you more than enough concussions for one lifetime. If you refuse, my report will reflect it. I should remind you that your membership is extremely prohibitive.”
The woman was clearly debating it. The other cadets seemed to be more willing to listen. There was one in every crew, it seemed like.
The handler let out a breath. “The last time you fought him, he was disarmed, injured, and confused. Now he’s in armor, warmed up, and more than ready to wipe the floor with all of you. He’s been showing restraint. And now that he knows who you are—“
“I’m more than happy to break your legs for fun,” I finished for her. Still… I wasn’t sure what encounter they were talking about. The clues were there, but…
But that wasn’t what really caught my attention. Prohibitive. Either she’d just gotten out of jail, or she’d gotten an early release so that she could join the Wardens. That… That was very much against their philosophy. Interesting. The only time that they did that was if someone was willing to flip on someone else in exchange to become a Warden.
The woman lowered her fists, and the shimmering around them vanished. She didn’t want to, but the threat was too much. Everyone else began to pull themselves off the ground.
“Everyone back to the craft. If I’m not back in fifteen minutes, assume that I’m dead and get out of here.”
That made the cadets perk up. “Excuse me?” one guy asked.
“You heard me.” The handler’s eyes were locked on mine, or as close as she could get through my helmet.
“We’re not going to let you—“
“You don’t have a choice,” she barked. “My orders come from on high. If he decides to take me apart, then… Then it gets interesting, I guess.”
There was a long moment of hesitation before they started to file off. She didn’t say anything, though. She was waiting for something. Fine. I could fill the space.
“That armor,” I said with a jerk of my head. “He hasn’t been caring for it.”
“That could be a defect.”
“Then he should have noticed it before now.”
She frowned thoughtfully before giving me a nod. “Fair.”
“They aren’t working as a team.”
“Noted, well before now. I’ll be addressing that on the trip back.”
Good. Even if they were assigned to different places, they needed to learn how to play nice with others. “And if anyone goes for my halberd when I put it to the side again, I might not be so gentle next time.”
“Two broken fingers and a chipped tooth isn’t bad, all things considered, but I’ll take that under advisement and suggest that they modify the next briefing.” She glanced behind her. Apparently satisfied that the cadets were far enough away, she turned her attention back to me, far more relaxed. “Your sister asked me to talk to you.”
That made my eyebrows lift. “My sister?”
Her voice was thick with sarcasm. “She must be confused. She wanted me to ask why you were wearing a skull paint. The only person that I knew of painting his face like that was Relentless three weeks ago.”
Ah. I shrugged a shoulder. “How much do you know about me?”
“Unlike the cadets, I’ve seen the version of your file that doesn’t have much black ink. I know about the deal with Valkyrie. Handlers are required to know, but not our bosses. Hence us coming while you’re on vacation.”
Good. But still, the way that she’d phrased it… “Rumor in my world is that he does a lot of undercover work. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s something to break up his visual profile in case he needs to remove his helmet for some reason.”
“Seems silly to me,” she said thoughtfully.
“So is running around going by a cape name these days.”
“I can’t argue with that.” She pulled a money purse from her belt and tossed it onto the ground between us. “Since you have a better chance of finding him than we do. S.O.P. for assisting with a Fyrtorn defense, if the person lives, even if the Wardens don’t have a hand in it.”
“I’ll make sure he gets it somehow.”
She nodded. “Good. Your sister wanted me to ask you not to take as many risks. Play it safe. Though it looks like you aren’t doing a good job of that.”
My hand touched the five points on my face where the para had… something. I knew that it was a red rage, but I had trouble remembering them. She must have tried to claw at my face.
“It’s a dangerous lifestyle. Accidents happen, but I’ll do my best. Tell her to follow her own advice.”
The handler nodded once. “Anything else you want her to know?”
I thought about it for a moment. “I miss her. I love her. I hope that we can see each other again someday.”
She nodded again. “Right. Take care of yourself, Jordan. And thanks for not hurting them too bad. From what I saw, it wasn’t anything that they won’t bounce back from in a couple of months. And sorry about Alecia. She’s still pissed over how long it took her to recover from you braining her half to death with a mixing bowl. Her own fault, I say – you don’t get to blame someone for giving you brain damage if you attacked them first.”
Nope, still wasn’t ringing any bells. “Try and help her get over herself.”
“You got it.” The handler gave me a three-fingered wave before turning and sauntering off, putting way more into her hips than she needed to. Whatever.
I waited until I heard the faint whine of engines starting. How hadn’t I heard those before? “It’s clear.”
There was a long moment before Brenda stepped back out of the tent with a frown. “Those guys… What kind of assholes…?”
“It happens,” I said calmly, retrieving my halberd and settling back down. “Murphy’s law. If it can go wrong, it will, at the worst possible time. Even with the arrangement, the cadets will only show up at a bad time.”
Brenda made a soft noise as she made her way over to the stump. “You’re harder on them than you used to be. Breaking fingers?”
I’d gotten a cloth out of my pack and began to rub down the halberd staff, cleaning off the dirt. “They touched my weapon.”
“The fact that you let me handle it is amazing, then.”
I shrugged a shoulder. “You all are different. I trust all of you with it. But this… It’s hard to explain. I’m still uncomfortable with switching out for the spearhead. The shaft, the halberd blade… Mind if I get borderline metaphysical for a minute?”
To my amazement, she smiled happily at me. “Go ahead.”
“It’s like… I dunno. Like I’ve put part of myself into it. Like it’s a part of me now. It’s like my armor, I just feel wrong without it. And the idea of someone else using it… It just makes me mad. When that bitch stole it from me, I just wanted to… I dunno.”
Brenda nodded slowly. “No, I get it. Back home, I didn’t have a lot of free time. There was always studying, or chores, or whatever. I wasn’t any good at it, but I did like painting. There was a part of me that always kind of hoped that maybe… Maybe if I got good enough, I could just do that. We were allowed to do art and stuff if we had an aptitude for it, if… If our leader liked what we did.
“It got to the point where my brushes were a part of me. I miss them, but…” She sighed. “I wouldn’t have the possibility to use them now. Except for moments like these, and they don’t happen too often.”
I nodded. “It’s a pity that being near paras makes your precognition go screwy like that.”
“Shards.” I looked over at her. “We, uh, we called them shards. Because the powers… They’re granted by things that are fragments of Scion and his mate. Or, rather, the creature that Scion was an avatar of. They’re shards of that creature, which handle a lot of the mundane tasks automatically. We think that they’re at least somewhat aware. They… They’re alive, have their own minds and personalities, but they’re part of a whole.
“A gestalt entity, we called them.”
The corners of my mouth twitched upwards. “I keep forgetting that you’re probably as well-educated as I am, if not more.”
“And there’s a lotta stuff that we both don’t know that surprises everyone else.” She grinned at me, but it slid from her face. “That, uh… That’s part of the reason why I had a crush on you.”
Oh. Right. My eyes returned to my halberd shaft.
“I mean… Sure, your face isn’t much to look at, but… You’re a weird guy. Confident, yet there’s something about you that just makes people want to hug you. You’re bewildered a lot, but you just keep pushing forward. You’re genuinely kind, you genuinely want to help people. You’re smart. And while your face may not be much, you have no idea how much that armor shows off your ass.”
I couldn’t help but snort over that, no matter how awkward I was feeling now.
She smiled. “Plus, you wanted to dance with me. I could open my eyes every few seconds, just long enough to glimpse at what you were going to have me do. I liked that. I… I knew that nothing would ever come from it. I checked a few times. But…”
“Do you still have a crush on me?” I blurted out.
“What?” Now it was Brenda’s turn to snort. “Why do you say that?”
If I would have stared at it any harder, I would have burned a hole into the shaft. “Sarah, after Amy told me that she used to have a crush on me, Sarah said that girls only say that if they still have a crush. And Amy did, and—“
Brenda threw her head back, howling. I waited for her to stop, but instead she doubled over, hugging her legs to her chest.
“It isn’t that funny…”
“Oh, Jordan.” She forced it down to the point where only giggles escaped her. “Yes. Yes it is. You really have no clue about women, do you? There are no absolutes with us, any more than there’s absolutes with guys. I mean, is every guy obsessed with sex?”
I shook my head.
“Exactly. Like I said, you’re like a brother to me now. That would just be weird. So, no, I’m not going to surprise you with a make out session or something.” Brenda shook her head again. “I’m not… I’m not the best with people, but even I know that sometimes, you just have to get the past off your chest, you know?”
I didn’t really get that. It was better to forget the past and just keep moving forward. One foot in front of the other. “Yeah.”
“It doesn’t help that…” She grew quiet for a few moments before trying again in a tiny voice. “It doesn’t help that I’ve seen you die so many times.”
That got me to look up from my halberd. “Die?”
“You’re like a parrot, you know that?” She smiled a bit, but again, it faded almost instantly. “My power… It shows me probable futures. Possible futures. I’m not sure which, to be honest. But… Part of the problem is that I can see so many possibilities. So… I’ve watched you die in so many ways. The others might give you hell for pushing yourself so hard, but I let it happen. It…”
She shook her head. “You enjoy it, at least. And it makes sure that you’re that much better in a fight.”
I nodded a little. “Thank you. For understanding.”
Brenda grew quiet for a moment, picking up the mirror that she’d brought along, but not looking at it. Instead, she just fiddled with it in her hands. “Did… Did I ever tell you about my parents?”
“Just that they were sacrificed by the cult.”
She hesitated before nodding. “Yeah. I… I shouldn’t have been able to escape, but… It’s complicated, but I did. And I… I found the others. There were a lot of paras nearby, and I was struggling so hard. I knew next to nothing about the outside world, but I saw possibilities where I’d say stuff, and they’d roll along with it like it was fact. They’d protect me, and give me time to rest. So I did. I was ready to leave, because people like that…
“I didn’t think that I could trust them. But John, he just sort of… He convinced the others to take me in, even before they really understood my power. And when I said that I didn’t want to talk about it, Kathy just shut Emi down from hassling me about it. It was… It was nice.”
Brenda sighed, looking up at the sky. “You were right, one time. I was ready to just leave at any time. But now… I don’t know if I can. I don’t know if… If I could take that step. I don’t know. Am I making any sense?”
I was traipsing through a minefield here. I wasn’t the right sort of person to be talking about this kind of thing to. But I still nodded. “Yeah. I get it. I mean… I hate being alone. I hate… I hate not having anything to do. I can’t rest and relax like other people can. I have to have something filling that void. And it’s gotten worse since… Well, since we all met. Those times when you all are gathering intel? It drives me mad.
“And it’s because… Well, I’ve lost one family already. And despite the brief visit, and even that handler passing along the message, it isn’t the same. But I have all of you. That means a lot to me. You all help fill a void that I didn’t know that I had, and I don’t want to lose that. And I think that we help fill a void that you have.”
Brenda looked to me, smiling sadly. “Tell you what. I’ll give you a choice. Either tell me about what you have planned for Emi, or tell me about your family. I’d like to hear it.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not a good storyteller.”
“I don’t mind. Let’s fill some time until we go home tomorrow, okay?”
That I couldn’t argue with.
I had told Brenda about our plan later, and now I was regretting it. She’d ended up blabbing to everyone else, and now here the five of us were. In full Relentless garb, spears in hand, trailing behind Emi as she lead us through the town. The Wardens were trailing behind us, keeping a close eye out.
This could go so badly so quickly. It would have been better had we snuck in.
Still, we were at least falling into step easily. It was a natural march, like we did this a million times a day. Sure, we’d practiced a bit, and I’d made sure that everyone drank those elixirs, but this was still more than that. We all became someone else when we put on the armor. We’d all worn it together three times now, but already we knew our roles.
We became our roles. Was this what it was like for them when they were conning people? I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know.
Emi, or rather, Lacuna stopped a good twenty feet from one house. I could see some elements in the design, but it honestly looked like a normal, two story home to me. Nothing all that special. Somehow, that was a bit of a letdown.
Kathy laid a gentle hand on her shoulder from behind. “It’s okay,” she said in her Sagittarius voice.
“I know,” Emi said in such a small voice that I could barely hear it.
“We are with you every step of the way,” I said, putting as much of the accent as I could muster into it. The damn indigestion was making it hard, though.
“No matter what,” Brenda said, still finding the right voice for Schrodinger.
Next to her, John spoke up in a gruff voice. “Unless you back out. Then I’ll call you a pussy.” Alright, that had to be him in character. I couldn’t see him talking like that otherwise.
Still, it got Emi to snort. That was enough to get her to take a deep breath and make the final passage to the door. Carefully, her hand raised, and she knocked three times.
After a moment, a woman in her late middle-ages opened the door, eyeing us suspiciously. “Can I… help you?”
Emi’s grip on her spear shaft was almost shaking. Her knuckles had to be white under those gauntlets. I felt a small swell of pride, though, as he free hand reached up to raise her helmet’s faceplate.
And then there was crying and hugs. Tonight was going to be a long, awkward night.