Aphrodite 11.2

Checking security measure…  Complete.
Checking cybercounterattack suite…  Complete.
Checking knowledge banks…  Complete.
Checking deduction schema… Complete.
Checking longterm planning architecture… Complete.
Checking learning chunk processor… Complete.
Checking base personality model… Complete.
Checking language engine… Complete.
Checking operation and access nodes… Complete.
Checking networking capabilities…  Complete.
Checking observation framework… Complete.
Checking complex social intelligence emulator… Complete.
Checking inspiration apparatus… Complete.

No corruption, everything in working order.  All systems loading…

Awareness came, and with it, total control over the Pendragon IV.  Dragon activated the ramp as the engines were warming up.  It only took a moment to decide which body to use — she seriously doubted that combat would be an issue, so she went with one of her more human suits with the removable helmet to reveal the android head.

It was… mildly disconcerting to see herself walking next to Colin.  The version of her that was walking with him looked directly into the camera.  It was almost a full second before what that look meant synced up — Please be careful.

The original point-to-point interdimensional tunneling communication arrays were surprisingly small, the size of a watch.  As Twain had worked to make them marketable, they had been forced to increase the size time and time again.  Thankfully, Dragon had gotten one of the originals to analyze and incorporated them into all of her hardware.

It offered her a level of security that she wouldn’t have thought possible.  Each body, suit, or mainframe wouldn’t start without an active connection to the safeguard satellite that they’d put into place in orbit of Earth G ten years ago.  It was loaded with the most advanced attack and defense programs that they’d been able to come up with, along with a complete armament for physical defense.

Every five seconds, the various clones of her flashed all active changes to her code to the satellite.  It scanned everything, compared the various changes to the code to the predictive analysis program, scanned any flags (and there were almost always flags somewhere), collated the various changes, and then transmitted a patch back to the Dragon iterations, usually around the time that she was transmitting her next security check.

If a red flag came up, it transmitted a coded 65,536 bit encrypted signal.  Whatever iteration of Dragon that the flag had come from would kill herself, unleashing various programs to lead Colin to the perpetrator.  While he tracked them, what remained of that Dragon would actively fight the intruder.  It was mostly subroutines created for just that purpose, but from what she was told of what remained in the laptop from the New York attack, she could be pretty vindictive in her death throes.

It was complicated.  It was paranoid.  And worst of all, it was necessary.

Twelve years ago, Teacher had almost gotten her, utilizing a back door that she hadn’t known was there.  One that allowed him to watch her code.  She still wasn’t sure how many databases he got before they were able to shut him down, but they’d had to do some major reconstruction of her core processes in order to keep it from happening again.  To keep him from watching her ever again.

Teacher would keep trying, and they would keep coming up with more sophisticated defenses.

Colin made his way into the craft, already in armor.  His face under his helmet was dour and hard.  This wasn’t a time for talking.  She activated the motors, opening the roof to the building, and made the Pendragon IV lift off.  As it rose above the walls of the city, she could see her own home, complete with the little dojo that they’d built for Jordan over the winter.

Colin settled into the pilot’s seat, looking down at the letter in his hands.  After a few moments, she spoke into his helmet.

“This isn’t like you.”

“This isn’t like him,” Colin said grimly.  “We ran all the possible variables.  He shouldn’t have left for at least another week.”

True.  Jordan’s practicing of letters should have been notes to his family, something for him to leave them in the dead of night before going away.  Him leaving, only leaving a note behind to explain himself, especially so soon…  It went against everything that the predictive programs had come up with.  In all of them, Jordan spoke to them personally.

“I spooked him by mentioning that we wanted to talk.”

“No.”  Colin looked up.  “This was his plan from the start.  He had a specific timetable that he was working on, and you mentioning it didn’t actually change the plan at all.  We missed something.  The programs missed something.  Or something changed that we weren’t aware of.”

Jordan had been good for Colin.  Getting her husband to open up to others was hard, but by the end, Colin had looked forward to their daily interactions, to their sparring.  He was closer to the Colin that she remembered now, even directly talking to the Dragon’s Teeth who came to let them know that the drones had shown that Jordan had teleported out.  He’d even gone so far as to explain that they’d been protecting Jordan.

“You’re worried that someone’s interfering?” she guessed.

“Exactly.”  He looked back down to the letter.  “His penmanship is terrible.”

Pot, meet kettle.

Dragon said nothing.  Instead, she focused on the route to New Brockton and the portal there.  From there, they’d travel to Burlington and try to pick up Jordan’s trail.  He had hours of lead time on them, so it was entirely possible that he’d already be gone.  Hopefully, they’d be able to find some clue.  Or, if they were lucky, Jordan would have waited to charge his teleporter, and they could find him before he left.

They were halfway across the Atlantic when the her that monitored the communications arrays overheard an anonymous report.

“It looks like we were wrong again,” she announced as she revised her flight plan.  “He went to the Orphanage.”

Colin winced, his frown somehow growing even deeper.  “We dropped the ball on that prediction, but it makes sense.  He’d want to see home one more time.  He spent far more time there than Burlington, so of course he’d look at that as home.”

He was analyzing the situation, getting into Jordan’s head.  “Do you think that he’ll go to Burlington?”

“I’d give it equal odds, honestly.  Seeing his siblings might hurt him too much, but he’ll also want to leave his gifts.  Perhaps he’ll leave them at the Orphanage to be delivered by one of his friends there.”

The suit that she remote controlled nodded absently, though she didn’t bother plugging it into the predictive program.  If they’d learned one thing, it was that this situation was going too far outside of the behavioral norms.  “What’s the plan?”

Colin shook his head.  “The same as before.  Let him know who we are, let him know that we always knew who he was.  That we could use him.”

He hesitated for a moment, looking down at the letter.  Dragon let him; normally this would be a moment that she would push him a little bit more, but she had a feeling that for once, he was walking down the right path on his own.

“Damn kid.  He just accepted that we were who we said without thinking any deeper about it.  Came up with a narrative in his own head for it, and never looked back.  We have to explain to him that the Wardens are using an obvious information campaign against him, then explain that the Dragon’s Teeth have yet to come across any evidence that implicates that he was the wrong person at the wrong place.  Add that to our forensic analysis of his gear, and how we know he’s innocent.  Tell him that if we’re going to get to the bottom of what’s going on, he needs to come with us.

“At the same time, though…”  Colin hesitated, trying to find the right words.  He’d gotten better about thinking about what he was saying before speaking over the years, though he still had more than his fair share of moments where his foot was firmly in his mouth.

“You need him around,” Dragon finished for him.

“That’s… not quite right.  I need someone around.  I didn’t just realize how much trouble I was having with others until it slapped me in the face and I needed your voice in my ear just to have a breakfast conversation with him.  But he can help with our work, is engaging with others, learns languages quickly, and is a good sparring partner.  He’s sharp and quick, when he isn’t being blindly trusting.  I love you, with everything that I have, but…  I need more people in my life.”

“And you like having him around.”

The corner of Colin’s mouth twitched upwards.  “He’s not a bad kid, really.  We could have used more people like him when the Dragon’s Teeth were first being trained.  He and Marcus together would have probably seen to it that we’d had more troopers against the Slaughterhouse 9, and we might not have lost Marcus after Gold Morning.

“And yes, I like him.  He knew when to give me my space, and when to talk with me.  He had a lot of insight into the Dragon’s Teeth that I’d never considered, once I got him open to the the idea of talking with us about it.  Having someone besides you that was almost always pleasant, listening to you two talk, it was nice.  And…  I think that I got a lot better at interacting with him by the end.”

The next iteration of the standard trooper armor chassis was going to look far different, being designed with an eye towards appearance.  Jordan had suggested that the armor should strive for a better balance of intimidation and approachability, pointing out how the troopers who served communities had a degree of difficulty getting locals to accept them.  It was a good point, and if the Dragon’s Teeth were to continue to expand, they’d have to address it.

It had honestly surprised Dragon that he hadn’t recognized her when he’d first shown up in town, but the lie detection program told her that he had no idea at all.  It had been strange, to say the least.  There was a mystery about Jordan, one that she was sure that he wasn’t even aware of.

“We should have made the Pendragon faster,” Colin muttered to himself.

“You were the one who argued that we needed to still have a strong weapons array.”

“And I was wrong.”  He’d gotten better about admitting it, too.

Colin leaned back in his chair, thinking.  “If he hasn’t communicated with anyone that’s familiar with New Fairfax or before that.  No new strangers in town that interacted with him, directly or indirectly.  Something caused a change in his plan during the winter, but the more that I try and think about it, the less clear that it is.

“And then there’s how he came to us.  That teleporter of his expended its entire charge getting him to us, but him teleporting to where we were…”

“The odds are astronomical,” Dragon finished.  “You suspect someone nudged him towards us?”

“Possibly, yes.”

They fell silent again for a long time.  The clone at the Dragon’s Teeth headquarters was mining for any and all data they had on Jordan.  Surprisingly, both Commanders Van Dorn and Schluter had exchanged quite a few emails on him; even now, they were debating the viability of recruiting him.  The aggression index of their interactions tended to be on the high side, but it never approached dangerous levels.  A strange pair.

Sadly, it didn’t give much in the way of clues.

The clones who were overseeing her various projects were operating as normal, though they were working harder than ever now on getting new gear made.  None of the were the same despite the regular fusion of their code — different hardware, different input made them slightly different, giving her even more insight.  Even with that, though, she wasn’t making the necessary jumps to figure out what was going on.

“Are you obsessing, Colin?”

The corner of his mouth curled upwards.  “I prefer the term focusing, Tess.”

“Saw that.”  His smile grew wider.  An old joke between them.

Colin had been the one to name her Tess, and while she loved the name, she hadn’t changed her code to think of herself as Tess.  The part of her that respected Richter didn’t want to let go of the name Dragon.  Tess might be who she was now, but at her core, she would always be Dragon.

She slowed the Pendragon down as she approached New Brockton, flying through the portal.  It wasn’t that she couldn’t have maneuvered through it at that speed, but she didn’t want to cause a sonic boom when she passed through.  People would be bewildered enough by her passing through.  From there, she changed her trajectory, heading to where Saratoga would have been in Bet, bearing towards the Orphanage.

“Five minutes,” she announced.

Colin frowned.  “He’s gone.”

That was a surprise.  “Excuse me?”

“Jordan.  He’s long gone.  I was thinking about how long it took us to investigate the energy surge to the point that someone recognized him and made the tip to the Wardens.  Jordan’s pragmatic, if sentimental.  He’d want to keep his presence at the Orphanage to a minimum, since people would recognize him.  I can’t see him as staying any longer than absolutely necessary.”

For someone who supposedly wasn’t good with people, he was dangerously good at getting into people’s heads.

“Should we go to Burlington?”

Colin tapped his finger against the chair, thinking.  “No.  Normally, I’d say yes, but I’m starting to realize that we’ll just spook him.  If he teleports regularly, then we have a chance to track him.  Figure out the pattern, get ahead of him, and keep him from making a blind teleport.  Or for him defending himself in a blind panic.”

“Really?” Dragon asked, a slightly amused tone in her voice.  “You think that he’ll attack his hero?”

“No,” he confessed as he rose to his feet.  “But we were wrong about when he’d teleport, and we’ve been collecting live data from him.  If that data lead us wrong, then we have to assume that we might be wrong about other assumptions.”

“Then what’s the plan?”

“We need more information.   He thinks of the Orphanage as home, and there’s likely people there that we can talk to who can give us some insight.  There’s things that don’t quite add up, and I want to get them figured out before they bite us in the ass.”

“Alright.”  The logic was sound, at least.  “Two minutes.”

“Then I’d better look my best.”

As her android body stood up, so did he, using the augmented reality icons to tap into the android’s eyes and make himself a little more presentable.  What was going on in that head of his?  After all these years, he could still surprise her.

As the Pendragon IV moved in on the town, Dragon asked for permission from the local Dragon’s Teeth for landing permission, and got it almost instantly.  The Dragon’s Teeth used the Orphanage to train their officers, engineers, scientists, doctors, and other educated roles.  They didn’t offer much in the way of defense for the Orphanage, but instead assisted with transporting and guarding supplies, and the construction of new facilities there.

They were also almost the only source of signals that she could tap into here.  The only ones with wifi.  How she missed cell towers.

As they landed, Colin dropped the visor on his helmet, but kept the mouth open.  Dragon didn’t bother to put on the helmet of her armor — he might be taking his spear, but she didn’t envision the need for combat.  She could control the body and suit in a wide enough range that she wouldn’t have to worry about putting another clone in it.

“Main building?” she asked aloud as they stepped off the craft.  The sky was starting to get light out as the sun was getting close to rising.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Colin said with a nod, walking tall and drawing attention to himself.  “Someone will want to meet with us.  I’ll let you take the lead for the most part.”

As they walked, though, she made out a man running towards them from the main building, the dormitories.  Tall and broad shouldered with a good physique.  As he drew closer, he nodded to the two of them.  “I take it that you’re here to see the Matron?”

Dragon smiled politely.  “Please.”

“As soon as you passed through New Brockton, they warned us that you were coming.  This way, please.”  They followed him, but it didn’t take long for the man to turn his attention to Defiant, a slightly grim smile on his face.  “I never thought I’d see the day when I was leading you somewhere.”

Dragon sent a query to the network, hoping that one of the other iterations of herself could pour through the backup data from St. Louis and come up with a facial match.

Colin frowned.  “Do we know each other?”

The man’s smile turned wry for a moment.  “Fear our skills!” he boomed, his voice resonating with power.

Colin jolted, surprised.  “Über?”  A moment later, the confirmation came back.

Über chuckled, though his heart wasn’t in it.  “I haven’t gone by that in a long, long time.  It’s just Greg now.  Mr. Rankin if people are being professional.”

Colin stared at him as they walked.  “I’m more than a little surprised to see you here.”

“Yeah, well…”  Greg shrugged.  “It’s surprising that after Armsmaster broke the hero and villain truce for fighting Endbringers, the guy he’d become would have a hand in saving humanity.”

Khepri might have been responsible for figuring out how to defeat Scion, and while Flechette had played a significant role, Colin had been the one to pull the trigger on the Tinker gun that the Simurgh had made, striking the final blow to Scion.

Better to step in now than to let Colin put his foot in his mouth.  “What have you been up to, Greg?”

“I came here as a guard, lacking anything else to do.  I spent quite a lot of time just… drowning my sorrows, feeling miserable for myself.  Lost, rudderless.  The usual.  We had a lot of them back then.  Tattletale had a knack for putting us here.  Now I’m a martial arts instructor, among other things.  I help out elsewhere on occasion where they might need my power.”

Dragon quietly pushed a copy of herself to the android body, ready to activate if it lost contact with the Pendragon.  It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Über, it was just a precaution that she decided to take.  She would never allow herself to be violated again.

They fell silent as they entered the massive dorms of the Orphanage, following his lead.  He took them up a flight of stairs, walking past people who gaped at the three of them.  Some adults, some students, but Dragon could understand it on all their parts.  How often did people here really get to see the famous Dragon and Defiant?

Without even knocking, Über entered a room, revealing three people waiting for them around a table, a tea set already put out.  Dragon smiled politely, looking at the woman who rose first.  “You must be the Matron.”

“Please, call me Charlotte.”  She looked like she needed another four hours of sleep by the bags under her eyes.  She had an almost noble, controlled way that she moved.  Her dark hair was starting to go gray prematurely, but it did nothing to lessen her presence.  “Everyone just refers to me as Matron, it seems, and I like to use my name whenever possible.

“This is my husband, Forrest.”  The Patron nodded his head respectfully.  “And this is Ren An, one of the instructors here.”

“Hello,” the Chinese woman said in accented English.  Interesting.

“And I trust that Greg has introduced himself to you,” Charlotte continued.

“Yes.”

“Good.  Then I imagine that you are eager to ask questions.  Please, have a seat.”  Charlotte and the others settled themselves back down.  “Tea?”

Colin shook his head as he collapsed his spear down to the point that he could put it in his lap.  Dragon, though, nodded as she carefully settled into the chair — it seemed sturdy enough to hold her.  “Please.”  There were reasons why she liked these bodies, even if the flavor of foods meant nothing to her.  Having a meal with others could go a long way towards helping them relax.

“So,” Forrest began, but Colin cut him off.

“I’ve never been here before,” he said, perhaps a little more firmly than he should have.  “But Jordan claims that he saw me as a child.”

Charlotte sighed softly as she moved to pour the tea.  They’d been expecting someone to show up to ask questions about Jordan, it seemed.  “That’s because he did see you.  Or, rather, who he thought was you.”

Forrest nodded.  “Understand, when Jordan came to us, he was a blank.”

“A blank?” Dragon asked.  “I’m not familiar with that.”

The bearded man took a slow breath, his face folding in a deep frown.  “In the years after Gold Morning, a lot of people…  Well, they just couldn’t handle everything.  Maybe it was physical, like brain damage.  Often, though, it’s psychological.  Their mind just couldn’t handle what happened, so it just sort of… collapsed.”

“It’s like a waking coma,” Charlotte explained.  “The body is alive, but it’s like their brain has just shut off.  Back then, we were getting a lot of people like that, both children and adults.  People didn’t know what else to do with them, couldn’t support them, so… they sent them to us.

“When Jordan was found back in 2017, he was one of the better ones, but still a blank.  They found him walking in the general direction of the Orphanage, starving, his feet raw and bleeding.  We never figured out if he was a victim of abuse or if he got hurt out in the wilderness — his wounds could been either.  All that we knew for sure was that he was a blank.”

“He was one of the ones that we could park in front of the window,” Forrest added.  “He could eat if you put food in his mouth, nothing more complex than oatmeal or mashed potatoes, but that still put him better than some.  We liked to have them look outside, hoping that…  Well, that it would spark something.”

“At one point, we got a strange case come in, directed to us by the Dragon’s Teeth.”  Charlotte focused on Colin.  “I…  I don’t quite recall the details any more offhand, but there was a young girl who they could only get to come with them was by pretending to be you.”

“Me?” he parroted, and she nodded.

“Indeed.  They tried to make their armor look as much like yours as possible, painted it to look like yours, quickly bent some metal to look like your helmet…”

“And Jordan saw this?” Defiant asked.  Ever cutting to the heart of the matter.

“Yup,” Forrest said, nodding.  “It was the first time that he seemed to honestly respond to the outside world.  He asked who you were and just watched.  He didn’t do anything else for another two days, until he went outside, found a stick, and just sort of… shuffled along.  You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that he was mimicking what he’d seen.”

“And you never told him the truth?”

Forrest winced but remained silent.  Charlotte smiled sadly.  “No.  Understand, we had so many blanks, and…  Well, usually if we saw improvement, it would be a few months after we got them.  Jordan had gone a year, long after the point where we see improvement.  But he was fixated on the man that he had seen.  We could use that to…  To push him.  To get better.”

Forrest nodded a little.  “We’d had parahumans try and fix his brain damage, to try and see if they could fix whatever it had been that had made him a blank.  But seeing you…  If someone is given a ray of hope, a lifeline to pull themselves out of the abyss, do you really want us to take that away from them?”

“No,” Dragon said.  “No, I can understand that completely.  So you encouraged this belief that Jordan saw Defiant?”

“Not… entirely.  Jordan had associated Defiant with being a hero.  He wanted to be like Defiant, so he wanted to be a hero.  A child’s logic isn’t perfect, and we estimate that he was only four years old at the time.  So we used that poor logic in order to…  Well, like learning to read.  We told him that heroes need to be able to read, so he needed to learn the alphabet.”

Charlotte smiled a little.  “Jordan was a special case.  A blank who was quickly regaining… something of normalcy.  Not completely, but still improvement.  He was important to all of us.  He kept us from completely writing off the blanks, and kept us working with our older cases, the ones that we’d had from the start.  All of us were interested in him, trying to help him grow.

“In a way, it bit us in the ass.  Like with reading.  When we told him that heroes needed to be able to read, he threw himself completely into it.  By the time that he was five, he was reading at a fourth grade level.  He was like that with everything.”

“I’m familiar,” Dragon said.  His transcripts had said as much, and the way that he had learned Danish had spoken of that obsessive trait.  As did his martial arts training.  She turned her attention to Über.  “Which is how he found you.”

Über smiled broadly.  “He was a little squirt who found out who I’d been and what I’d been capable of.  He was… six, maybe, when he showed up at my post, just staring at me.  He didn’t get facial expressions back then, didn’t learn to smile until he was seven or eight.  But he just kept hounding me to teach him.

“So one day I was hung over pretty bad, and I just sort of snapped and flipped him.”  He raised his hands defensively.  “Not my proudest moment, I know.  I still regret it.  But the next day, the kid came back, showing me that he’d figured out how I’d flipped him.  At first, I thought that maybe I could just humor the squirt, but after a while…  He grows on you.  That…  I dunno.  That earnest desire just gets to you.”

That did sound like Jordan.  “So you taught him,” she said carefully.  Now a lot of things were clicking into place.

“Yup.  We’d do one technique or so a day, and he’d gobble it all up.  People tried to tell me that I shouldn’t, but…  For the first time in a long, long time, someone genuinely wanted me.  They wanted to be around me, they needed me so honestly and so much.  I wouldn’t listen.  Not until the first time that he really hurt himself more than just cuts and scrapes.  By that point, though, it was too late.  We couldn’t stop.”

“Jordan’s always been like that,” Charlotte said with a sad smile.  “By the time that you realized that something might not actually be good for him, he’d made it such a strong part of his life that you had trouble convincing him not to.  And if you seemed to, he’d find a way to do it behind your back anyway.”

Colin nodded.  “I’d like to go back for a moment.  You said that he didn’t have facial expressions.  When did that change?”

Charlotte frowned in thought.  “After he adopted Kendra.”

“Kendra?”

Forrest smiled.  “You know her as Sarah.  They both changed their names shortly after they adopted each other.  It was her idea.”

Colin’s blood pressure went up ever so slightly.  He was making connections.  “His name was Tobias, wasn’t it?”

Forrest’s smile turned sad.  “By the time that Jordan showed up, we had so many John Does.  We’d…  We’d kind of made a game out of naming them.  Tobias Namedlater.  Toby, to be named later.  He hated that surname.  I’m pretty sure that’s why he decided to go without one after they renamed themselves.”

Colin nodded slowly, putting more and more pieces together.  “Sarah had a big influence on him, didn’t she?”

Charlotte tilted her hand back and forth.  “It went both ways, to be honest.  She had a broken trigger, hurting a lot of people in the process.  Jordan was the first one to approach her afterwards.  She needed someone to love her unconditionally, and he…  Well, I wouldn’t describe him as broken, but he was still enough of a special case that he needed someone relatively normal around him all the time.

“She taught him how to smile, and how to express himself.  She… didn’t quite teach him how to play, I’m afraid, but she tried.  She at least found a way to get him to go swimming.  They were a good match for each other.  When they pulled Christopher into the fold, the three of them only seemed to grow even more from there.”

Kids supporting each other.  Still, Dragon pushed the inquiry onwards.  “I understand that he was only a middling student because he took so many classes.”

“That is not it at all,” An said, finally joining the conversation.  “He was a terrible student if it did not directly deal with parahumans.  Awful.  But weeks, months, or even years later, whatever he studied would suddenly come together in his head.  He would struggle one day, and then the next, he would understand it almost perfectly.”

“We think it has something to do with the treatments the parahumans gave him when he was unresponsive,” Charlotte added.  “Or maybe by the ones who used their powers on him afterwards.  We know that he learned better by watching someone do something, but until he hit his mid-teens, you couldn’t expect him to learn anything but those things the relating to paras in the classroom.

“We first noticed it after he failed French a couple of times.  But a year later, you never would have guessed that he wasn’t top of his class.”

Colin frowned a little.  “Can we get a list of those capes?”  Dragon fought the urge to wince.  Nobody used that term any more.

But Charlotte smiled sadly.  “Of course.  The ones that we can, at least.  The issue is that he would have anyone that he could find who had a power that he thought could make him better…  If they were here, he would bother them until they used it on him.  After we forbade him from doing it, he’d go behind our backs.”

Dragon’s attention was suddenly divided.  An update to her code revealed that one of her clones who had been monitoring the comms arrays, decrypting and listening in on every conversation transmitting through them, had picked up a message.  She quickly spoke in Colin’s helmet.

Jordan just fought a Warden team of cadets in Burlington.  Several injuries, one of them was shot.

“One moment,” he said before closing his helmet to speak with her.  “How bad?”

His sister was present for it.  That’s a huge violation of the rules.  She didn’t participate, but…

“But it’s only going to make things worse.  Damn it.”  His helmet opened again.  “Excuse us.  We just got some intel that we need to attend to.”

“Jordan?” Charlotte asked.  She wasn’t the only one who looked worried; the tension of everyone at the table went up a notch.

“He’s fine,” Dragon said comfortingly as the two of them rose to their feet.  “Don’t worry.  Before we go, though, I do have one thing that was troubling me.”

“Only one?” Forrest asked with a raised eyebrow.

“We’ll come back to discuss the rest later.  Jordan was seen speaking Swedish, but I didn’t see any Swedish on his transcripts.”

Charlotte shook her head.  “It isn’t one of the classes that we teach here.”  She paused.  “Chis’ parents were both from somewhere in Scandinavia.  Nobody is quite sure where, but he used to watch a lot of movies from the area.  Maybe Jordan picked up some words from the subtitles?”

If that was the case, then everyone had been underselling his learning capabilities.  But Dragon still smiled at them.  “That makes sense.  Thank you.  Once we know more about this situation, we’ll come back an ask you some more questions.”

Hephaestus 11.1

“So,” said the voice in the right helmet speaker.  “What’s your assessment of the city so far?”

Colin lifted an eyebrow.  The window in the upper right of his vision showed the boy looking over to his sister, but she waved him off like it was nothing.  Interesting.

“Um.  Well, uh…”  Jordan took a shuddering breath to steady himself.  His voice was higher-pitched than when he’d been just talking to his sister, and he was more than just a little nervous.  Was he hiding something?  “Even if we were to clear out all the wildlings, the city itself isn’t fit for resettlement.”

Colin’s eyes went back to looking at the reams of information that were streaming on the monitors.  Not content with a progress bar, he was watching file names.  On occasion, one would leap out, taking position at the top right of the screen that he was sitting behind.  Tess setting aside things that she thought the two of them might be personally interested.

The entire room was full of people, hunkered over computer screens, analyzing data as it downloaded.  Their bandwidth was far greater than fiber had been back in the day, sped along by various advances.  Various Tinker advances.  But the Wardens were more than eager to get to work on this, leaving everything that they found open to the two of them.

He had to admit, it was good to see Chevalier again.  Awkward to be greeted with a hug, of all things, but good all the same.  It had been a decade since the two of them had last talked, but for some strange reason, they’d picked up like it had just been last week.  Or, at least, Chevalier had.  Colin found it harder than ever to talk to him.  What could he say?

At least now he had an idea on something to say.

“Down to business?” he asked, the corner of his mouth quirking.  “I’m surprised that you aren’t wanting to chat more.”

Tess chuckled in his ear, the sound from her conversation muting.  “I’m trying a different tactic with him.  He’s awestruck by me, but his sister is extremely professional.  I’m hoping that if I can get him in a similar mindset himself, he can relax.”

Colin nodded a little.  “That’s not a bad idea.”

“I think that a few words from you would really make his day.”

She was pushing again.  She was always pushing for him to deal with people more.  It seemed harder than it used to, though.  He’d never been good with others, putting his foot in his mouth far too easily.  He was more efficient on his own, or with Tess.  Others, even in Europe and Scandinavia, just complicated his life.  Especially over there.  He didn’t speak the language, and honestly?  He didn’t want to.

For the most part, he liked being left alone.  He didn’t mind helping people, especially when threats arose out there, but…  He was doing important things.  Everything that he did advanced the Wardens that much more.  There was always more to analyze, new iterations of suits, technologies, programs to work on.  And then there was his side project, the one that he was fairly sure would never be completed in his lifetime.

He looked up at the window in his vision, and it automatically expanded a bit.  Two rapid blinks opened it fully, occupying his vision.  The boy, Jordan, was coming out of his shell.  Becoming more animated as he talked.  It didn’t quite reach his eyes, but that could simply be exhaustion.  He was wearing a large bandage on his neck, too.

Behind him, Sarah would occasionally look back with a knowing smirk despite the dark circles under her eyes.  She looked… genuinely happy, though.  There was a degree of fatigue in her movements, a subtle lack of dexterity, but her smile looked real enough.

The two had been through a lot since arriving here.  Who knew how much rest they’d gotten?

He thought it over.  They’d sleep in shifts, no doubt helped by the strange wildlings in their presence.  Each moment, though, their senses would be primed, ready for the first moment of danger.  That takes a toll on a person.  The longer that you’re in that state, the heavier the toll.  Without a proper period of rest, they would begin to make mistakes.  Rational thought would give way to faulty judgement.

How long before tempers flared, and they began to fight each other?

Could him saying anything really make a difference?  Something that Legend had said, long ago when Colin had worked under him, echoed in his ears.  Morale isn’t always about big speeches or grand gestures; a hand on the shoulder of someone suffering could mean more than any speech.

He watched as Jordan hefted a wildling, silently alternating between pointing at body parts and scratching its head.

“You’ve gone quiet,” Tess observed.

Colin’s lips pressed in a thin line for a moment before he spoke.  “I’m not sure what I’d say.”

“Hm.”  She sounded thoughtful.  “What would you have said to the Wards back in Brockton Bay when they’d done something impressive?”

He snorted a little.  “Impressive work.  Good job.  That sort of thing.  I wasn’t good with kids.”  He never had been.

“Funny.  Vista said in her memoirs that you were the second best leader of the Brockton Bay PRT that she’d served under.”

He blinked, instinctively turning his head.  As if to accommodate, the display in his field of vision split in two, showing a smirking Tess splitscreened with the two kids.  Her own doing, probably.  “You’re kidding me.”

“No.  She described you as a team dad to her.  Not necessarily there dealing with her day in and day out, but a presence.  Cool, calm, capable.  Hardworking.  Not big on pleasantries, but it made your few compliments honestly mean something to the kids.”

He could almost see that, he supposed.  He didn’t feel like it was the truth, but he could see how Vista might have seen it that way.

“She said that it was hard for her to be the youngest member of the team despite having been a member for the longest period of time.  Everyone else treated her like a kid when she was as hard working as anyone else.  But that you didn’t treat her like a child.  In her eyes, you treated her with the same level of respect as you did everyone else.”

Had he?  It was so very long ago.  Twenty-two years.  A literal lifetime ago.

Colin wasn’t proud of the person that he was back then.  Looking back, he’d done a lot of things to be ashamed of.  He could see his logic behind each of those decisions, those multitude of actions that brought him shame.  But he would do it all over again.  So many of those poor decisions, he would have done again from the start.  The only difference was that he’d do better.

Which… also brought him a touch of shame.  He’d messed up so many lives, including his own, and done as much harm as good in some ways, and yet he’d still walk into those same mistakes with his head held high.  And he’d do it all for selfish reasons, too.

Without those mistakes, Taylor Hebert might not have become Skitter, might not have become Weaver, might not have become Khepri.  Without Khepri, would they have even beaten Scion?  Without those mistakes, they wouldn’t have the Dragon’s Teeth today, free from the rot that had festered within the PRT.  Without those mistakes, so much of Europe would be in even worse shape than it was today.

Without those mistakes, he wouldn’t have Tess.  If he could go back in time, to change anything, could he risk anything that might lead to her never filling a void in his life that he hadn’t known was in him before?

It was stupid.  Selfish.  But it was there all the same.

“If I say something at the end, will you help?”

Tess’ image smiled warmly.  “Of course.”  After a moment, though, her smile faded.  “Colin…  You used to be able to handle this without any problems.”

He sighed, glad that his helmet was closed.  She was right, of course.  It didn’t mean that he had to like the fact that she pointed it out, but she was right.  He had handled fans to a certain extent, and he had media training.  He didn’t think that he was good at it, but he could do it.  “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

Tess remained silent, which meant that she was waiting for him to continue.

“I was the stern, stoic one in front of others for the most part.  People expected that of me, and that was fine.  I could keep my responses short, brief, and gently push the idea that I had other duties to attend to.  The media liked that, and that gave me the freedom to leave early.

“This?  Ever since Gold Morning, the people who know me…”  He paused, struggling to compose his thoughts into words.  “Every time that we’ve been on this side of the ocean, people have looked to me like they’re begging for support.  Something more than just a nod of the head.  They want me to…  I don’t even know.”

“You’re exaggerating,” Tess said in a soothing tone.

“Maybe.  Here?  I can work in peace.  People understand how important this data is, and they’re willing to give me the room to do what we came here for.”  Which he was all too aware that he wasn’t doing, simply by talking to her.  On the other hand, she thought at speeds that he could only dream of.

“I just don’t know how to handle others these days.  And over there, in whatever city we end up setting up shop in for the year?  It isn’t just the language barrier.  There’s a cultural barrier, a way of life that I just feel like I can’t connect with.

“But you’re right.  My social skills have atrophied.  Maybe…”

Maybe what?  He wasn’t even sure any more.

“Alright,” Tess said.  “I don’t understand, not exactly, but…  I can help you.”

“Thank you.”  Colin paused, thinking about how best to handle this.  “What if we record a message in advance that you can give to him at the end?  Say that I’m very busy with the data, but I asked you to pass along the message for me?”

The image of Tess nodded slowly.  “That would work.  Any ideas on what you would say?”

Colin took a slow breath, rusty gears trying to turn in his mind.  “Hm.  I’ll want to thank them for their hard work.  Stress how important this is to all of us.  Inform them that they need to be careful until they come back.”

Tess tilted her head.  “Is that all?”

Is that all, she asked.  “You’re hinting at something.”

The image of her vanished, replaced by an image of Jordan in his armor.  Colin settled back, waiting.  Slowly, the image changed.  The red of the armor changed to match the blue.  A helmet like his sister’s appeared on his head.  It didn’t take a genius to guess where she was going as the almost-halberd appeared in his hands.

“You’re saying that he’s a fan.”

“He’s not just a fan, Colin.  I’m willing to bet that his brother patterned his armor specifically off of yours.”

“Minus the armor plates,” he observed.

“Minus the plates.  But the basic suit is there.  He’s obviously patterned himself off of you.”

Colin sighed.  “This is what I was talking about.  Fanboys are one thing.  But someone like this is…  This is hero worship.  I can pretty much guarantee you that I’ve never met this boy in my life, and he’s patterning himself off of me.  That suggests that I fill some sort of need for him.  I represent the fix to some sort of deep emotional trauma to him, and he’s basing himself off of me to avoid that pain.”

Tess’ face reappeared, wearing a surprised smile.  “And you said that you were getting rusty.”

“I’ve had to investigate copycat crimes in the past.  The same basic principle applies, right?”

“Not quite, but good enough.  And for the record?  I do disagree with your assessment.  If he just wanted to be you, he would have focused on Tinker things, or things to allow him to emulate Tinkers, rather than the wide array of classes that he did take.”

Colin frowned.  “Alright.  Then what do you think that it is?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say that he’s trying to be a hero, and patterned himself off of you.  Somehow, he latched onto you as an ideal hero, and is effectively trying to follow in your footsteps.”

“That really doesn’t help me much.”

Tess laughed.  “Alright.  I did promise to help.  What would you have loved to hear the most when you first joined the Protectorate?”

Colin considered that.  It seemed so far away that it was hard to remember.  “Here’s a blank check for your workshop?”

Tess opened her mouth and closed it again.  A show for effect.  “I walked into that one, didn’t I?”

“A little bit, yes.”

She laughed softly.  “Alright, then.  Let’s try a different tactic.  What would you say to someone following in your footsteps?”

“Don’t?”

“Besides that.”

He didn’t know any more, and that was the entire point.  He was in his fifties now, and there was very little that wasn’t machine these days.  Twenty years ago was a completely different world now.

“Alright.  Maybe…  Maybe some advice directed to the two of them?”

Tess’ smile grew wider.  “To the two of them, I like that.  Don’t favor Jordan over Sarah.  Now, what sort of advice?”

He looked to his left, where Jordan was silently talking to Tess.  The boy had such strange features that didn’t quite fit his skin tone.  He wasn’t a handsome man by the standards that Colin grew up with, beyond the scars and the exhaustion saying that he’d been through a lot.  He remembered people saying that sort of thing was attractive.

“If they have the food, to hunker down and stay at the offices for a little bit.  Find the barracks, lock the doors, and get a solid eight hours of sleep at the bare minimum.  Hydrate, eat well, and spend a few days of rest and recovery while moving on.”

“And?” she asked.

“And…  that they’ve deserved their rest.  As much as I hated it back when I was Armsmaster, I knew that I had to let myself rest after a particularly rough mission with my strike team, or else I wouldn’t be as efficient.  They’ve had nothing but a rough mission for a long time now, and a day or two of nothing but rest will make them more capable from here on out.”

“Okay, we’re making good progress.”  Tess smiled.  “See, you aren’t nearly–”

The images on his HUD blanked out, along with all of the progress monitors on all the monitors.  As people cried out, Colin was already moving, pulling a USB cable from his arm and plugging it into the computer that he’d sat behind.

A new image appeared in the lower left of his vision.  A circle of green dots, except for one that was solid red.  In the middle, a dot alternated between flashing red and blue.

The agent in the arm’s computer worked fast, picking up on the trial of breadcrumbs that Tess had left him and displaying them on the arm-mounted screen.  A fragment of code had been saved, and after it passed through his translation program, it confirmed his suspicions.  Meanwhile, the agent prepared a mapping file that traced the breadcrumbs to their source, translating it through the mapping program to give him a location based on the available data.

In the building.

Instantly, Collin was on his feet, sprinting despite the floor shuddering beneath his feet.

“Defiant,” Chevalier called after him, but there wasn’t time to stop and explain.

His armor’s systems had automatically copied the map that had displayed on his arm, allowing his onboard computers to set up a waypoint system.  Within moments, the map was displayed in his field of vision, letting him track without looking constantly at his arm.  Not as efficient as he’d like, but this was the first actual test of this particular system.

Colin’s footsteps thundered through the halls.  He took stairs two at a time as he ran, making his way up two flights, ignoring the complaints of the building around him.  Time might not be on his side.

The map marked a door in red, and he burst through.  The woman behind the computer barely had time to look up before he raised his arm, curling his pinky and index finger.  Automatic systems within the armor took care of the rest.  Containment foam sprayed out, coating the woman completely.

Now came the tricky part.  The waiting for others to catch up.

It was annoying.  It betrayed every single instinct in his body to stand there and do nothing.  Colin wanted to hurry to the computer, to begin analyzing everything on there as best he could.  Doing that, though, would only lead to more problems.  Security was… sensitive.

“What’s going on?” Chevalier asked as he caught up.  A contingent of people were behind him, not sure if they should be ready to fight Colin or the woman encased in hardened foam.

Colin forced himself to turn to look at his old friend.  “Cyber attack.  Ever since we closed the spying windows that Teacher used, he’s had to rely on more direct methods to try and get to Dragon.  When she…”

He took a calming breath.  This hurt.  Now that he wasn’t acting, his mind was feeling an echo back to when Saint…

No.  He could deal with those emotions later.  “When she destroyed herself, she was able to leave digital breadcrumbs here, with a ghost left behind to make it look like the hacker was successfully making progress.”  He turned his head to look at the woman.

Chevalier stared at him for a moment, processing what had just happened.  After a moment, he turned to one of the Wardens that had trailed behind, authority booming in his voice.  “Get in touch with Nexus.  I want his people here now.  We’ve been infiltrated again.”

The Warden nodded her head once before hurrying off.

Colin was glad that they had systems in place to deal with Teacher’s so-called students.  “Can I convince you to go over her laptop until she comes out of Teacher’s control?  My suit uses a lot of Dragon’s programming.”

“Of course.”  Chevalier looked over to the woman before sighing.  “But…  I don’t think that we’ll get the debriefing that you’re hoping for.”

Colin felt a sinking feeling in his chest, a simulation of what he would have felt if it would have been more organic.  It was made worse by the fact that the central dot on the display at the corner of his vision was still blinking blue and red.  “Explain.”

“Teacher is taking a page from Fyrtorn’s books.  He’s not just content to have people under the control of his power.  He brainwashes them now.”  Chevalier’s face was grim.  “She won’t give up anything, not without someone altering her mind.  She’s his thrall even when his power runs out.  If she even is under his power right now.”

Damn.  He honestly didn’t know.  Despite all of their precautions, despite everything, Teacher was adapting.  Why didn’t Tess warn him?  She had access to all of the data that the Dragon’s Teeth had.  She should have told him, so that they might have been able to come up with more methods.

A different track.  “Who’s Fyrtorn?”

“A cult, lead by a high-level Trump.  The kind who recruit by force, and far more effectively than the Fallen did.  Those they don’t take are slaughtered.”  Not content to just have puppets, Teacher needed a cult backing him up now.  Peachy.  “We suspect that Teacher has dealt with them before.  Whatever they do to cause such zeal in their followers, he might be replicating.”

“And this Nexus?” Colin asked.

“A criminal that we tolerate.  He has a grudge with Teacher, and people who can root out anyone that’s ever had Teacher’s power used on them.  He’ll loan them out for free under the condition that they can go free afterwards.  Thanks to that, and a few other things, we try and turn a blind eye to his operations where possible.”

That never sat well with Colin.  He didn’t like compromises like that.  He understood them on an intellectual level, letting one criminal go free because they’re useful, but that sort of thing never felt right to him.

Thankfully, the middle dot finally turned a solid blue.  Some small relief.

Back to more immediate concerns.  Colin disconnected the closed system from his arm, holding it out.  “In case her computer doesn’t give us enough intel, this contains a full record of everything that I downloaded when Dragon died.  The ghost will be deleting everything as it goes.”

A man with graying hair took the small computer.  “I’ll get to work on analyzing it right away.  I’ll keep my terminal off the network, just in case.”

Colin nodded once before turning back to Chevalier.  “I need an interdimentional communicator.”

Chevalier turned to the others.  “Lock this area down.  See what data we successfully got, make sure that it’s clean.  I want to make sure that this wasn’t a trap left by someone in the St. Louis archives.”

It wasn’t, but Colin wasn’t going to interrupt his old friend.

“I want her in the detention center ASAP, and get someone to go through her laptop.  Post a full squad outside her quarters — nobody goes in or out without first having been verified clean by Nexus’ people.  His agents are not to go anywhere without full backup, and under no circumstances are they to go anywhere that she’s been in the past week without my authorization.”

“Yes sir.”

Chevalier motioned for Colin to join him as he made his way down the hall.  “Teacher couldn’t have done this at a better time.  We finally get a secure link here, and…”

“The information’s safe,” Colin said as he fell into step next to Chevalier.  “The Tiamat XIII can house almost the entire archive.  We’ll bring it here once the upload’s complete.”

“I should have known that you’d think ahead for something like that.”  He laid a sympathetic hand on Colin’s shoulder.  “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.  Dragon will be fine.  I’m sorry that she had to be scrubbed from your local network, but we’ve had… issues in the past.”

Chevalier frowned.  “He’s not giving up on getting her?”

“No.  And neither will I until he’s dead.”

Pie 10.6

I charged, not bothering to go on the defensive at all.  He wanted it like this, me on the offensive, so he was getting it.

My first swipe wasn’t for him, not exactly.  His spear deflected the blow, but it was still a solid, resounding impact between the two.  Exactly what I wanted.  A spear that long and massive had to have some sort of Tinker tech trickery going on in order to prevent it from being massively unbalanced.  Tinker tech was powerful, but even his heavy armor was delicate when you got down to it.  He wouldn’t be able to make field repairs.

I would break his combat capabilities down if I could, and then tear him apart.

If I was going to hurt him, I had to make his weapon ineffective.  The world had become completely fucked if I was trying to destroy Defiant’s weapons, but here I was.  Being completely fucked as my lips peeled back in anger.

I thrusted, and he deflected the attack upwards, sending it over his shoulder.  Exactly like I wanted — as I pulled back, I jerked my weapon down, using my withdrawal to add extra force into driving the axehead against his shoulder.

He caught on to what I was doing immediately, making a backhanded swipe that impacted hard enough to make me stumble.  His followup swipe was just a hair too low, though, letting me duck just under it, slamming the butt of my weapon into the chin of his helmet.

Too high.

I turned, kicking to make him back off so that I could fix my grip on my weapon.  I didn’t have long, though, before Defiant jumped for me, ducking deeply forward as he did so.

My body moved instinctively.  Had I been thinking, I would have responded better as he went end over end midair.  A flip in battle?  It was insane.  Whatever power advantage it gave would be negated by the fact that his feet weren’t on the ground, and the fact that he spent far too long vulnerable.

Too much flash.

As soon as he landed, his body crouched from slamming his spear into the ground, I was dropping my halberd and moving again.  As he began to straighten himself, my hand caught his arm, thrusting it back down and keeping him from rising.  I needed the momentum of that downward thrust, throwing myself into it to the point where one hand hit the ground and my legs came up.

A heartbeat later, they locked around his neck and I continued to twist as hard as I could, throwing my center of gravity down and everything that I had into it.  With how he was bent over, gravity and basic physics took over, and he went end over end again onto the ground.  The moment that he hit, I was unlocking my legs and slamming my foot into his helm.

His arm raised and I rolled back before he could snag one of my feet.  By the time that I nabbed my halberd and got into a crouch, he’d already kip-upped up.  Damn, he was fast and maneuverable in that heavy armor.  I thought that I would have had more time.

I disconnected the bottom portion of my shaft, jamming it in my belt.  Defiant just stood there, waiting.  Strange, but I didn’t care.  He wanted a fight, so he was getting one.  I seized the rage, the pain, and embraced it.  It was the only way I was going to be able to do this.

I lashed out three more times, each time connecting with his spear shaft solidly.  As I lashed out again, he got wise and backed off, simply avoiding the attacks.

However, rather than simply wait for my next attack, Defiant used that moment to fold the shaft of his weapon in half, making it half the length.  The spear still gave him more reach than with my shortened halberd shaft, but now we were far, far closer than we were before.  I’d forgotten about that trick.

“Nice try,” Defiant called out.  “But you–”

He didn’t have a chance to finish before I charged him again, choking up on my halberd.  The heads of our weapons grazed each other, but this time I wasn’t going for an attack to his spear.  Instead, I pushed within his attack radius again.

In a real fight, there was no such thing as honor.  I let go with one hand to grab the shaft of his spear so that he had to work to maneuver it, making rapid strikes to his chest.  Each one scored a line in his armor.  It was only superficial damage, but it was promising.

I pulled back to use the spearpoint, only for him to jerk with his weapon, drawing me in to knee me in the gut.  It wasn’t enough.  Fuck him, I was angry now!  Nobody threatened my friends!  It wasn’t nearly enough to slow me down, and I was going to make him pay.

Instead, I choked up further, until my one-handed grip was right underneath the head of my halberd before lashing out.  He barely ducked his head in time to keep the axehead from slamming into his neck.  I didn’t have a chance to do it again before he backhanded my hand hard enough to dislodge my grip, sending my weapon flying.

I let go of his weapon shaft to grab his arm, yanking it up and across his body.  I wasn’t trying to flip him; instead, in a flash, my pistol was in my hand and raised to fire five rapid rounds into his armpit.

Defiant’s arm moved entirely too fast, wrapping around mine and driving my aim off.  Immediately, I felt his other hand on my waist.  I barely had any time to react as I felt myself being pulled off my feet in an odd throw.

My body reacted by instinct again, my hand somehow finding purchase on the armor around his waist.  Instead of trying to protect against the attack and make myself less of a target, I threw myself into the toss entirely as I hit the ground behind him.  Using my body as a lever, Defiant was brought to the ground just as hard as he’d done to me.

As he impacted, I heard him give what sounded like a bark of laughter.  Fuck him!  Fuck him, fuck Dragon, fuck Fyrtorn, fuck them all!  My eyes watered as I lunged on top of him, a primal snarl of rage tearing from my throat.  The edges of my vision narrowed as my hands went for his neck.

They never connected as he effortlessly threw me off again before rolling away.

My gun wasn’t in my hand any more.  My halberd was somewhere else.  But as I landed, I was greeted by another weapon — his.  I grabbed it, scrambling to my feet… only to find him on his, holding my halberd.

Oh, fuck that shit!

I released another howl as I charged.  If only I could figure out how to use the nanothorn generator on this.  He would be dead.  Dead!  Nobody used my halberd but me!  Nobody touched it without my permission!  Especially not some asshole who had just been insulting it!

Instead, we went back into the pattern of me making quick, sharp strikes, and him trying to defend.  The extra reach helped, and while I was well-versed in fighting with spears, this still wasn’t my weapon.  I had to rely on my own fury to keep him backpedaling, leaving him only able to make the occasional counterattack.

At least, until I over-committed to a lunge that he deflected with contemptuous ease, leaving me wide open to getting one of his massive armored boots to my chest.

I stumbled back, but when I looked up, he wasn’t in a fighting stance any more.  Instead, he was holding my halberd horizontally in both hands.  He made a slight motion with it before I picked up on what he wanted.  Wordlessly, we both tossed our weapons to the other.

Wordlessly, we both immediately began clashing again, trying to score a hit without opening ourselves to counterattack.

Deep lines were appearing more and more in his armor.  Along the thighs, some on his chest, a few on his arms.  Every time that his defense began to become more solid, I changed my style — from spearwork to using my weapon like a greataxe.  From that to a yari, from that to a naginata, from that to a zweihander.  Each time, it took him a moment to recover, granting me a quick moment of advantage to create another line in his armor.

It wasn’t enough, though.  Not nearly enough.

I ducked under a jab of his spear towards my head, my hand going to my belt.  As he drew back, I threw.  The pellet hit against his triceps, spraying the liquid across the arm, chest, and armpit before solidifying almost instantly.  His arm was locked in place.

I took the moment to chop at his knee as hard as I could.  As I heard the coating on his arm strain, I gave another quick attack to the same place before pulling back.  Just in time as the coating shattered, barely giving me enough time to get out of the way from a powerful swing.

Defiant didn’t give me time to counter, instead turning his entire body into a kick.  The rotational force would have increased its power greatly had I not moved to the side just enough to avoid the thrust of the kick, my arm wrapping around it.

One of my feet landed firmly on his that was still on the ground before I fell back, taking him with me.  His legs stretched as I fell to the ground, forcing him into the splits.  As soon as we landed, the reinforced knuckles of my free hand impacted with the hollow of his power armor, where it connected with his groin.  I swung again, glancing off of his codpiece before connecting with my target.

I didn’t get a third swing as two fists cupped together slammed into my rib cage with enough force to make my armor briefly harden and crackle.

Hit a nerve, did I?

I let go and we rolled apart towards our weapons again.  Only this time, my hand went to my belt, thumbing the other pellet free.  In that brief moment where his back was to me, it connected and burst into flames.

Defiant was a cyborg, and one who hadn’t been fighting for a while.  Not that I expected him to have any cybernetics that were anything other than combat-oriented or anything.  The key was, heat.  His organic muscles probably weren’t used to this intense of a workout any more, and his cybernetics were working hard.

Both of these built up heat.  I didn’t see any sort of obvious radiators on him, but it would make sense for him to have some way of venting heat so that he didn’t bake to death inside of his armor.  A heat venting system would be a huge liability, though.  A place of decreased durability.  He would want to keep it as far away from whatever opponents he fought as possible.

That basic design principle was applied to the Dragon’s Teeth armor, placing the heat venting system in the back.  If Defiant had designed the DT armor then most likely those same basic design principles applied to himself as well.

Setting that on fire would make it do the opposite of what it was designed for.  Unless it was a Maxwell system, which the DT back home had complained was extremely unreliable and were being phased out, then setting it ablaze would not only keep it from venting the heat, but would make it absorb heat instead.

Once his cybernetics started overheating, they’d start failing.  If I was going to win, or even put up enough of a fight that he left the others alone, then I needed to leverage every single advantage that I could get.

God damn it, why was he doing this to me?!  Why was he making me hurt him?

He didn’t even seem to notice as he turned to me, spear in hand.  Either I’d missed my mark, or he was playing it cool, keeping me from knowing that he was in trouble in order to maintain whatever advantage he had.  I couldn’t tell which was which.  But in the end, did it really matter anyway?  I just had to keep the pressure up for as long as possible.

I had to make him pay for threatening them.

Defiant’s legs flexed and his shoulders hunched slightly.  Flip attack again.  Even as he jumped, the moment that he committed to it, I was already moving to avoid it.  As his heavy boots left the ground, I was moving forward, my own leg raising and my abdominal muscles tightening.

At the apex of his flip, the moment that his back was towards me and his head was pointing towards the ground, my ankle impacted between his shoulder blades, a scream of fury escaping me as everything that I had was put into that one kick.  My hips and knee felt the strain as it connected with far too much mass.

I hadn’t realized that time had slowed down until it went back to normal.

Defiant hit the ground hard on his face, his spear going flying as he dealt with the consequences of a maneuver that was far too flashy.  As he quickly rolled over, I was on him, straddling his chest gripping my halberd awkwardly in both hands so that I could slam the axehead into his helmet.

He raised both hands to grab the shaft, trying to protect himself.  I had the better leverage, though, throwing all of my weight into forcing them down over his head, pinning them with the shaft.  This was how he wanted it?  Fuck him!

Fuck them all!  Every single god damn one of them!

My right hand came up to my chest, drawing the blade free.  Over him like this, my knees jammed into his armpits, leaning forward to try and keep his hands pinned, I at least had leverage.

I didn’t just stab his visor.  There weren’t words for the flurry of blows that I delivered to it, each one scoring a deep scratch into it as he struggled beneath me.  I snarled, I howled, I screamed as the tip of my Tinker-modified knife connected.

But the speed slowed quickly as I threw more into strength than speed, trying to find purchase in the areas where the individual pieces of the helmet fit together.  Even as I worked, though, my vision blurred.

“Leave us alone!” I howled.  “Leave me alone!  Leave!  Me!  Alone!  Leave!”

“Jordan!”  It was a new voice, loud enough to be heard over the rushing of blood in my ears.  I looked up, only to find Dragon slowly walking towards me.  Her weapons were powered down and her hands were spread peacefully.

“Det er helt fint, jeg skal nok tage mig af det,” she said in a heavily accented voice.

I sniffled, blinking the tears out of my eyes as I stared at her.  Something about what she said made me feel like I was falling.  At least Defiant wasn’t struggling underneath me any more.  What was she saying?

“Bare rolig, jeg kender ham godt.”  She took another slow step towards me.  Her helmet was… rather impressively animated.  “Jeg tager ansvaret, hvis der sker noget.”

It’s fine, I know him. I’ll take full responsibility if anything happens.  Somehow, the words translated automatically in my mind.

I stared at her, my face feeling numb.  What…  What was happening?

Dragon’s hands moved up to remove her helmet, letting long dark hair fall free as she smiled sympathetically to me.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tobias.  What brings you here?  You’re a long, long ways from home.”

Why…?  What?  What was going on?  Why did that sound so… familiar?  It was right there, so why…?

Why was my vision blurring even worse now?  My jaw opened and closed slightly in jerky movements.  My brain was refusing to process this somehow.  I was only dimly aware of the knife tumbling from my hand.

“Tobias,” she continued.  “Listen to the sound of my voice.  Focus on it.  Remember.  Remember how you would work for so long that your eyes would burn?  I’d have to come and give you eyedrops because you’d spend hours straining them while you worked.  I’d have to remind you to sleep.  Do you remember?”

Something stirred in the back of my head, but I was too numb to process it.

I heard a noise under me, and when my head looked down, I wasn’t looking at a helmet any more.  Defiant’s visor had lifted, and the part that covered his mouth had opened.  I was staring down at a bearded man, only his cheeks and jaws were clean.  Salt and pepper hair only wrapped from his upper lip down to his chin.

Defiant spoke slowly, his eyes piercing.  “For Christmas, you made your sister a necklace.  It was a huge project for you, making it entirely yourself.  You dragged me out to buy some jewelry.  A necklace.”

“I still have it,” Dragon added.

“I felt guilty,” Defiant continued.  “So we made a little dojo in the back yard for you to train in.  For us to train in.”  He paused, his eyes narrowing.  “You found a way to counter my toss.  When I used it here, you used the same counter.  Do you remember?”

I stared at him, my head spinning.  No…

“When you tried to save that broken trigger, I called you out on your lie.  Do you remember what I told you?”

I opened my mouth, a small croak escaping me.  A moment later, though, I found my words.  “That…  That I should have asked if she was okay.”  Defiant.  Nathan.  Dragon.  Taylor.  The memories were tickling through the fog.

I licked my lips as I released my grip on my halberd.  It wasn’t just my face that was numb, it was my entire body.  “I…  Old man?”

Defiant nodded once.

I…  I had spent an entire winter with them.  I had sparred with him at least once a week.  I’d worked for her.  I…  No.  No.  That was too much of a coincidence.  It couldn’t be.  It…  It couldn’t.  How?  How could I have teleported blind, just to find a place with the two them there?  Where they would take me in?  The chances were… impossible.

“Jordan, get off.”  I focused on Defiant again.  He was speaking more firmly now.  “We don’t have time to be laying here.  Things are happening, and we have work to–”

My fist impacted with his face.

Pie 10.5

The sun felt warm on my face.

The window wasn’t bad.  There were people building stuff nearby.  People moved about.  There was something to watch.  Sometimes, the window would only show trees and stuff.  There wasn’t much to look at.  But sometimes the window would show something else.  I could see people building stuff, or people milling about.  Sometimes I had to look down to see them.  Sometimes I didn’t.  The window was weird.

It was better than when I didn’t look out it.

I blinked as I saw a pair of figures come into view.  A girl and a man.  She looked like my age.  They were holding hands.  That was strange.  People didn’t hold hands.

As they walked, my eyes adjusted.  The man looked strange.  Funny.  Weird.  The fact that he was holding a stick a little taller than himself with a piece of metal on top didn’t help.

His clothes were made out of metal.  A light green and shiny yellowish color.  They sat on him well, making him seem bigger than everyone else.  It wasn’t that the people that they passed were smaller, but he was… bigger somehow.

I could barely make out the vertical slits in his mask over where his eyes would be.  The mask itself wrapped completely around his head.  He walked slowly, mostly so the girl could walk with him, her hand in his.

Was he…  Was he bringing her here?  But she wasn’t crying.  She was bouncing along next to him.  She was happy to come here?  Nobody was happy to come here.

The big man dressed in colorful metal made her happy to come here.  Amazing.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.  “Come on,” a woman said.  “Let’s get you something to eat.”

“Who is that?”  It hurt to talk, and my voice was barely a whisper.  Why had I asked that?  Why couldn’t I take my eyes off the man dressed in metal?

The woman took a sharp breath, and she was now at my side, squatting next to me.  Peering at me oddly.  “What did you just say?”

I didn’t take my eyes off the man.  She should know what I said.  The man just kept walking towards the main entrance with the little girl.

There was a long pause before she spoke.  “That’s…”  Her voice wavered with hesitation.  “That’s Defiant.  He’s a hero from before Scion.  He saved a lot of lives, and fought bad guys.  He…  He’s bringing that girl to stay with us.”

She paused, putting one hand on my shoulder again and her other on my chest, trying to make me look at her.  “Do you like him?”

Hero.  I liked that word.  I didn’t know what it meant, but I liked the way that she’d said it.  It felt like it meant something good.

Hero.

——————–

The craft’s ramp lowered, pressing into the earth.  My body felt weird.  My bones were filled with helium, but someone had turned my armor into lead.  My heart was racing in my chest.  My teeth were clamped together so tightly that my ears rang.

A hand pressed to the circle on  my chest and twisted, activating the mechanism to release my pack and let it drop to the ground behind me.

Those forest green boots, inlaid with gold design and trimming hit the the ramp.  Dang, those were big.  Long, powerful legs, inlaid with almost Celtic designs.  A wide waist that, even with the heavy armor over it, spoke of a powerful core.  A broad chest, the gold forming wing designs.  Wide shoulders.  A helmet that looked like some sort of souped up high tech knight’s helm.  In his right hand was that spear that was taller than him, and he had to be a foot taller than me in that armor.

My throat was tight as I spun the halberd, jamming the point into the ground and letting go as I walked forward.

Dragon was behind him, looking more dragon than human.  It fit all classic images — maw, wings with turbines, a tail…  All the fittings in a humanoid shape.  She walked leaning forward, but it looked like she could straighten up and walk, or act, normally if the need arose.  The same green and gold as Defiant.  The difference was, however, that she had two protrusions, one on each shoulder.  Some sort of weapons array.

I lifted my faceplate, then pulled my helmet off.  My mouth felt like it was full of dust and ashes.

Defiant turned, walking towards me.  In his armor, he had to be seven feet tall.  A truly massive, powerful, imposing figure.  He flicked his wrist slightly as he cleared the craft, the spear extending to its full height, towering over him.

My hand went to my belt, touching, then twisting.

He walked until he was fifteen feet away.  Even with his helmet obscuring his face, I could feel his eyes boring holes into me.  I could feel him staring, judging.  When he spoke, his voice was low and powerful, altered slightly by speaking through his helm.  “Jordan.”

I dropped the helmet and belt, taking one more step before crossing my feet.  As I lowered myself to my knees, I put my hands on the back of my head, interlacing my fingers.  “I surrender.”

I didn’t feel bad about lying to my friends.  We couldn’t take Dragon and Defiant.  John might have the strength to hit them and do some damage, Kathy might be able to shoot them and make it hurt, but they’d have counters to that.  These were people who fought, and killed, the Slaughterhouse 9.  These weren’t the kinds of people who fucked around.

Besides, deep inside, a part of me was tired.  It had been for a long, long time.  As long as I could remember.  It was time, and I couldn’t think of anyone better.

Defiant said nothing for a long moment, not moving at all.  Just staring at me.  What was he waiting for?  I could feel the disgust rolling off of him.  Of course he’d feel disgusted by me.

“No.”

It was a simple word, but it struck me like he’d just run me through the chest with his spear.  “No?”

“No.”  His voice was firm.  “I refuse your surrender.”

My world spun.  Part of my brain fet light and weird.  “Wha…  I don’t…  I-I…”

“It’s simple.”  He hefted his spear, pointing it at me, the two-pronged tip only a couple of feet from my face.  “Retrieve your gear and fight me.”

I lowered my hands.  Well, more of let them drop, really.  Reality had stopped making sense again.  “I…  I surrender, though.  I don’t want to fight.”

Defiant took a step forward, swinging that spear.  The head didn’t strike me, but the shaft scuffed the crown of my head, not enough to do any damage, but hard enough to send me toppling over onto my side.  “I don’t recall giving you a choice.”

His strike hadn’t caused much pain, but it hurt more than anything else in the world.  I would have gladly walked through that damn Tinker’s hallway again rather than felt this.  “Why?” I whimpered, my vision blurring.  “You’re a hero!”

“The age of heroes and villains is over,” he boomed, stepping back.  “Now, gear up and fight.  The only way you’re getting out of this without fighting me is in a body bag.  Do not disappoint me.”

My breath came out in short, shuddering pants as I weakly pushed myself back up to my knees.  His stance was coiled, ready to strike me again.  I was tempted, sorely tempted to let him.  What had happened to make him react like this?  This wasn’t like him.  What did I do to deserve this much hate from him?

But I got up, my shoulders slumped.  I shuffled to retrieve my helmet and belt.  I couldn’t even look at him as I put them on.  When I caught even a glimpse of him out of my peripheral vision, it felt like a sucking wound had been wrenched open in my chest.  Not that it was any easier with my back turned to him as I moved for my halberd.  I could still feel his hate behind me.

What did I do that was so wrong?  I could think of a million things, but what had specifically triggered this behavior?

It didn’t matter.  My helmet and belt reattached, I put my hand on my halberd.  I’d done something too vile for him, and this was the only way that he could express it.  He had to fight me.  He had to vent his rage and frustration.  That was fine.  I…

That was fine.

I hefted my halberd and turned to him.  He was still coiled and ready to go.  I squared my shoulders back and took up a stance myself, glad that he couldn’t see my face.  “Okay,” I whispered softly.

We stood there for a long moment, waiting for the other to act, neither one of us wanting to be the first to make a move.  He wanted to fight, but he didn’t want to be the aggressor.  That would put him in the right.  That was fine.

I crossed the distance, making a wide sweep with my weapon, one that he easily deflected up and around him with his spear.  As soon as it was clear of him, he lunged and slapped my helmet with the shaft, not even hard enough to make me stumble.

My weapon was shorter, so that put me within my optimal attack radius.  I reversed my blade, pulling it down towards his lower calf.

It never even connected.  He simply raised his foot and brought it back down, catching the blade and stomping it into the ground.  With the weight of his heavy armor on it, trapping it, he made a massive overhand swing, slamming it into my helmet hard enough to knock me to the ground.

As I tumbled, I realized that he’d released my weapon — I still had it in my hands.  Rolling to my knees, I launched myself forward to try and drive the spearpoint into him.  With a jerk of his hand, he slapped the shaft of his weapon up, impacting mine and sending it too high to hit him.  Old training kicked in and I jerked it back down, the axe head of my halberd uselessly glancing off his shoulder armor.

Defiant lunged forward as I backed off, lashing out with the butt of his weapon, impacting squarely in the middle of my faceplate and sending me stumbling back.  He backed off immediately, giving me room.

I swung again, aiming for his neck.  I must have telegraphed it too much, though, because he raised his arm, effortlessly letting my halberd glint off of it.  He didn’t let it rest; shifting his arm so that my momentum combined with the movement drove the blade downward.

As the blade ran off his elbow, he snapped his arm back down, trapping my weapon in his armpit.  His other hand effortlessly swung his spear.  The shaft impacted my helmet hard enough to make my head rock, distracting me from the powerful boot that lifted and slammed into my chest, sending me off my feet.

I hit the ground hard, realizing that I didn’t have my halberd in hand anymore.  I looked up, only to find Defiant standing there, retrieving my weapon from his armpit.  We hadn’t even engaged each other for thirty seconds, and he had already disarmed me.

“Pathetic.”

I put my elbows underneath me to push myself up a bit.  “You won.”

“This is the Survivor of St. Louis,” he spat, not listening.  “The Hero of Agamemnon.  The Butcher of New Fairfax.”

“You beat me,” I whimpered.

“You’ve fought more wildlings than most people have ever seen and survived.  It obviously isn’t because of your skill.  You must have only lived because of your armor.”

He hefted my halberd, examining it.  “Look at this.  A worthless mimic of my old weapon.  I’ve been told that you call it a halberd.”  He looked down at me.  “Without the spike on the back, it isn’t a halberd.  It’s more of a bill, or a bardiche.”

I shook my head weakly.

“I’ve been told great things about the weapons your brother makes.  From this design, I think that they’re full of shit.”

I winced.  That…  That hurt, coming from him.

“Everyone tells me that people have to be sharper these days.  That even non-combatants know a thing or two about fighting.  And that you’re one of the best.”  As he spoke, I pulled myself up to a sitting position.  “From what I’m seeing, you wouldn’t have survived two minutes back in the day.  All that training, gone to waste.

“You never would have been a hero.  Even if you would have triggered…  You aren’t even good enough to trigger.  But even if you had, you’d be lucky if you would have been put to use in training.  You probably would have been put behind a desk, occasionally trussed up and taken to schools to show little kids that don’t know any better.”

He paused a moment, but it didn’t last long.  “If you’re this pathetic, then I’ll talk to Chevalier.  See to it that your sister files paperwork for the rest of her life.”

That was a slap to my face.  No…  Sarah…  She was too good to deserve that…

I didn’t have time to process it.  He tossed my halberd back to me before reaching up and touching the side of his helmet.  “I don’t need my analyzer to beat you.  Get up and fight me.”

“Why?” I whimpered.  “Why do we have to fight?”

“Because I say so.”  He backed off to take up a fighting stance outside of both our attack ranges again.  “Now have at you.”

I struggled to my feet, finding that I had a little more energy than before.  A little more determination.  Not for my sake.  I was still going to lose, and I knew it, but…  Maybe if I fought hard enough, I could save Sarah.  Maybe.  Either way, I couldn’t help her by laying on my back.

I lunged, and he immediately thrust his spear at me.  I easily knocked it to the side, and he immediately shifted his weight, telegraphing too much.  As he started to spin, I was already ducking and backing off to protect myself.  His spinning back kick made his powerful boot barely graze the arm that I’d brought up to defend myself.

That was the problem with paras from the old days — they tended to have too much flash to their moves.  He was better than most, but there was still some there.  Style versus substance.  Style was good when used tactically, but they’d been slaves to PR.  The Protectorate needed to look good for the public, so the PRT trained them with a bit of flash.  Meanwhile, the villains had egos to feed, or fans to culture if they were on the ranking boards.

While he recovered from that risky move, the dull edge of the back of my halberd blade impacted with his hip before I danced back.  I didn’t want him trapping my blade again.

I still didn’t want to fight him.  I didn’t want to hurt him; Defiant did great things for the Dragon’s Teeth.  But I had to make an effort now.  As he recovered and began to thrust with his halberd, I had to make a good show of it.  I had to do it for Sarah.

When two polearm users would fight, there were three levels of combat.  Beginners would flail clumsily, being awkward to watch.  Intermediate fighters would be somewhat impressive, with frequent pauses to size up their opponent before attacking again.  But when two experts would go at it… the combat looked clumsy again.  Swords looked elegant when two experts went at it, but polearms could be exactly the opposite.  The more skill you had, the more you were aware of your weapon’s strengths and weaknesses.

We fell into the latter category, as attacks were deflected, countered, and avoided instantly.  Our weapons slammed into each other, rubbed up against each other, and were yanked away instantly before one of us could use that moment against the other.  My attempts to hook his weapon underneath the axe head were useless, as were his attempts to thrust his spear into me or get me with the cutting edge.

My armor was cooling off quickly to compensate for how hard I was working.  As my body temperature soared, it tried to mitigate that to keep me going.  When normal people’s limbs would be screaming, the fibers spread throughout my muscles kept them feeling normal.  When others would be gasping for breath, my augmented lungs kept me going.

But Defiant was a cyborg, whereas I was just augmented.  Unless his body ran out of power, he wouldn’t wear down.  And from what I could gather?  He had gone days without recharging before.

I tried to catch his spear shaft under my my axehead, but he moved out of the way.  Unfortunately, that let him catch my halberd shaft between the fork of his spearhead, clamping it tight.  A twist of his wrists, a pull and drag, and my weapon came free from my hands.  Before I could even react, he’d closed the distance, and a mighty gauntlet slammed into my helmet, sending me stumbling back.

“Jordan!”

It took me a moment to register the voice, but as soon as I did, a familiar pressure formed against my side for a moment.  I looked down to find Emi next to me, wearing her mask and her pistols in her hands.  Behind us, I could hear voices.

I turned to her.  “What the fuck are you doing?”

She snorted, and I could see the curl of her lips in her profile.  Holy shit, she was actually enjoying this?  “You’re just the kind of asshole who would sacrifice himself for his friends.”

I stared at her in disbelief.  Could this day get any more insane?  “And you’re fucking that up nicely, thank you!”  There was motion in the corner of my eye, and without thinking or looking, I caught the tossed halberd.

Her grin widened.  “Sacrifice denied, motherfucker.”

In any other situation, I might have taken a page from her book and said something smart, like reminding her like I was an orphan or something.  Instead, my mouth worked wordlessly.

As the horses came to a halt, though, Dragon finally stepped forward.  The great dragon’s head of her armor opened its mouth, a blue light shining inside.  I knew that light — the plasma weapon she’d used on Leviathan.  Meanwhile, the weapons pods on her shoulders sprung to life, one glowing green and the other red.

“Interfere and you’re all dead!” Defiant shouted in an authoritative tone.  “We will not hesitate to use lethal force!”

He paused for a moment, his head turning from the wagon behind us back to me.  “They’ll get their turn, though.  I promise you that, Jordan.  Since you’re still holding back, not giving me your all…  Once I’m done with you, I’ll take my disappointment out on them.  It might take a while.”

My heart froze in my chest.  Slowly, I looked from him to Emi.  She’d give him some trouble at first, but she followed patterns when it came to teleportation.  If he didn’t figure it out on his own, the same battle analysis program that the Dragon’s Teeth used would figure it out.  She’d go down fast.

I turned to look at the others, who were wearing their masks, too.  They were frozen in place by his declaration.

John had already shifted his density down, sinking slightly into the ground.  He wasn’t fast enough in that state to fight Defiant, and if the spear were activated, he’d be cut down where he stood no matter his density.

Kathy…  The disk that she made with her power would destroy his spear, giving him a good kick to the gut for his efforts.  But if Dragon fired…  Her disk acted as a shield against physical attacks.  I wasn’t sure how it would work against energy blasts.

I looked to Brenda, who was looking back at me.  She stood the best chance of surviving, but she was up against two people in heavy armor.  We didn’t have heavy weapons.  She didn’t stand a chance…

“Jordan,” she whispered.  “No…”

My entire body was shaking.  My friends.  I sent them away to protect them, and they came back.  Because they were my friends.  And because they were my friends, I was going to get them killed.

I pushed my faceplate up.  The air felt cool on two trails of liquid running down my cheeks.  Was I crying?

No.  Not any more.  I wanted to, but…  No.  I wiped at my face.  “Em, back off.”  My voice sounded strange, like it belonged to someone else.

She looked up at me, her good humor suddenly gone.  In its place was a look of fear.

“Do it,” Brenda said, sounding close to tears herself.  “It…  Please.”

Emi gave me a worried look before teleporting back to the others.  Good.  One less thing to worry about.

I pulled off my helmet and looked down at it.  Chris had made it for me.  He’d done good work.  I didn’t even want to think about how many times his armor had saved my life.  The addition of a helmet was good.  Smart, even.  It had served me well.

My gaze turned back to Defiant, and my body settled.  My gut felt like lead, but my bones no longer felt light and my shoulders no longer felt heavy.  The trembling left me.  Pinpricks danced across my skin as a new emotion swelled in my chest.

“You wanna fight?” I snarled.  “Fine.”  I tossed my helmet to the ground.  “But you will leave.  Them.  Alone!”

I hefted my halberd and took up my stance.  I couldn’t win against him, and I knew it.  I no longer cared.  Even if he beat me, I was going to destroy him.  Right now?  Right here, in this clearing?

The sun felt warm on my face.

Pie 10.4

It was hard not to just turn and walk away into the wilderness.  Stepping through that open gate, seeing every eye on me, it was enough for me to just disappear from the world.  The nervous stares, the kids who usually at least waved at me being restrained by nervous parents…  I felt so very small.

But my halberd was at the hotel.  I couldn’t leave without it.  It didn’t matter how much these people stared, it didn’t matter what else I walked out with or without.  I kept my back straight and my head high as I went for the hotel to retrieve it.  After that I could figure out what was going on.

I made it maybe twenty feet from the hotel when the door burst open and Kathy came charging out.  Almost instantly, Emi appeared next to me, the displaced air giving both of us resistance before she could throw herself around me.  It said something that her teleporting didn’t give her long before Kathy joined her in embracing me.

“Idiot,” Emi growled.

“Fuckin’ moron.”  Unlike Emi, Kathy sounded like she was close to tears.

It wasn’t like I could hug them back, not with them pinning my arms against my body.  All that I could do was stand there, keenly aware of how many people were watching.  “Sorry,” I said quietly, not sure what else I should say.  I didn’t even know what I could say.

Emi pounded her fist weakly against the small of my back, not letting go.  “When they explained who that was, I thought you was dead.”

“I knew you were dead,” Kathy added.  “Getting Lung out of the city, making sure that we weren’t around?  That was insanely stupid!”

Wait, what?

“Why didn’t you let me come?” Emi asked.  “I coulda disrupted him and–”

“You could have interrupted his pyrokinesis,” I corrected.  “His powering up?  I can’t say for sure, but I doubt that it’d work.  Having you involved in a fight with him would have only resulted in him getting more pissed off, which might have made him ramp up even faster.”

I wasn’t sure about that, actually.  There was a lot about his power that I just didn’t know about, but I wasn’t about to admit to it.  One thing that I’d learned was that sometimes it was better to keep my mouth shut.  Explaining myself too much while someone was crying didn’t help matters any.

Kathy pulled away, looking into my eyes.  “Are you alright?”

I frowned.  What the hell was I supposed to say to that?  Wasn’t it obvious?  “I could eat a pig.  And a few potatoes.  But mostly the pig.”  Her shoulders slumped as she stared at me in disbelief.  “Maybe some switchel, too?”

I felt another person slam into me.  Really?  I didn’t even bother to take my eyes off of Kathy’s.  “Hi miss B.”  I couldn’t remember offhand what name we were using for Brenda in this city.

“Seriously.”  I turned to look at John’s grinning mug as he smugly crossed his arms.  “I have no idea how you keep surviving shit like this.”

“It’s not my fault.  I try to get myself killed.”  My joke was rewarded with two fists and an open palm smacking into me.  Right, I should have known better.  It didn’t help that John was laughing.

The laughter, though, ended surprisingly fast.  Bad sign.  I glanced to him, his suddenly sober expression, and followed his eyes to where a man and a woman were approaching us.  I had no idea if everyone else knew who they were, but they were following John’s example and pulling away from me.  Even though they were still right there, it made me feel like I was on my own for this one.

“You’re alright,” the woman said in amazement.  I was starting to get the feeling that I’d be hearing that a lot.

“Half-starved and in need of a nap, but yeah.”  I’d see if the others could help me come up with replies later.

“And Lung?” the man asked in a worried tone.

I got the impression that telling them the truth wouldn’t help me much, but I didn’t want to lie.  “He’s seen better days.”  There, that worked nicely.

The man nodded slowly.  “Will he be a problem?”

Someone of authority in the city.  Doubtful that this guy was the head of the guard — guards here wore uniforms.  Maybe the mayor?  “Probably not.  We… reached an accord of sorts, I guess you could say.  He might return, depending on if his employer offers him an amount of money that he can’t refuse, but I honestly doubt it.”

“Do you think they will?”

I blinked at him.  Was it possible?  I wasn’t sure.  On the other hand, though…  “I doubt it.  If the walking person of mass destruction doesn’t bring your target in, then it’s time to start looking into other methods.  If I was still a free agent merc, I wouldn’t take any contract that he failed at.”

“They know,” I heard Brenda whisper just loud enough for me to hear.

So they knew who I was.  Alright, fine.  Fuck it.  I might as well go all in.  “Listen, I never intended to put you or yours into any trouble.  I just wanted a place to be me.  If you want me to go, then all you gotta do is say the word.  I’ll grab my stuff and go.  No questions, no trouble.”

The woman narrowed her eyes.  “I find it interesting that you say trouble and not danger.”

“Danger’s a form of trouble, but not the only one, you know?  I don’t need to worry about anyone getting dragged into my problems who isn’t already there.”

“But you won’t stop doing what you’re doing,” she stressed.

I shrugged a shoulder.  “I’ve been meat for a long time now.  You forget how to be anything else.  Nowadays, I’m my own meat.”  I took a slow breath.  “I honestly wouldn’t blame you if you were to say the word.”

“It’s almost like you want us to say it,” the man said.

“I’ll be blunt, sir.  I’m a simple man, and I wasn’t kidding about being half-starved.  I can stand and talk if you’re not kicking me out, but if you are, it means I gotta get my stuff and get out before I can eat.”

The man and woman looked at each other for a long moment before she nodded.  He turned his attention back to me.  “Have you ever wondered why this town got so big?”

Oh, fuck me.  He was going to give a speech.  Still, I shrugged my shoulder.  “It’s a day’s ride from a bunch of other places and was on a natural path to another community that had a teleporter to New Brockton, allowing you to be a trade hub?”

The man paused for a moment.  “That too, yes.  You’re smarter than you look.  But that’s not the only reason we had so many people join.

“Mary and I, we aren’t villains, we aren’t even paras, but we were in jail when Scion got a land deed.  Almost starved to death before someone came to the prison and let us out.  But we had the chance to put our pasts behind us, so when we helped organize this little convoy during the exodus, we made an oath: we’d give everyone a chance.”

Why did they do this?  I really didn’t get it.  I’d ask why adults did this, but I was 21 now, so I guessed that I counted as one, but…  Why?

“If a person walks into our village, it didn’t matter if they were Jack Slash, we’d give them one chance.  If they screwed it up, they’re gone.  It’s why we don’t have an agreement with the Dragon’s Teeth or Wardens.  We’d be safer, and they’d have to follow the contract, but we’d have to put up with them doing their thing here, going after folks.

“If people cause a problem here, we’ll handle it.  Otherwise, we’d rather give people the same courtesy that we got after Gold Morning.”

There!  Thank you!  Why couldn’t he have just said that?!

Don,” the woman, Mary, said pointed.  “We’d be curious if you’d like to have dinner with us.  Not as someone who has… troubles in the outside world, but as someone who’s been a part of this community, and who just tried to keep those troubles from affecting the community.”

My chest seized and my blood turned to ice.  I wasn’t sure why, but her offer scared the living daylights out of me.

Even worse, I didn’t want that.  I didn’t want any of this in the slightest.  I wanted to continue being Don here, a nobody who could find a warm sunbeam to read in, or who people would just roll their eyes over whenever he was training.  I didn’t want special treatment.  I just wanted the freedom to do my own thing, interacting with the people that I chose, and no worries about anything else.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think that I had the choice.  Political games weren’t my thing, but I knew when I was getting pulled into one.  Fortunately, I had backup this time.  “I’d appreciate that, but I wouldn’t feel right if my friends didn’t come as well.  They’re as responsible as I am for keeping trouble at bay, if not more.  They’ve had my back, so they’ve had your back too.  It wouldn’t be proper if they didn’t join us.”

The woman looked between the five of us, a strange, soft smile on her face.  “Of course.  I’d love to have all of you.  I’ll make sure that Tom makes a feast.  Is there anything in particular that you all would like?”

John was the first to speak up.  “Meat.”

“Lotsa meat,” Emi agreed.

“Okay,” Brenda said, holding out her hands.  “Imagine a pig.  Now, stuff that pig inside of another pig.  Now stuff that inside of a cow.  Then put that in a hippo.  I think that’d make an excellent first course.”

“I don’t know,” Kathy deadpanned.  “I think we might need some meat with that.  And maybe some sort of alcohol.”

The man laughed.  “I make my own bourbon.”  John perked up.  “It’s clear, I’m afraid, but rather smooth.”

John chuckled softly.  “Dark in the bar, clear in company, I’ve heard it said.”

That got the man to smile warmly.  “Well, then.  We’ll let you five be.  How does six tonight sound?”

“That sounds wonderful,” Kathy said.  “Though I’ll warn you, you’ll have to forgive Don.  Until he gets comfortable or on a subject that he likes, he’s not much of a talker.”

“Then you can’t shut me up,” I said, glancing at her.  It only made her smile a bit more.

“You can’t expect perfection from everyone,” the man said.  “We’ll see you then.”

That seemed to break up the crowd a little bit.  The message had been sent loud and clear; I was still welcome here.  I turned to Kathy and whispered to her.  “Thank you.  I owe you guys so much.”

That made her laugh, and she didn’t even lower her voice at all.  “Nah.  We’re getting meat out of it.”  Her mood tempered quickly, though.  “Still, I feel like we’re gonna have to do some talking before our next job…”

——————–

I swung, only to have one piece of rebar impact with the back of my machete at the same moment as the other piece connected with my gripping hand.  My swing went wild, and before I could recover, the rebar smashed against my temple, sending me to the ground.

Before I could even recover, I was being offered a hand.  I took it gratefully, and Mom hauled me back to my feet.

“You’re slow.”

“Sorry,” I said, smiling apologetically at her.  “Let’s do it again.”

Without waiting for an answer, I swung, and she repeated the deflection.  This time, I was able to prevent her counter by raising my machete in time.  I went for another quick snap, but left hand impacted with my wrist a split second before her right brought the rebar down on my arm.  Not content, she swept her arm, swiping the tip into my throat with surprising force.

I let out a frustrated sigh, and she smiled at me.  “Relax.  We just haven’t done escrima in a while.”

“Yeah, but I’m getting soft.”  That was the worst part, knowing that certain skills were falling by the wayside.

She pushed her bright red hair out of her face, her expression grim.  “Indeed.  You haven’t been training with me often enough.  If you’re going to keep your edge, we have to do this more.”

“I know,” I whimpered, lowering my head.

Mom smiled again, reaching down to lay a hand on my shoulder.  “You’re getting upset.  We’ll call it for today.  But come back soon, alright?”

——————–

I lowered the newspaper from my eyes, giving out a mighty yawn as the wagon shook from the poor road.

We’d teleported into town dressed in Dragon’s Teeth uniforms that Emi had made by examining pictures saved by my employees.  Kathy had taken the role of our commanding officer while dealing with the businessman, explaining that we had it on good authority that there were bandits in the area planning to hit his trade route on the way back, and asking to act as decoys.  We’d had to put down a deposit to guarantee that we’d return with his product and wagon, but that had been the most that he’d asked.

The others had relished the little mini con, convincing the townspeople that we were a small fireteam of Dragon’s Teeth.  It’d come with two days of prep in my room, me explaining everything that I knew of them from back home.  I hadn’t taken more than their combat and threat assessment courses, but I’d watched them when I could, learning everything possible.

Now, we were simply on the road in an empty wagon, waiting to reach our target.  It would have been easier if I’d had the coordinates for it.

“Have a good nap?” Brenda asked cheerfully.

“Yeah,” I said, wiping my eyes.

Kathy shook her head.  “One moment you’re reading, the next you’re sleeping.”

“I used to pass out doing pushups, so…”  I grinned a little before looking back to the paper.  “This guy.”  I tapped the article.  “This expy of Eidolon down to the powers and had his luchador commandos…  Know anything about him?”

Kathy’s expression went strange.  “Why do you ask?”

I shrugged a shoulder.  “Just worried is all.  Someone like that, I like to have intel on whenever possible, and the papers aren’t saying enough about him for me to get a handle.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that they showed up to help, but…  I’d just like to have an idea walking in just in case we have to face him, you know?”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” she said sagely.  “We, uh, we move in different circles.  Anyway, you never did tell us about the meeting with the guy.”

“The shrink?”  I shrugged.  “We talked.  It was mostly a meet and greet.  I mean, I’m not upset or anything, and I can respect that you all wanna make sure I’m on the up and up after the past couple of years, but it’s going to take more than one session to do anything.  If you all wanna schedule another, I’ll go.  I’m more worried about you, though.”

I still remembered Kathy’s reaction to killing someone.  She’d bounced back well, and the second time that she’d used her powers the same way she hadn’t responded, but I still worried.

Rather than push it, though, I moved on.  “It was nice to see Gina, though.”

Kathy and Emi exchanged glances.  “You saw her?” Emi asked carefully.

“Uh, yeah?”  I frowned a bit.  “I thought that I told you?”

“No.  No you didn’t.  What happened?”

I shrugged a shoulder a bit.  “She grabbed me, asked me what the hell I was doing there, I asked her what she was doing there.  That’s all.  Then I met up with the rest of you, we did our thing, then we went home.  Seriously, I could have sworn…”  Something about Gina, at least.  I couldn’t put my finger on what.

Emi coughed before speaking quickly.  “Anyway, I still don’t know why you’re friends with bitchface.”

I smiled.  “She’s hard to like, I’ll be the first to admit.  Very rough, very aggressive.  But…  I dunno, she’s good people once you get past that.  If you give her way too much to do…  Well, okay.  If you give her enough to do at once, she’s actually pretty pleasant.  Talking to you isn’t a chore for her, and the real her can shine through.  I wish that you could meet her like that.”

I turned my attention to Kathy.  “Hey, I never asked.  What happens if we get there, do our skullduggery, and can’t actually find the plates?”

John called out.  “A fiver coin says we do.”

Kathy rolled her eyes.  “I’m ready to agree with him, but you’re right.  We should talk about that.  We know that someone there is somehow involved with forging the new US currency, yeah.  But I guess that they could just be a middle man.  Hopefully, we figure something out in our, uh, skullduggery, someone who can lead us to the people responsible.  If not…”

She frowned, shaking her head.  “You mind if we use your rep to squeeze info out?”

I nodded a little.  “What would the angle be?”

“Duh,” Emi said, rolling her eyes dramatically.  “You did a bit of merc work for someone, they paid you, but half the bills were bad.  You’re pissed, even though it isn’t their fault, and you’re hunting for the people who made them for reparations.  Did I use that right?”

“Yeah, reparations is the right word.”  John looked away from the road to grin at her.  “The grasshopper continues to surprise me.  Soon you will be the master.”

“So long as she isn’t the master of evil,” Kathy mock-groused.  I perked a little.  That was a reference that I actually got!  Master of Evil was a great module with witches and evil mathematicians skulking in pyramids and death rays and stuff.

“Damn it!”  Brenda’s face twisted into a snarl, her eyes still hidden.  “Is it too much to ask that we go one fucking month…”

“What is it?” I asked, immediately scanning the treeline.

“Everyone be quiet and listen.”

As John slowed the horses to a stop, I closed my eyes and focused.  Brenda spent most of her time blind, so her hearing was a bit better than ours.  It took me a moment to hear a soft droning whine in the distance.

“Fucking Wardens,” Emi muttered.  “Masks or no?”

“Not much point,” John said with a sigh.  “Honestly, we wear them more for other people than we do them.  They already know who we are.”

I frowned as I shrugged out of my robes, keeping my eye up.  Something felt off about the way it sounded.

“So is the job a wash?” Brenda asked in a disappointed voice.

“No,” Kathy said.  “We can salvage this.  If they come straight for us and then home again, we can claim that they were investigating the same bandits that we were when we return the wagon.  If they’re going to the other village, we keep our heads down and quietly find out what’s up.”

“And if they’re getting the counterfitters instead of going after us?” Emi asked.

“Then we deliver the alcohol and get our deposit back.  The only thing we’ll be out of is what we paid Fenix.”

I was just grabbing my helmet when I saw the green and gold craft flash by overhead, mostly hidden by the trees.  That was enough to make my heart almost stop in my chest.  “Nope.”

Everyone turned to look at me as I slammed my helmet on.  “It’s me they want.”  With a flick of my wrist, the faceplate came down.  “There’s a teleporter back where we came from.  Head back there and use it.”  I stood in the wagon, reaching for my pack, but ignoring the duffel.  “Ride the horses hard.  Claim that they got the bandits, so you aren’t making the run as you now have other temporary additional duties that you have to perform ASAP.”

Kathy helped me anchor the pack into my armor.  “What’s going on Jordan?”

“I’ll explain as we go,” Brenda said, peeking out to look at us.

“I’ll draw them off for as long as I safely can,” I said quickly, hopping out of the wagon.  “I’ll teleport around a few times with the suppressor active.  Try and draw them off the trail.  No names, but I’ll meet you where we meet the four, alright?”

“You shouldn’t go alone,” Emi whispered, suddenly scared.  “You need backup.”

“And you won’t know when I’ll be teleporting out.  I have to time it precisely, and if you aren’t exactly where I’ll need you, then we’ll both be in deeper shit than we are now.  And if I accidentally leave you behind…  They’ll grill you to get to me, and nobody needs that.”

I hopped off the wagon, and by the time that I turned around, she was already holding out my halberd.  I took it from her, nodding once.  “I’m sorry.”

“Are you sure?” Kathy asked, her brows drawn together.

“Positive.  Now go on, get.  The closer you are, the more that I have to toy with them to buy you time.”

Emi looked like she wanted to say something, but John was already getting the horses moving again, pulling as tight of a circle as he could.  Even then, the wagon jolted badly as it turned around on the narrow road flanked by trees.  I didn’t watch them go — I simply pushed forward, one foot in front of the other.  There wasn’t enough space to land here, and I didn’t want them to have to go far.  It’d only make things harder for everyone.  After a few steps, I broke into a run.  There had to be a clearing somewhere.

The sound of the craft returned again, louder this time, holding pace with me right overhead.  I didn’t bother to look up.  After several long moments, I heard it pull ahead, the whine changing once again.

As it started to descend ahead of me, I slowed to a walk.  Forced my breath to come more slowly.  In through the nose, out through the mouth.

The craft was longer than I thought it was, the basic form somehow reminding me of a sniper rifle.  The gold and green way that it had been painted was…  Well, it was beautiful.  Four thrusters, two on each side, had been crafted with care, form and function melded into one beautiful combination, like limbs reaching out towards the ground.

The sleek angles moved forward, tapering to a point that opened up, revealing some sort of Tinker-made weapon like a maw that was opened and ready for combat.  The way that the tail had been done was more elegant than any other craft that I’d ever seen, looking like a piece of art.  Like an animal’s tail, sleek and long as it flew through the air.

Honestly, I didn’t know all that much about aircraft — it had never been a focus of mine, but I could draw impressions.  This wasn’t designed for a dogfight against other flying craft.  This was to get from point A to point B quickly, to perform strafing runs and get out of retaliation range as fast as possible.

Hell, why did I never study aircraft?  I felt like I was only scratching the surface of the beauty behind this design.

I blinked away tears as the craft touched the ground, my lips pressing together so tight that it hurt.  Everything hurt.  I felt like a void had been torn open inside of me, one that threatened to consume me if I let it.  I found myself standing still, the butt of my halberd on planted on the ground, my back straight as a board.

This was it.  The moment that I’d been secretly dreading had finally arrived.  Nowhere to go but forward from here.

Defiant and Dragon had finally found their prey.

Pie 10.3

As we approached the door, Kathy took the lead, bursting through.  John flashed me an amused glance as the girls followed her, motioning me to go in before him.  As we stepped inside, faint wisps of some spice that I couldn’t identify slamming me in the face, Fenix let out a sigh of relief.

“Oh, thank God.  You’re all okay.  But your eye!  And your lip!”

“I’m fine,” Brenda said, waving her hand a bit.  “Locked myself into a course that I couldn’t help.  Emi saved my ass, though.  The Wardens helped.”  She was moving sluggish, though.  She’d pushed herself hard, and I was willing to bet that she was feeling the burn.

“My eye’s alright,” Kathy said cheerfully.  “It’ll probably swell shut tomorrow, but right now?  I’m not feeling it at all!”

John was grinning a bit as he made his way to the counter, depositing the bag on it.  “Any chance that you can change this into New Brockton?”

Fenix glanced inside and let out a long breath.  “I dunno.  I can get at least some of it, but…  This is a good amount of Warden reimbursement chits, and I just had to part with a bunch for the more honest side of my job.”  He dumped the bag onto the counter.  “Lemmie count up and then I’ll check the latest exchange.

“The fact that the five of you survived and came back is impressive enough.  The fact that you won?  Amazing.”  He grinned.  “Always thought that Valkyrie should take those fucks out.”

“She would if she could get there,” I said as I scanned the shop, trying to find where the spices were.  “Teleportation suppressors, but it’s a really weird design.  I did get some samples of their tech, though, if Habib’d like to take a look.”

“Probably, but give him a bit.  He’s a little, uh, occupied.”  Fenix leveled his gaze on me.  “And a certain someone wants to talk to you, ASAP.”  I raised an eyebrow and Fenix tapped his temple.

Oh.  I focused on Nexus…

I was dressed in a suit, sitting in a large, plush leather chair in front of a massive cake.  “Congratulations!” Nexus called out, as Mom burst through the paper top of the cake, spreading her arms wide.

What.  The.  Fuck.  “Uh…”

“Jordan my man!”  Nexus was in a suit himself, his hair slicked back as he slugged my shoulder and pulled me out of my seat.  “I would have called you, but I figured you were busy and didn’t need a distraction.  Are you okay?  Is everyone else–“

“We’re fine,” I said, holding up a hand to stop him.  I was very purposefully not looking in Mom’s direction.  “Thank you, though.  It’s been hectic.”

“I should say so!”  He dragged me to a television, turning it on only to reveal static.  “Look at you, man!  That…  Oh, that was brutal, but I’d expect nothing less against Fyrtorn.  Oh…  I was lucky to get the videos, and it cost me a pretty penny, but…  Man, is this worth it!”

Right.  I shook my head.  “I’m glad you’re enjoying it.  How’d you know it was us?”

He snorted.  “It’s an open secret among the Wardens.  The Great and Powerful Jordan, so empowered that he took down, like, thirty dudes and dudettes.”  He laughed again.  “How’d it feel?”

I shrugged, not really understanding.  “It felt like a fight.  Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Aha!  Ever the humble hero.”  Okay, now he was really, really laying it on thick.  I couldn’t remember the details, probably from having altering time, but all that I’d done was assault people until we could use our guns again.  Then I shot and assaulted people.  Standard fare, really.

I tried changing the subject.  “Any word yet on the Wardens analyzing the tech recovered from the raid?”

“They’ve got a bunch of Tinkers crawling all over it.  If Valkyrie’s ghosts could learn, she’d probably have them crawling all over it, too.  Too soon for any information to come trickling back my way, though.  I’m in tight with a few of the Tinkers, but they’re…  Well, a little focused.

“The Thinkers and a few others are scraping over the survivors.  One got away, but they’ve got their bloodhound and a few others tracking the guy.  They’re hopeful that they can interrogate that regenerator you bagged, thinking she can’t be tagged.  Maybe not in the short term, but the long term, you know?”

No, I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.

“I’m going to go over all the intelligence that I can get my mitts on.  It’ll be a bit, though, before I can get any real good juicy stuff.  The video data alone is making my computer system into a sauna.”

I nodded.  “I’d be surprised if it wasn’t.  How many of those mercenaries were sent by you?”

“Only a couple.  I would have sent the girls in as backup, but I never got a message.  Did you even think about calling me?”

“No,” I admitted.  “I was preoccupied.”

Nexus laughed again.  “Perfectly understandable.  And if what you said about the teleporters is true, they might not have done any good anyway.  Oh well!  Hopefully, we’ll be able to rig something up to accommodate it.”

I paused for a moment.  “You have people with access to that video footage?  That fast?  Without them blowing their cover?”

“Kinda,” he admitted slowly.  “Sharing the data with the Dragon’s Teeth was top priority.  Thinkers are nice and all, but the DT wanted it, and they have more bulk analysts to look everything over.  I tapped into it that way.  I probably could have gotten the rest of the data, but I didn’t want to push things.

That was fair.  “You said that my presence was an open secret.  Any chance that it’ll shift the opinion of me with the Wardens?”

Nexus shook his head, frowning a bit.  “No idea, man.  It’s probably far too early to tell, anyway.”

Dang.  Since we’d come back from Angel Grove, we’d already fought off multiple Warden teams.  I was hoping to lower that before things got too heavy and someone got permanently hurt.

He frowned, reaching out to touch my arm.  “You okay, man?  I thought that you’d be happier.”

“I’m just tired.”  I sighed softly.  “Plus…  I dunno.  We saved a lot of lives, sure.  But we also lost a lot of people.”

That made him nod appreciatively.  “Civilians dead, Wardens and mercs injured…  That’s perfectly understandable.  Besides, you’ve worked yourself hard.  Harder than you probably should.  Fenix says that sometimes you pick up restorative elixers, so I’ll have some sent to you as thanks for participating when you didn’t have to.”

“Yeah I did.”

“I know,” Nexus said warmly.  “That’s why I go the extra mile with you.  It says something to me that you’ve never tried to negotiate money when it comes to our little arrangements.  You just take whatever I’m willing to pay without complaint, even when you feel you need the scratch.  I send you to do something good, and that’s good enough for you.

“You didn’t even know they were going to reimburse you.  You still got the gang to join you in taking them down without that.  I appreciate it.  So I’ll send some money your way, some elixers…  Anything else that you want or need while I’m at it?”

I paused.  “Two things, and you only have to do one of them.”

“Shoot!”

“I got an appointment with the two doctors to make sure that I’m not suffering any tissue rejection and that my cybernetics aren’t messing up.”

Nexus nodding, rubbing his chin.  “Keeping you going is pretty important, and I’m willing to bet it’s expensive.  Alright, what else?”

“The village that I’m in doesn’t have a lot in the way of red meat.”

That made him burst out into laughter.  “Only have to do one of them?  Yeah, right.  Like I can deny the hero of the hour real meat, and keeping you in fighting condition is a pretty damn high priority.  You’ve got both of them.  No question about it.  I’ll let you know when it’s there.”

I blinked rapidly, stifling a yawn.  “Well, that was interesting.”

“It always freaks me out how fast it is,” Kathy said worriedly.

John sighed.  “Jordan, I really wish that you wouldn’t–”

“He’s sending us as much red meat as we can eat,” I interrupted.

John’s face fell before he smiled brightly.  “Three cheers to the voice in your head!”

Emi snorted.  “That’s it?  That’s what he wanted you for, to send you some meat?”

“No.  We’re also getting a restorative and he’s paying for my visit to the doctor.”  I looked to Kathy.  “I know that you won’t know what to look for, but I’d feel safer if you were to watch, just in case.  I don’t want him adding in something extra without me knowing.”

She nodded, and Brenda squared her chest back.  “I’ll come, too.”

“We’ll all come,” John said warmly.  “It’ll increase your timespan, and extra eyes may see different things.”

“Awesome.  Now, there’s only one more thing that we have to worry about.”  I looked around the shop slowly.  “What in the hell is that smell?”

——————–

The doctor’s visit had gone fine.  There was a tiny bit of issue around one hip, but that got resolved with less than an inch of flesh.  The cybernetics needed more adjustment, and I was warned that I needed to increase my iron and manganese intake.  Just because the cybernetics were self-repairing didn’t mean that they didn’t need a helping hand.  Which made sense.

The good doctor also gave me a bunch more of her elixers, lying to Nexus that I’d probably need them after every checkup.  The cyberneticist warned me yet again that there was no chance in hell that he’d be able to actually repair my stuff if it actually broke without throwing my body out of whack somehow, so I’d better take care of myself and hope that oxidization didn’t become a concern.

That had been a week ago.  The others were still living it up and enjoying themselves, which was good.  Kathy especially was still in a terrific mood — ever since the clash with Fyrtorn, she’d been more upbeat, a bit more bounce in her step.

I returned to the inn with the last of the beef — steak tips.  Fenix was holding onto it for us since he had freezers.  We’d taken to eating it in the mornings and going to the burlesque club at night.  For lunch we went wherever, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups.  It was a good system, but I needed to eat more.  I needed to train more.

Thankfully, the others weren’t giving me grief when I did any more.  I wondered what had changed there.

As I handed the meat to the server to take back into the kitchen, I got a weird feeling off of someone nearby.  It wasn’t anything particularly major, no feeling of danger, but still.  A weird feeling in the back of my stomach that eased up as I made my way back to the group.

“Guy at the bar with the breakfast kippers,” I said as I settled down.

“I thought that you already had a boyfriend,” Emi moaned.  Too much alcohol for her last night.

“Don’t worry about it,” John said quietly.  “I’ve got my eye on him.  He’s glanced around a few times, but I think it’s just boredom on his part.  I will admit, I wish there was at least a radio down here…”

Kathy nodded.  “Since we are all here, except for Emi, mind if we talk shop?”  Emi stuck her tongue out, trying not to open her eyes.  I nodded.

“Right.  So.  We have some options for you.”

“For me?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

Kathy smiled patiently.  “Yep.  Emi gives more inpu– up to the plate.  If you don’t have any preference, that’s fine.  But at least we’re asking for your opinion on what to do next.”

I frowned a little.  “How about we do something that avoids power here soon?”

“That… wasn’t quite what I was getting at,” she confessed.

“What do you mean, power?” John asked curiously.

“I mean, electricity.”  I ran a hand over my thick stubble before speaking quietly.  “Look, every time that we’ve gone after someone, it’s been on pretty well-defined routes.  Places with electricity available for everyone.  Places that I have the teleporter coordinates for memorized.  That makes us, to an extent at least, predictable.  Now, we’ve had run-ins with the Wardens already, and not just what happened last week.

“Now, I’ve been using the scrambler to keep people from spying on where we go, but full teams keep meeting us.”  Full teams of cadets, at least.  It was still damn confusing.  “One possible solution?  They’ve got a Thinker coming up with possible places that we can hit.  They only need one eye on the gate to see if we’re there, or maybe an eye on whatever hotels are around.  That person reports in, they dispatch the Wardens, and the rest is history.”

John was nodding.  “Break up the routine a bit, see if they still attack us, and then go from there?  I like it.  I don’t know of any place offhand, but I’ll check with Fenix and…”  John’s words trailed off as he focused on something behind me, and he wasn’t the only one.  There were a lot of people at other tables doing the same.  As I turned, I immediately understood why.

The man who entered the hotel was over six feet tall.  His muscular body had begun to sag from the ravages of time maybe a decade ago, maybe more, but the tattoos that encircled his bare chest and arms spoke more about him than most would have cared to guess.  His hair was thinning, going gray, but he still walked with power, pride, and a sense of purpose.

And he walked straight to our table.  “Jordan.”

I whipped around to look at everyone, holding up a finger.  “Nobody fight.  Nobody.  Nobody, nobody.  There’s no point.”  I turned back to the man, forcing a smile to my face.  “Hi Lung!  Pull up a chair!”

Teleporter roughly similar to mine on his belt.  Different, though; smaller and thinner.  Interesting.  He also had a knife on his belt, though I was willing to bet it wasn’t for intimidation purposes.  Back in the old cape days, he’d fought off entire teams of heroes and won.  Or, at least, escaped.  The longer that you fought him, the worse the fight turned out for you.  The more hostile the situation, the quicker that his power ramped up, making him bigger and badder, making his flame powers that much more powerful.

A man like him didn’t need a weapon to be intimidating.  He was the intimidation given flesh.

“You know who I am,” he said, not taking me up on the offer of a seat.

“I do.”  I glanced to Kathy.  “Get us two drinks.  Good and strong ones.  It’s not every day that I get to meet someone like him.”  I turned back to him, plastering a giddy grin to my face.  “Please, sit.  Join us.  Have a drink with me.  I honestly doubted that I’d ever get to meet a living legend like yourself.”  And every moment that I could keep him distracted was another moment that I could figure out what to do, how to get the others out of this mess.

“Jordan–”

“We’re having steak tips, eggs, and hash browns.  Would you like some?  I’ll gladly give you mine if it gives us a moment to talk.”

“I am not interested in talking.”  But he was still grabbing a chair from a suddenly vacant table and pulling it over to sit next to me.

“Please humor me.”  I turned back to look at Brenda.  “This is Lung, the end-all, be-all of mercenaries.  An absolute badass.  Once upon a time, most people thought that his biggest claim to fame would have been fighting off Leviathan, almost single-handedly.  The others were only canon fodder for him to have the time to ramp up.

“But was stopping an Endbringer attack enough for this guy?  Oh, no.  No, he decided to one up it by directly assaulting Scion, getting some great blows in on him while taking that glow of his without hesitation.  And he even threw Bitch’s dog at Scion, too!”  I looked back at him.  “Wow, this is an honor.”

“Buttering me up will not get you anywhere,” Lung said dangerously.

“Believe me, I’m not buttering you up.  This is…  I don’t even have words for it.”  Terrifying was a good one.  If I fought him, I’d have one chance to kill him.  After that, all that I could hope to do would be to knock him down and out and run.  If he had a teleporter, though, it would only be a matter of time before he caught back up.  I wouldn’t have another chance to plan ahead, either — he’d come in swinging.

Kathy returned with two glasses, setting them in front of us.  Lung didn’t hesitate to pick up mine.  Fair enough.  I grabbed his and took a drink.  Powerful stuff.

“You have no idea how much I respect you, Lung.  How much I wished that I could be you.  I grew up hearing stories about you meant to scare kids, but I always thought, here’s a powerful guy who knows what he wants and goes for it.  I didn’t agree with your methods, but I had to honestly admire your directness.”

Lung only took a sip of his drink, staring at me.

“Besides, my blood’s pretty well diluted, but we share some common ancestry.”  Lung’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say anything.  Which… actually sucked pretty bad.  It was hard to stall for time if your target wasn’t taking the bait.  Out of options, I finally asked the big question.  “So, what bring you to my neck of the woods?”

He took another sip of his drink before replying.  “You have been making an awfully large name for yourself.”

“Thank you,” I said, faking pride in that.

“People, and not just the Wardens, have been looking for you for quite some time now.  You have managed to stay one step ahead of them.  I do not mean the mercenaries, though I hear that the contract has been called off.”  News to me, but at least it was good news.  “I am here on behalf of Teacher.”

I heard Brenda gasp, but Lung and I had locked eyes.  His were hard, and I was doing my best to keep the upbeat and cheerful mask up.  “Teacher?  What’s he want with me?”

“He is willing to offer you what you have always wanted.  Power.”

I let my smile dampen.  “By sacrificing my freedom.”

“No.  More than that.  He is offering you the chance to trigger.”

That felt like a stab to my chest.  “How?”

Lung shrugged a shoulder.  “Does it matter?”

“Little bit.”

That wasn’t an answer that he wanted to hear.  “I do not know.  I know that he managed to salvage some from Gesellschaft, what those in Europe didn’t secure.  I know that he has been doing other experiments on his own, too.  The details are uninteresting to me.  But I do know that he can force triggers.  Some of his people are quite powerful for it.”

“That’s fair,” I said, nodding my head.  “Just…  Understand that this is a big thing.  But offering me powers seems like it would come with strings attached.”

He shrugged.  “Not my concern.  I was hired to bring you to him to discuss it.  After you understand everything, if you decide that it is not for you, you’re free to go.”

Yeah, and I had the sinking suspicion that it was a load of bull.  “And if I don’t want to go?”

“Then I bring you to him.”  The by force was unspoken, but he wasn’t hiding it either.  “Simple as that.”

“I see.”  I broke eye contact at last, looking towards the kitchen.  “Where’s our food, anyway?”

John spoke very hesitantly.  “I, uh, think that everyone but us is long gone.”

“Then this conversation is complete.  I am no fool, child.  I know when someone is trying to delay me.”  He downed his drink in three wet gulps before looking at me sternly.  “Choose.”

I sighed before looking at the others.  “Don’t interfere.  Don’t even say anything.”

I turned back to Lung, putting my elbows on my knees and gripping my wrist as I let my head drop.  “I don’t want to go, but I know that I can’t fight you.  Not without putting my friends and everyone in this village at risk.”

“You are no stupid man.”

“Yeah I am.  ‘Cos I’m not gonna help you.”  I gently pressed the button on my watch.

“I do not understand.”

I looked back up into Lung’s brown eyes.  “I’m not gonna help you.  The moment that you walked into this city, they would have activated the teleportation suppressor that they installed underground.  It’s got a pretty big radius outside of the city, too.  I’m not sure how far, but it’s their guarantee that the Wardens, Dragon’s Teeth, and even Fyrtorn don’t mess with them.  It’s why folks like us feel safe here, so long as we don’t break the rules.

“I’m not going to fight you, but I won’t help you, either.  If you want to take me to Teacher, I won’t walk.  You’ll have to carry me.”

I was pulling everything that John had taught me on this gambit.  People would only do something for as long as it was worth it.  Lung was a mercenary, and he was in it for the money.  I wasn’t exactly light, either, especially not with my armor on under my robes.  If he carried me for long enough, then I might be able to let him tire himself out and decide that dragging my dead weight wasn’t worth however much he was getting paid.

If I said anything that upset him, made his power activate, it would end that.  His strength would be renewed, and my watch would definitely run out of juice first.  I just had to trust that his patience wouldn’t last as long as his greed.

Lung’s aged face folded into a frown, but after a long moment of contemplation, he made his way to his feet.  “You were right.  You are stupid.”

He might not have been in his prime any more, but he still had enough in him to get me on his shoulders in a modified fireman’s carry and stand back up.

“Jordan,” Brenda whispered.

“It’s okay,” I said as Lung moved for the door.  “It’s better this way.  Don’t do anything — I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

As we made our way outside, I glanced to see the guards gathering.  Brilliant.  That was the last thing that I needed.  “Please don’t interfere,” I called out.  “Please.  There’s no need for a bloodbath here in town.  Don’t worry.  Everything’s going to be alright.  Just stay out of our way.”

Somehow, I doubted that it was actually my words that kept them from interfering.  My rep might have been awesome, but Lung’s?  Lung’s reputation made mine look like nothing.  After Gold Morning, he’d done some dangerous things, even acting as a distraction for Teacher by assaulting New York Bet by himself while Teacher’s forces committed to their act of revenge against the Undersiders.  Going up against him was effectively suicide.

Having so many people watching us, though, was troubling.  I pulled my hood over my head as best I could and tried to hide my face.  I didn’t want them to see.  I didn’t want them to recognize me.

We moved through the town unmolested, finding the gate already open.  As soon as we were past the gate, Lung stopped, grunting as I felt him move.  A moment later, he started walking again.  No doubt, checking to see if the story that I told him was true.

It was another fifteen minutes before Lung spoke again.  “How large is this?”

“I dunno,” I lied.  “I was lucky to find out about it at all.  Nobody told me the exact measurements, and they were probably too drunk to give me the full story, anyway.”

I heard air escape through clenched teeth as he kept walking on the path.

Boredom.  It crept up at the oddest times.  As we walked, Lung content to be silent, I was left with my own thoughts, nothing much else to entertain me.  That was bad.

I thought about Teacher.  What did he want me for?  I was a nobody, really.  In the grand scheme of things, I didn’t really account for much.  I didn’t have a cool power for him to tap into, and while I had technical skills, they weren’t enough to really drive a community like whatever it was that he had.  At this point, they’d want specialists, and I definitely wasn’t a specialist.

Why grant me powers beyond being just a bargaining chip?  Sure, if he got his teeth in me, I’d be someone else in case the Wardens or Dragon’s Teeth or whomever had a grudge against him.  But at the same time, wouldn’t that be a waste of resources?

I briefly considered trying to press Lung for more information, but I doubted that he had any.  I considered striking up a conversation, but he didn’t seem like that much of a talker when he didn’t want to be.  Maybe if I spoke in Japanese?  Or would Cantonese be better?  Or was it Mandarin?  I honestly wasn’t sure if he actually knew any Chinese at all, let along what dialect.  Besides, I was pretty sure that I only remembered the basics from school.

The other problem with striking up a conversation was that it might piss him off, which would only make this gambit fail.  No, it was far better to remain silent and just focus on his slowing pace.

Another half an hour passed, only punctuated by his occasional pauses to test the teleporter and his ever slowing pace.  The monotony was finally broken when Lung lurched.

I had a sudden moment of panic and vertigo as he fell to one knee, my head swinging all over the place as I slammed into his shoulder.  As I opened my mouth to as him what was wrong, he let go of me, dropping me to the ground without a care in the world.

“Hey, uh, Lung?”  I quickly made my way to my feet, moving around him, only to find that his face was twisted up in pain with bullets of sweat running down it.  “Are you–”

I didn’t have time to finish my question as he tipped to his side, making me scramble to catch him and ease him to the ground.  My hand went to his artery as his eyelids began to flicker, finding his pulse to be too weak and sluggish for someone who had been carrying a man for almost an hour.  Too irregular.

I found myself staring down at a man in his fifties who had lived a hard life.  He’d been in many great battles, but what had he done between those battles?  Had he smoked?  Drank heavily?  There were rumors that he’d been spending a lot of time in the past few years going from fight to fight, taking any job offered him if it meant that he could fight someone, anyone, no matter how big or small.  Had he been staving off the effects of time that way?

I didn’t know.  I honestly didn’t.  But I punched him in the face anyway.  When he didn’t respond, I punched him again.  A third time to the chest.  “Stupid fucker,” I growled, not really feeling it.  “Limp-dicked son-of-a–”

A surprisingly strong arm grabbed my robes and flung me away.  I tumbled, and as I slowed, I came up to a sitting position, as awkward as it was from how my robes were tangled.  Slowly, Lung shakily made his way to his feet, his brown eyes now having a slight golden look to them.

“There we go,” I said sagely.

Lung sneered at me.  “You–”

“Just saved your life.”  Getting up was just as awkward as sitting, if not more so.  “You were dying, Lung.  Your heart was stopping.  CPR is only good if you can get aid there soon.  The rest of the time?  Even if you get the heart going again, there’s a good chance that the person’ll end up braindead.  So I got your passenger into the act, kicking your regeneration into full speed.”

His sneer softened a little.

“You’ve done great things, man.  Amazing things.  I’m not gonna let you die just because we’re on opposite sides.  That’s not my way.  But I’m not going with you.  I’m going back to the city.  And I think that you’ve got just enough honor to you to realize that screwing over the dude who could have done it without saving your life is stupid.”

“Saving me was stupid,” he said slowly, his voice even deeper than it had been before.

“Maybe, sure.”

“And if I come after you again?”

He did have enough honor.  Thank goodness.  “Then it’ll be an interesting day.  But I think that we can both agree that today shouldn’t be that day.  Yeah?”

“You are a fool.”  Lung took a deep breath, putting a hand to his chest.  “And…  Maybe I am too, for letting you go.”

“Maybe.  But honestly?  I don’t care.  I’m just glad that I don’t have to bury your ass by hand.”  I took a step, then paused.  “And seriously, Lung…  See a doctor.  Do something to fix yourself up, alright?  I don’t know who or how, but just see someone.”

I glanced at my watch — dead.  The localized teleportation suppressor had long run out.  I’d have to get Habib to recharge it or replace the batteries or whatever.  “I’m headed back.  I missed out on breakfast.  Tell Teacher…  Tell him the truth.  Whatever he’s selling, I’m not buying any more.  He should have come after me last year.”

With that, I turned and began the walk back towards the city.  I could only imagine what the locals would think of me now.  Left being carried by Lung, come back without him, and mud on my robes?  Thank goodness they didn’t know who I really was.

Interlude 10.B

Emi shifted the bag in her arms as she lead the way down the street.  She wasn’t sure how the others couldn’t remember the green house with the alleyway behind it; it was the easiest goddamned thing.  Sure, there were, like, five other green houses in town, but she could remember seeing it as they’d scouted the shrink only, what?  Four blocks away?

The hard part for her was the bag.  Not only was it heavy as hell, but other than the short straps that looped over the shoulders and attached to his armor, Jordan’s pack didn’t have any real loops.  With how big it was and how much junk he had in there, it made the entire thing hard to carry.  She would have switched with John, but he was trailing behind, carrying Jordan’s duffel with heavy steps.  The pack weighed nothing compared to that thing.  Brenda and Kathy were carrying damn near everything else.

As she turned the corner, though, her eyes narrowed as she saw who was with Jordan.  Those perfectly plucked brows that were drawn together, that slightly upturned nose, that firm jaw, that freckle on her cheek…  That bitch.  They wouldn’t be in this situation at all if it hadn’t been for fucking Gina.

Gina was the one who had made Jordan start to fall apart inside.  They’d worked hard to shield him from what was going on, not for their sake, but for his.  They’d figured that it would have been like a stab in the chest for him, so they’d kept it on the down low.  And sure, he’d gone into quiet fury mode, hunting down everyone and everything, but after that?  That’s when everything fell apart.

If it weren’t for that bitch…

“What the hell are you doing here?” she growled.

“Unrelated,” Gina snapped, barely glancing up from her Tinker-tech bracer.  “Come here.”

Jordan had rolled up the sleeve of his robes and was attaching a bracer himself.  What if this was a trap?  Sure, Jordan said that the bitch was a friend, but she was a Warden.  You couldn’t trust them!  They were all fucking crazy or corrupt as hell!  And here he was, clamping one of their devices onto his arm like…

Well, okay, he had his serious expression going on.  His ready-to-fight-and-destroy-everyone expression.  Guy didn’t realize just how scary that look was — he could clear rooms with just that look.  But when he actually acted?  If he would have been her enemy, Emi would have ran.  As he looked up to see them, he slipped out of his robes, revealing that he was already wearing most of his armor.  Unsurprising; he slept in that stuff.

Kathy put a hand on Emi’s shoulder as she hurried past.  “What’s going on?”

“We’re looking at a fight,” he said tersely.

“With whom?” John said between deep, labored breaths as he lumbered into the alley.

Gina shook her head.  “I’m officially raising the odds to 90%.  Odd power surges in the area.”  She looked up briefly.  “Fyrtorn.”

The pack slipped from Emi’s arms, almost smashing her foot.  Fyrtorn.  Her heart began to pound in her chest as she looked up at Kathy.  Kath’s own face was suddenly pale, her eyes wide.

“We should be running,” John whispered, his voice returning to its normal pitch.  “I’ve always wanted to visit France, after all.”

“No.”  Everyone turned to look at Brenda, whose jaw was set.  “I’m not going anywhere.  Not yet.  Everyone just says Fyrtorn and shuts up immediately, like it’s some sort of forbidden word, but nobody ever took the time to explain it to me.  Why does it always scare people?  Who is Fyrtorn?”

“Fyrtorn isn’t a person,” Gina said, the words shooting past her lips like a machine gun.  “It’s a cult.  Worse than Teacher.”

Kathy snorted.  “At least with Teacher, you have to accept his gift.”

“That’s a complicated topic for another day.”  Someone was coming down the other end of the alley, and Gina waved them closer without looking.  “Fyrtorn rides into a village or city, abducting any para or anyone that they think might trigger.  We count the cases where there are civilians who survive the assault as a victory.  About a year later, though, the people that they kidnapped are the ones performing the next assault.”

Jordan grabbed his pack, his eyes catching Emi’s.  “Duffel.  Wizard.”  Thankfully, John set down the duffel for her as she hurried.

“Wait,” Brenda said quickly.  “You mean, they’re… brainwashed?”

“Effectively.  Those captured just go on and on about Krigarguden, their leader.  First chance that they get, they kill themselves.  Makes interrogation hard.”  With that, Gina turned on her heel and began to walk away.

“Wait!  But…  Why don’t you go after them?  Get to the root of the problem?”

“They have,” Jordan said, a dangerous tone to his voice.  Emi turned around with the pants already bundled, and he easily slipped into them as he strapped the holdout shotgun to his forearm.  “So have the Dragon’s Teeth.  Valkyrie lead a team of five, the best of the best, to take out Krigarguden.  Only she and one other returned, and she was missing an arm.”

Pants in place, he knelt to let Emi pull his neck sheath on.

“It’s not too late to run,” John said, looking at all of them.  “I’m just saying.  This is bigger than–”

“I’m in,” Emi said flatly.  John and Kathy exchanged a glance; they weren’t happy.

“Alright,” the Warden who had been coming down the alley said, an authoritative tone to his voice.  “I have been informed that I’m supposed to deputize anyone who is staying.  Lawyer’s orders.”

“Fuck your lawyer.”

Jordan flashed Emi a conflicted look that shut her down.  He probably would have glared at her if he wasn’t so protective.  She felt a tiny sliver of guilt, there — he protected his friends, stood up for them, and two friends not getting along?  That was probably agony for him.

As soon as the neck piece was nice and snug, covering all the way up to his chin, he rose his hands to fold the collar of his armor over it.  Normally, she didn’t help him get dressed in his armor, but since the first time, she’d made it a routine to dress him in an outfit for the first time.

While she went for the rest of the wizard’s robes, Kathy spoke up.  “How many Wardens are there here?”

“Ten,” the Warden said, his voice subtly betraying his lack of confidence.  “Plus another three mercenaries.  Plus yourselves, if you’ll–”

“Brandford had twenty and fell.”  Kathy looked at Emi as she got the robes on Jordan, carefully arranging them.  “We’re small fries compared to this.  I get why Jordan is going to fight, but–”

“How much blood do you want on your hands?” Emi snapped, not bothering to look up from her work.  Trying to work fast and careful was hard.  “John had it straight, but in the wrong direction.  This is bigger than any of us.  Can you really live with yourself, knowing that maybe you could have saved some lives?  Because if we can keep them from getting their mitts on even three people, I think we’ve won.”

The battery pack connected, and she flipped the hood up before hitting the switch.  Immediately, the hood, sleeves and pants began to glow faintly, as if Jordan was radiating some sort of power that was confined by his green robes.  It’d taken her ages to get that right, even with Habib’s help.

“Holy shit,” the Warden said as Jordan straightened up.  The guy’s face now matched Kathy’s.  “The resemblance is… freaky.”  What did that mean?

Gina came stalking back.  “It’ll look even better once your helmet’s on, fuckface.  Now.”  By the time that Jordan turned to her, Emi was already tossing it to him.  “Arm up to your chest, horizontal.”  As soon as his helmet was in place, she spoke into her armband.  “Update, he needs the full monte.  Anything that you can give, do it, ASAP.”

What was like a small window in space opened in front of Jordan, and almost immediately, vaporous hands began to reach through, one at a time, to touch his chest before withdrawing to make way for another.  What the fuck?  Wait, was Valkyrie doing something to him?  No, no!  That bitch tried to get her teeth on him before, this couldn’t be good!

But Jordan was already pulling the teleporter out from under his robes, holding it out in Kathy’s direction.  “I don’t blame anyone for going.  I won’t try and convince you to stay, and I won’t have bad feelings.  Head back home, recharge it.  If I live through this, I’ll get in touch with…  With our occasional employer to contact our mutual friend.  If not…  Well…”

Kathy looked to Brenda as the portal suddenly snapped shut.  “It’s up to you if you stay or not.  These people are–Glory be to Krigarguden!

Emi’s eyes went wide, but not because of what Kathy had said; Jordan, John, Brenda, all of them had said it at the exact same time.  Jordan was already putting the teleporter back on his belt.

“He is the Light in the darkness!”  It wasn’t just them.  Everyone in town was saying it in those slow, droning tones.  Kathy’s hands clapped over her mouth, and she looked about ready to piss herself.  Honestly, Emi couldn’t blame her — she was already diving for her pack, pulling on her mask and tossing others their own.

“His Glory is what draws the Worthy together!”  The voices were rising in volume against their wills.  It was like her mouth was completely detached from her.  Fucking Masters.  She pulled the laces on her gold-colored leather mask tight, only giving it a blind shoe knot.

“And it is only through Him that the Worthy will find paradise on earth!”  Emi grabbed her guns and knives, pleased to see that everyone else seemed to be getting ready as frantically as she was.  Everyone except Brenda, at least.  She’d missed her mask and was blindly probing at her face.

“And should you be unworthy…”  Emi scrambled to retrieve it, trying to ignore the words, or at least will her mouth into saying something else.  “…Then all you shall know forevermore is but the depths of the earth.”

Everyone seemed to say something at once, jumbling over each other bad enough that Emi couldn’t even make out what she’d said herself.  It didn’t matter.  Mask in hand, she pulled off Brenda’s blindfold.  The girl’s pale brown eyes only registered for a moment before going wide.

“No!” Brenda shouted as she dropped to the ground.

“Wha–”

———————-

Emi groaned, which did nothing to help the pain that lanced through her head.  This felt arguably worse than when she’d had a concussion.  Then she hadn’t had the brains to cry or feel the worst of it, but right now?  All that she could do was press her head into the ground and scream.  She couldn’t even lift her hands up, it hurt so bad.

She wasn’t sure how long it was, but the pain let up just enough that she could hear screaming, worse than her own.  Screaming and laughter.

Screaming and…

Fyrtorn.  The realization hit her like a bullet, making her eyes open wide.  Fyrtorn was here.  Her blood turned to ice, cooling off some of the pain.  Blurred vision cleared as several thoughts worked through the pain at once.

People were dying.  The others might be dead, or they might be fighting.  Either way, she was laying here sobbing while people were dying.  If she didn’t get up, she’d hear a lot more screams.  If she didn’t fight, they’d drag her away.  If she did fight, she might die, but that was better than having your brains scooped out and chants of praise stamped behind your eyelids.

Her vision began to clear as she pushed herself to her hands and knees.  She didn’t feel like puking — from what Jordan had said about concussions, that was a good sign.  What had happened?

The green house was… gone.  Simply gone, a pile of debris where it had been.  No sign of the others, though.  Where was her purse?

The screaming was louder now.  Emi turned her head as best she was able, scanning for the source.  It took her a moment to get her head to focus on it — her entire body felt like lead.  A man in a blue shirt with a yellow stripe down the middle with a yellow sash wrapped around his waist.  He was sitting on top of someone that was hard to make out, but the woman was screaming alright.  Loud enough to be heard over all the other screams.

Emi knew immediately how far away it was, not in numbers or anything.  The real distance.  She focused on crossing it… and nothing.  Not a single damn thing.  The realization that she couldn’t teleport made her chest seize.

Jordan?  No, they’d tested the watch, and the range wasn’t great enough to do it.  Were the people from Fyrtorn the ones blocking her teleportation somehow?  Jordan said that part of the demand for Tinker weapons and jamming devices was to fight the Tinker items that Fyrtorn brought into play.  An ECCM war, he called it.

It took a bit of work for her to run her hand along the shoulder strap and grab the calico, raising the gun.  It was shaking badly, but as soon as it was trained on the guy, she pulled the trigger.  Nothing again.  She let go and drew her pistol, firing again… and more nothing.  Jordan obsessively worked on their guns, making sure they were clean and in good repair.  More Fyrtorn tricks.

Bastards.

She watched as the man lifted his hands, a strange blackish glowing energy forming between them, before thrusting them down and causing the woman to scream louder again.  Fuck this.

She drew her knives and forced herself to her feet.  Each step brought a little more energy, a little more pep to her step.  He lifted his hands again, and just like that, she was at a full sprint.  Before he could form that energy again, she drove a knife into his back.  As he arched into it, she drove her other knife into his chest and heaved with all her might, pulling him off the woman.

His face twisted as he made several noises in the back of his throat — not gasps, but more like he was trying to swallow air and failing.  Emi didn’t care.  A blade was thrust into his throat, and then is chest.  The blades flipped, and the thrusts became a flurry of slams into him, making up for their lack of precision with force and numbers until the body stopped twitching.

Oh, she was alive now.  Her entire body had that tingle, and the weight and pain were long forgotten.

Emi glanced behind her, and the woman…

The woman’s arms and legs were gone, the stumps ending in a black gel that was melting onto the ground.  The woman’s eyes were frantic as she looked around, but not at anything in particular.

Emi felt her soul crack.  A pain deeper than she’d ever felt before as she looked at the poor woman.  Fuck, she wanted to help.  To say something.  To do something.  But…  There were so many other screams.

“I’ll come back,” she whispered softly, more to herself than anything.  The woman couldn’t hear her now.  It would have been kinder to have let him finish it — she doubted the woman would still be there when she returned.

Emi bounced to her feet, ignoring an explosion somewhere in the distance.  Whomever that was had taken out the house.  She wasn’t going to take them on with her guns not working.  Instead, she just started running blindly.  Where was everyone?

A window exploded as a villager was thrown through it, falling lifelessly to the ground.  Emi turned, and a shapely woman in the same getup as the last guy made eye contact with her for a moment before jumping through the window, fists raised.  So it was a shitty uniform!

Emi barely had time to bring her hands up to her head before the woman swung, her fist connecting with the flat of Emi’s forearm.  The other fist connected with the other, but Emi didn’t give her a chance for a third, driving both her blades into the woman’s chest — all like Jordan had taught her.

So it took her completely by surprise when the woman grabbed her by the hair and violently flung her away.  She tumbled briefly on the ground before coming up on one knee, looking up to see the woman smirking.  That explained the blood — at least some of it had to be the woman’s.

“Damn girl,” Emi said without thinking.  “I’m flat as a board and I got more going on than you!”

The woman stopped flat in her tracks, blinking before looking down at her impressive bust.  That was all that Emi needed to turn and begin running.  If that bitch could take two to the chest without flinching, she had nothing to take her on.  Maybe if her damn guns were working or she could teleport, but no, nothing’s that easy!  Especially not with psychos who wanted to kidnap them all over the place!

Was this what Jordan felt like all the time?

As she passed an overturned cart, Emi caught a glimpse of a green mask for a split second.  A moment later, she heard a crack behind her as loud as a gunshot.  Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Brenda spinning, raising a sledge over her head, and bringing it down on the head of the prone woman with a satisfying crunch.

And immediately falling on her ass.

Emi hurried back over, only for Brenda to speak up.  “Not dead.”

Answering questions before she could ask them again.  Fucking Thinkers.

But the woman had more pulp than a head.  Emi grabbed a foot and jammed her knife in before pulling back and severing the tendon.  Brenda was right there, jamming a rock into the wound.

“Do the other.  She regenerates.  It’ll keep her from walking until after the fight.”

Emi grabbed the other foot.  “We win?”

“Most of the time,” Brenda said as she jammed another rock into the new wound.  “Getting better by the moment.  Usually.”  Her hand went to her shoulder.  “Met up with Gold.  We’ll stick together.”

Radio!  Emi had forgotten hers!  She cursed herself inwardly, but looked around.  Anyone could pop out at any time.  “How we doing?”

As if on queue, a body wearing that damn uniform fell to the ground.  Emi looked up and took a breath — Jordan was hovering in the air just above the buildings, and just looking at him, he seemed… Powerful.  She could feel it rolling off of him, like he was oozing strength.

A flyer tackled him mid-air, and they both went careening off into the distance.  If it was anyone else, she might have worried, but Jordan was tough.  Tougher than the rest of them put together.

“I started off seeing almost an hour after the fight,” Brenda said quickly, moving to retrieve her sledgehammer.  “I’m down to just a few minutes.”

Holy shitballs, how many paras did Fyrtorn bring?!

“Red and Blue are paired up.  Blue’s a bit beat up, but they’re still fighting.  I started with Gina, and we make a good team.  I came here to meet up with you.”  Which meant that John and Kathy were doing as well as could be expected, and bitchface was alone.  At least one thing was going well.

“How long was I out?” Emi asked as she moved towards the guy Jordan had dropped.  There was no way that the guy had taken this much damage from the fall, especially not with his eyes gouged out like that.  Her boy was getting downright brutal!  She approved.

“Dunno.  In every iteration, I say it’s been a number between ten and fifteen minutes since the fighting began.  You were in bad shape, but Jordan touched you.  We had to move on, sorry.”

Well, at least Valkyrie did something right.

“My time’s dropping fast,” Brenda continued.  “In thirty, Red’s going to report that Blue just took out a bunch of them, but it cost the town’s water tower and made them targets.”

Damn.  At least Kathy could still use her power.  “Let’s go!”

Brenda wasn’t moving, though.  Instead, she removed the woman’s sash, pulling out what looked like ribbons.  “Boss, another set.  I don’t know what they do, just that you destroy them.  Next to the woman that we took out.”

She paused a moment before looking back to Emi.  “Back to the guy that you took out.”

What?!  “But Joh…  Red and Blue!”

Brenda shook her head.  “Will be worse off if we don’t.  Come on!”  She began to run as best she could with that sledge, muttering something into the mic on her shoulder, and Emi had to follow or be left behind.

A great V of light rose up into the sky to the west, only to close suddenly like a pair of scissors.  To the south, she could hear a high-pitched thrumming, but it definitely didn’t match the strange rhythmic tremors under Emi’s feet.  To the north, she could hear a strange chittering.

“Not wildlings,” Brenda clarified.  Oh, thank goodness!  That was the last thing that they needed.  “Fyrtorn-summoned energy creatures.”

Oh, come on!

The temperature began to drop sharply, going from a pleasant temp to Emi seeing her breath, and it was only getting worse as they got closer.  Brenda wasn’t slowing down, though.  If the precog charges in, just try and keep up.

Emi tried not to look at the woman, whose screams were getting quieter now.  Brenda pretty much collapsed next to the guy, less moving to his side then quickly crawling.  The temperature was only getting colder, but the sound of fire was quickly approaching.  Emi might not be good at figuring out powers, but even she knew that was a bad thing.

“Brilliant,” Brenda muttered between pants as she fumbled with the sash.

A figure stepped around a building, coated in flames that seemed to give off frost.  Even still, when the flames touched a tree branch that was covered in white, the leaves curled and darkened.

“Go with the… future where your… hands won’t work,” Brenda continued to grumble.

The burning man turned to look at the two of them.  It turned to begin a slow walk.

“Green,” Emi said, a hint of nervousness entering her voice.  Just because she felt so very much alive at the moment and was willing to take on the world didn’t mean that she didn’t know when she was outclassed.

“Don’t bother… shooting him yet,” Brenda said as she worked on the sash.  “Cold and heat fucks the bullet.”

The temperature was really dropping down, making Emi shiver.  As the para slowly drew closer, she raised her knives.  If the temperature difference would keep bullets from hitting him, it would do absolutely nothing, but she had to try to at least look a little intimidating, damn it!

Wait…  Don’t bother?  Her guns didn’t work.  How…?

“Point guns away from people!”  Brenda finally yanked out two of the ribbon-like devices and tucked her own pistol underneath the corpse.

Oh, hells yeah!  Emi quickly sheathed her blades and drew her pistol, switching it to her left hand and grabbing the Calico with her right.  Brenda struggled to raise the sledge, and brought it down as hard as she could on the Tinker toys.

All over the town, guns fired at that exact moment, including Emi’s.  And it.  Felt.  Glorious.

“Gold, stab that son of a bitch.”  Brenda’s voice was dangerous.

Stab?  She holstered her pistol and drew her knife.  But he…  Did that mean…?

Emi knew the true distance from the guy, her lips twisting upwards.  She pushed herself ever so slightly, and she was no longer next to Brenda.  She was right in the guy’s face as his flames disappeared.  Normally, the resistance that she felt after teleporting wasn’t a good thing, but now?  It gave her a precious moment of surprise on his face to savor before her knife stabbed into his chest.  Her Calico pressed into his gut and she let rip with a burst, hearing Jordan chiding her for wasting bullets in the back of her mind.

“I am the great equalizer!”

She yanked her blade free as he fell and turned back to Brenda, only to see her friend judo tossing another Fyrtorn bastard.  By instinct, Emi jumped, tucking her legs under her, and teleported over the guy, dropping down to drive her knees into his gut.  She barely had time to recover from the drop before Brenda put her pistol against the guy’s head and pulled the trigger.

“Teamwork!” Emi said with a grin, enjoying herself despite it all.  Here she was, surrounded by paras, scared for her life and more, but a part of her was honestly enjoying it for some reason.

Still, they had a lot of work to do before they were safe.

——————–

Emi passed another pair of Wardens tending to one of their own.  A wound on his thigh, right underneath his pistol holster.  There were a lot of people with wounds like that — those who had tried to use a gun, only for it to finally fire once they’d destroyed that device.

Was it worth it?  The teleportation suppressor being destroyed was definitely a good thing.  There had been more, but with each one that they destroyed, things had gotten easier.  Some of the devices created short range interference bubbles, while the others worked together to keep the defenders from calling in reinforcements.  Take out enough of them and the Wardens were able to get people here.

That one bullet suppressor, though, had changed the entire battlefield, for the better and the worse.  There were plenty of self-inflicted injuries to go around, and some deaths from it.  On the other hand, though, it had let people in town defend themselves.

The two things together had turned the tide.  Emi knew that she should be riding the high from victory, but there were other things on her mind.  Not the least of which being that trick she’d pulled once she could teleport again.

Now that the battle was done, she’d tried it again and found that she couldn’t.  She hadn’t been able to teleport into midair before then, and she couldn’t do it after.  She didn’t have to teleport onto the ground, but she at least had to be extremely close to something to anchor her.  But in the heat of combat, that combat, she’d pulled it off without a hitch.  Why?  What was different?

As she approached where the green house had been, she found Gina waiting there, playing on some Tinker device.

“Don’t you have work to do somewhere else?”

“Yeah,” Gina said, her eyebrows drawing together.  “I actually do.  But I wanted to talk.”

“Fuck you.”

“Not my type, poppet whore.  Whorelet, if you will.  But no, you’re the only one of you bitches that might give me the straight dope.”

Emi sighed softly.  She wanted to be anywhere else, not dealing with this psycho.  “Just…  Just go away.  Never come back.  You just make things worse.”

Gina looked up from the device, fixing her eyes directly on Emi.  “How bad?”  When Emi didn’t say anything, she tried again.  “Fuckface is my friend, and no matter what you think, I give a shit about him.  I know things got worse after my visit, but I need to know.  How fucking bad?”

Emi puffed out her cheeks.  It didn’t feel right to talk about Jordan like this.  But the bitch wanted to do this?  Fine.  “Where’s my purse?”

She expected a snide remark, but Gina moved immediately, pushing away a piece of rubble to retrieve it.  She remained silent as she handed it to Emi, her face as hard as stone.

It only took Emi a moment to fish out the pieces of paper out, holding them up for Gina to see.  “You know what these are?”

“You’re waving them in my fucking face too fast for me to see anything.”

Oh.  Emi held them still, glaring at the bitch.  “Drawings of him and his bro and sis.  I found them in the fucking trash can.”  Gina looked from the papers to Emi, her eyes going a little wider.  “Yeah.  And get this: he broke down this winter.  Everything he’s been holding back came flooding out.  But ever since then, he’s been forgetting more and more, putting it in whatever pocket of his brain that shit goes to.

“How much you wanna bet that he doesn’t even remember them, huh?”

Gina’s throat tightened.  “Pretty good.  He’s…  He’s always suppressed the bad stuff, but he’s probably also doing the good stuff, too.  No, he probably doesn’t remember them.  And he probably won’t remember me tomorrow.

“When he’s gotten serious, he’s always been brutal.  He was fairly gentle when he wanted to put someone down without hurting them, but when push came to shove, he was always brutal.  But he was brutally efficient.  The way that he fought out there today?  It was like one of his red rages.  He didn’t just kill them, he destroyed them.”

Emi’s mind flashed back to the gouged out eyes and mangled body, sending a chill up her spine.

“Yeah.  Exactly.  Listen…  Getting a taste of having powers like that?  Two years ago, it would have been the highlight of his life.  He’d be talking about it all the time for months in that giddy, excited way he has.  If he doesn’t…”  Her words trailed off.

“You really are worried,” Emi said softly.  “Like, legit.”

“Legit,” she said with a nod.  “I need you chucklefucks to take care of him for me.  He’s a good guy, and I don’t know what’s happened, but the fire isn’t there in his eyes anymore.  He’s still there, but the magic, that damn magic that draws you into him and want to be part of his damn world that he wishes for…  It isn’t gone, but it isn’t there, either.”

Gina unhooked a heavy pouch from her belt, the size of a small purse.  “I’ve been authorized from on high to pay you all for your services.  It’s the least that we can do for disrupting your operations today, and for you all risking your lives to help out.”

Emi frowned a little as she took the bag.  “Hey, uh…  While I got you here, and you’re being so quick to answer questions…  Who’s Amy?”

Gina looked away.  “Someone that I’m jealous of.  You’ll probably never see me again, but if you do…  I’ll tell you then.”

“Well, that’s not fuckin’ weak in the slightest.”

Gina snorted as her eyes fell back to her device.  “Whorelet, stop making me like you.”

That one sentence might have been the scariest thing that had happened today.