Who's Hunting Who (Part 1)
Who's Hunting Who
The gate guard was being an asshole. I could sort of understand, since they had actually called us for once - it was like pulling teeth without anesthesia to get any person of authority in the Republic of Germany to call us even if a witch were setting fire to their hair. Of course in a way, one was.
We had dubbed her "the Puppet Master." Her main ability seemed to revolve around taking control of people, manuevering them from the shadows as if they were made of wood and strung to her fingers. She was not subtle enough to hide herself completely, but just subtle enough that the Germans, who normally liked to handle their witch troubles themselves whenever possible, called The Hunt.
And the Hunt of course, called me.
Which led to the last reason the guard was being an asshole. I looked like a homeless person who'd been dead for a week, and therefore obviously had no money. This was on purpose - it's the little things that make life worth living. The bored looking little roach of a large fat man stared disinterestedly down his often broken nose and bleated again:
"If you've got no money and no trade goods then shove off! This gate is closed to beggars."
Another look around revealed all sorts of people heading through the gate, courtesy of this jackass's partner. Old, young, rich, poor, dirty and clean. All headed through the 12 foot steel gate in the 15 foot granite block wall without a care in the world. I couldn't stop a grin, and cut my attention sharply back to my flabby roadblock. Sure enough, he was stumbling away with a look of horror rising to the fore. He looked like he wanted to scream, piss himself, and pull his sidearm... all at once.
My smiles tend to have that effect, I'm told.
Looks like I had to do damage control... ugh, and so early into the assignment. I pulled out my badge, the symbol of the hunt and flashed it at him, making sure to keep the movement subtle and hidden by his bulk... which was pretty easy all told. His eyes widened and his mouth opened.
Too loud. Way too loud. My hand reached out on it's own, and pulled him closer to me, shirt collar first. This had a further beneficial effect of shutting him up.
"You need to shut up. You blow my cover here and well, let's just say I won't be happy. You've just gotten the bribe you were looking for, and you're happy, right?"
He nodded, clearly terrified now. Hmpf, some guard he was... a plush toy could own this place, the modern town of Vymar.
"Now now, that just won't do. You're happy, it's a large bribe... so smile."
I patted his cheek with my free hand as I put him down. His smile was a weak thing, easily crushed by the glimpse of my weapon he'd caught. I really didn't think it was possible for him to go more pale, but he managed.
"Go right in, sir."
"Thank you good sir! Have a wonderful day!"
I still wasn't happy about Ivan calling me a lightweight, but I couldn't deny that I barely made it to the bed before my head swam. At least, to myself - if Ivan or Alicia asks, I've been up the entire time. So what if I arrived at around 4pm, and it's now morning? I was involved in gun maintenence and a heavy duty planning session; I make all the best plans we use by myself anyway. I was pretty sure most of that was the walking three days straight with no sleep and little food.
I swapped out one set of clothes that had gone well beyond simply seeing better days for another set. It didn't really matter they were all alike, and all a disguise. I had yet to take a bath, so I just sponged the worst crap off with some water. I'd no sooner got my shirt on then the door threatened to split from the pounding.
"Come on, pipsqueek! It's morning, time to go to work!"
"Go sit on a railroad spike! I'll be right down!"
Honestly, doesn't she have better things to do than wake everyone up?
She kept blithely pounding on the door so I timed her blows and opened it right in mid pound. She fell in of course, grumbling. Then she looked at my still wet face and did that stare thing she does sometimes.
"What?!? It's too early for this crap Al."
Then she said something I had a hard time catching; in fact, I was sure I hadn't caught it right.
"It's just not fair that a boy should be so much cuter than me."
Alright, time for a nice, polite discussion. With her backed up against the wall that way I couldn't possibly misunderstand her; my ears were pretty good normally, it was just early. And since she has the attention span of a humming bird, the gun up her nose was one hundred percent necessary.
"I'm sorry, I must have misheard you; what did you say?"
"Um, I said 'it's not fair that toys should be so cool!'"
She held out a motorized toy; some sort of robot that made noises and shot sparks when she turned it on.
"Hmm, you're right, that thing is clearly better than what we had as kids. Freaking Germans and their technical genius."
I did not miss her sigh of relief, but once again I took my gun from a nostril. Come to think of it....
"Hmm, that's the second nose in as many days you've been up, Joe. I really should clean you, you could have a nasty sort of disease."
Alicia turned green and hit the bathroom door so fast I'd have swore she broke it. I widened the grin I'd been sporting. Wake me up and insult me, will she....
"If you two are quite through, it's morning and we need to start."
I waved to Ivan and pushed past all the irate people in the inn that wanted to talk about Alicia's behaviour, taking care to hide my generator. While many people owned guns nowadays, generators were always custom made, attuned to the hunter that wore them, and the only portable device capable of tapping into the power a witch normally commanded. Of course it did it by stealing it from a witch's hat, but that was a minor detail.
And if a bunch of people wanted to beat Alicia's loud ass into the dirt for waking them up, who was I to interfere? She'd brought it on herself. The loud clops of Ivan's boots assured me he didn't much care for her antics either. at the foot of the stairs I saw a flash of a dress, and snagged the barmaid without looking at her. I was trying to hide my grin, like Silas wanted me to.
I was trying to be good; I was!
That still didn't stop the full body shudder the performed when she looked at me; I wasn't sure she could see my smile, but something set her off. Still, no reason not to try and be civil.
"Coffee, black. Sausage and waffles. Now."
I let he go and she disappeared so fast she left a cloud of dust. Well not really, but she could have. Ivan stared at me.
"Well, this close to Belgium territory they have to have Belgium waffles, right?"
His facepalm was as loud as a .22.
Alicia managed to join us for breakfast just in time to eat some. Not much mind you, but some. She'd even escaped the wonderful discussion the inn residents wanted to have with her. I'm not sure how she did it, but it probably involved her revealing herself as a hunter; sure it was a violation of our orders, but only fools attacked a hunter. Well fools and witches, basically the same thing really.
As long as I didn't hear her do it, I didn't really care. And for all I know, she didn't really let the cat out of the bag. Of course that didn't stop me from eating her waffles before she came down. She could stand to lose a few kilos anyway.
Ivan interrupted the glare fest.
"So, how do we find the witch? Al and I have been looking for a week, but we have no leads at all."
"Sheesh you guys suck at investigations."
"We do not, you little runt!"
"Oh gross, not again!"
The force of her run almost pulled my Colt from my hands; she was managing some respectable speed there. I ignored the sounds coming from the womens' bathroom. The retching especially took quite a bit of ignoring.
"Hmm, I think I know how to find the witch."
Ivan shook his head as his ready smile slipped.
"Let me guess; announce that we are here and challenge the witch to come out?"
"Yeah! Just like that time in Abved! It worked great with that head exploder witch."
"You mean the town that was leveled when we fought in it? Come on Sasha, we need to make money here, not pay for damage till we're grey! Put a little more effort into planning, eh?"
"Hey, we're in the black, aren't we? Especially after that job in the ruins of Paris. That payout was so much money we could swim in it; good times."
"We are barely in the black. After Paris came Dussledorf. Then Morocco. Then Belize. Then...."
Sheesh, how long was he going to hold a grudge?
"Hey hey hey! Some of those were profitable."
"Some of those could have been enough for me to retire, if we'd had a plan."
I waved that thought away.
"Pshaw! You wouldn't retire, you enjoy it as much as I do. But, I'll see what I can do. For now I guess we just walk around and keep our eyes open."
Maybe that would give me time to come up with a plan; after all, it's not like I knew what the witch was after. without knowing what her objective was there was precious little we could do but look around for egomanical women with hats on. More
than one witch had been found in this tried and true method... usually after a few innocent women were singled out first.
For some reason, hats weren't the fashion accessory they used to be among young women.
Ivan wasn't convinced. Alicia nodded agreement as she sat back down, face scrubbed red.
"Alicia and I have been doing that for weeks, and we haven't seen anyone suspicious."
"That's because you haven't had me looking with you; you know how good I am at spotting scum."
It was true too, through a mix of observational skills and luck, I was one of the best for spotting a witch. Hell, twice I even spotted witches before they had fully emerged.
Emergence was the event that made a witch; somehow, in some way, some women just spontaneously started to form a hat. Those were uniformly from 12 to 22 in age. No emergence past age 22 has ever been recorded. Early witches were just like
normal folks to start, according to those records that survived. The only difference was they had some sort of hat, and could do miraculous things. But of course that wasn't all.
The earliest witches started hearing voices. Worse yet, they started listening. Things turned ugly, and cities, regions, entire countries fell to the relentless onslaught. Every woman who turned witch turned murderous; it was only a matter of time. Some hung on for days, fewer held on for weeks. My mother held on for 3 months. She abandoned us before she killed us, a decision I could somewhat respect. My younger sister didnt even hold out 3 hours, killing my father and burying me under the rubble of the family home.
I would one day catch up to her and return the favor.
At any rate, once the hat formed their aging either stopped or slowed down, and they gained the services of what they called a servitor or familiar. We called it a demon of course, and it protected the witch, and tutored her in the use of her powers.
The stronger the witch, the stronger her servitor - they were unmistakably linked to her powers somehow. My personal theory was one most hunters shared; that the familiar was the source of the voices, leading the witch down the garden path of evil. I had seen some truly epicly weird familiars in my time; giant robots, wisps of smoke, a ball of electricity... then they got REALLY weird.
"Are you even listening anymore?" Alicia asked me.
Finally, after the most boring of train rides and a fair amount of hiking, I was back in central. It felt good to be back. The only dampener to my spirits was I still had one idiot free from her village, and following me. I couldn't even send her off on any side excursions; the boss wanted to see all of us. At least this was more of a business meeting or check in.
After all, he hadn't sent an armed escort, like last time. I was almost insulted.
Or I would be if the thought of Gloom being mad at me was more scary than all of the 20, combined. With a few extra random witches thrown in. Like maybe the one that exploded heads. But no escort, and no official summons... just us back in central
to show that we were still alive and witch influence free. I strode in towards the lobby desk like I owned the place (cause I do, unless you ask Gloom, then I deny it!) and may have invaded Sarah's personal space a little bit. Her long suffering sigh was obviously meant for the gorilla thing behind me, and not my brilliant self.
She ran a dainty hand through her golden hair and straightened her uniform (a blue one piece dress that somehow looked better on her than anyone else).
"It's after 3, Sasha."
She sighed again and gave me a smile.
"Nothing, no point. Welcome back Sasha, Ivan, Alicia. How did Germany go?"
"Disappointing, actually. The witch focused on idiots which allowed us to get the drop on her; no real fight this time."
Yes of course those idiots were behind me, escorting my witch. I wanted them to hear that, and they did. Of course they did not quite agree with my assessment.
"You little shit! No fight!?! I almost killed your weak ass!"
"Who are you calling little, pipsqueek? I'm taller than you are! And you couldn't kill a germ with bleach!"
I fired back without even looking at him; my attention was on the witch. Through the mental fog and drool I thought I could detect a vague sense of chagrin, for lack of a better word. I crossed the distance to her and waited for her eyes to lazily focus on me, signaling the retrieval unit on duty. This one was led by Francis, and so was half competent; they were already crossing the distance.
"Last gamble didn't work out; tough break."
Fright flickered into being now, she knew what that meant. Her whisper was expected.
"Please just kill me now."
"Sorry, no can do. If I were to try that now I'd be stopped. You made that choice a month ago."
As she was pulled away I nodded to Francis but caught Sarah frowning out of the corner of my eye. Frowning at me?
"Nothing Sasha. So, how do I enter this? Two teams, class A capture?"
Witch hunting was seperated into classes to make it easier to catagorize, and to give bureaucrats jobs. Though if they all looked like Sarah I wouldn't mind it so much. There was class C (brand new witch, like the one I hunted down before that was no real threat to a hunter). Class B, which were mainly the target of the reds (new hunters, or recruits, the lowest rung of combat arm.) and class A, the targets of the blacks (my own arm, experienced and deadly assassins of the supernatural, usually with years of experience.) Then of course there were the S's. Class S threats should only be handled by the whites, our bosses. Witch hunters so experienced they were actually greying, and whose nick names were all they were referred to by anymore.
Like my boss, the gloom.
But in this case, a class A capture meant one class A witch, hunted, and captured as opposed to killed; more pay involved in a capture, because sometimes the witches would try to free their own, if only to have the captured witch owe their benefactor a
favor. That was the gamble the witch had lost; not even a class S would try to free a witch once they were in central; it was suicide.
"Hah! As if. One team, class A capture; one team, useless as... well as useless as a useless thing!"
He and his team didn't do anything but get caught, so they shouldn't get any money for it. And we definately shouldn't have to split with them. This ain't a charity!
The room darkened. From down the mount we heard clearly:
"Two teams, class A, Sasha's team, two class C's."
I tried to hold in the scowl. The Gloom had spoken. Though I did wonder how he knew about that second class C in the Crimea...
he always seemed to know, and that was pretty off-putting. I had to find out how some day. And beat him. Definately beat him.
Oh well, at least the two class C's should make up for it. I wouldn't even object that I killed both solo; I didn't have a deathwish, contrary to popular rumor.
But one day, oh yes, one day....
Fingers were snapped in front of my face.
"You alright boss? You got that gleam in your eye. I'd hate to have to squeegee you off the Gloom's walls again."
I looked down my nose at Ivan, which was hard to do since he was a full head taller than me; I almost fell over trying it, but managed.
"Perfectly fine my good man, now that the hard part is over, let's go get some drinks."
And maybe find some entertainment we wouldn't have to pay for. Like maybe Dustin, my fists, and a dark alley. Once again the voice
from on high interrupted.
"Sasha. Don't forget to check your generator."
Right, right. When in central we were required to check in our generators and get them inspected to make sure they weren't going to die when out in the field. That and hunters with generators getting rowdy tended to be a minor issue. I had a habit of 'forgetting'. The Gloom wasn't going to let that pass this time, I supposed.
Could he really still hold a grudge over that club?!? I mean sure it was his favorite, but it had obviously lagged far behind in keeping up with the city's fire codes! I was not to blame for that, I had been absolved! ...Well, mostly absolved. It's not like anyone died or anything.
Oh well, I knew when I wasn't wanted. It meant we had to go into the dungeon. Our lab away from lab. Or something. I hated the place really... it was where all the crazies hung out. The large bank vault door with the biometric lock was kind fo a dead giveaway. My hand and eye both scanned, I waited impatiently while my team and the other team that should not be named lest their naming cause them to appear also scanned in; the vault would not open until everyone near it was scanned.
The process took five minutes, 39 seconds... which might as well have been an hour. But at least the pop out grenade launchers weren't activated, which meant we were all still employed. The corridor beyond was pitch black and sloped downward; The torches were out today.
I entered without fear. Or visible fear anyway. Never let our science staff see you sweat... they will take a sample, then demand blood.
No one was brave enough to find out what they asked for if you gave them blood.
But that was the price of being humanity's savior; trudging through the pitch black corridors where the mad science was conducted.
Everyone sort of tightened up their formation; Alice was almost on my back, and strangely enough Dustin wasn't that far either, for all the studied aloofness he showed.
That was just silly. You couldn't show fear; they smelled it. They were like sharks or dogs that way.
Unfortunately they were awake and paying attention, too. Including the chief whackjob, one Emil Saums. Aman in his mid 40's that was perhaps more stitched together than Frankenstien's monster, and yet, had only the slightest of scars from it. He also had sharp, filed teeth and a laid back demeanor that somehow put me on edge... and frankly terrified everyone else.
There was also the scandalous rumor that he was my father, something about us acting alike. Pure bull. But I didn't need to respond to those rumors, because somehow anyone who spoke them ended up sick. The last case was a case ofexplosive diarrea, 3 years ago. It had lasted over 2 weeks. Not too many spoke up after that, and nothing was ever proven.
No it wasn't me; I'd have just shot them and forgotten it. It wasn't in my nature to hold a grudge.
In any case, he was hunched over the bin, picking out generators to process; that was the other reason people didn't like him, he was the one who checked (or fondled) our sources of power. Who knows what kind of things he did to them. From the looks of things he was running out; only 3 generators were in the bin for servicing. I didn't recognize any of them.
Other people disliked that he was a noted expert on the field of witch biology and of how their powers worked. He led the experiments on witches after all. And the rumor mill had those experiments ranging from the innocous... to ones that would be considered war crimes in other ages. I didn't believe those rumors (or more to the point, didn't care) but I still thought his nickname of 'monster' was fitting.
"Yo monster, more work for you."
He looked up and winced as I dropped my generator in the bin, taking note of the glow as it rattled around inside. Hey, the things were built for combat, I doubted a small 2 feet drop was going to make one go nuclear.
"You should be more careful, Sasha. So, how many was it this time?"
"Just two c's and a captured A."
Even I was unsettled by the gleam in his eye, but only slightly.
"A captured A?"
"Yep, a mindbender. A real piece of work; Knock yourself out."
He grabbed me and clasped my hands in gratitude. His own hands were cold and clammy.
"Oh thank you Sasha, thank you!"
I managed to free myself and wiped my hands on my coat. One could never tell where his had been.
"You're welcome. Just play nice, eh?"
I told him that every time. I'm not even sure why; the witches weren't human. They certainly didn't play nice with us. And Monster gave his patented solemn response.
"Of course Sasha."
He then looked at everyone else.
"Well? Place them in, and get out. There's science to be done!"
There was a chorus of clatters as everyone else placed their generators into the bin then left without a word.... and quite a bit of haste. I sauntered, myself. Maybe a bit on the quick side, but everyone else was too busy fleeing to notice.
He had already gone straight to my genny, forgoing the others.
"Have it ready by tomorrow?"
"Sure thing. Keep it up Sasha, you always do such wonderful work...."
The vault door closed behind me, cutting off anything else he might have to say. Whew.
Ivan draped himself around me, steering me towards the door.
"Alright, time to celebrate!"
I should probably be practicing forms, but what the hell. A little drink or three never hurt anyone.
From the outside central looked like a giant modern pyramid, gleaming reddish gold in the sun from the electrum runes chased across it's burnished steel surface. It was as close to impregnable as could be fashioned with modern understanding, from both mundane and magical weaponry. Some of the security was even automated, like the unmanned aerial drones that did fly bys, scanning with radar and targeting threats
with missiles and machine guns.
While the city had been attacked more than once, it had only been attacked by witches twice in it's 200 plus year history. Both times the attacks had been foiled with great loss of life to the attackers. While the last one had hurt us hunters too, it had all but destroyed the strongest witches in the world at the time and was responsible for our current stalemate and cold (ish) war. They simply lacked the resources and manpower... or womanpower, to launch effective counterattacks. And our picking their new blood off one by one was only hurting them more.
The bars of course, started the street over; in the direction we were headed, they continued for a solid block. Our favorite of course, was the first one; the leaky toilet, a wonderfully horrid dive of sin and inequity. Sawdust on the rotting wooden floor, torches instead of good quality lamps or lights, and a large one eyed bartender weighing in at 150 kilos, and not all of it fat. You couldn't find better ambiance anywhere else!
Throwing some random guy who was sitting at my favorite table (in the back, with a good view of the only doors in) to the floor, I raised a hand to the waitress, one Emilia Watts. She was a pretty little redheaded thing that of course wouldn't give me the time of day, unless she was patting me on the head. True to form, she sidled over and did so.
"Hey there little Sasha, what can I get you?"
Ivan stopped the knife in my hand casually, and Emilia didn't even blink.
"A beer of course. Just bring a couple pitchers."
"Coming right up!"
She sidled off and I sheathed the knife. At least she didn't completely ignore me, like she did Dustin. I could tell that annoyed him no end. Hemhad always fancied himself a bit of a ladies' man. I don't remember ever seeing him with a female who wasn't slapping him though... or trying to kill him.
Luckily enough booze cured all ills. Soon we were all having a great time, Dustin's team (names? Who cares?) were regalling us with their exploits in the Bavarian hinterlands, which apparently involved alot of fleas and ticks, and some witch that liked to use dolls. I was then begged/harassed to tell the tale of the class C I had chased, which took almost no time at all really. I mean it was only a three day chase and subsequent execution, nothing much to tell.
"You're way too dedicated, Sasha." Said generic female team member/moron number one on Dustin's team.
"Why thank you, miss...."
"Sylvie, Sasha, Sylvie Bonner. How do you always forget my name? And that wasn't exactly a compliment."
"Meh, you can't expect me to remember the name of every hot chick hunter Dustin decides to use as cannon fodder."
She blushed, then paled. It was a curious reaction. Beside her, Dustin sprayed his drink all over Ivan.
"Oh come on Dusty, how many are we up to? Three? Four now? It's got to be at least that many."
He flushed angrily.
"Just shut up and drink your beer, before I end you."
"Any time any place any way, buddy. I'll cut another few inches off you so there can be no doubt who is tallest!"
"Tomorrow, no generators, no weapons, in the arena."
Ivan facepalmed and Alicia muttered something that sounded suspiciously like "I knew it".
"Sure thing buddy. Better call medical and get your normal room reserved for you. But for now, drink time! Em, another round for everyone!"
There were cheers.
“The day dawned clear and cold. Birdsong traveled a great distance in the clear air, and stars could be seen clearly opposite the sun, as had been possible in days of yore, before the coming of science and technology. Evil, banished from without had taken up residence within the crumbling remains of fortresses and war machines gone by.
Get up, Sasha, or I'll read more.”
Oh hell, it was the Gloom, and he was reading that freaking lame author he was so fond of quoting to me; Nargle-bargle, or something. Guy was an ass.
“Gloom, with all due respect, it's my day off. You yourself gave me this day off, and such things are glorious treasures of the gods. So kindly sod off.”
He snapped that stupid book shut and strode over. My head pounded in time to his beat.
“Get. Up. Sasha.”
Each word was emphasized by a kick that had the pointed end of the Gloom's ridiculous boots digging for my heart through my ribs. For all of that, I could have ignored him, if not for the noise!
“Alright, alright, I'm up, I'm up.”
He continued ranting almost as if he hadn't heard me.
“Sheesh, I'm the leader of the Hunters; I have better things to do than to get drunk morons up so they can pound each other to paste in the arena. But no, you two idiots had to set up a match last night while drunk - again, and now there are so many bets riding on it that it would crash our economy to have you both sleep it off and forfeit.”
Wait, I had an arena match this morning? Who with? I had to stop drinking in Central. Was it somebody good?
“Come on, get up. You need to meet Dustin in the arena in 15 minutes or you forfeit.”
Oh, it was only Dustin. I could kill him later... when my head wasn't about to fall off.
“If you forfeit you'll cost Tonya a month's pay.”
“I'm up, I'm up! Where are my guns?!? Got any aspirin? Or some of that cure?”
The cure was the gloom's patented hangover cure. No, really. It was patented and sold in the gift shop downstairs, under his name. For all that it was made of essence of curdled death and damned souls, it worked, and worked in a matter of minutes. Perhaps it was the paprika too, what did I know about cooking?
I needed it, and needed it now. Tonya was one of the Gloom's old partners, (who wasn't old... may God have mercy on your shriveled soul if you implied that) Who went by the moniker of Plague. Guess what she could do with her generator? Not to mention she was insanely tough; I could shoot her with actual bullets, not the watered down crap I tended to use on people to avoid all those pesky murder charges, and she just shrugged them off.
She was my number one fan too. It was downright terrifying. If I made her lose cash, she would make me lose parts of myself I'd rather keep. Or maybe just camp outside my door to see whether I'd lost because I was sick or something.
The Gloom handed over a can of his juiced up sewer water with a lopsided grin. I drank it on the way out, and was proud of the fact I only wobbled a little. Most people drinking that crap would fall twitching to the floor, and foam at the mouth for a few. I was made of sterner stuff.
By the time we had made it to the arena, I was walking straight and more or less conscious, patting myself on the back as being one amazing guy... and found Dustin already there. Looking more than presentable, with a bevy of lovelies around him.
The arena was full and standing room only, mostly with off duty hunters, or those that claimed to be off duty. There had to be a few brave civilians in the crowd as well. I saw hands, my favorite bookie working the crowd, and gave him a nod.
And in my corner was... plague.
Life just wasn't fair. Right. Time to hurt someone, preferably him.
“You ready Sasha? You need some of Gloom's cure?”
“Already had it. It's fine. I don't need to be one hundred percent to do this; after all it's only Dustin.”
She gave me a long look, then nodded.
“Just remember not to kill him, OK?”
I scoffed loud enough so that everyone could hear me.
“Nah I''ll take it easy. If Dustin dies it'll be his own fault for being so weak.”
Dustin bristled predictably.
“I'm not weak you bastard! You're going down today!”
Flies could make such interesting noises, buzzing around. Even the loud ones.
“Whatever. Just beat him, Sasha... or I'll kill you.”
Delivered with a bright sunny face and an 'I'm-so-innocent-butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth' tone. Damn but plague could be scary. Not to mention as persistent as the flu. Fine, so she wanted a win, huh? Well so did I. A quick win, so I could go back to sleep.
According to the duel rules, we were required to start the duel 20 large steps away from each other; mid range, for one of us. That put Dustin at a momentary disadvantage, every match. Sometimes I backed up for more space. Some times I didn't. Today it was time to pull a trick I rarely used however. This time I would charge.
I usually only tried to use this trick once a year; not enough so he would come to expect it, but I usually wanted to end a fight quickly at least once. Sometimes it was a challenge not to use it more.
It opened up huge holes in his fighting style, but I wasn't his martial arts instructor, and he wouldn't listen to me even if I pointed it out. So why bother? It was someone else's problem. Gloom glared at us both.
“You two idiots ready?”
He nodded at exactly the same time as me. The bastard. I resolved to give him an extra shot just for that.
Gloom was wrapped in shadows before the word finished slipping from him, and I didn't blame him; he knew what these duels between us were like.
I was off like... well like a shot from one of my guns, right towards Dustin's stupid, smug face. The comic surprise creeping over him in slow motion fuel to my hatred. Being hung over did not affect my draw in any way.
Hell, being half dead wouldn't affect my draw. I wasn't sure about fully dead yet, but I doubted it.
My guns came up, the one on the right sighting directly on his stupid weapon; two shots knocking it well wide of me. The left went under his chin.
I gave him a jaunty eye wiggle just as his brain caught up to the fact that he'd been beaten again, then shot once and removed the gun, letting him fall into the dirt. Then in keeping with my promise made to myself, I put another in his ribs. He twitched, but didn't react otherwise.
Glooms announcement was almost drowned out by the high pitched squee from my 'corner', where Plague was jumping up and down in a most interesting manner. If only she could just stop talking! Or hexing people, that would be great too.
The roar and groans of the crowd made me wince, Gloom's cure or no. The groans were from the morons that bet on Dustin. Fools like that deserved to lose their money; he never ever beat me. All those times people like to cite in the past were flukes, or didn't happen. Whatever, time to go back to bed.
“Sasha, a word?”
Uh oh. What did I do this time?
“What is it, Gloom?”
“There is a situation in the Urals I'd like you to investigate. I know you're due some down time, but I'm short hunters at the moment; Cedric was killed last week and Merp is on loan to Italy. Dustin is the only other one I could send and, well....”
He gave Dustin an experimental kick to the same ribs I'd shot. Dustin didn't even twitch this time.
“Yeah I get you. But you get to canvas around. If my team wants to come, great, but I'm not forcing them. They need the downtime more than I do. Me, I'm always ready. You know that.”
“Yeah I know, it's just.... No, never mind. Go get some sleep, so you can leave at first light tomorrow.”
“Yeah yeah, I'm going you nag.”
“Nag, is it? Get out before I challenge you, and get Plague to referee. I suppose I could even get her to play doctor afterward.”
Shudder. That was so far below the belt it wasn't funny. I took the hint, opening the arena doors so the medics could see to the moron.
Honestly the ribs would likely be the worst of it. His head was so hard the non lethal rounds barely knocked him out. And that only sometimes.
It was a good thing; after all, if he couldn't handle a friendly spar from one of us, how could he handle a witch? It was a simple case of tough love. The life of a hunter was usually brutal and brief.
The funny thing was, despite that we didn't have any lack of recruits; it was a pity so few survived to adulthood. Orphans like myself usually had the easiest time; we had nothing left to live for, and it showed in our training regime.
People who still had outside interests or a lack of dedication usually died within days of their first assignment. So what if those of us left were a little... off? We got the job done. Even if we had to be brutal and heartless ourselves.
Introspection was for morons too. What was I doing thinking about all this now?
I managed to make it back to my room, and locked the door this time to prevent interruptions. Not that it would stop the Gloom, but it stopped Plague – most of the time – and I knew she was following me. Waking up with her staring me in the face was just plain creepy. Almost as disturbing as her nick name for me; “cash-cow.”
I was a bull, if anything; large strong and virile!
On second though, propping a chair against the door knob was also a good idea.
That done, I flopped on my battered bed; clothes, guns, and all.
Again, some jackass was pounding on my door. Jackasses and I needed to stop meeting like this. At least this time I was actually rested.
“Sasha, come on, get up boss-man.”
I muttered something. I wasn't sure what I was muttering, or who I was muttering it to, since Ivan couldn't hear me... but I did mutter it.
“Come on boss, it's morning. Time to get up and go. I have coffee. And whiskey. And whiskey in the coffee.”
A pretty tempting offer. He was right at least, it was time to get up. I wasn't even mad. I wouldn't tell him though, he might not gift me with bribes.
Opening the door I at least confirmed that it was indeed, my old buddy Ivan before I took the proffered drink and downed it. It was indeed whiskey coffee. An old recipe... from America; Kentucky I think.
“Wow, you're already dressed and ready to go...? No wait, silly me. Of course you slept in your clothes again.”
I handed the empty mug back to him with a shrug, then took his. He looked like he wanted to protest for all of a half a second before I downed his too.
“Of course. Why wouldn't I? Getting undressed is a waste of effort. Especially when I'm still hung over. I really only needed to be awake for ten minutes anyway.”
“Good. It is good you are in a good mood and ready. We should be going now. Maybe we can stop by my hometown before we go on to the backwoods, eh?”
“You mean your hometown is still standing?”
He nodded profusely.
“Yes. It is a small place, very backward, and no witches bother it. Was still standing last year at least. I can introduce you to my sister. She would like you, I think.”
“Is she cute?”
“She's larger than I am, and can out wrestle a bear. She might even be hairier than the bear.”
“So she might be a sister in arms to Alicia.”
Ivan started helping me as I made sure my gear was packed. All I really did was swap out clothes. For some reason I was always hard on clothes, so I'd long since just kept new and clean ones around in case I had a rush job.
“Quite, but she is nice, and you need a woman in your life.”
“One plague is enough, thanks.”
His silence conceded the point.
One of these days I really should ask the Gloom what Plague's major damage was. Why was she so focused on me? I didn't get it. But of course, it was Plague. Gloom would tell her I asked, and I'd be hexed into half death the rest of my life.
I suspected I knew anyway; I was always good for betting on and winning money from. I could live with that. Hmm, speaking of...
There really wasn't any doubt; Ivan was here, so he was coming. Alicia on the other hand....
“Yeah she's waiting for us in the main hall. You look to be ready here.”
I eyed my gear, then added more ammo.
“Now I am, yes.”
I didn't want to use my generator power on anything mundane, even the mutant wolves of the Urals. I'd heard the rumors about what that sort of energy did to them. Of course those same rumors had the witches themselves mutating them. I wasn't sure I believed that one.
I mean if they had, why hadn't the witches used them to sweep down from the Urals and kill everything alive in their way? They probably could.
We hit the main hall, the crowd parting before us to make it easy. I almost forgot, but then the whiskey kicked in, so I doubled back to the front desk.
“Got a mission file for me?”
The current attendant was a young fresh faced academy student type. I gave her a week.
“Of course sir!”
She handed me a file that was damn near a book, dropping it. What the hell was I supposed to do with this? I guess it would be good fire tinder. Oh well.
“Let's go people, day is wasting! I want to be on the train within the hour.”
Granted the station was only fifteen minutes away, tops... but the way the bearded lady could dawdle, it could easily be that long. She gave me that look of hers, mustache bristling.
“Sheesh, window shop one time and hear about it forever. It was a great dress!”
“You stared at it for a solid hour. Literally, I timed you.”
“And we found out after you bought it, that it clashed with your beard. The men of the ball were shocked that you could be so tacky, to say the least.”
“Remind me why I haven't killed you yet?”
“Because I'm your boss, and you can't? Because Dustin could tie you up in knots, and I can take him out in – Ivan how many seconds was it yesterday?”
“Right! Six seconds?”
She grumbled. And pouted. And grumbled some more. Which helped us make good time, since with her head down grumbling at me, she didn't see the assorted flashy items for sale on the way to the train station. I swear she had the soul of a tourist. Then again she had the fashion sense too, so I guess it matched.
Who buys pink chiffon as an adult, with lace no less? She looked like a tube of candy lipstick in that thing. But there was something more important.
“Really? Six seconds?”
I thought it had been shorter than that. I was slipping or something.
“Yes, Six seconds, mostly time spent closing distance. The actual time spent firing shots was just under one second, all told. I couldn't get a completely accurate time, but perhaps .8 seconds.”
Damn. An eight-tenths of a second was a little slow to in my opinion. It should be six-tenths. Oh well, just no help for it; I needed more practice. Good thing I never ran out of good quality moving targets.
We didn't need to buy tickets; the trains were clearly marked. I ignored the screaming and running of the lemmings, and marched us to the train we needed. Russia here we come. I didn't open the file until I was safely ensconced in an otherwise empty car, well on our way.
The first paragraph said it all.
Rumors only, actual evidence was sketchy... but rumors that my mother and sister were in the Urals. Those same rumors also place several other witches there, carving out their own fiefdoms. Rumors brought in by superstitious peasants, but the disappearances were real enough. I waved the file at Ivan.
“Your village isn't close to this, is it?”
He didn't look surprised, which meant that he'd already read it.
“No, my village is in the foothills; this is many miles away from them. However it is interesting. What could witches want with cold mountains far away from the civilization they hate? That rnage is inhospitable, even to them.”
“Unless you're powerful enough not to care about the laws of nature.”
Something that fit both my mother and sister, all over. Both had over a dozen hunter kills to their credit, and probably thousands of civilian deaths. For all that power though, I couldn't shake the feeling that they liked to run from me. I always arrived a little too late to stop either of them. And last time my mentor had met my mother, well....
While one had died, the other had been so injured in the fight she hadn't been seen since.
And now there was an eyewitness report that placed her in the Urals.
I was nowhere near as good as my teacher had been; but I owed it to her to try and finish what she started, even if dear old mom and I didn't have prior history. I was giddy at the prospect; I would not lose.
Wrapped in my comforting gloom, the hallmark of my power, I waited. There were some people that creeped even me, the acknowledged master of shadows, right the fuck out. My next 'guest' was one of them.
Plague showed it in. Not he or she, it. Marcus “Merlin” DeStaglio, one of the most brilliant minds to be born in any century... and crazy as hell. He had come up with a few theories regarding witch powers after redesigning the generators and truly mind boggling amounts of study and vivisection.
And then promptly applied those same theories to himself in an experiment that I felt should never be repeated. The experiment had been a qualified success, of a sort. Merlin had indeed become a little closer to it's namesake, able to manipulate small objects like pens and scalpels with much concentration.
Merlin had also gained a ghost of a hat, more sized to a doll than to a human, but a small wispy beret hidden among all that hair.
The fact that Merlin had become essentially both genders; with small breasts, a childlike body, and an equally small flacid penis was disregarded, if not treated by it with outright disdain. It dressed as a she, being small and childlike in form, the small dresses fit. And to Merlin's everlasting amusement, it served as lolicon attractant.
I turned my back on what went on behind closed doors as a matter of course among my own, but Merlin would be dead before I could blink if not for that mind, steadily working away. It had Emil Saum's ear though, and I had to admit the ideas were interesting.
If Snipe ever found out what I was thinking though, she'd come back from the grave to kick my ass.
That high pitched voice also put me on edge.
“He is almost perfect for our use. He has the genes, his lineage is clear. It runs strong within his family.”
I stared pointedly; it didn't react at all, staring back placidly at me. Which meant I was forced to ask.
“And the... side effects?”
“There shouldn't be any. I was... unsuitable for the experiment. I did not possess all the genes necessary. Even now, with all my manipulations, the power gained is negligible. He is such a strong candidate that such manipulations would be redundant. He has the genes, and is alive as a male, that is all the evidence we need; all other male children I've come across like him are stillborn. I would have... benefited from knowing of his existence before my own practical experiments took place.”
Like sniper would let you anywhere near Sasha.
“And that alone explains why you didn't know.”
It nodded, unperturbed. Something was seriously wrong with this... thing. Why was I even considering this?
“Right. Well, drastic measures need be taken in our circumstances. Under current models we will lose the war completely within a year; this is necessary. I am glad you now see reason. So when can I...”
“You can't. Sasha has to agree. The choice is his. And since he's currently on a mission, you'll just have to wait a little longer.”
It was the only way I would be able to live with myself, going forward with this. Hurry up Sasha, make this choice unnecessary.
The Urals were like any number of other mountain ranges. Cold and large. Large and cold. Inhospitable in the extreme. And like all the other inhospitable places the world over, crazy humans were already somehow living there. That alone said much about humanity, if you thought about it. I was not much for introspection however; I had my mind firmly on more important things as we finally strode our of the blinding snow and biting wind.
The rather charming looking Russian girl (more charming than the moose she was trying to resemble with that pole-axed look for the moment, at least) hesitated. So I felt repeating myself in the manner best used for those terminally slow in the head was needed.
“Beer. Now. Not five minutes from now. Right now.”
“Sasha, you need to work on your tact. It's obvious the poor girl isn't used to outsiders. Some people need to get their stare on.”
Well that was just stupid.
“Staring is fine... after I get beer. And maybe some food. She can be all fascinated as I check my toes for frostbite. But you got to prioritize.”
Alicia backed me up, unwinding that scarf she'd picked up on the way from her face and shaking the snow and ice out of it. Oh well, can't have everything.
“For once I agree with the pipsqueek. People can stare all they want... while getting us what we need. This IS an inn, after all. Poor customer service could affect repeat business!”
“We are probably the first outsiders the girl has ever seen. I can't imagine they get many visitors up here. Just too damn cold.”
The 'girl' was probably older than I was, come to think of it. But it was always experience over years, after all. I was well traveled, and she probably hadn't taken 10 steps out of this god-forsaken alley. Ivan defended his him, but couldn't keep his tone even.
“More than you might think, Sasha, Alicia. The mountains farther North in particular seem to be tourist hotspots.”
As good a veiled warning to keep your guard up as any I've gotten; Ivan was saying this entire village could be compromised right now. Though there was no hat on the waitress, that didn't mean much. It could be hidden among her clothes. It was always harder to tell in the colder climes, and therefore more dangerous.
The innkeeper was a man, and judging by the features as the two stood side by side, both wringing their hands while trying to appear unimpressed by our august personages, related closely to the waitress. Probably her father. Which was a good sign, since most of the time family members died first to a witch. The lack of care worn lines etched into the happy father's face also spoke of a carefree, and therefore witch free life. I could ignore the frown directed at us.
Then the jolly bundle of love recognized Ivan, who had finally taken his own headgear off (a ski mask that he had packed; where he found one in this day and age I will never know... mostly because he won't tell me, the bastard).
“Ivan! As I live and breathe! It has been years! What brings you back to our little patch of heaven?”
“You know what, Gregor. You're the one who sent the letter, after all.”
And just like that suspicion all but vanished. Gregor here wouldn't want hunters on the trail if his daughter were a witch. Though it wouldn't be the first time such a trick had been pulled on us, it was highly unlikely.
“I did; so you received it. I had some worry sending Albert. He is as far away from his namesake as one could get.”
Ivan snorted, making me curious.
“Isn't that the truth. Still, he did manage the trails and roads alright. Made it to us virtually unmolested.”
“Well he had an incident with wolves, so he says. I think it was more an angry boyfriend on a morning after, but he could actually be telling the truth this time.”
The girl snorted this time, making me REALLY curious. Sounded like this Albert guy would be fun to know. Or annoy me worse than Dustin, and get in a dreadful 'accident'. Which could be amusing too, I guess.
“So who are your friends, Ivan?”
Ivan pointed us out in turn as he named us.
“Well this is Alicia Fraun, and this is Sasha Norre.”
The inkeeper's eyes went wild. A bit later the daughter seemed to make the connection, and almost spilled my beer with her shaking hands.
“Wait, THE Sasha Norre? The Maniacal Marksman?”
Ahh, my fame preceded me. Even in a backwards pest hole in the Urals I was known. I was in a pretty good mood, so of course the waitress had to ruin it.
“You're a boy?!? I thought you were...”
“Thought I was what?”
“Sasha, holster the gun please. I know these people.”
Grumbling, I did as asked. The waitress didn't help matters when she actually answered my question, proving that Albert wasn't the only 'special' person to come from this village.
“I thought you were a girl who had a sore throat from the cold.”
“Sasha, no. It's impolite to murder the beer wench, eh?”
I lowered my gun again.
“You're right. More beer, beer wench. Lot's more. And whatever you have hot to eat. I'm sick of chewing on snow.”
She could move pretty quickly in that dress of hers. I turned to the innkeeper.
“So, any news further up the range?”
He smoothed his features, pasted on a smile, and shook his head. Honestly, it was like people thought I was an ogre or something. The real danger wasn't me at all.
“No, nothing. No word of any kind from the two villages further up, nor those on the other side of the mountain.”
Which meant it was almost certain that there was something to the rumors of witches. No word from four villages, in over a month, after one person got out to spread the rumor? It was almost certainly a trap. But a trap for who? If it was my mother, I was not arrogant about our chances.
Chances were that unless the hunters involved were very sneaky, and got in a lethal strike before she knew they were there... she'd murder them. It wouldn't even be close. And I was maybe the only one who stood any kind of real chance, other than Gloom himself, or his team. But I doubted any trap here was meant for me; it just didn't make much sense.
After all, mother could find me any time she wanted. I was positive of that fact, since I never tried to hide. No witch who wanted to find me would have to look especially hard.
But a trap for Gloom or any other of the strongest of us was likely. Which made it a good thing we hadn't sent anyone like that, even as it made it more dangerous for us personally.
But all it really meant was that we would have to go and scout for ourselves, and go from there. We were completely blind in this. I was lucky I had Ivan, who at least knew the area. One of the most immediate questions was burning in my mind. Why had this village been spared the invasion of the mad hatters? Why not just collect them all?
Something to ponder in between beers.
Ivan and Alicia both seemed to have the same idea; together we emptied the first pitcher in seconds. The food was some sort of sausage and potato dish. Filling and plenty of it, we wasted no time packing it away. As the sun set, it somehow managed to get colder in here. The big roaring fire did what it could, but something told me the lack of central heating would be an annoyance.
We needed sleep, and then a fresh start. So I went upstairs and chose a room while Alicia settled up the bill. From the sounds of it, Alicia wasn't happy to be the one chosen to settle up, but if they didn't ask me, and didn't ask Ivan, who else were they going to ask? I could hardly blame them if they didn't want to approach my august amazingness.
The rooms were too cold for the usual bugs or vermin to infest; which was a pretty good cheap alternative to pesticides, come to think of it. Judging by this room, all the rooms had fireplaces of their own, with wood fully stocked. I lit the conveniently set fire, set the grate, then jumped under the covers. It was almost like being back at my home for the winter.
Except there was no homicidal family waiting to murder me. Those lay further up the road.
Morning was, unfortunately, a morning. That's about the best thing that could be said about it. It was the kind of morning where a man wanted beer. Dark earthy Russian ale; the breakfast of champions. Of course, it was cold. The fire was still burning though, which meant someone had come in the night or early morning, and re-stoked it. Without waking me. A very neat trick.
Must have been the bar wench. I doubted the innkeeper had light enough steps.
I was actually well rested for once; piling your way through snow drifts as big as you were all day in order to walk in mind numbing cold tended to wear a person out, even if they were the pinnacle of human perfection.
So I threw on some clothes and walked downstairs; finding the rising sun greeting me. The bar wench was yawning as she pushed a ratty broom around, which was witch like behavior – but then no witch alive would be caught dead in that apron. At least not with a dress on underneath. There was that one witch in France....
But then again, this wasn't France. A fact I was reminded of when the girl spotted me and threw the broom away with a loud mouse like squeak. She acted like she'd just called me short or something! Though, come to think of it, she was taller than me, and could obviously stand to lose a few inches....
“I'm sorry sir, you startled me.”
“Apology accepted, and good morning. So what's your name? I can hardly keep calling you 'beer wench'. Though, if you want me to keep calling you that I suppose it's fine.”
She squeaked again, and her face turned more red than the fire in the hearth.
“My name is Eva, sir.”
“Sasha. Pleased to meet you. Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, could you get me a beer and some food? Preferably something with a few less potatoes in than yesterday?”
“Right away sir!”
And just like that, she bounced off. I picked up her broom, kicked out a chair to slump in, and waited.
It was a good fifteen minutes later (I had already checked my guns and ammunition twice; all was well on that front) when she rushed back in with more of that dark ale and a plate of eggs and bacon, with some sort of dark bread on the side. I exchanged the plate for her broom.
“Don't let me stop you.”
She got back to work while I ate. I finished well before she did. I didn't raise a fuss however; I was feeling rather mellow.
Ivan came down just as she finished, and the innkeeper guy, Gregor, came out of the kitchen to gather the plate (aiming a dirty look at Eva, who had taken forever to push that broom around). He all but jumped through the roof as he saw me calmly sipping my beer.
“Sasha! You're up early. Sleep well?”
“Yes, actually. So tell me, Gregor, Eva... were any of you in my room last night, stoking my fire?”
Eva's eyes got very wide as she stammered denials I couldn't even understand. They were in Russian (which I knew) but so broken I couldn't follow them. Gregor just shook his head and added.
“It is policy to do so if asked, but you did not ask, and thanks to your... reputation I thought it imprudent.”
“That's what I thought.”
Ivan caught on almost immediately.
“You would know us by tread, if Alicia or I did it, but we didn't. You would wake up for an unfamiliar tread.”
A survival trait; one did not long survive if they were a heavy sleeper. I finished the thought. I most pointedly did not think about how Ivan knew Alicia couldn't have been the one to do it, though I had my suspicions.
“So a familiar tread that wouldn't wake you up, stoked your fire. While not stoking ours. Alicia turned the service down while I of course, am immune to cold.”
And he actually thumped his chest. I was too relieved at hearing they had spent the night in different rooms to call him on it; after all he had been whining about the temperature freezing his water in the canteen just last week! But as always, he saw to the heart of the matter; something was definitely going on.
She was here.
Which she, I wasn't sure, but at least one of them was. Worse, they knew I was here. They had in fact, singled me out in such a way that I would know that they knew. I was betting it was mom. After all, who else would tuck me in and stoke the fire?
Sis could have done it, but like me, she wasn't known for being subtle. Or nice. Just ask Antwerp, that is if you could find a survivor.
And all this had happened with three experienced hunters in the inn, and two other people, and none had been the wiser. I nodded at Ivan, and he got the message, going upstairs to check on Alicia. I on the other hand decided to look around.
I had just come to the conclusion that the inn was clear of nasty surprises when Ivan came down, leading a rather irate Alicia.
“What the hell is the big idea, Ivan?!? I haven't even had my eight hours yet!”
Ivan just led her up to me without a word. She took one look at my face and shut up. Which was good, because I didn't want to yell over her.
“A witch was here last night. They crept through my room, stoked my fire, and left. All without killing anyone, or taking anything.”
I used no names, but credit given, Alicia knew exactly what I meant.
“Just great. Breakfast then please, beer wench.”
I couldn't help myself. I channeled my inner Dustin, making myself as snooty voiced as I could. I looked down at her as much as I could while looking up at her to reply.
“Her name, is Eva.”
I turned to Gregor.
“We need some supplies.”
He also got the point immediately.
“I'll make a list of what I have,”
And he left without a backward glance. After all the sooner we were gone, the sooner the more immediate threat to his town and townsfolk eased back to it's prior level. And hey, that level must be pretty low, since they weren't dead yet. Though the chances were they had been kept alive just for the illusion of normalcy.
Still no reason to make the risk a near certainty. A warning is a warning is a warning.
Alicia and Ivan both were eating as we left, bags packed and supplies restocked. Most importantly, the liquid refreshment; we did tend to go through the beer really quickly. The next village was a good three days away, but the trail (calling it a road was a little more generous than I was feeling) that Ivan showed us was straight and clear of normal threats, or so he said.
Since he was our local guide, I let him break the trail. It had nothing to do with some of the drifts being as tall as I was, or the snow being too loose for proper snowshoes. Despite what Alicia said. The journey was uneventful, unless you count seeing deer as being eventful. Even the dead fall trap that almost killed me was a yawn-fest.
Honestly I was beginning to get angry; it was like they weren't even trying.
Then Ivan wanted to stop for lunch. He was wet and miserable looking, like a giant drowned bear. But he was a slacker; I wasn't even tired! But whatever. He sat and drank his lunch while I collected the least soggy tinder I could find. We would want a fire later; places like this got truly miserable after dark, and good dry tinder wasn't always accessible.
The rest of the day passed much as the first half; if not for the cold and snow, this would be a nice relaxing nature hike. The thought made me physically ill. Ivan knew me.
“Sasha, don't go borrowing trouble.”
“but, not even a bear! It's been all day! All freaking day!!!”
“Soon we shall have more violence than we can all three handle. You just need to be patient.”
“I don't DO patience. You know this.”
Alicia threw a rock at me. Really.
“Suck it up and learn how. I'm not getting killed because you can't get your adrenaline fix, you damn junkie.”
An opening! I retorted in my best, most reasonable voice.
“You do realize throwing a stone at a violence prone adrenaline junkie is asking to die, right?”
Ivan managed to sound a lot like a mother (well at least one that wasn't homicidal) as he sighed.
“Please you two, no fighting, or I'll turn this expedition around.”
Sigh. I wanted to shoot something. I couldn't even shoot the trees! The guns would make too much noise, and draw unwanted attention. Of course that was on the off chance we hadn't already been made, which was highly unlikely. I was pretty sure my personality was well known among our enemies; namely how I wouldn't waste time when there was a witch to kill. Or maybe that was my arrogance talking, who knew?
Yes, I was a bit arrogant, sometimes. A little. I could even admit it and be humble. In between all those times of being awesome, that is.
As boring as it all was, I didn't signal the halt until the sun was beginning to dip. Once it got dark it would get cold fast, which meant it was time to clear some snow and get a fire going. I let Ivan clear the frozen ground, and Alicia set up the shelter (which was little more than a lean-to set very close to the fire pit; she was lazy) While I gathered the fire wood. Of course, when I got back to find everything ready and so dumped my first load of wood in the newly made fire circle, Alicia decided to take issue with how I did things.
“That crap will never burn; it's too wet.”
Heh. I removed one of my incendiary shells from my pocket. Hey, whether I knew how to make a proper fire or not, this was obviously life or death! A battle against the elements and nature itself! And every proper battle followed one simple doctrine.
Shoot it until it stops moving.
“Uh, Sasha... that's a high yield incendiary shell.”
Alicia started edging back while Ivan face-palmed.
“Yes, so it is.”
“What do you intend to do with it?”
I stared at him, aghast.
“Isn't it obvious, Ivan? I mean, really?!?”
“Yes Sasha, it is, but wouldn't your flint steel or your lighter work just as well?”
I allowed that point.
“Quite likely Ivan, but it won't be nearly as much fun!”
And a quick twist of the primer and toss later, and the wet wood was covered in small amounts of napalm and burning merrily. Now we could all take our hands out of these stupid stiff gloves and dry out. And right at the edge of camp was enough wood for the entire night. I was lazy myself, but not lazy enough to freeze.
I settled in while my staunch companions eased their way back to the circle of light. Since no one else thought to, I took out my bag of pebbles and set them close enough to soak up heat; I'd use them to line my sleeping gear later. That's what I brought them for, after all. I bet Ivan had a set, he seemed to recognize them. Alicia looked a little lost, and chalked me carrying small smooth rocks around as if I was insane.
Well I was, but not about this at least.
Day one down and no one dead; small steps I guess.
Several uneventful days of travel eating deer jerky and tough bread. Several days of having Ivan break a trail for us through the snow; the trail hadn't been used in about a month after all. We hadn't even seen a bear, and nothing had been caught in the few traps Ivan and I had set at nights. Even the bear would have been welcome; the jerky was getting old.
But none of that mattered; this morning did. I was on my belly in the snow, whited out as best I could, staring through a pair of binoculars at the village the original report had come from. In that village, it was business as usual. The men were hunting or thatching or carpenter... ing. The women were cooking or gathering eggs or mending clothes.
Everything was low tech, just as Ivan's hometown had been. I didn't see so much as a generator, or a water pump. No electric lights. Everything done was by fires. It was pissing me off; hadn't these people heard of space heaters?
I didn't see her. I didn't see either of them. What I did see was a new, large log cabin further up the mountain. Well, more of a log fortress, really. The palisade was going up, even as I watched; there were eight people I could see working on it.
The one technology represented with surprising regularity, even given where we are, were firearms. After just an hour cataloging the different types, from well cared for antiques to modern machine manufactured numbers. I was now willing to bet everyone had them, and the women were just better hiding them in their dresses or something. They were packing more visible heat than one of our chapter houses... well most of them.
We didn't speak of the Borneo anymore.
“What do you think, Ivan?”
He was looking through his own set of binoculars while Alicia just fumed. She'd forgotten hers.
“Looks mostly normal. If not for the fact that everyone is armed, and there was a new mayor in town, I'd feel comfortable walking right in.”
“Yeah, me too.”
There were no armies being trained on the icy green, no magical death ray in evidence, none of the things you'd expect from the enemy. Still, it was a base camp for them. Not a summer home, but still a place where conceivably, they could be holed up, safe from our influence. If they thought that, they were fools. Our arm was just as long as theirs.
“Well nothing for it I guess.”
I removed my binoculars from my face and Alicia immediately swiped them without so much as a please, training them on the village to get her own impressions.
“Sasha, no. We can't just walk in there; it's a trap.”
“Of course it's a trap; it's our trap. They just don't know it yet.”
“I'm telling you your standard approach won't work here; not this time.”
“And I'm telling you it will.”
I responded pleasantly enough. Ivan was a worrywart, was all. A village full of peasants, good odds on two witches being present, either one of which could probably give the best we got a run for their money. Piece of cake really.
I started to stand up and promptly got tackled back into the snow. At least it was Ivan.
“Ivan, I'm not staying cold and wet in the snow all day. If you don't get off, I'm going to shoot you off.”
If Alicia had tackled me, I wouldn't have bothered with the warning. The only way to figure out this trap before we froze to death was to spring it. And it was either go forward or go back without trying anything, and I wasn't about to do that.
“Just an hour more Sasha. Please, just give us an hour more to work it. Then you can go in, guns blazing.”
These people... everyone thinks I'm some violence happy barbarian. Where do they even get the idea from? I can be reasonable! I'm always reasonable.
“Fine, you got an hour. I'm going to just walk away from this tree line, and go get warm.”
Ivan looked to me sharply.
“No fires, and no fireworks Sasha. It would be just as bad to force a confrontation in the forest as the village before we know what's going on.”
“Fine, fine. I'll use those heating packs we have. I just want to get warm.”
Ivan turned back to his study, making occasional comments to Alicia, who answered. They were quiet so I couldn't hear them as I trudged back. We had twenty heating packs that worked for six hours at a time through the joys of chemical reaction. They were supposed to be strictly for emergencies, and to avoid losing toes and fingers to the cold. So far we hadn't needed any.
Well I was cold, and I couldn't make a fire. So this counted.
I took my sleeping bag out and snapped the center of those little bags, shaking them and throwing them inside. Well, all but four. I figured four was enough for another emergency, in a pinch. Then I got comfortable and started reading about what edible plants grew in this crappy climate. There weren't many, and what there was were mostly berries. The cloudberries looked especially good, at least judging from the picture. I had a feeling survival strategies for the Urals might become my new favorite book for the next few weeks.
Ivan came back, then did a double take. Not sure what his issue was, but he palmed his ruddy face.
“You didn't need to use them all, Sasha.”
“Yes I did; I was cold.”
He didn't need to know I had saved a few; after all, he was born to this weather. And Alicia was half wildebeest so she didn't need any either. Speak of the devil, and she will lumber up like a Yeti.
“Use all of what?”
“The emergency heat packs.”
“All of them?”
“Yes, all of them, and keep your voice down.”
I didn't bother to correct the impression Ivan left Alicia either. I just shrugged.
“It was an emergency; I was cold. That's what we brought them for.”
Alicia had the right idea.
“Screw it, pass me some, I want to get warm too.”
Ivan rolled his eyes but held his hand out. I passed five each to both and sat up as they sat down, huddled in their own blankets. We needed to talk strategy.
“Well, did you learn anything new?”
“No. Not really. No one came out of the new log fort, and I didn't see any obvious evidence of witchcraft.”
Nice. Good strategy session. I hated long boring talks anyway. But it was always nice to confirm details.
“So... I was right? Is that what I'm hearing, Ivan?”
“Yes, you’re hearing right. The direct approach will work as well as any other. Though I'm placing myself on record for at least trying stealth.”
And I would note it. I just wouldn't respect it. Stealth almost never worked, even if we had a specialist in it. We didn't. Ivan was probably our best, but he was big and could only be so quiet. I sucked at it, and Alicia, well, she tripped on her beard often. Against witches that had spells to detect intruders we would never be able to go incognito.
We were all experienced hunters, but some game you could stalk, and some game stalked you. Just made it more interesting, really.
“Well glad we had this talk Ivan, it clarifies what we need to do.”
Alicia pondered. It took her a moment more than it probably should.
“Go in there, guns blazing?”
“Well I was thinking of just walking in, and seeing who popped up to shoot us as opposed to shooting them all, but that's the basic idea, yes.”
“Standard operating procedure then, just like the last job. And the job before the job before, and the job before that....”
“Yep. Standard stalking horse tactics.”
Why fix what isn't broke? Ivan had an answer for that one.
“I think we need to find a strategy that doesn't have such a high mortality rate. Staking our own out like goats to be killed so we can identify our enemies leads to regrettable loss of life.”
What a bleeding heart.
“Sure the strategy might kill a few of us... but only the weak ones!”
He stared at me. Fine, time to be serious.
“Fine. We're going to die Ivan. We all are. Witches have all of us by the throat, and we're waiting for the hammer to fall. Better to die stopping them, better to die killing them, then to die on your knees like a whipped dog. If you can find the better way to build that mousetrap, well I won't stop you.”
He wouldn't though; it didn't exist. Better minds than his had tried and failed. The problem was as always, detection.
“We've confirmed witch presence Sasha, we should go and bring back reinforcements.”
“We haven't. We've seen some suggestive things, but we haven't seen a single witch. All we've seen are nervous and armed citizens, who might be arming against some rogue blood-mad bear. Unusual behavior, yes we've seen that. But we haven't seen anything we can point out to the Gloom as a reason to leave and bring back more people, and you know it. We go back now, and Gloom will bench us all for cowards. And he'll be right to do so.”
I looked. Alicia understood this much at least, she needed no prompting to be reminded that she was the one on the wall. Ivan was getting too close to retirement, perhaps. As for Alicia and I, we were cold.
“So, no plan? No last minute change in tactics?”
I threw my sleeping bag at him, with the heat packs still inside. They had some four plus hours left.
“Good, Alicia and I will go in, you circle around and find a hole. If we aren't back before those packs inside run out, retreat and go for reinforcements. Don't waste time, don't sleep. In fact, get a few hours now, cause you likely won't have the chance if we don't come back.”
If they caught us alive, they could make us talk. Alicia and I were tough (as Ivan was, for that matter) but the witches could always make someone talk if they cared enough. We could buy him some time to use though. Who knows? It might even be enough.
“Look I didn't mean I didn't want to....”
Again; idiot. I forestalled him with a hand.
“I know, I know. But one of us has to, so it might as well be you. You know the area, you know survival tactics here, and you're the most level headed of us. So you stay, we go.”
Alicia fell into step as best she was able as I walked away. Ivan didn't waste another word. I led the way to the main road into the village, which was little more than a jumped up trail, and together we took it to... well whatever the hell village it was; I'd forgotten and I couldn't read the sign. Ah well, it didn't matter.
The reaction upon the first person seeing us was immediate. The quilting bee of ladies crossed themselves and hurried inside. I wished them well... and hoped they had a basement. Some of those who saw us just watched us pass by. And some of those who watched us pass fondled their weapons. They had a choice to make, and they were contemplating it.
There was no inn in this village... however there was a sign, written in several languages, English among them. It read: “travelers this way.” And pointed to the new fortress. With a shrug I turned that way, Alicia sticking to me like wide-eyed glue.
At our change in direction some of those people who had gathered to follow us and gawk decided that it was finally time to be elsewhere. Good; I hoped they had basements too. Nice basements dug as far down into the frozen soil as they could manage.
The large portcullis was up, and the large door was unguarded. It had a bell pull, so I used it first. Then I waited. Then I pulled it again. Hey, I could be polite!
“Sasha, might want to give it more than 20 seconds between pulls.”
She looked nervous.
The door was answered before I could ask her. I turned to find an extremely tall, amazingly well built woman in a maid outfit standing before the entrance. She had to be six feet, thin but with breasts as big as my head. I am the king of fine detail; I notice such things. The maid outfit she wore had a short skirt and low cut top; she also wore heels and knee socks. In this cold.
I didn't see a hat, but I knew a witch when I saw one.
“Aaah, guests. Welcome to our humble home. I am Maid Marion. Accommodations in the village are so... plebeian. Please, follow me to rooms more appropriate to your wonderful selves.”
And she turned around and just walked away. With a shrug at Alicia, who was looking even more nervous than before (and maybe downright scared) I followed.
“Thanks. The people in town are kind of twitchy about strangers for a reason.”
That stride she had was one I could appreciate, witch or not. She stopped and pointed at a... closet? I made a manly attempt to keep my eyes on her, and I had to look up for that. She gave no notice that she appreciated it.
“Of course, they are quite provincial. If you wish, that is the cloak room. You may take off those wet and undoubtedly cold garments you are currently wrapped in.”
That sounded like a great idea. I started shucking my coat.
“Sasha, is that really a good idea?”
The witch definitely heard, and there was a glimmer of recognition there.
“Yep. We can dry these out and warm up.”
The fortress was conspicuously warm, and while if we needed to run we were screwed, it was hard to draw with a 20 pound coat hindering your movements. I mean, I could do it, I was a pro... but half a second here could mean death. I'd rather freeze than let a witch have the advantage.
Once our coats and insulated pants were off, there was no disguising what we were. Maid Marion didn't bat an eye.
“So how many of you are here? Who is your mistress?”
“Olivia Norre, of course.”
I heard my teeth grind, loudly, but didn't feel it. My mother. My mother was here. And that Maid witch seemed amused with my reaction; nodding to herself with a smile. We would see who had the last laugh, soon enough.
“And the other present?”
“Anastasia Norre, of course.”
This time my hands broke something small and delicate. I wasn't sure what piece of equipment I'd broken, not did I care. The rumors confirmed, just like that. My mom and sister both in one place, plotting with this... this... maid, this thing in maid costume, on how best to kill all humans.
If anything her smile got wider, displaying fully her perfect teeth. It looked predatory.
Whatever. I took the effort to calm down. I could be generous; I had enough bullets for all. Alicia looked downright terrified. I wasn't sure why, the witches had no interest in yeti; even my mother. But then again, facing at least two S-class witches (I'd lay my bank account in central on three), both of whom were the more insane members of the Norre family... I couldn't exactly call her on being scared.
“Take me to them, please.”
Maid Marion paused, and wiped her smirk from her face.
“Of course. I will show you your quarters along the way. Please do make a note of the proper rooms.”
And she set off again, with even more wiggle in her walk than before. Odd; why continue the farce? She knew judging by her smile how ugly this was going to get. She knew I had to know she knew. There were only two ways this could end, and neither of those options had us staying here longer than an hour.
Nonetheless, she pointed to a hallway.
“Down that hall, the fifth and sixth room on the left. The fireplaces are already set, and the linens are fresh. Are you sure you wouldn't rather freshen up first? The baths are drawn and warm.”
Not even a small chance.
“No, thank you. I'm afraid our gracious hosts will simply have to hold their noses for a bit. Best to get this over with, don't you agree?”
From the sour look she shot me, she didn't.
“Of course. You are an honored guest.”
She was good at playing the maid. We went on to what could only be called a small throne room. There was a monster fireplace in the far left wall blazing merrily, and torches lining the walls to cut the artificial gloom. The room itself was all bare logs, sturdy and woodsy smelling. There were a few amateur tapestries to break the monotony, and large rough-hewn tables with equally large rough-hewn log benches lined the place, making a sort of path to the throne.
And there sitting in the throne, reading a yellowed copy of some magazine written in Italian and likely from last century, was my mother.
She didn't look a day older than the day she murdered Dad. Late thirties, with a hint of the bloom of youth left, she sported white streaked red hair cut in a bob; the white streaks were a result of her pact, I knew. He figure wasn't quite as good as her maid's, nor was she as tall, but she didn't suffer from the comparison at all. She was dressed in a low cut gown colored and made to resemble fire, and it suited her. Her hat, a sort of heart shaped beret that matched the dress, was firmly and openly placed upon her head at a rather jaunty angle. I couldn't see her familiar, but it had to be around. As soon as I entered she smiled, that warm loving smile I remembered from so many days that made my shriveled heart ache.
And next to her, standing and still a few inches shorter than me, was my baby sister. Blonde, blue eyed, cute as a button and more deadly than one of my guns. Or both of my guns. Her familiar was in evidence; a small tattered brown bear. She was dressed in overalls and a peasant blouse, and had honest to God mary janes on her feet. Anyone's guess as to where she found those... or whose corpse she took them off of. Her hat was a took, of all things.
That bear worried me. It grew, became stronger and tougher than a polar bear, and breathed fire. It wasn't worse than mom's, but it was bad. My sister hugged that cursed thing to her chest and exclaimed:
“Hello brother! Mr. Scruffles and I missed you!”
My voice was colder than the air outside, but steady. I was proud of that as I kept an eye on all of them. The maid made it easy on me, walking over to stand at Mom's right hand. The symbolism wasn't lost on me.
“Hello Ana. Father sends his regards.”
It was a bit of a cheap shot. Mom's face fell a bit. Ana just looked confused, as if she didn't understand or remember she was the one who murdered dad in cold blood. Maybe she didn't; I don't know. Witches were never sane, and many of them were worse than feral dogs. Her next statements, said in a rush before Mom could shush her (though she tried, I noted) clinched that thought. That and it almost made me draw.
“Dad? Where is he!?! Is he here? I'd love to see him again!”
I held on, barely. Her plaintive ton did reach me, but there was more red in this room than a minute ago; even the maid was splashed liberally with it. I felt my neck grate as I focused on Olivia... my mother.
“Can't we just talk for awhile before we get to the main event? Please?”
Ana just pouted cutely. I wasn't fooled for a second. The look of gaping surprise on the maid's face however, that was priceless. Well it wasn't like they'd see my hands move if I didn't want them to. I crossed my arms in front of my chest and leaned back.
“Sure, it's your dime. What did you want to talk about?”
“Well for starters, how have you been?”
I didn't even think over a response. I probably should have.
“Doing fine. Killed a mind controlling witch who thought all humans were her toys just a month ago and I'm still basking in the afterglow; yourself?”
My pointed glance Ana's direction made her face tighten and eyes narrow. The maid just looked amused, while Ana wasn't even paying attention, preferring to mutter to her familiar. That was fine though; Olivia obviously cared about the threat, which meant I could use it. Ana was the weak link here anyway, I was sure of it. The maid was too in control, and held a sort of aura about her that matched my Mom. She was power, and she knew it.
“Well three months ago I destroyed the small town of New Leeds; they were... well they were doing something they shouldn't have been, and I'm still basking in the afterglow.”
The maid looked surprised, Alicia looked aghast, and Ana was Ana. As for me, I always knew I'd had my mother's sense of humor.
New Leeds had been a secret city, a small town where bleeding edge tech was being developed. The rumor was, before they were hit they were making an anti-witch weapon that wouldn't rely on generators, and would automatically detect them. I thought that was a load of bull, but humanity felt the loss of some of it's best and brightest. It didn't really surprise me Mom was behind it, but I did wonder how she knew. I entertained no illusions about being able to beat it out of her.
She surprised me.
“I had a mole. He's dead now.”
Oddly enough I believed her.
“He was a hunter. He fought a witch as part of his cover and died. It happens. Got a question for you; where is your third?”
So they didn't know. A mistake on their part, they should be keeping constant surveillance up, especially since they knew we were coming. It was my turn to shrug.
“Out there somewhere. He's going to go get backup in the event this village turns out to be witch infested.”
The maid spoke up, confirming she was only playing for company.
“Oh? You hadn't sent him already?”
“The organization I work for requires some form of evidence; we don't just kill indiscriminately.”
“Oh, and what's your evidence?”
Alicia was tugging at my arm. She didn't want me to answer.
“Us of course. The moment we kick things off, our third will see it.”
Mom... Olivia turned to her maid who wasn't.
“That jive with what you know?”
Maid Marion nodded. So they weren't as stupid as I'd thought. No matter, Ivan could dodge whatever this unknown's familiar is. Mom turned to me and smiled, that old warm smile again.
“Glad to know you don't hesitate to tell the truth.”
“Yeah, well, won't matter soon. None of you will be able to act on the information. We about ready to get started?”
Ana piped up, and my hands twitched lower.
“That's the big brother I know! Always so impatient!”
“Ana, go play.”
What? I mean sure, Ana was nuts, but she would back Olivia to the hilt, so why would Olivia send her away? Ana didn't get it either.
“Go to your room and play. For an hour. Do not come out no matter what you hear or see.”
“No buts! Go!”
That old vocal steel. I'd missed that too. Ana went, crestfallen at her lack of opportunity to feed me my own entrails or rip my limbs off one by one.
“Her room is the third one to the left in the hall Marion pointed out for you. If you don't go inside it, you should be fine.”
Confusing didn't even begin to describe it. Mom was warning me to stay away from Ana; but I could disobey her later. Right after I killed her and her hench-woman. I could feel the tension in the air; we were seconds away. I nudged Alicia and nodded to maid Marion. She got the message.
Both the witches nodded, but to my surprise didn't start themselves.
and I drew.
As expected, I was faster. Also as expected, there was some form of physical barrier in place. Olivia was forced to dodge as my first shot shattered it, as it was made to do. The second kissed her cheek with it's heat. Alicia and the maid were... trading whip shots? Weird. The maid seemed to be playing with her more than anything else. I didn't have time to do more than see that Alicia was still alive though. Olivia's first strike finally hit, setting me on fire. I dropped and rolled while putting a few more rounds her way, forcing her to focus more on dancing than finishing the job.
Our clothes were highly fire resistant, so any injury I had couldn't be too bad. The pain was pretty good though; at least a 4. The flames didn't stick at any rate, and my left handed gun went back into it's holster, out of ammunition. Out came the gun for my right hand, my trusty colt navy. Drawing more guns was preferable to asking the witch kindly if she'd wait while I reloaded.
Now that the primary shield was down, Olivia would be battered around by the concussive shells as she focused on stopping them, allowing me to keep the initiative. Six rounds, six seconds to come up with a better plan than 'shoot her till she stops twitching.'
The shells worked even though I missed with two, pounding into her secondary protections and drawing blood as they knocked her around. Empty, the colt navy went into its holster. Out came the magnum and the glock. The magnum had some bigger bangs, and the glock fired flechete. By the time I used both, my generator should have the charge on my colts recharged. Then I'd have to hide and reload... or pull my ace in the hole.
The good news is, one of the holes I put in the place to start the fight had been through the roof, and Ivan should have seen it and already moving. At least if he was still alive; both witches were fighting without their familiars. I didn't know about the maid's, but big as this fort was, big as this room was, Olivia's familiar wouldn't be able to hide in it. Just too big, too flashy. Which meant the familiars could well be after Ivan.
“So, would you really feed my hat into your generator, son?”
What is it with witches and talking during fights? It was a stupid thing to do.
“In a minute or so, you'll find out.”
My glock clicked dry just as she was recovering; she fired some sort of bolt of force that was similar to bolts I'd seen before... but had a nasty trick. I couldn't dodge them. I managed to make 3 of them hit each other, but the other 7 slammed into me. I slammed into the wall. Alicia hit just after I did, coughing blood.
Right, no time to reload; .50 cal time.
My allies always appreciated the warning before I broke open the can of gratuitous whup-ass. Alicia immediately turned and cut a hole in the wall we'd just used, making a hole and diving through it as I drew the largest gun I packed in my arsenal. I made sure to dive for the hole Alicia created before firing.
The first shot was the equivalent of a full pound of old high explosives; a shaped charge that blew hit Olivia and blew forward, completely demolishing the throne room in an instant. The backlash did enveloped the maid too, and blew me through the wall into the snow outside. I dug a good twenty foot trench, but generator enhanced clothes were tough, and a little thing like this wouldn't kill me. Only mostly kill me... but no risk, no reward, right?
“... Sasha, you still alive?”
Alicia was hunched over me, yelling in my ear, and my hearing was coming back. She was also shaking me, which I hadn't felt before, so there was likely some concussion thing going on. I still held my gun though. I shrugged Alicia away; no one wanted to come to full wakefullness looking at THAT.
“SASHA ELSA NORRE!!!!!”
Yep, hearing was definitely back... and Mom... Olivia was pissed. Whatever I hadn't destroyed she was currently setting on fire; her aura blazed, and everything within fifteen feet either burst into flames and was consumed in an instant, or melted and then burst into flames. She lacked some control; she was even going through the floor. I was outside, and from here I wasn't even cold. I didn't see the maid anywhere.
Right. Even with the bracing, best I could do was unload one clip of the eagle, and only with my dominant arm. Any more than that, and I'd break it.
A quick survey while dodging gouts of fire and I saw it. The spec in the sky, rapidly getting closer. That had to be Olivia's familiar. Alicia had more pressing concerns.
“Shut up Alicia.”
Mom had really wanted a daughter. I was the first attempt, and she didn't want to change the name picked out. She was a stubborn sort that way, and Dad went along.
“Eyes front or you'll get your beard singed off!”
I pushed her out of the way and returned fire. The second shot missed and hit the building. What was left of it now wouldn't survive the night. Guess we weren't getting our coats back. Her return shot was a ball of fire as big as a truck. It exploded and I dug another trench.
I think even the maid ate some of that. I certainly didn't see her.
Not being a wuss, I stood up, ignoring how my bones creaked. My second shot intercepted Olivia as she came in for the kill. We both got blown back again, but were better prepared for it. Olivia hadn't been dead center; I wasn't sure where she went, but she wasn't in the crater. Alicia was throwing her special knives at someone I couldn't see and I profiled left, away from her. So I wasn't dead center for the return volley, which seemed to be hundreds of little meteors thrown scatter-shot around the area.
They didn't light so much as a blade of grass on fire, but melted holes in my coat as if it didn't exist.
The speck was now large enough that most people would look up and wonder 'Oh my God what the fuck was that?' Of course I knew, and didn't like what it meant. The unwilling glance upward also revealed Olivia, floating in the air like a freaking pinata. Witches loved the air. Shots three and four went to the growing speck and Olivia; both dodged. Both, as near misses, went off, though damage was relatively minimal. At least it knocked her out of the air; I needed heat seeking rounds or something. Maybe I could bug the tech guys for something.
The speck resolved itself through the fireball as Olivias familiar, the Dragon known as Crematoria. Olivia picked herself up just as shot five hit Crematoria maw, snapping his head back in a manner that would have broken the neck of a creature obeying the laws of physics. Too bad familiars never did. I had no inclination to let that thing breathe on me. The other hunters that faced Crematoria, well not even the bones were left.
Then a Giant green hand, an honest to God green hand complete with ridges and fingerprints, swatted down from the sky and slammed me into the turf.
But I wasn't a wuss. This wasn't enough to kill me, let alone stop me. I'd be up just as soon as I felt my legs again. Of course, with my generator broken like it was, no doubt vomiting up it's share of undigested hats and solution I could even now feel pooling around my ass, and no doubt mixing with my blood, that might take awhile. Generator enhanced healing would be offline. My trigger finger worked, but my arm didn't so I couldn't do much more than watch as Olivia, no that was Mom, walked up.
“You've grown so strong. But not strong enough for what's ahead; you are only human, after all.”
My other arm didn't work either. Perhaps I needed a hold out in my chest, or maybe my jaw. That would be aimable. Crematoria loomed behind Mom, and she waved him back. That was good, he blocked the sun. I hated things blocking the sun. Or did I hate the sun?
“Rest easy, my Sasha. I am rather concerned that the Gloom sent you on what was so obviously a suicide mission. Did he truly not have anyone else? Are the defenders of humanity truly spread so thin?”
I tried to at least snark at her. From the look on her face spitting up blood was just as good. Score one for the good guys! I wish I could wear a nice suicide vest; but those could be set off by the right magic, so it would just be making the job easier for the enemy. But sheesh, at least it would shut her up. She reached and I felt her touch, feather light, on my cheek.
“You should give up this life Sasha. There is no good to be had here. You aren't defending humanity, you aren't saving lives. You are just killing. You should give up, seek peace, enjoy life till the end. The end comes too quickly for us all.”
She ruffled my hair and stared for a moment, then gave that old sunny smile.
“But your end at least, is not today. Enjoy your life, young Sasha. Enjoy your friend's lives. Know that should you continue this, your end will come much more quickly than it needs to.”
She tapped me on the forehead and the sun fled.
To Be Continued