Quarrel distributed granola bars and bottles of water. She’d taken off her mask and goggle combo now that she was in her own home and away from a potential fight. She flicked her head for the umpteenth time, trying to get a loose lock of light brown hair out of her eyes that she hadn’t pulled into her loose ponytail.
Miya caught the bar Quarrel passed to her and nodded in thanks. Don’t know her name, and it’d feel weird to call her anything else. Besides, she hasn’t volunteered it yet.
“Thank you,” said Olivia, next to receive food.
“No problem,” said Quarrel, moving on.
Miya leaned back on the stuffy brown couch and stretched her legs, munching on the granola bar. One step above dirt. Whatever, it’s free, quit bitching. Quarrel left to join Chris in the kitchen nearby, leaving Olivia, Ben, and Miya scattered around the living room.
“Not going to eat that?” Miya asked Olivia, who sat cross legged on the ground next to her.
“Um, no thanks,” murmured Olivia in response. “Doesn’t, um, doesn’t smell very good.”
“Could ask her for somethin’ else, ya know,” chipped in Ben, leaning on the wall on the opposite side of the living room beneath a small hanging cross.
“Yeah, but, um, she already gave us these. She has some stuff here, but she didn’t, you know, offer it and I don’t know is she’s busy and I don’t want to be greedy-” babbled Olivia.
“You hungry?” asked Ben, cutting her off.
“Starving,” said Olivia, the conviction in her voice catching Miya’s attention. She’s been shoveling down food lately.
“Then jus’ fuckin’ ask her,” said Ben, throwing up a hand in exasperation.
Olivia got up off the floor. She froze. “Wait. But… what should I say?”
“Just explain you need something meatier. She’s not going to shoot you down for asking for food. Don’t worry,” said Miya. Quit being so damn timid.
Olivia nodded and fled the room. Miya met Ben’s eyes. He simply grinned and returned to eating his dirt bar. She heard some stammering from the kitchen. No, too awkward. No.
“So where is Rob?” Miya asked Ben.
“Told ya already, he’s out for a walk, so far as I know,” said Ben. I don’t buy that. He’s been broody ever since he woke up, and now he’s gone?
“Really? Just a walk?”
His smile vanished. “I told ya. I don’ lie. So far as I know, he’s out for a walk.”
Miya shrugged and let the conversation drop. Fine. Whatever. He doesn’t have his armor here so he’s not much help. After a few minutes, a significantly happier Olivia came back with a toasted ham sandwich on a plate and a small smile on her face. She returned to her place on the floor, putting the plate on the coffee table before her.
“Everythin’ work out?” asked Ben.
“Yeah.” Olivia took a massive bite of the sandwich.
“They makin’ any progress in there?” he asked, jerking his head towards Chris and Quarrel in the kitchen.
Olivia thought for a moment, then shook her head. She finished her mouthful and said, “I don’t know. They were talking about different places we could go.”
Ben sighed. “Let’s see if they can talk faster,” he said, walking off to the kitchen.
“Oh, yeah, Miya. I had a question,” said Olivia.
Miya suppressed a sigh. Just ask. “Yes?”
“Is everyone OK without the masks and stuff?” asked Olivia.
Miya looked around. “Why would anyone besides Quarrel be wearing a mask right now?”
Olivia’s brow furrowed. “Well, everyone else always wears them whenever we’re doing stuff like this. But no one has cared since the Watch came to the warehouse.”
“Well yeah, they knew where we were and who we were. If they wanted to screw us, they didn’t even have to show their faces, they could have just called the cops, or plastered our faces and names all over the internet. And besides, we’re in Quarrel’s house now.”
The last part made Olivia tilt her head. “So?” Oh, OK, I see what this is now.
“No. Wearing a mask in someone else’s house is a real big no-no. A mask mean you’re there for a fight. And if they ask you to take it off and you don’t, that’s pretty close to using your power on someone without asking.”
“Oh,” said Olivia, looking down at her knees and pulling her wings in closer behind her.
“No, no. Not the wings or anything. That’s just you. Your power I would say is more hacky slashy crush crush.”
Olivia blinked. “Oh. So, is that why you don’t wear a mask then? To avoid that?”
You’re adorable. “I didn’t wear a mask because I didn’t want to hide. Because it was me that robbed that armored van or me that knocked over that gas station. Not some mask, it was me, and like hell anyone can deny it. As for the others, I don’t know. I’d be willing to bet Ben and Rob just wear those grinning masks for the fun of it. But Rob made them, so they could do something cool for all I know.”
Olivia digested that in silence. In the kitchen, Chris, Ben, and Quarrel argued over a map of the city on Quarrel’s computer. Everyone’s getting cautious. Each and every suggestion they make will be met with a ‘but what if they’re waiting for us?’ from the other.
“Are you ready?” asked Miya.
Olivia looked down. “I… I think so. They’re talking about an ambush in there right now. And… I guess we’ll be doing… stuff. I don’t know, but I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to, you know,” said Miya. Mind you, you are usually super helpful in fights, but dragging someone off to fight against their will is fucked up.
“I mean…” said Olivia trailing off. Miya sat back, waiting. “Everyone is always shooting at each other, and I don’t care. I just don’t want you guys to get hurt. Before it was just minor cuts and stuff, but now Amanda’s really hurt and I don’t want that to happen to any of you guys.”
“Yeah. That sounds about right.”
“But… I should feel bad. I killed someone. Again. And… I don’t feel that bad. I just wanted Amanda to be safe and… and…”
Shit. I’m no shrink. What the hell do I say? “Hey, I appreciate it. You shouldn’t feel bad about those hitmen. You know there’s a good chance they were there to kill Amanda.”
“I… I guess. I don’t know.”
They sat in silence, until Miya’s phone rang, Rob’s number appearing on the screen. This’ll be good. She answered.
“Chris?” asked Rob.
“What? No, this is Miya.”
“Shit, my finger slipped. Whatever, they’re after me. Need help.”
Miya jumped off the couch, Olivia following suit. I guess she heard that. “Well, where are you?” And what the hell did you do? The two of them rushed into the kitchen
“Near the house, I think. I’m just fuckin’ drivin’, really. Fuck!” Miya jerked her head away from the phone as the piercing sound of shattering glass came through the line. “So yeah, help.”
Shit. “Hey, guys, Rob is about to be murdered,” she said to everyone else. They all froze. “He’s in a car somewhere nearby.”
Everyone jumped into action. Olivia immediately headed for the door. Chris asked, “What weapons do we have?”
“I got a knife off of one of the hitmen,” called out Ben, following Olivia.
“Give me a minute,” called out Quarrel. She bolted through the door leading to the basement.
“We might not have a minute,” Miya called out after her. Fuck it, she’s a techie, she needs something to fight with. So do I, actually. “OK, where are you?” she asked Rob.
“Uh, fuck!” She heard more sharp sounds, distorted by the phone. “Uhhh, if I press this button… yeah! There’s the GPS.” He rattled off the street he was on and the direction he was going.
“OK, I know that area. That’s not too far. Stay alive, we’re coming to get you.”
He laughed. “‘Stay alive’ she says. Yeah, no shit. The Tzontlis already carved up a couple police cruisers that tried to get involved. Hurry.” The call disconnected.
Quarrel returned from the basement, goggles and mask in place and toting two crossbows. She offered the smaller one, Miya recognized the larger one she kept close to her chest.
“Which one of you wants it?” Quarrel asked Miya and Chris.
Chris nodded to her. “Take it, my power is better suited for combat.”
Miya blinked. “I don’t-” she began as Quarrel shoved the crossbow in her hands. No larger than most other two handed guns she’d used, the crossbow had a cylinder wrapped around the central column thing. I don’t know how to use this.
“It’s semiautomatic,” explained Quarrel, leading the way outside. Ben and Olivia waited by the door. “Pull that lever back like any rifle, that’ll load the bolt. Then just point and shoot. It’s super simple. Also, the bolts will light on fire. Don’t panic about that. If you need to reload…” Quarrel stopped. “Damn it.”
Chris stopped her from turning around. “No time.” Quarrel nodded and ran out the front door to her car. “Olivia, get airborne. Follow us, but if you spot Rob don’t hesitate to help him out.”
Olivia nodded. Dust swirled as she took flight. The rest of them piled into the car.
“Where are we headed?” asked Quarrel. Miya fed her the directions as she backed out of the driveway. In half a minute they were hurtling down the mid-morning Sunday streets.
“I thought you said he went for a walk, Ben,” said Chris from the back seat next to Miya. Hey, wait a minute. Chris is right.
“Yeah, what the hell?” added Miya.
“If I were him, I’d have gone for a walk. An’ that walk woulda led me to trouble.”
“You’re saying he just waltzed into Tzonti territory and picked a fight.”
Ben shrugged. “Vigilante justice can be cathartic.”
“What, did he just murder a bunch of people?” asked Quarrel.
“Probably.” You know, I’m kind of glad I never ran into any when I was active here. I’ll take petty robberies over murder any day.
“That’s not how-” Quarrel cut off as she swerved around a very slow van. “That’s not how vigilantes operate.”
“Yeah, if you’re talkin’ the Watch. Us independents don’ got that luxury.”
“You all are vigilantes?”
“No. Jus’ me. And Rob, I guess. A little.”
Rob called Miya again. You are so fucking lucky I didn’t have this thing on mute.
“I’m here,” she said the instant she got the phone to her ear.
“Where you guys at?”
Miya glanced out the window, then rattled off a couple street names as they passed them.
“Cool! I’m comin’ in over the rooftops.”
“Wait, what?” Miya asked. Chris shot her a questioning look. “He said something about rooftops.”
“Stop! Oh my fuckin’ god,” said Ben, pointing at the sky. Quarrel slammed on the brakes, earning her a honk from the person they’d passed. Everyone crowded over to Ben’s side of the car.
Amanda’s car drifted over the houses. No fucking way. The car rotated a few degrees during its flight so that the front didn’t exactly point in the direction the car was headed. It began its descent, barely clearing the roof of the house nearest to the street. That’s not how cars work.
“Shit, out of the way,” said Ben, smacking Quarrel’s shoulder. They’d been sitting around like slack jawed idiots at the flying car, failing to notice it would plow right into them in a moment or two. Quarrel sprang to life, gunning the engine and getting her car out of the way of Rob.
Amanda’s car hit the ground. Rob corrected for the rotation that had occurred in flight, the wheels squealing as the car fishtailed for a couple yards. He hit the brakes, jerking the car to a stop. The smell of burnt rubber and the thin grey smoke coming up through bullet holes in the trunk filled the air behind him.
Rob rolled down the window and poked his head out, a massive grin on his face. “It works!” he exclaimed with a wave. Everyone stared at him. Words cannot do justice to how unexpected that was.
Quarrel pulled up next to him, rolling down her windows. “Where the hell have you been?” asked Chris.
“Fixin’ this. Was on my own, so it took a bit longer.”
“It was at the scrapyard.”
“Yeah, I went in an’ killed the fire guy an’ the big guy. Shotty, yeah.”
“You killed Shotty and Xi on your own?” asked Quarrel.
“Yep. But some other people showed up when I was almost done fixin’ this thing. Been hell ever since. Also, I’ve done this a couple times now. They’re gonna be right behind me. Can’t fuckin’ shake em, don’t know why. I blame the robots.” Not those things again.
As if on cue, two cars barreled down the wide street, both large, battered SUVs. The couple of onlookers that had gathered out of earshot near behind them turned in curiosity at the sound of their roaring engines.
“Yep, that’s them,” said Rob.
Right at that moment, Olivia landed on the engine of the lead oncoming car and tore off the roof. The car swerved and collided with a store on the side of the road, throwing Olivia off.
The other car passed the wreckage, heading unerringly for Miya and the others. “That one’s got three robots in it,” called out Rob. Three? Fuck.
“Get us out of here,” said Chris.
Quarrel burst into action, gunning the engine and driving off, tires squealing on the pavement. Rob followed right behind.
“Wait, Olivia,” shouted Miya.
“They’re ignoring her, and she’ll be in better shape than anyone who was in that car,” replied Chris.
The stoplight ahead of them began to bend, the horizontal beam wobbling. In fact, a bunch of streetlights ahead of them were also bending. What the…
“Oh shit,” muttered Quarrel.
Space seemed to warp, then in front of them appeared four cars. Armed men began piling out of them. Fuck.
Quarrel twisted the wheel, hitting the curb and driving down the sidewalk. Everyone ducked as gunfire shattered the windows. They pulled away, Rob and the robot car right behind them.
“Everyone OK?” asked Chris.
“I’m fine,” said Miya.
“Good,” added Ben.
“Same,” said Quarrel.
“How much do we owe ya for gas?” Ben asked Quarrel.
“Not the time,” she shouted back.
The streetlights began bending again, all in the same direction. Five cars appeared this time. With no apparent opening, Quarrel slammed on the brakes. Before Miya could think of a way out, Quarrel simply spun the car around and bolted down a side street.
They ducked again as the gunfire resumed. The robot SUV came within a foot of T boning Rob as they tore down the one way street. Miya chanced a look over the back seat. The white SUV was gaining on Rob. Wait, is that… it is!
Olivia descended from the sky and collided with the roof of the SUV, yanking it to the side. The upper body of a robot burst out of a window and stabbed at Olivia’s hand with a knife. She grabbed the offending robot and pulled it out of the car. Then her head jerked back. Through the window Miya could see a second robot aiming a rifle at the roof.
Olivia fell off the top of the SUV, the robot in her hands tumbling alongside her. “Shit!” screamed Miya. “Olivia!”
“What?” asked Ben.
“She just got shot in the head trying to get rid of those robots. I didn’t… I can’t see her.”
“We have to keep moving. She’s taken bullets to the head before, she’ll be fine,” said Chris.
Again, the nearby streetlights began bending.
“I know where he is,” murmured Quarrel. “I know where he is,” she repeated, louder. She slammed the brakes again and shot down another road.
“What? Who? How?”
“Samedi, their leader. He’s never used his power like this on such a large scale. But the street lights are bending in the rough direction of where he is, I just realized. I have the layout of the city memorized, I know the corner of where he is.”
How do you… techie, whatever. “You sure?” asked Miya.
“We need to escape,” said Chris.
“How? This is just going to continue until we get rid of their mobility like this.”
“With what? We have two crossbows and a knife between all of us.”
“We have to do something,” Quarrel shouted back. “I’m taking us there.”
They dodged around three more imperfect blockades of cars, drawing ever nearer to where Quarrel insisted Samedi was hiding. Good thing he can apparently only make one blockade at a time, otherwise we’d be dead in a crossfire a long time ago.
At this point a couple helicopters were circling overhead, though none drew close. Hell, everyone’s probably staying indoors now. And the MHU may arrive in force soon. By the looks of the area, they were in the shantytown. A couple of the more quick witted gunmen from the last two blockades had joined the pursuing robots behind them.
“Here, just ahead.” A couple dilapidated apartments stood ahead. Men stood outside. Armed men. Quarrel stopped the car about ten yards away. Two glowing Aztec carvings began forming on the walls of the apartment. Between them stood a short, thin man, in a hoodie despite the Arizona summer heat. Is that Cynic?
The gunmen near the apartment opened fire, forcing Miya to duck. The robot’s mangled SUV screeched to a stop nearby, and two robots emerged.
“Out of the car” shouted Chris.
Miya yanked on the door handle and rolled out, crossbow in hand. She found herself between a concrete barrier separating the road and the parking lot of the apartments and Quarrel’s car. Ben teleported over to her, knife drawn.
Quarrel tumbled out of the front seat, next to Ben. Liquid Chris flowed over to join them.
“Ben!” shouted Rob from behind his car. His car was between their pursuers and them. He held up a rifle and a long, curved knife.
“Take this,” said Ben, shoving his knife at Miya. He teleported over to Rob.
“Happy birthday,” said Rob, passing Ben the gun and another knife.
“Huzzah!” he said. Looking at Miya, he shouted, “Go on, we got this.” They heard a roar, and saw Olivia flying over the rooftops towards them. Ben grinned. “Yeah, we definitely got this. Go!”
Miya scrambled towards Chris and Quarrel.
“They got another fire mage, we can’t get through,” shouted Chris as Quarrel held her crossbow over the top of the barrier, firing a couple bolts.
“He’s staying behind cover, runes are messing with my bolts,” added Quarrel.
“Fiery rocks?” I thought I recognized Cynic.
Chris nodded. Miya drew Ben’s knife and hacked at a fallen man’s finger. “What the fuck are you doing?” asked Quarrel.
“Want to know why I always use cow bones for my golems?”
“What?” Oh yeah, you’ve never seen my golems.
“Because the bones of humans are super magically volatile.”
She finally wrenched the man’s finger free of the rest of his hand. Don’t fuck this up, me. She summoned a couple simple golem streams, like the strings of a puppet, and sent them through the exposed bone. My brain just twitched. At least, that’s what it feels like.
The finger bones twisted and bubbled. I should definitely not be holding this. She tossed the finger, now warped and ballooned to over three times its original size, in the general direction of the Tzontlis. Gift for you, Cynic.
A man screamed. I’d be willing to bet that finger has grown legs and teeth. Or tentacles, that’s a magical classic. A bright flash of light. Aw, he tried to fight the magical abomination with magic. Cute. The gunfire from the base of the apartment stopped.
“Wait,” said Miya, grabbing Quarrel and Chris. Still feel brain twitching. And… there it is. Abomination dissipated. “Go,” she said, releasing them.
Chris shifted to liquid and flowed over the concrete barrier. The final two robots fired at him, their guns near silent. Miya and Quarrel jumped the barrier a moment later. One of the robots immediately disengaged from Chris and aimed at them.
Chris slammed the robot into the ground and into a small pile of ash surrounded by mauled bodies.
“Come on. He might get away,” shouted Quarrel as they rushed past the robots and Chris.
“You know he’s inside?”
“Yes, come on,” insisted Quarrel. “It’s gotta be him. We have to finish this.” Someone’s intense.
They burst into the ground floor of the apartment building, Quarrel immediately leading them to the stairwell. They ran up a flight of stairs, then past a couple rooms.
Quarrel tapped her goggles. “Come on, work. Here, this room.” She stopped in front of an old, warped door. Still looks solid.
She shot three short, stubby bolts next to the hinges of the doorframe. She sidestepped, and the bolts exploded. Miya kicked the door. It collapsed with almost no resistance. Fuck yeah. She and Quarrel rushed into the apartment, crossbows held high.
“Hello.” Samedi threw back his shot glass. “You’re here to kill me?”
“Don’t move,” said Quarrel, moving to flank him.
“Pah.” Samedi spat at her and poured himself another shot.
The glasses and bottle sat on a rickety old kitchen table in the darkened room. Other than the peeling walls and pile of milk crates in the corner, the room was entirely devoid of any furniture or decoration. Only the morning light coming in through the dirty windows illuminated the room.
“I said don’t move,” said Quarrel, advancing another step, crossbow pointing at Samedi’s face.
He looked her directly in the eye and drank his shot. “You think I care? You’ve taken out half my men. I nearly gave myself an aneurysm throwing all of them at you. They kept giving me orders on where to send them.”
“They? Who are they?” asked Miya.
“Overlord. And, more specifically, those robots who were chasing you.”
Motherfucker. “Why are you working for him?”
“Working for him? No. Not by choice. You see, Overlord has a very extensive medical program. It was no accident those robots are here, working for us.”
“I’m familiar with it,” said Miya. Quarrel shot her a glance, her crossbow not leaving Samedi’s chest.
“Hm? I recognize you,” said Samedi, his brow furrowed in confusion. His hand rested on his bottle. “Though I’m not sure from where.” Of course you don’t.
“I’ve met you once or twice. I was Don’s student. He sold me out to Overlord, they were trying to control magic.”
He nodded, a knowing smile on his face. “Ah. You too?” His shoulders shook with a mirthless chuckle. “I should have figured. I’m surprised you’re not dead.” He poured himself another shot.
“It was close.” Wait, ‘you too’?
He inclined his head and drank his shot. “Congratulations. You’re in better shape than me.”
“You said ‘you too’. Does that mean…”
“That I have the same wires and devices under my skin too, I presume? Yes, I am acutely aware of them.”
“How? You’re the leader of a group of war mages. You teleported tons of people trying to kill us. How did Overlord snag you?”
“I could ask the same of you. When were you kidnapped?”
Miya bit her lip. Should I tell him? Fuck it, we’re here to kill him anyways, won’t hurt. “Beginning of December.”
“Ah, so a couple weeks before myself. One day, I’m eating Christmas dinner, the next, I’m strapped to a hospital bed with no access to my magic.” Samedi’s face soured. “I would love to find the man who put me there. But alas, it is too late for me.”
“We found Overlord’ gold in Don’s safe.”
“Don? That son of a bitch. I don’t know about the others in the Underground. Cynic? No, he’s not very powerful. Xi? He would go along with anything, so long he could light it on fire at the end. No need for control. But I believe your friend killed him, so I suppose it’s a moot point.”
“Why are you telling us this?” demanded Quarrel. “You’ve shown so much interest in killing us all, why are you giving up?”
“You all? Bah! No, this was because the idiot muscle heads. Don was their uncle. They wanted revenge. Why not give it to them?”
“You tried to kill us. You did kill one of us,” spat Quarrel, her voice hard.
“Yes. Why would I give a shit about you? The robots didn’t care. Hell, two volunteered to go along.”
“Volunteered?” asked Miya. Robots can do that?
“That’s what it looked like. I assume they had orders. From what I’ve seen they have no real autonomy, just extensive programming.”
“Just like you,” said Quarrel.
He laughed. “Just like me? I tried to shoot myself last week. The devices paralyzed me. One of the robots came in, took the gun, and broke a rib as punishment. I pass on the orders they give me, try not to rock the boat.” He poured another shot. “I drink too much, robots come and take it away.” He smiled eagerly and drank.
He continued, “I tried to fight, tried to keep on living.” He poured and drank another shot. “And you know? It wasn’t bad. Got to live well, lorded over half the city.” He smiled. “Not now. I’m a lost cause to them now.” He tossed the shot glass aside grabbing the half full bottle and sitting down on a milk crate.
“I see… three ways this can go,” he continued, his voice slurred slightly. “I drink the rest of this bottle and die in a pool of my own vomit. You shoot me. They blow me up. Three choices.”
“You’re a good little minion to them, why would they blow you up?”
“You’re too young. You don’t remember when he was called Slave Driver. A dictator, I don’t remember his name, he used him to control people. He’s always been about control. Robots, they’re really easy to control. The word robot comes from slave. He’s always been successful, but he’s always been a control freak. How else do you explain Control?”
He knows about that fucking thing? Miya bit her lip.
“Yes, you know what I’m talking about. So no, I’m not obedient. They probably have this whole conversation recorded. My eye is not my own,” he said, tapping his left temple.
“That doesn’t answer the question. Why would they blow you up?” repeated Quarrel.
His smile grew wider. “Because they failed. Because they did not break me and they did not control me fully. Because this is proof.” He took a long swig from the bottle. “Because I’m not begging them for life. Because I may not want to die, but because this life is worse. Because I want to die on my terms, not theirs.” He looked Miya dead in the eye. “So, what’s it going to be?”
Quarrel glanced at Miya. Shit. I kind of want to help this guy. There are very few people that deserve to go onto that operating table. And he didn’t have some people to swoop in and save his ass.
“You know why I’m not dead?” asked Miya. Without waiting for a response, she said, “Because someone cut some wires that needed cutting. You know where they are now? In a coma because of that attack you commanded.”
Samedi stared at her for a moment, then burst into laughter. You don’t regret it. So neither do I. Miya fired.