Cataphracts

“Shields up, shields up” screamed a centurion from some somewhere down the line.

I raised my shield along with the other legionaries around me in the nick of time. A couple Parthian arrows collided with my shield. I think one got embedded deep in the wood. Drums sounded from somewhere. I couldn’t tell you what was happening, really. I was just a grunt, a foot soldier. I knew what was happening directly in front of me and, if experience was anything to go by, it was rather sucky.

About one metric fuck ton of horsemen charged at us. I didn’t take the bait, and no one around me did either. The Parthians had done this before. These weren’t the heavy cataphracts, or those mutated horse things they’d thrown at us before. Just light tribesmen, with fast horses and bows. Not to say the bow couldn’t kill anyone. Hell, I’d seen about twenty men go down with gruesome injuries to the throat and legs.

We began to close ranks, locking shields. The horse archers would pick off anyone who wasn’t covered. If we got complacent or too compacted, the heavy cavalry would charge and mow us down.

So far as I could tell, the only strategy we had was to survive. The artillery trains had been torched long ago, even the crazy techie contraptions that looked like a crossbow had sex with a gatling gun. I couldn’t tell where the general or even the legion’s eagle was. I’d have liked to have been close to them, though. One of the guys they had guarding the eagle had could throw honest to god lightning out of his hands. He was probably the only reason we hadn’t been totally routed yet.

More arrows struck our ranks; the horsemen turned, running parallel to our lines just out of spear’s throw. To our other side, away from the centurion, others started screaming. A mass of metal, horse, and angry dudes bore down on our flanks. Cataphracts.

You haven’t known fear until you’ve stared down a huge horse, and I mean a huge horse bred to be huge, completely covered in armor. And on this horse is a dude. This dude is equally covered in armor, except he’s holding this big ass, razor sharp lance, and…

***

Alright, so the techie told me to stop rambling. She also told me to recap what’s going on, in case any of the recordings get corrupted. She figures if we sprinkle enough of these reminders in, at least one of them is bound to be clear so you know what the hell is going on.

Anyways, I’m John Smith. That’s not my real name, but every time I say my real name this happens: My name is

Yeah. So me and a techie are holed up in some bunker thing, recording this for posterity before we transmit it up to an autonomous satellite thing for one of the colonies to pick up. It’s the year 2416. I think it’s actually close to New Year’s. I don’t know, I’ve only been here a week, and almost all this time I’ve been in this bunker.

Oh yeah, almost forgot. This part is important: I time travel every time I die. This story I was telling before being so rudely interrupted was maybe my fifth life out of I don’t even know how many. I can also conjure small objects out of thin air and am usually unknowable, which is why I’m surrounded by power dampeners.

The first life I told you about earlier was the one where I wound up in ancient Germany, witnessed an immortal psycho trigger, and then got stabbed. The other ones were far less exciting. Eaten in the upper Nile by a crocodile after a couple days, crushed by a falling tree before I had a chance to so much as blink, and so on and so on.

The current life I’m telling you about I found myself in Roman boot camp in Syria. I got the shit beat out of me along with a couple other new guys, they declared that training, then the legion marched off to the East because… I’m actually not sure why. I was just a foot soldier. It’s not like the general, some dude named something Crassus, I think, walked up to me and laid out everything. I just followed orders. Oh, and an important note, Parthians are basically Persians. So, yeah, not a terribly fun time. Deserts suck.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. I met a couple of good guys. For reasons that will soon become obvious, I’ll only describe a couple of them. Livius and Cyrillus were both vaguely able to remember me, people have a harder time forgetting me if I’m actively affecting them in some way.

And yeah, yeah, no crap names for them like Chamber Pot Man or something. I liked those guys. I know Cyrillus was from Antioch on the coast of Syria, the son of Greek immigrants if I remember correctly. Livius grew up in Rome. The city, not the empire. He never shut up about it. Apparently the weather, food, women, and drinks are all better then wherever we happened to be at the time. He was probably right though. Seriously, fuck the desert.

That’s over with. Man, this is great, being able to say all of this and have people remember. Back to the story!

***

The sun beat down on us, as it had all day. And fun fact, that armor we wore sealed in heat really, really well. Sealed in the juices, too. Ow, techie just punched me. Fine, sorry. Moving on.

I flinched as another arrow bounced off the top of my helmet.

“Shit!” I yelled. An inch lower and I’d have been dead. Again.

I’d seen the huge army we had. We had maybe seven legions worth of men, yet we just stood there and let them die. From my position a couple ranks back, admittedly not the best vantage point, I’d seen far less Parthians. Yet here we were, boxed in and surrounded, with a general too timid to do anything but cower.

We huddled behind our shields for god knows how long. Only a couple men actually fell to arrows, but we were completely unable to strike back at all. We only had swords, after all.

After an hour of this, I noticed the lack of arrows hitting shields. I chanced craning my neck.

“They’re running!” yelled someone from the front ranks, the words taken up by others.

Ragged cheering rang up from the ranks. For however bad a picture I’ve painted, we were still standing. We’d been hit for hours and hours without budging.

“Hold!” urged a centurion, cutting down the celebration.

I noticed something. No drums. No arrows or screaming. No horses. They’d all fled completely, not just regrouping.

“Not over yet,” I murmured to myself, no one would have been able to hear me over the din anyways.

I wasn’t the only one to have noticed. Other men around me looked around at the dusty plains. Shouting came from over the heads of the men to my left. A massive dust cloud, rising high into the sky, screamed towards us. That hadn’t been there a minute ago. The wind picked up, sending the banners flapping madly.

A couple of the men, natives to the area if their native tongues were any indication, began praying. I’d heard prayers before the fighting began, but this was something else. They’d dropped their swords, for one. If we weren’t so closely packed, they looked like they’d be running. They hadn’t flinched when the mutant horse things had come, they hadn’t flinched at arrows or cataphracts, but now they had all but given up. A couple were down on their knees.

“Whatever is in there, we will kill it,” shouted the centurion. The rest of his no doubt inspiring speech was lost as the howling wind picked up.

A horn sounded: the general and his retinue of remaining cavalry thundered to join the rest of us foot sloggers. From them shot a massive bolt of lightning as thick around as a man straight into the fast approaching dust cloud, doing absolutely nothing to stop it. If anything, the cloud accelerated. The wind picked up, its howls drowning out everything else. We braced.

Wind and sand plowed into the ranks to my left, sending fully armored men flying like ragdolls. I ducked my head behind my shield to keep the worst of the sand out of my eyes.

“Go, go!” screamed someone.

We charged into the storm. Not much else we could do. Another bolt of lightning preceded us, vanishing into the dust. Considering the size of the cloud, they might have had a person who could share his power among many other people. Or maybe a guy with a massive radius. There might have been another army in there for all we knew, ready to take advantage of the massive gaping hole in our lines.

I followed the man in front of me, keeping in line with Livius and Cyrillus to either side of me. A sound like a crack of thunder rang out in front of us. The lead men screamed in pain as a wall of air at about shin level hit the ranks.

Sand blasted us from all sides. Another column of wind shot straight through the ranks to my right. I staggered, better than being crushed by the sheer force of the air. Despite my best efforts, the sand and dirt caked up in my mouth. I couldn’t see past the man in front of me.

We didn’t find anyone in that sandstorm. Well, I didn’t. I guess anyone who did died. Me and the others around my blundered around. All semblance of coherence in the ranks was lost; all the officers gone or dead.

This had to be a group of Parthian supers. No one was that powerful.

***

Uh… shit, that’s not good. Security in the bunker we’re holed up in just told us there’s been a breach. There’s been a lot of rioting and looting since the asteroid made it past the net.

What? No, don’t turn it off.

Because… you’ll forget me. Everyone always forgets me. Please, just… leave it on.

Batteries? Tiny little thing like that can’t take up that much energy, right? We’ve only been at this for an hour. Fine, I’ll be here.

***

Do you want to continue with this right now? Sorry about before. You don’t have family out there in all that, do you?

Sorry. Forgot. Your world too. Oh, we left the recording thing on.

Just gonna roll with it? OK. Where were we? Oh right. Dead people.

***

One thing the Roman drill sergeants had drilled into our heads was “protect the eagle”. If all else fails, stand your ground around the eagle. What they never mentioned was what happened when the eagle left you and a bunch of wounded soldiers behind.

I was lucky. My eyes were shot from all the grit and I was dead tired from people trying to murder me all day, but all my bones were where they should be and I wasn’t bleeding out all over the sand.

I’d lost my sword after being knocked down by the wind. Sideswiped by it, really. When the sandstorm cleared, only me, Livius, and Cyrillus were still standing from our unit. The dead and dying lay all across the dusty field. In the distance, I saw retreating cavalry, bearing Roman colors.

In the other direction, I saw the glimmer of the cataphracts’ armor as they approached. And, much closer, I saw the lighter horsemen bearing down on us. Me and Livius exchanged glances. Cy had a broken arm, we were in no shape to run. That, and horses tend to be a lot faster than people.

A couple horsemen circled us, bows nocked and ready. Livius threw down his shield and spat.

Before you ask, “Why didn’t you just shoot them?” I couldn’t exactly do that and keep everyone alive. More than likely they would just kill us all if we put up a fight. Just because I resurrect or whatever doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to other people.

They herded us and the other survivors east, to their camp. They were probably going to sell us as slaves, I never found out. Glad I missed out on that.

A young man, maybe a few years my senior, stood alone at the edge of the camp. The Parthian soldiers escorting us skirted around him, heads low. This is going to sound crazy, but I almost recognized him.

***

I’ll skip a lot of the boring details. They had us march east until we reached a big river, the Euphrates, I think. A small contingent from the main keep us under constant guard. We weren’t all of the captives, they’d divided us into groups. Small groups of soon to be slaves are easier to manage than big ones, I guess.

Everyone, even the guards, thought we were heading towards the capital, and for a couple days we were, until the river turned south and we followed. Then the new word I picked up from the guards was Babylon.

Funny thing about language. In the US you can drive straight for three days and all anyone will speak is English. Do the same in, say, Europe, and you go through about half a dozen languages. So the guards didn’t really care what they said around us. That’s not to say they were loose lipped, but they weren’t exactly cautious either. Most of us didn’t speak whatever it is they spoke. I would translate for the other captives when the guards weren’t watching, but most of what they said was boring.

Sorry, got side tracked. Anyways, after weeks of walking, we camped near a massive brown stone. The stone looked rough, untouched by the ever present sun and sand. That scary looking guy from before, he stood in front of it with a frown. Just staring at a brown rock as everyone made camp around him.

After getting settled and ready to pass out for the night, I heard some guards talking.

“That stone wasn’t there before when we passed by last with Sandstorm.” My eyebrow raised at that.

“You’re an idiot,” replied the second guard.

“Seriously.”

“Massive stones don’t appear out of nowhere.”

“Sandstorm wants to check on it,” said the first guard.

That got a pause from the other. “For what?”

“I don’t know. I overheard the captain talking about it with him.”

The guards grew quiet as the aforementioned captain patrolled by. They kept quiet even after he left, leaving me to fall asleep in peace.

The next morning saw a larger than normal amount of hustle and bustle. Me, Cy, and Livius wound up on the outskirts of the mob of captives. A group of spear wielding soldiers approached.

“You three. Come here,” barked the lead one.

The other captives got restless. One of them yelled something. Then the guards heftd their weapons, as did the other soldiers around them. I noticed all of the Parthians held weapons. Not carried on the backs of their horses, held them in their hands. With no way out, we simply followed the guards to the stone.

They shoved us towards it. The Sandstorm guy looked on from atop his horse, arms folded. A few others, also on horseback, waited behind him. After a moment, the guards on foot motioned towards the rock, though they stood back a few feet.

The solid brown rock wall had a winged lion carved in the center. I shrugged to the others and pushed it. Something burned my hand. “Fuck,” I muttered, recoiling.

A blast of stale air hit us. A blast coming from the formerly solid wall. Tendrils of formerly solid stone began unweaving and retracting back into the darkness beyond. I honestly don’t know how else to describe it.

A moment later, we stood before a cave entrance, with no sign of the stone that had peeled away. After a shocked moment, I turned around to the Parthians behind me. Their faces looked as shocked as I felt. Except for Sandstorm, he simply kept frowning.

Once they recovered, he motioned to a guard and dismounted. The rest of the dudes on horses followed suit. The spear wielding guards pointed to us, then the inside of the cave.

I turned back to it. The thing had a majorly creepy vibe from it. A downward leading staircase was swallowed by the pitch darkness. One of the men, a guy in robes despite the heat, pulled a small wooden talisman. It ignited in his hands. He tossed it into the cave mouth, where it hovered.

“Go,” barked one of the guards.

With no other option, we walked in, proceeded by the ball of fire lighting the way. It quickly became apparent this was all man made. We went down the stairs and found a rectangular corridor devoid of anything save dust. We stopped at the occasional room, also barren. At some point, the Parthians behind us produced torches.

We continued on like this for maybe half an hour. A couple guards behind us had spears pointed at our backs, just in case we tried anything. We passed by two more empty rooms with carvings on them. The mage took one look and shook his head. Five steps later, Livius, Cyrillus, and the two guards behind me dropped.

Looking back, the rock walls didn’t look any different the whole way in. If it was a trap, it was really well concealed. That didn’t matter to me at the time, then I was crouched over Cy, trying to get him back up. The Parthians were shouting, I didn’t pay attention.

I felt for Cy’s pulse and felt nothing. Livius was the same. The two fallen guards weren’t moving either. I shot back to my feet, fists clenched.

“Stay,” ordered one of the guards. I froze as I heard the creak of a bow being drawn. Bow beats fists, after all.

“I felt something,” said the mage, shouldering his way to the front of the group.

He raised his hand, probably to do some magic nonsense. He dropped dead the moment he reached out far enough, the floating flames dying out at the same time.

I didn’t dare run off with the bow pointed at my back. Or that Sandstorm guy. He was right behind the mage, looking very irritated. If he could decimate a legion single handedly, I was a bug. They whispered among themselves, their voices too low for me to hear.

“You, come back,” said a guard. I took a few hesitant steps forward, certain at any point I’d spontaneously die. Nothing happened. I reached where they stood.

“Do you have a power? Not magic, a power?” Sandstorm asked, the first words I’d heard come out of his mouth.

Before someone could translate for him, I said in his language, “Yes. Tongues.” No need to tell them everything, after all.

Sandstorm called out to someone at the back of the small group. An older man with a torch stepped forward. He stepped over the body of the mage and walked past me.

“The bodies,” I said. The man looked at me and nodded. Together we hauled the fallen back to where the other could reach them.

Sandstorm nodded and joined us. To the other guards he said, “Get them out of here. You two, wait here. If we have not returned by tonight, leave and bury this place.” And with that, he looked at me with a stormy expression.

I took that as my cue to lead the way again. I didn’t want to, but likely death at the hand of some magic trap is better than certain death at the hands of a super. After another half hour of walking down the interminable stone hallway, not knowing whether I would be struck down by some curse or laser or whatever the fuck, someone broke the silence.

“How long does this go?” asked the old guy.

“Leads to the city proper. The arrogant bastard didn’t think he’d die. He left this place wide open,” said Sandstorm.

Yeah, we’re playing the pronoun game. Just so you know, I don’t really know who they were talking about. Anyways, back to them.

The older man gave a mirthless chuckle. “What are you looking for?”

“I’m not quite sure. I’ll know it when I see it. The entrance didn’t appear by accident.”

I stopped at a doorway, something having caught my eye.

“Whoa,” was all I could manage.

On a pedestal was a golden knife, glowing faintly in the torchlight. No matter where I looked in the room, my eyes were drawn to it. The blade looked a little longer than my hand, a simple triangular thing, ending in a sharp point.

Sandstorm shoved me out of the way and took a good, long look at the golden blade. He kept his distance from it, though. All I could think was, “Thank god this is over with.”

“That it?” asked the old guy from behind us.

“No.”

“Know what it is?”

“Maybe. He made it to kill,” replied Sandstorm.

“Kill what?”

“Anything.”

The old man let out a low whistle. “We could use that. Might be trapped, though.”

Sandstorm turned to me, and my stomach sank. “Pick it up,” he ordered.

I sighed. I’d seen a lot of death, and now I’d been press ganged into finding some vague thing owned by some vague guy. Now that we’d found a thing. And I would bet anything this thing would kill me.

“No, no more,” I said. “Not going to die for you fucks.” The old guy raised an eyebrow.

“You don’t get a choice,” said Sandstorm.

“Yeah I do.” I was fucking tired of waiting to die. I conjured up a pistol in my hands and opened fire on Sandstorm.

I put three bullets in his chest. He staggered back, the bullet wounds closing before my eyes. Then he crushed my head.

***

Yeah, that didn’t go so well. No idea where that healing thing came from. Joke’s on him, though, I can make that knife thing appear in my hand. Just… hang on. Turn off those dampeners for a moment. Just a second or two.

***

You see it? Oh, it’s still in my hand. Awesome. Thought the dampeners would take it away. Pretty cool, isn’t it? Made by some vague guy to kill anything, apparently. I’ve used it once or twice. I tried to kill the Aztec emperor with it, actually, that was a fun time. Oh, I haven’t told you that story then…

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2416

I’ve always wondered, when it comes to people with powers, how they ever chose a code name to go by. Sometimes it’s easy to tell what they were thinking. The guy transforms into a bulldozer, and murders people, so he calls himself the Killdozer. Easy. Other times it’s something only barely tangentially related to what they actually do, so you wonder if it’s just one of a bunch of synonyms they pulled out of a hat for their name. It’s like they’re trying too hard to be original.

But that seems almost like a missed opportunity to me. Take my Killdozer guy example from earlier. Killdozer just gives it away. He could call himself something generic, like John Smith. So now everyone’s looking for a guy named John Smith, while his real name is something along the lines of Indian-dude McChatterjee (don’t judge me, I’ve only been in India for about a week so far) or something, and no one can tell because he’s a bulldozer whenever he’s using his power, and is an Indian man for the purposes of this scenario. Lies are, in fact, a thing, but everyone seems to take superhumans’ names at face value. Trust me on this one.

As for me, I’ve never bothered with a super-secret code name or anything like that. I move around too much, and there’d always be something lost in translation. And, as you can probably tell, this is where the origin story is supposed to go in a tale like this. Well, I’ve been putting off telling you people my origin story, because it’s awful. Also, I suppose I should tell you my name in the first place. Sorry about that. It’s

Damn it. You didn’t get that, did you? But you got everything else, so that’s a plus. The power dampeners aren’t perfect, and she’s telling me that they’re going as hard as they can. Fine. For our purposes my name is John Smith. Got it? Excellent.

Anyways, I was never really interested in powers. You always hear about the fan boys and enthusiasts, but for me, it was always just another part of life. Most people with powers aren’t any more than regular people with an interesting trick anyways. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have complained if I got them (and the harsh mistress of hindsight is punishing me on this front, don’t worry) and I’m stalling again. Fuck it, here’s my origin:

***

There I was, trapped between the undead hordes and safety. Ammo: low. Morale: low. Knives: all broken but one. Dark grey clouds shrouded the sun, the stench of rotting meat filled the air. And… I’m just stalling again. Sorry, bad habit. I’m not used to people actually listening. Here’s try two, for real this time. Just… just give me a moment.

***

I…  I was captured. By that Cain guy. You know him? Sick fuck who just tortured people while on the run. He’d go in a random direction, stop in a random place, grab a random number of people, and just torture them. Not for information or any reason at all. Just for fun. I was one of them.

Even if I told you who I was before, it wouldn’t matter. You wouldn’t remember. No one does. I checked the first time I was out of the sticks. Few records, not much in the news, not much of anything, really. But that’s not the point. The point is I was some white, middle class, high school kid in his senior year in America at the beginning of the twenty first century. There, context established. You have as good a mental image of me as you’re ever going to get.

I don’t remember much, not of getting captured, or the intervening time before the table. The table’s the important bit. I’ll spare us both the details, but I was strapped to that table for I don’t know how long, with nothing but pain and the smell of burnt hair for company. I couldn’t see out of one eye, I don’t know why, and I’m reasonably sure I was missing a few digits, and he was there, ready to go again for the nth fucking time, and fuck, what more do you want from me? I triggered. There. Good enough.

***

So… yeah. I triggered, and found myself somewhere and somewhen completely different. Yes, somewhen. It’s a word now. You can understand my confusion. One minute: torture in some random basement. The next instant, with no discernible transition, I’m somewhere else.

I looked at my hands once I realized I was standing. All of my fingers intact, complete with fingernails. No blood. I checked myself over. Nothing wrong, besides the clothes. I was wearing these strange leather pants, wool socks under some leather shoes, and a shirt, also wool. Kind of itchy. And when I say leather, I mean raw leather. None of the glossy black stuff. This was leather that was an animal a couple days ago.

It was at this point, I finally took in my surroundings. Trees. Lots and lots of trees. Foreboding trees, taller by far than any of the nearby structures. Looking out of the clearing I stood in, I could maybe twenty feet into the forest before the dark trunks blocked everything beyond. Overcast, too. Looked like it could drizzle at any moment.

I spun around about ninety degrees at the abrupt sound of a cow mooing. Several cows, actually, small lean brown ones grazing in a patch of grass beside some houses. For a long moment, I thought I was in a particularly accurate medieval reenactment. A good dozen windowless wooden huts, thatched roofs and all, clustered in the middle of the forest clearing. A woman weeded a small patch of vegetables in front of one; thin wisps of smoke came from the rough chimney of another.

“Hey, quit gawking and get out of the way,” growled a voice behind me in what was definitely not English. So how did I understand him as he spoke in another language, you ask? THAT’S A VERY GOOD QUESTION.

I turned, again, and found myself directly in the path of a cart pulled by a big ass ox. The dude on the cart itself killed whatever snarky comment I had in the works at the time. The big blond guy’s axe rested on the seat beside him, an ugly iron thing with the occasional bit of rust on the side. His eyes glowered over a long mustache, though he slouched against his seat. I wordlessly stepped aside, and he hit the ox with a long switch to get it and the cart moving along the muddy track.

Now the first thing I did you’ll mock. You’ll say, “Well that was fucking stupid of you,” and you’d be right. But you’d do something similarly stupid in my situation, going from modern life to what appeared to be the ass end of nowhere and try anything to figure out what was going on.

In my case I checked my pants for pockets, and the phone that would hopefully be within. Naturally, this being Germany before the birth of Christ, there was no such thing in my pocket, nor was there any pocket at all. Also, spoiler: I’m in Germany, sometime in the BC range.

“Phone? Phone? Come on,” I muttered to myself.

I patted myself down. I had nothing but the clothes on my back. Then it hit me.

“Wh? Bu… eh?” I stammered. “Where the hell am I?” Going from a torture room to a forest without warning is not an easy transition to make, if I seem a bit slow on the uptake for this part.

The guy either didn’t hear me, or didn’t deign to answer the question. After a moment, I decided I may as well follow the man. He knew more than I knew. Hell, the cows in the field over there knew more than I knew. Probably.

I trudged behind him, heading into the village. I kept looking for a flash of modern clothing or a hidden camera. I still wasn’t remotely recovered from that place I was a few minutes ago that I’m not talking about anymore. Fun fact, farm animals make noise, and I jumped at every last one.

I caught up to the man. “Hey,” I said to get his attention. Unfortunately, this worked. “So, uh, where are we?”

He hopped down from the cart, then stared. After a long moment, he said, “Are you the new village idiot?”

“Uh, no, but I kind of want to figure out what is going on.”

His eyebrows drew together. He looked around a bit. “Nothing’s going on. Go away now.”

And with that, he walked to the back of his cart, grabbed a huge box, and took it around his house. I looked at the ox, which stared back with complete and total apathy. I wandered back.

“Fuck. I need a phone, I need a phone.” I squeezed my eyes shut, refusing to believe any of this was happening. I just needed something, anything that would help with my complete lack of information. I felt something pop into my hands.

I opened my eyes. There, in my hand, where there used to be no cellphone, there was now a phone. My old phone. The model, at least. A couple scratches I’d inflicted on it were missing from the screen. My jaw dropped a bit. After looking around a moment to check that no one was laughing at me from the bushes or something, I hit the on button. It lit up.

“No fucking way,” I muttered to myself. I did a lot of muttering to myself back then. I’m told it’s an only child thing. I still do that a lot even now. No one can hear me anyways.

My joy was short lived, as it couldn’t find any reception. I must have spent five minutes fiddling with the damn thing in frustration. Nothing. I chucked it as far as I could. It vanished about twenty feet from me in the air.

I blinked. “Phone, phone, phone,” I muttered to myself after a moment, eyes closed again, this time imagining a satellite phone. Lo and behold, another phone, this one much bulkier than the one before, popped into my hands. I checked it, and still no service. I dropped it in the dirt. After a few seconds, it popped out of existence. No satellites.

Before I could experiment any further, it finally started to rain. Cold rain, too. At this point the adrenaline of escape and the awesomeness of a novel power gave way to the crushing realization that I still had nowhere to go, and I haven’t even existed yet. Two passing people had glanced at me, nothing more. Though the clouds blocked most of the sky, it was still noticeably darker and colder than even ten minutes ago. I pushed the bizarreness of time travel out of my mind for the time being.

“Fuck it,” I said to myself. People are still people, no matter the place or time. I made a circuit around the village. Everyone took one look at me and slammed the door. I wound up back that first guy’s house. I walked up and knocked on the door.

“Who is it?” called a young female voice from within.

“Uh, John Smith.”

Did that come across? It did? Fuck yeah, two for two. Moving on.

I stood there for a long minute in that rain. I might have heard some talking inside, not that I could make out the words. Eventually the door opened to reveal… the same big guy from before.

“Who are you?” he asked.

I blinked. “That guy on the road, from earlier.”

He gave a noncommittal grunt. I pushed on. “I’m not from around here, so I kind of need a place to stay. Do you have a hotel or something nearby?”

After a long moment, he asked, “Are you the new village idiot?” This was beginning to sound familiar. And a bit weird, but then what wasn’t during all this?

“No. I just need a place to stay.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t think I have anywhere else to go.”

He started to close the door. I blocked it as best I could. I got a good glimpse of the inside. One girl, probably about a year or two younger than me, had her hand on the shoulder of an even younger boy.

“No, sorry. I really just need a place to put my head down.”

The man stopped, which caught me off guard. “Can you work?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Follow,” he said, shouldering me out of the way. I moved, and he shut the door firmly behind me.

He came to a lean to on the side of the house.

“This is for the village dogs. I don’t think you’ll get much else here as an outsider. You work for me, you get this.”

I stared. Planks of wood kept it off the ground, at least.

“I’ll even throw in a few spare blankets,” he said, “but you’re not getting close to my daughter.”

Out of options, I accepted. “Oh, and your name is?” I asked. He let out a long string of syllables beginning with a G, then brought me the blankets and left me alone. I heard him taking care of the ox cart out front over the rain.

I never was able to pronounce his name. Not that it mattered. I found out later I could just say “hey you” to a crowd with someone in mind and they’d know I was talking to them. So for this gentleman, I alternated between Fuckbiscuit, the Great Chamber Pot Man, and Prick once I realized my power just translated what I meant as his name into his own language. In the interest of maturity we’ll just call him Gunther from here on out.

So began my crash course in farming. It was kind of like taking a child to the pool for the first time, then chucking them into the deep end and letting them sink or swim. I’ll spare you the boring details of farming life before the invention of basic hygiene, but even an idiot like me can shovel shit, so that’s a lot of what I did. They kept a lot of cows, and on the flip side there wasn’t much agriculture going on. On the plus side, I haven’t gotten sick since I got my powers, so I probably could have rolled around in the shit without any ill effect. I should do that next time, go for the crazy guy angle…

Anyways, the members of the family that let me sleep in the lean to on the side of their hut alternated between teaching (read: mocking) me as they did their own thing. I had to remind them, of course. If I didn’t, they simply forgot about me. This was becoming a running theme.

I did get occasionally get time to experiment with what I could conjure up in the few moments I could snatch alone. It had to be small, no bigger than, say, a handgun, which may have been one of the first things I tried. I also tried a small laser, like one you’d see out of a sci fi movie. I got prop, one I’d seen from said sci fi movies. I couldn’t make anything out of my imagination, unfortunately. I made sure no one could see me conjure random modern pieces of technology, lest they burn me at the stake for witchcraft.

***

I could lie and say I was getting better at the whole productivity thing, but that would be a lie, obviously. I kind of spoiled it for myself there. Anyways, I continued being the idiot, incompetent American thrown into a strange and unforgiving slapstick environment. I swear I thought I was in some hack movie or book or something for that week. Everyone sort of ignored me, unless I affected them in some way, so I never really got to know anyone.

Hell, I think the kids actually started to warm up to me, though that might have been because I got the shit tasks they used to get.

One fine evening, shit fully shoveled, the boy actually came to join me in sitting on the fence, there being a distinctive lack of movies during this time period. We’ll call him Little Timmy.

He hopped up on the fence, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Pa says you’re the new village idiot, whenever I ask why there’s always someone sleeping where the dogs used to.”

“What happened to the old village idiot?” I asked with some amusement. I’ve always been able to make fun of myself, and so far as I could tell the kid had no malice in him. And lest you think they were treating me like a dog, I’ve seen inside that house a couple times. Not much better than what I got. I complained, of course, but according to Gunther the nearest other human civilization was a week away, and I had no experience in hunting or any sort of forest survival.

“He died.” Of course. Why would I expect anything else?

“Hey, I’ve got a question for you,” I said. “What is my name?”

“What?”

“What is my name?” I repeated.

“What’s the question?”

“What do you all call me? The dog shack dude?”

“You’re the laborer guy.”

“Yes, but what do you think my name is?” I asked with no small amount of exasperation.

Apparently I was boring him, because he just kind of blew me off and started looking out at the forest again. This whole getting ignored thing was beginning to get annoying. I didn’t bother trying to talk, I’d just let the power wear off.

Eventually the daughter joined us. Since this was Germany, and I’ve already named her dad Gunther, I called her Gertrude. Now. Back then I just utilized the “hey you” approach to her. But they had a strong resemblance, so it all worked out.

“Timmy, Pa says you’ve got to help the neighbors tomorrow.” No, I don’t know what they meant by help, and I never did figure it out.

I thought Timmy might have complained, but his common sense kicked in and he just nodded. The one time I’d seen him talk back to her she’d grabbed his ears and lifted him off the ground by them.

Gertrude looked even more tired than I felt. Their mother had apparently died recently to some disease, I don’t know which. Gender roles in ancient times being what they were, Gertrude got saddled with all the stereotypically womanly tasks, but the techie’s giving me a look, so I’m just gonna gloss over that bit.

Moving on!

We had some nice idle conversation. The weather is a lot more important when your entire life depends on it, so that was actually a relevant topic. Timmy and Gertrude just laughed when I expressed an interest in travel.

Then some cows started mooing quite incessantly.

“Did you see that?” asked Timmy.

“What?” asked Gertrude as I shook my head.

“There,” he pointed. “I saw a couple men out there.” He got down from the fence.

“I don’t see anything,” I said.

At the same time Gertrude said, “Get Pa. Get anyone you can.” A horn sounded as Timmy ran off to the village.

A good dozen men in the forest burst from cover, sprinting towards us with spears, shields, and clubs. Me and Gertrude stared in shock for a couple, ill-advised seconds. I smelled fire from somewhere else in the village. I heard a scream from behind, taking my attention off the dudes running towards us.

There were armed men in the village, one of whom cut down Timmy.

“NO!” screamed Gertrude.

They turned their attention to us, painted faces and unpleasant smiles. Fuck.

“Run, run,” I yelled at her, pushing her in the direction of the forest not blocked by bad things. She obeyed, and I nearly followed her.

I heard a roar, and saw Gunther ram into the village group, taking off one man’s head with that axe of his. Their attention turned to the large man killing them and away from us, which I was fine with. I began to run after Gertrude. However, Gunther had only taken care of half the problem, the other half taking form of the other dozen men I’d stupidly forgotten about.

However, Gunther had given me an idea, and that idea was violence. I could make a small device that makes small bits of metal go at great speeds. Surely that could have been some use here. Then, with a handy dandy gun, I turned around to face my pursuers, leveled the gun, and fired until the gun stopped making bang sounds. Not a single one of them fell, though they hesitated enough for me to start running again.

I caught up with Gertrude too short a distance later. She leaned against a tree, which is something you may have noticed you can’t simultaneously do while running away from a pack of murderous raiders.

“No, no. He’s dead. He’s dead and they’re coming.” If my knowledge of ancient history served me correctly, this was not a nice time to be a woman during the sacking of a populated area, to put it mildly.

I was panicking too, don’t get me wrong. You’re getting an account after everything was said and done, when I’m removed from the fighting and adrenaline and the animal urge to survive. I can make snarky comments and observations now. Then, I was panting, close to vomiting, my hands were shaking so bad I’d dropped my gun a good seventy yards behind me, and I very nearly just left Gertrude then and there.

“Come on, we’ve gotta move,” I managed between gasps of breath.

She ignored me. “I saw him… I saw… I see.” She collapsed to her knees. I heard footsteps behind us.

“What are you talking about? Come on.”

I grabbed her arm to pull her up. Like hell I was going to let her die out here for no reason. Then the visions hit me.

I saw… everything. Her powers, her slow descent into madness, the human sacrifices, everything. Nothing too specific, but this continued for at least two thousand years. A brutal war with the Romans, culminating with two legions massacred and a full quarter of the forest burned. Armies came and went, cities and kingdoms clawed their way out of the mud as she watched from the forest.

Time marched on. On and on and on. She had no interest in anything beyond the forest. On the outskirts states formed. Gunpowder arrived in Europe, and gradually the Germans began to lose their fear of the woman of the forest. More superhumans came to fight, more armies, as Europe began to recover from the dark ages. She and her followers held them off, but time took its toll.

The gradual change became sudden. Germany pushed for unification as everyone figured out what steam power was, and to the world’s surprise, she did not interfere. And in a few years, she controlled an industrialized nation, not just a dwindling ancient forest. She lashed out, and world wars happened. She retreated, beaten. She lurked, always in central Europe, keeping the Cold War from becoming hot as a sort of very lethal buffer between the East and West.

Then, darkness, at about the time I came from.

I just watched The Mother trigger. Fuck me. She’d popped up in about 300 BC in Germany, so that’s was when I finally figured out where and when I was.

“Get off of her,” growled Gunther, grabbing me by the shoulder and throwing me bodily to the side, breaking my train of thought. The bloody gash on his back did nothing to make him any less strong, as my ass could attest.

“I see, I see,” Gertrude whispered to herself, rocking back and forth on her knees. I thought that would have been more appropriate for me to start repeating insanely, but that’s the narcissistic American in me talking.

I scrambled back to my feet. Gunther shook her. “We need to get out of here. Come on, on your feet.”

“I SEE,” she screamed in his face. The grass at his feet began waving of its own accord. The mud swirled, lacking any coherent pattern. The trees began to groan, bending inward towards us.

At this point the raiders caught up to us. I know this because two snuck up behind me. One hit me in the back with his club, sending me sprawling. I cried out in pain and managed to turn just enough to catch a glimpse of the spear heading towards my chest. Looking back, I kind of pity them. There’s a lot of water in a human body, after all.

***

This happens a lot. The whole getting killed thing. I find myself in a random place, in a random time, and just as I get my bearings I get killed. This time the asteroid or a rioter is probably going to kill me once I leave this room. Hey, maybe if I get killed by the world ending cataclysm it’ll kill me for real.

But we’re recording for posterity here. They’re burying copies of all of humanities accomplishments, our history, our culture, everything they can. Maybe some of the colonies will dig it up. I have all sorts of interesting stories, this one was just to set the stage. I’ve wound up here, in the year 2416, right before an asteroid is going to hit the earth. I’m still trying to figure out why they can’t just blow it up. But I don’t think I’ve explained all of my power, and they’re motioning for me to continue. May as well do that.

As you can tell, I don’t die, just get sort of unstuck in time.

What? You still understand a Vonnegut reference? That was centuries ago for you. Fine. Sorry, was talking to the techie. Moving on.

So as far as I can tell, when I end up is decided first. Once the time is decided, then where is based on population. If population were the first deciding factor, I’d actually wind up here in the future a lot more. I mean, people have overrun an entire planet at this point, that takes some mind boggling numbers. This is also why I have plenty of experience farming now, not so much in politics or soldiering, despite having been bouncing around for about seven years now, by my estimate. Most people throughout history have been farmers, not anything else.

There’s still a lot I don’t know about my power. I don’t know if I replace some random dude. No one remembers me, so I never wind up on any records. I never take anything with me from time to time, so no diseases can spread when they’re not supposed to. I know what happens with my power, I don’t know how or why and it drives me crazy.

You might be thinking I recovered rather quickly from the whole torture thing. Honestly, I can barely remember it. Once I was obviously not losing anything important, and there were no signs I had ever lost anything important, I kind of forced it out of my mind, preferring more immediate survival to angsting. Well, angsting isn’t the right word, but you get what I’m saying.

Anything I conjure up is one hundred percent lifeless. I might have tried to get a test tube full of smallpox once. Now before you call me a sociopath, this was in the middle of a smallpox outbreak in Damascus. And yes, I’m an idiot who didn’t realize until too late that the modern strain that would coincide with a modern test tube I tried to come up with would still have slaughtered everyone. But it’s OK, I got a completely sterile test tube for my efforts.

There’s a lot of stories I could tell. The first time I wound up back in the modern day States (my modern, of course) I happened to be in Westward City, helping a terrorist cult blow up stuff. I tried to get out, but they had a guy who could see through me better than most, and track as well. Leaving was not an option, trust me.

Another time I wound up in Mexico. This was one of the few times I know I had an impact. How, you may ask. I saved Cuauhtémoc’s life. Of course, I tried to kill him with that nifty god killer thing I found this other time when I found out he was, or would be, basically an equally blood soaked version of The Mother, but I’ll get to that later.

I have all sorts of things I want to say, now that I can. I guess I’ll start with the next story. I found myself in the Roman legion a couple hops later…

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Imperial II

With the people dying outside, the nobles of Tenochtitlan took Cenyautl and dressed him in all the finery befitting a noble blessed (all blessed of sufficient strength were nobles). They held a festival, a small thing in comparison to some Cenyautl had seen, though the largest he’d attended. Usually he would be expected to sacrifice a captive in thanks to the gods for their gift, but with plague ravaging the whole of the empire and the flow of tribute and captives from the Aztec vassals halted, that was forgone.

He heard mutterings and whispers from the gathered merchants during the festival. Cities and tribes that had been under Aztec domain were now rebelling, refusing to pay their tribute. Instead, they threw their lot in with the Spanish. The Spanish hadn’t kept running back to wherever they came from after they had been driven out of Tenochtitlan. For now they stayed in Tlaxcala, gathering local warriors. For every warrior that joined the Spanish, one left the Aztecs.

Those at the festival tried to ignore this, but their faces sometimes betrayed the truth. The gods appeared to have abandoned them. People from over the ocean, with strange animals and weapons. A plague. These were, in fact, the opposite of good omens. The priests were strangely silent on the matters.

He discovered that he could move certain types of stones. He could sense any of the stones he could move in a fairly large radius, and control them should he so choose. The more there were under his control, the harder it became to maintain fine control over them. Obsidian was one of the ones he could sense, though. Another caveat was that size did not matter. He could get a head sized chunk moving just as fast in the same amount of time it took for a pebble. He hadn’t tried moving anything larger, though he could sense some larger boulders below his feet.

And none of it matters, because my entire family is dead. He still felt numb. Are we being punished for not finishing off the Spaniards?

The festival concluded, the assembled nobles wished him well, and he returned to the military encampment. He was now expected to lead other warriors into battle, and as such had received a high quality set of armor and shield from the emperor’s personal stores. Of course, they had yet to coronate a new emperor, but the royal storerooms did not depend on the emperor to exist, at least in the short term. I’m keeping my spear though.

He left the minor palace in the direction of his few personal objects, a woven bedroll, his spear, and a small carved totem of the war god. He’s supposed to protect warriors, isn’t he? In time Cenyautl would receive his own land and retainers, once the crisis ended. If it ever ends. Until then, he decided to remain among the rank and file, albeit more respected than the common warrior.

Many of the other warriors had fallen to the plague, the same as the rest of the population. Roughly four out of every five, so far as Cenyautl could tell, grew sick and died. There was no rhyme or reason to why someone would sicken or not. It had spread to the other cities on the lake at about the same time it hit Tenochtitlan. No one was spared.

Night fell by the time Cenyautl limped back. His knee still hadn’t healed, even remotely. He sat at his bedroll, mind blank. Soon, someone joined him, sitting down next to him without a word. It was the warrior Cenyautl met the night they drove the Spaniards out. Together they stared out over the city.

“What are you doing?” asked Cenyautl after some time.

“I observe. I observe much, and this is… unprecedented,” the warrior waved vaguely over the city.

The buildings and temples, painted brightly with dyes and blood, took on a grey hue in the dark, bleached and lifeless. The markets, a month ago playing host to exotic goods from the far north deserts and the forests to the south, appeared dilapidated and worn down, the customary merchants, buyers, and servants for upkeep no longer frequenting them.  Whereas the other night had been an apprehensive silence, this was the silence of a crypt. Most of the people were dead or dying, and the diseased bodies being burned cast a pall over the city. No one knew what was going to happen next. Given recent trends, it would probably be very bad.

“I never asked your name,” said Cenyautl.

“And that’s best,” said the warrior. They spoke no further.

Cenyautl eventually drifted off to sleep, the image of the broken city in his head.

***

The Spaniards returned a couple months later, their march to the capital once again unopposed. This time, however, they lead a huge host of warriors eager for Aztec blood. An empire is not won with kindness and consideration to the conquered, after all.

The new emperor, Cuauhtémoc, showed more courage than Moctezuma ever had. He immediately set about preparing the defense of the empire. He called for allies, though most had joined the Spanish. Cuauhtémoc, however, executed those who suggested bending the knee. Served the cowards right. Even when an estimated quarter million enemy warriors, from all around the valley of Mexico, came with the Spaniards, he exhorted the warriors to hold the bridges and causeways of the city at all cost. He’s actually only a few years older than me. Cenyautl observed after a passing glimpse of the man.

Immediately the Spaniards took control of the outlying villages and began constructing large canoe things. Cenyautl had heard stories from the coast of the large walled rafts (that’s somewhat inaccurate, but I don’t know what else to call them) with large areas of cloth hanging from poles in the middle of the raft. Aztec warriors in standard canoes raided the Spanish and allied warriors as often as they could. They didn’t fully stop the construction of the Spanish rafts in spite of their efforts.

The Aztecs received an unpleasant surprise once the Spanish rafts began sailing. The Spaniards mounted a couple large metal tubes on each raft, similar to the smaller ones Cenyautl heard rumors about from the east. These tubes let out a great crack, a deafening explosion of some kind, and a lump of stone would hit wherever the tube aimed. They are cowards who would kill from afar, rather than actually fighting.

While slow and impractical in street to street fighting, mounted on a mobile and fast raft, one that was defended by the metal clad Spaniards who would outnumber the warriors attempting to board the raft, these weapons controlled the lake around Tenochtitlan. There was one blessed who did manage to manipulate the waters into sinking one of the rafts, but the Spaniards made it a point to kill him immediately the next time his canoe set out.

Some nobles and elite warriors used the metal weapons taken from dead Spaniards. They weren’t as sharp as the obsidian clubs traditionally used, but they didn’t break nearly as easily. Once the Spaniards made it a point to assassinate particularly important warriors, priests, or blessed, the Aztecs in question began disguising themselves, dressing differently from their usual armor. Their usual armor was rather distinct from person to person, brightly colored with many feathers and other adornments so people in battle would know who to fight for the greatest glory.

Cenyautl didn’t have this problem. He led, but was otherwise indistinguishable from the men he commanded. His men were the remnants of other warrior companies from the eastern edge of the city where Cenyautl hailed from. They fight well enough.

This low scale fighting happened over a month or so. Other than the occasional probing attack, always beaten back, no large scale assault was launched on the city itself. But something else happened.

The Spanish began torturing and killing those who remained faithful to the Aztecs in the villages and towns they controlled. The Spaniards put their heads and various dismembered body parts on display in full view of the defending warriors. Apparently this was meant as intimidation. They want the city without a fight. They don’t like fighting, real fighting anyways.

There were rumors that one of the Spanish blessed had a power which made him excel at torture. Certainly the screams and pleas of those who fell into the Spanish hands echoed over the waters of the lake and to the edges of the defenses.

The Spaniards sent five local men to talk about the terms of surrender. Cuauhtémoc received them, and immediately had them sacrificed. Once the Spanish received word of this, they did not immediately assault the city, like Cenyautl would have. Instead, they destroyed the aqueduct which brought fresh water into the city. As the aqueduct began a fair ways into territory Tenochtitlan no longer controlled, there was little the warriors could do about it. The Aztecs were reduced to drinking the brackish water from the lake itself.

Then the assault began.

***

The Spanish pushed up the bridge again, this time lead by men on the large animals they rode. The thunderous sound of their feet on the stone bridge intimidated the defending Aztec warriors. Their confidence wavered. The Spaniards may have controlled the lake, but any naval landing would be swiftly overwhelmed, as the Spaniards discovered.

“Hold! Hold!” yelled Cenyautl, even as he saw the mass of enemy warriors swarming behind the Spaniard’s charge. Wait, I can use that. He kept forgetting about his power, he usually tried to avoid thinking about how he got them in the first place. He began disarming warriors, tearing weapons out of their unsuspecting grasp and throwing them into the lake. He could have simply clubbed them to death with their own weapons from a distance, but that was cowardly. Spaniards killed at a distance like that.

His concentration shifted to more immediate survival once the Spaniards on their animals hit the barricades. The barricades the Aztecs set up on the entrances to the city had held off the other warriors for a week, but the animals were a different matter. They simply bashed through the barricades or jumped over and into the massed warriors behind the barricades.

The animals simply crushed any warrior who tried to stand in their way, the momentum and size of the animal working to the Spaniards’ advantage. The Spanish atop the animals kept them moving forward, swinging their swords at any exposed warrior. A wooden servant of a priest managed to knock one down, but the Spaniards held torches, and they burned the servant while keeping out of its reach.

Cenyautl dodged to the side, out of the way of the nearest animal or swung sword, ignoring the chronic pain in his knee. He moved forward once the immediate threat moved on, stabbing at the animal’s flank. The Spaniards had covered the animals in the same armor the Aztec warriors wore; combined with the speed it moved the thrust did nothing.

They forced Cenyautl to back up. He used three large stones to help deflect their blows, but their numbers and the fact that he couldn’t kill them made him back up. And his defenses weren’t perfect, he took a fairly deep cut to his forearm. I only have two eyes. Then the warriors on the Spanish side hit.

The Aztecs, especially those under Cenyautl’s command, had begun to rally, in part because Cenyautl held off four Spaniards at once at one point. But the wave of reinforcements for the Spaniards pushed them back further, into the city proper. The Aztecs split up with their main line of defense gone, going down different streets and drawing the attackers out. Luckily, the animal mounted Spaniards followed a different group. Unluckily, a group of Spaniard infantry followed Cenyautl’s, supported by more native warriors. In front of them was a stone servant, held together with dark green cords. He knew it was hostile because it crushed a good portion of an Aztec warrior who wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way.

I think I can contribute here. Cenyautl took control of the stones he could in the servant, disrupting its movements. Need to concentrate. He stood at the front of the Aztec line now, his focus less on keeping himself alive and more on stopping the servant.

Just then, he heard the war cries of reinforcements, and was able to take a step back to relative safety. Whoever controlled the servant began applying more of his or her power to it. This forced Cenyautl to devote more of his attention to the mental battle and less on the more physical battle around him. Something pushed him, and he staggered backwards further.

He wrenched one of the stones free of the cords, and felt the resistance it had towards his power disappear. Then another. The integrity of the servant began to fail. He used the stones under his control, including one in the road larger than any he’d wielded before, to thrash the servant and anyone unfortunate enough to be near it. He would usually prefer to kill face to face, but servants weren’t exactly noble opponents.

He heard shouting from a Spaniard, pointing at him. Cranking sounds began to come from the Spanish lines. Cenyautl knew that they would loose bolts at incredible speed and strength, going through armor and shield like feathers. But I just figured out who to kill.

The hail of stones eventually found their mark, crushing the man’s head. The servant, already staggering and flailing, fell apart completely soon after. Magic did not last long after the caster’s death. However, before Cenyautl could congratulate himself, the other Spaniards took note of him. He was the only Aztec, in the middle of a swarm of them, standing in a sort of peaceful way.

A loud crack sounded, followed by a lance of pain in Cenyautl’s lower rib cage. The pain almost made him collapse. Other warriors rushed around him, preventing the nearby enemies from finishing him off. The other warrior he’d met in the night dragged him back behind the lines. How… did he react… so quick. He’d been shot by one of the invisible Spanish arrows, that much he could piece together. The other warrior dragged him into an out of the way alley.

He rested Cenyautl’s back against a wall. Cenyautl felt the pain receding. Well I’m dead. He would die in battle, no doubt he would go on to the war god’s heaven. The other warrior moved Cenyautl’s cotton armor to the side around his wound.

“You’re like her,” he muttered. Cenyautl looked down and stared. The massive bloodstain in his armor circled a rapidly closing wound. Come to think of it… He checked his arm, where he received a serious cut earlier. There was the corresponding cut in the armor, but his arm underneath showed no sign of injury. So why does my knee still hurt?

The other warrior interrupted his thoughts. “I’m sorry, but you must be killed now. You cannot do what you will do. It will cause ruin to more than you could imagine.” Cenyautl stared at him without comprehension. In the other warrior’s hand suddenly appeared a glowing golden… thing. Cenyautl couldn’t tell through the glare, but it might have been vaguely rod shaped. That can’t be good.

There were no stones close enough, though he drew them towards himself anyways. He lost his spear sometime after he was shot. I’m not dying without a fight. Cenyautl, propped up on one arm, made a slow fake grab for the thing with his free arm, then turned it into a strike towards the eye of the other warrior who seemed intent on killing him. His finger struck home, he was slightly faster than the other man leaning over him.

None the less, he barely rolled out of the way of the thing as it struck the ground where Cenyautl was. There was a bright flash, and the thing in the other warriors hand was gone.

“No, you fool,” he snarled with one eye closed as Cenyautl stood upright. Another thing, or maybe it was the same thing, appeared in his hand again.

Cenyautl responded with a fist sized stone which struck the other warrior directly in the lower spine. That was somewhat dishonorable, hitting him from behind like that. I think I’ll be able to cope with the shame, however. This brought the man to his knees, and the glowing thing vanished again.

Cenyautl put a large stone in position to crush the man’s head. “Are you insane? What are you talking about?” I bring about the ruin of the empire? Is that what you’re talking about? It’s obvious you’re blessed of some kind.

The other warrior (no, man. He’s not a warrior) gritted his teeth, and in his hand appeared a box of some kind, over a hand long and made of dark black metal. The hole in the end pointed towards Cenyautl. Is that… one of the Spanish weapons? No, can’t be. He still readied a rock once it appeared. The man gripped it shakily, then his finger twitched rapidly. Loud bangs, worse than the one that shot Cenyautl in the first place, rang from the weapon in the man’s hand. Something hit the stone Cenyautl placed between him and the dark thing with an astounding amount of force, but nothing came of it otherwise.

Cenyautl willed the stone above the man’s head downward, as fast as he could get it. Right before the stone could crush the man’s head, he vanished, still firing. The stone hit the ground, leaving a small indent in the packed dirt.

Cenyautl sat down again, feeling numb again. The distant sounds of combat faded, and not just because Cenyautl stopped paying attention to them. You cannot do what you will do. It will cause more ruin than you can imagine. What? What was that nonsense? That came out of nowhere. I was just going to fight. Does that mean I could do more to save the city? What just happened? Now that he thought about it, he couldn’t describe any physical features of the man he’d known and fought beside for a month. Did he ever tell me his name?

***

The pattern of slowly being forced back by superior numbers and weapons continued for three months, until the Aztecs only held the northern third of the island. The enemy started using wooden clubs Cenyautl couldn’t effect, especially once they knew the extent of his power. He could control near fifty individual stones now with some degree of fine control. Size still didn’t matter.

Cenyautl had become well known enough. He’d often saved pockets of beleaguered warriors, and they followed him afterwards. I’m just a warrior. They could go their own ways. He told them as much, but he now had quite the command.

“There is nothing more we can do,” said a noble Cenyautl did not recognize as he strode into the makeshift palace at the head of ten other elite warriors, three of whom were also blessed. Cenyautl was recognized at the court now, most of the other qualified war leaders dead or otherwise occupied.

All of the nobles with spines are dead or continuing the fight in the streets right now. Only the weak and fat now surround the emperor. “We must leave, fight them in the countryside,” continued the noble. By which he means surrender. He probably wants to strike a deal with the Spaniards once he leaves the capital, fealty for leniency.

Five of Cenyautl’s warriors stood by the only entrance to the room, the others surreptitiously standing near the royal guardsmen. All of them, including Cenyautl, were only interested in the proceedings, nothing more. The high priest, a bloody man with matted, uncut hair who smelled of smoke and burnt flesh, met Cenyautl’s eye. A fanatical light burned in the priest’s eyes and his grip on his obsidian dagger left his knuckles white. The priest nodded, then returned his attention to the emperor.

The head of the Jaguars, a man who Cenyautl had personally fought beside, made note of what was happening, and slowly crossed his arms across his chest, placing his hands far away from his weapons. He won’t jump to defend those who suggest defeat, but he won’t be a traitor.

Another noble said, “Our warriors hold the streets, but there is nothing keeping the outsiders from simply withdrawing and letting us starve to death. They have no honor or decency. Fighting here does us nothing gainful.” They think us a spent and broken force.

Cuauhtémoc himself sat on his ‘throne’, a simple wooden stool in the center of the room. He appeared healthier than most Aztecs nowadays, but the stress of leading the desperate defense of the last city of one’s empire for three solid months would take a toll on anyone’s health. Whereas most of the surviving Aztecs were gaunt from lack of food, water, and a plethora of diseases, Cuauhtémoc merely looked haunted and stressed. Your decision here is very important. The emperor rested his chin on his fist, oblivious to his surroundings.

He raised his head after some consideration. He looked ashamed. No. “Perhaps you are right. They have us trapped here.”

“No,” said Cenyautl, cutting him off. And with that, his warriors moved. Four near the door barred the exit, two looking out, two looking in. The last one moved to cover Cenyautl’s rear, ready to move where she was needed. The five in the room itself struck at the guards and nobles who spoke of surrender. The high priest immediately stabbed his knife into the chest of another priest at his side. The Jaguar slowly receded, back against the wall, arms still crossed. Cenyautl himself made for Cuauhtémoc.

Cuauhtémoc stood the instant the fighting broke out. He was unarmed, his guards dead or unable to help. He did not run. I can appreciate that. He won’t die completely cowed. He even attempted to fight back, but Cenyautl had spent months fighting far more fit opponents. He drove his spear into Cuauhtémoc’s gut, just below the ribcage and angled upwards. Cenyautl withdrew the spear and stabbed once more into Cuauhtémoc’s chest, to make the end quick.

He looked around. The cowardly nobles lay dead. A couple guards still fought, but Cenyautl deprived them of their weapons, and his warriors finished them quickly. The door guards caught his glance and shook their heads. No one.

Cenyautl knew he should feel ashamed at what he had done, but for the life of him couldn’t. You cannot do what you will do. He had changed that. He would have continued fighting like a good warrior, but according that man, that would lead to ruin. Wouldn’t it? Prophecy is always vague, even in stories. He guessed that man was sent by the gods to test him, he couldn’t think of anything else.

The room watched him in silence. One of his warriors asked, “Now what?”

“We fight,” said Cenyautl simply. “We drive them out or die to the last man. No more consideration to the advice of cowards and weaklings.”

The high priest nodded, his hands bloody from the two other dead priests he’d killed. The Jaguar said, “Now what are we going to tell the warriors? That the emperor who they fight for is now dead in a pool of his own blood?”

The high priest said, “They will need someone to lead them.”

Cenyautl shrugged. “You two can work it out. There are still nobles who fight, perhaps one of them.”

The Jaguar said, “We’ll need something more than that.” The priest and other warriors nodded. I don’t want power. I want this to be over with.

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Imperial I

The largest and greatest city in the world, and for once in the night there were no sounds to be heard. No hushed conversations of its citizens, no clamor from the royal dwellings. Only the sounds of crickets and other insects emanated from the lakes and gardens and canals of the city. Fires burned on the tops of the temples, and in the captive palaces; the only sources of light beyond the moon and stars. The entirety of the city waited for the next day.

Cenyautl rested by his spear and shield, drifting in and out of sleep, along with the rest of the men keeping watch over the palaces. Some whispered that the Spaniards stabbed or strangled the former emperor Moctezuma the day after he had plead for them to lay down their arms and cease attacking the Spaniards. It didn’t matter. Moctezuma shamed himself by siding with the invaders. His brother, Cuitláhuac, now ruled, Moctezuma being pelted by rocks before the Spaniards dragged him back inside. They released Cuitláhuac so that he would convince the warriors besieging the Spaniards to surrender. He immediately seized the crown and rallied the Aztec warriors.

Cenyautl got up to relieve himself. Cuitláhuac will drive out the outsiders, not invite them into his home. Rumor ran everywhere, but the general gist Cenyautl got was that Moctezuma entertained the Spaniards in his own house. Then one day the nobles celebrated a festival. Without provocation, the Spaniards attacked and killed everyone in attendance. This happened a couple days ago, and Cenyautl and the rest of the warriors in the capital attacked with fury, but were unable to dislodge the Spaniards or their Tlaxcalan allies from the palace. So they and the rest of the city waited.

As Cenyautl returned, a woman’s cry came from his left. “Mexica, come quickly!  Our enemies flee. They run like cowards in the night!” Indistinguishable shouting rose up and accompanied Cenyautl on his dash towards his gear. Someone began beating a drum.

Cenyautl grabbed his spear, a length of wood ending in a razor sharp tip of flint, and joined the rush of nearby warriors. Some nobles and officers were already dressed, leading their troops towards the clamor of fighting. Who fights out of the view of the sun? More drums, and a couple horns blew. Cenyautl could not find anyone he knew nearby, but knew where to go. They rounded a corner.

The Spaniards and Tlaxcalans barely staved off the surrounding warriors while attempting to flee the city as fast as possible. They were forced to make a desperate push for each bridge, each causeway. The Mexican warriors, for their part, attacked at every opportunity, clubbing and stabbing the invaders when their guard dropped for even a moment. The streets were dark and chaotic, Cenyautl swore at one point he saw a Spaniard stab a Tlaxcalan ally in confusion. Flames briefly flared from another Spaniard, warding off the three warriors closing in on him.

Then Cenyautl was running again, following the lead of one of the nearby nobles. He and his warriors possessed an air of pride and honor Cenyautl found lacking in the fleeing Spaniards. The warriors around the noble, and the noble himself, wore higher quality armor than any Cenyautl or his fellow rank and file warriors could attain. “This way! This way!” they cried, motioning down a street which would intercept the Spanish escape route. Cenyautl followed. I don’t like the looks of those animals some of the Spaniards ride. Rather not face them head on. He’d seen one cave a man’s head in with a solid kick.

They rushed down the street, Cenyautl still not recognizing anyone around him. That didn’t matter, they were united in purpose. The sound of battle over the buildings separating them grew, reaching a fevered pitch. Screams, blood, furious war cries from the Aztecs. The Spanish responded with shouts in their own, alien tongue. They’re outnumbered and outmatched. Why won’t they just die? They’re already running, it’s not as though they have much else to lose.

Suddenly, they found more Spaniards ahead of them, cutting their way through the warriors defending another bridge. Cenyautl, in the middle of the group, joined in the charge. Some around him flung spears and javelins, though none brought down a Spaniard. The charging warriors jumped or dodged around the corpses in the streets, then collided with the defending Spanish as they crossed the bridge.

Chaos. The screams and splashes of blood and other assorted bodily fluids were up close and personal now. Don’t think. Just fight. Cenyautl saw more than one man with a missing limb or spilled organs. Some strange sounds came from further behind Cenyautl. One of the blessed, probably. The gods are the only logical way mere humans can do the impossible things the blessed do. He heard the clatter of a priest’s servant, a magically animated construct traditionally made of obsidian or wood or bone, battling off to his right with a servant of the Spaniards.

Technically they were supposed to fight individually, warrior to warrior. That way was madness this night. The armor the Spaniards wore could deflect most blows even the best warrior could dish out, and they supported one another. So the Aztecs did the same, and there were a lot more Aztec warriors than Spaniards. We aren’t just going to stand there and let them kill us.

Instead, the Aztecs swarmed the Spaniards. Most of the warriors resorted to grabbing at them, their simple wooden clubs utterly ineffective. Cenyautl’s focus narrowed as he came face to face with the invaders, the men before him dead or on the way. They died well. If you’re going to die, might as well be in battle. That was what he’d always been taught anyways. It seemed faintly hollow when men screamed out their life in front of you.

A Tlaxcalan swung his club at Cenyautl’s head. Focus. He ducked and thrust with his spear, still moving forward. The Tlaxcalan mercenary dodged to the side. There was a twang and the whistle of a bolt coming from the Spanish lines, barely missing both the Tlaxcalan and Cenyautl. It struck a warrior off to Cenyautl’s right; he went down with a scream. Lots of screaming going on.

Cenyautl had let himself get distracted. Though momentary, it provided an opening for the Tlaxcalan to take another swing, this time at his knee. Cenyautl regained his senses, moving to turn it into a glancing blow, as opposed to a crippling one. The Tlaxcalan followed through with a reverse swing aimed at Cenyautl’s upper body. Another glancing blow, as Cenyautl stumbled due to the sudden pain in his knee. Up, up. Now. He was saved by a fellow warrior, who wielded a two handed mace. He brought down the mace, shattering the Tlaxcalan’s shield. Cenyautl drove his spear into the Tlaxcalan’s gut. He withdrew his spear and moved on. Don’t think about it. Just stay focused.

The main melee had moved further down the bridge. Cenyautl and the mace warrior ran forward towards the same somewhat isolated Spaniard, standing on the edge of the river. Cenyautl led with his shield, they collided and sent the Spaniard stumbling into the water below. He did not resurface, metal armor is not known for its buoyant qualities. The other warrior kept Cenyautl from joining the Spaniard in the canal. Wordlessly the two continued.

Through the night they fought. Many Spaniards were captured and dragged to the tops of the pyramids. They were stripped, reduced to slaves, unfit to receive a warrior’s death. The priests carved out their hearts and threw them into the sacrificial fires. For the gods and for the emperor.

For all that, some Spaniards still escaped the city with their lives. Cenyautl and the other warrior kept each other alive that night. Cenyautl did not do his wounded knee any favors by running on it and fighting continuously for hours, but it was almost worth it in the end. The invaders were gone, but his knee forced him to watch impotently as the rest escaped. He and the other warrior leaned on each other, returning once the fighting finished.

***

“Mother, Cenyautl’s home!” shouted Cenyautl’s youngest brother, spotting as he limped towards their house on the outskirts of Tenochtitlan. Cenayutl’s family came from a line of craftsmen, rather than peasants which composed the majority of the population. Thankfully, this area was nowhere near where the fighting had occurred over a week ago. Some fires had broken out in those areas in the chaos, though were put out quickly enough before they got out of control.

Cenyautl was the second child of four. His first brother, older by two years, would follow in father’s footsteps and inherit the workshop they maintained together. I wonder if he’s still as arrogant, with everything going on. His first sister died during childbirth, nearly taking mother with her. Mother recovered and had Cenyautl, for which he was duly grateful. As were, no doubt, his younger brother and sister.

His sister only about a year younger, was the closest of his siblings to his age. They got along better than most other siblings Cenyautl had seen. Their respective duties to father (for Cenyautl) and mother (for his sister) often kept them separated. That didn’t mean that they were always apart. They often played games as children, and she insisted she could do anything Cenyautl or any of the other boys could do. She was almost always right.

He knew she expressed interest in joining the army, which made him uneasy. True, women warriors were not unheard of, though some priests and nobles looked down on them. But blessed warriors were not to be turned away, no matter their gender. They won enough renown that even ordinary women could fight, should they so choose, which was rare. He told her as much, and she made it a point to prove him wrong. I still don’t like it. He’d heard stories from other men in the encampments. Bad ones. On the other hand, if a woman wanted to join the army, she was capable of killing and defending herself, which meant she qualified for soldiering. And warriors of all kinds were respected in Aztec society, at least by the common people.

His youngest brother, currently opening the door for Cenyautl to go inside, only around eleven years old. He hopped up in down in excitement with something to break the monotony of work. Besides the invasion, but that qualified as less fun and more terrifying, though that no longer posed an issue. The remains of a nasty gash ran across his cheek, making his smile lopsided. Scar tissue wasn’t quite as flexible as normal skin. We were doing… something stupid and childish. I can’t even remember anymore. He was even younger, I doubt he remembers at all.  Cenyautl shifted his spear and pack to his left hand, then gave him a brief embrace as he entered. He set his things to the side.

Mother had been making tortillas when Cenyautl walked in. Of course she stopped the second he walked in and smothered him in a hug. She was taller than average, of almost the same height as Cenyautl.

“I’m fine, mother,” said Cenyautl over her happy, near indecipherable babbling.

“Now out. Shoo. Not everything in here is ready,” concluded mother, making a waving off motion towards both Cenyautl and his brother. They left the somewhat cramped, smoky interior of the house.

As they left, his sister ran up to them with a grin, matching Cenyautl’s and his younger brother’s.

“Hey! You’re alive!” were the first words out of her mouth.

“Indeed! As are you. And what did you two do to mother? Her hair is going grey.”

“You capture anyone important?” Promotions were earned by capturing enemies for sacrifice. Normally only nobles and others in the upper strata of society operated like that, but social mobility could be attained. He knew of one old friend of his who was one short of becoming a Jaguar warrior. I’ll just fight to stay alive, thank you very much.

“No,” said Cenyautl, shaking his head. “I did put a couple outsiders in the canals though. They sank quick enough.” So they talked and talked and talked. Asking questions about what he did, how life in the army was, if he killed anyone else. He neglected to mention that, right before he returned home, news had reached them about the remaining Spaniards. The men of Otumba failed to finish them off though they still fled back to Tlaxcala in the east. And to the west, the Tarascans, a completely different nation, were beginning to marshal their forces, sensing weakness in the Aztecs.

Eventually father joined them. And he’s also getting old and grey too. A kind of no nonsense man, at least when it came to child raising. He was an only child, his other siblings having been lost to various causes over the years in their childhoods. He still cracked a small smile at the sight of Cenyautl.

“Too worthless for the army?” he asked in a friendly mocking tone. That’s my father!

“Nah, apparently you need working legs to stay in fighting shape. Who knew?” A representative of the local noble Cenyautl joined had told Cenyautl to go home and recover. Cenyautl did not complain.

The other warrior Cenyautl had met, the one with the two handed mace, found him before he left. Over the sounds of celebrations he said “I do not believe this is over yet, no matter what the priests and nobles say. We still may have need of you.”

But Cenyautl wanted to see his family again, and told him as much. The other warrior simply nodded and wished him well. I never did learn his name. He never really did talk outside of necessities like “duck”.

“What happened to your leg?” asked his sister with some concern.

“Took a club blow to my knee. It hasn’t hurt too bad, but it’s been slowing me down and the officers know it. I’ll probably be working here until it heals up.” If it heals, he didn’t add.

“Your brother should be along shortly, and Mother should be cooking now. And I’m sure there are other things which you can occupy your time with, like helping her,” he said, eyeing Cenyautl’s younger siblings. They were about to complain, but a stern look from father sent them running anyways. Don’t make him discipline you.

After a silent moment, father opened his mouth. Cenyautl cut him off with, “No, I’m not expecting to sit in here for free. I haven’t found a woman to marry if you and mother haven’t. Anything else?”

Father smiled. “That about covers it. Good to see you, son.” They chatted as they headed back towards the house.

***

One month after the Spaniards had been driven out, and everything was falling apart. Disease ridden corpses of the dead filled the streets of the greatest and largest city in the world. No one had the time or energy to move them. The gods are punishing us for not killing the last of the Spaniards. There is no other possible reason for this. Or perhaps the gods have abandoned the empire entirely. A disturbing though, but he couldn’t shake it from his mind.

Nine out of every ten people were sick. Of those sick, almost all died. The pestilence came out of nowhere. There were rumors, vile rumors, that even the emperor himself lay sick and dying, along with at least half his court. Cenyautl knew that everyone else in his family lay sick in their house. Cenyautl thought he felt the sickness himself, but forced those thoughts from his mind. Focus. No black sores on your skin, at least not yet.

The markets were empty, with all of the merchants and porters who usually brought in produce and other exotic goods from all corners of the world also dying horribly. Not nearly as much food to be found as before. The peasants were also dying, which puts a damper on food productivity. Cenyautl did have some food for his family. He limped back home, clutching his spear in one hand and food in the other. People no longer respect the laws of gods or men. They’re probably too desperate to care.

Mournful drums began to rise over the din of lamentations and coughing. Cenyautl stopped, as did the few other people still walking. No. No. That means… Cuitláhuac, the new emperor, was dead. He saw people begin to weep, though not as many as when Moctezuma or Ahuitzotl, their father, died. Many grimaced and continued in their quest for survival. Cenyautl nearly dropped his food. No. The emperor is supposed to guide the people, not succumb to pestilence.

The presence of the other people reminded him to keep moving. Focus. Just… just focus. Get back to your family. The rest of his family, especially mother and his younger brother, probably wouldn’t make it, but he trudged on anyways. His fears were confirmed once he reentered the house. His older brother was the only other one not bedridden, though he looked close. The two of them had never truly gotten along, but now he met Cenyautl’s eye and shook his head. The only other movement was from father’s weak cough and Cenyautl’s younger sister breathing.

In a daze, Cenyautl dropped the food and headed back outside. His thoughts were too scrambled to make any sense. He stopped at some arbitrary distance later and saw a pebble at his feet, so small and simple and meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos, move seemingly of its own volition.

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Hunting Season – Guns, Guns, Guns!

The building shook slightly at an impact. What caused that impact Skulker didn’t know.

“Guys, help,” said Olivia over the comms. That doesn’t bode well.

Skulker took a moment to squeeze off several shots at the rioters pouring in in front of him before responding, “Busy over here.” He’d assumed Nomad and Olivia followed right behind him, Delta, and Miya, but now it sounded as though they were otherwise occupied. Of course the two bulletproof people aren’t here, as people shoot at us with bullets. How dare this be easy?

The three took cover behind desks or a low dividing wall as armed rioters surrounded the building. Skulker popped up, dropped a man who probably thought the large intimidating (i.e. overcompensating) black rifle he carried made him magically invincible, then ducked again. The secret to combat isn’t shooting. It’s about not getting shot.

A thud preceded the building shaking again, then another thud. A pause, then another thud and tremor. Meanwhile, Miya and Delta kept firing where they could. The rioters had good suppressing fire going on. Odds were Skulker would get torn apart if he got up to teleport close to them. The shaking building wasn’t good, however he trusted Nomad and Olivia to be able to take care of it. They could go toe to toe with most bruisers or shock troops Freedom Fighter would be able to dish out.

The firing died down a bit, Delta and Skulker both having killed a rioter apiece, the others backing off. Miya seemed to be having trouble aiming, though most of the rioters were too angry to consider tactical innovations like taking cover. “Hey, Olivia, still need help?” asked Miya. They heard a loud hiss over the comms. That’s familiar. Fuck. Another inhuman snarl.

“Olivia, ya there?” he asked. More hissing.

“Delta, Skulker, get moving,” said Nomad rapidly, sounding like he was fighting for his life. Unhinged laughter filled the background. “We’ll catch up.” His voice cut off.

Delta took charge while Skulker fired some more to keep the rioters at bay. “Miya, check in on them.”

“Fuck no. I’m coming with you.”

“You can’t keep up, and your bone amulet thingy should help you out more here. Nomad and Olivia sound like they need help.”

“The berserking feral? No fucking way I’m staying here.” We gotta move. I don’t think that’s been said enough lately.

“Don’t got time for this. We gotta move. Delta, flash out,” he called. With that he threw a flashbang, waited for the resulting flash, then sprinted for the exit as several people blindly reached for him. “Come on Delta, its terrorist season!” Miya can bitch all she likes later, she can’t teleport, now can she? Of course, I should be grateful she regrew that tooth of mine, but now isn’t exactly the time for sentimentality.

He teleported rapidly once outside, making it hard for any potential shooter to keep track of him. Over the comms he heard, “Shut up and do your job, Miya,” from Delta, sounding like she was running. A weird rumbling sound came from Olivia’s end. He pitied the recipient of her anger. The fool, if you will.

He reached the roof of a random building. “You following, Delta?” he asked for her alone. Hey, we got out of there alive! Good thing most of them don’t really know how to shoot.

“Give me a moment.”

The computers Delta had gone through had provided some useful information. The ping he had woken everyone up for had alerted them to the protest turned riot they were currently in. It wasn’t the best idea in hindsight – Nomad was in a foul mood and Delta spent three minutes bitching to him about waking them up – but they would get over it.

They had found mentions of some of Freedom Fighter’s bolt holes, safe houses where he or other fighters could escape to in the chaos. Other tidbits included vehicles, arms shipments, and orders for that particular outpost. There were other, more boring things like memos and day to day communications that would be a goldmine to the intelligence community. Too bad none of us are in the intel business.

Delta caught up to him. “What the hell, jackass? You just bolted on us.”

Bitch to me when we’re done. “Hon, I wanna get this over with as quick as possible. Bitch to me when we’re done. Now, you got the cool HUD thingy. Lead on.” He motioned in a random direction.

She took a moment. “Fine. Rooftops?”

“Works.” Quicker that way.

She jumped, enhanced by whatever sorcery powered her inventions. He teleported after. Soon, she came to a stop again. She pointed in the direction they’d been traveling. “Go about three buildings that way, then tell me if you get pissed off or not.”

He laughed. Good thing I’ve never wanted to be a guinea pig. Oh well. He moved to the indicated building. “You angry?” Delta asked.

“Your voice is somewhat grating, and I dislike you as a whole. But no, no anger.” It’s important to be honest with yourself and others. Clears up so much confusion and doubt. People always double checked his words, looking for loopholes and hidden meanings. Occasionally he did resort to using those, but not often, as that completely defeated his purpose of not lying in the first place.

Delta caught up to him. “Alright. MHU is thinking that Freedom Fighter is in that direction, roughly. They’re basing it on patterns of the riot and reports of cops in the field, so we might have some searching to do, but he is towards the center.”

They moved once again. Rooftops were such an easy mode of transportation. No one shot at them, no one got in their way, no rush hour traffic. That wasn’t to say it was perfect. At one point he miscalculated his teleport and barely managed to grab the edge of the roof, as the rifle on his back reminded him of its weight. He pulled himself up level with the roof and pushed forward into a roll, then was back up on his feet. I almost pulled that off.

A loud roar emanated from the comms. “What the… I hope Olivia’s OK,” said Delta.

“Pft. Sounds like she’ll tear whatever the problem is in half pretty soon,” said Skulker.

“No, mentally. Remember last time she got all growly and scary? Or do you just not care?”

He didn’t reply, except with a chuckle. Kind of. She’s a nice enough person, I guess. Though the eating people bit was a bit excessive. He did feel bad about not getting her the right kinds of food, which seemed really obvious in hindsight. “Kinda. I’m guessin’ she’ll get back to her normal self at some point.” Delta sighed audibly, shaking her head.

They continued in silence for a bit, then Delta said, “We’re getting close. Let’s get to the streets. That’s where he’ll be.” She began to sound winded. Spent too long sitting being smart than training.

There were few people, most having angrily followed the sound of conflict to the outskirts. Skulker didn’t see a single window intact. Or almost anything intact, for that matter. Getting angry makes you stupid. How many marriages are ending in tears today? It’s the little things like that you never see coming. Oh God, tire fire. Blech. They passed the unattended column of foreboding black smoke reaching high into the air.

He still followed Delta, keeping silent. Why is she hugging the wall so close? Her left shoulder almost brushed against the corner of a building. He saw something flash. Bad. He froze time. Everything stopped, color receded. The bleached world around him made no sound, no movement. His head pounded. The freezing was effortless, maintaining it hurt.

He reached for his pistol and began to dart ahead of Delta’s still form.

One.

Still moving, pistol almost out.

Two.

He could see what was happening. A woman, wielding a long kitchen knife, lay in wait behind a corner. The knife tip aimed, by chance, directly at Delta’s throat, where her armor was weak. Delta began to react, not quick enough. For once Skulker’s timing was perfect. His skull pounded with the effort of freezing time itself.

Three.

He moved to grab the woman’s arm at the wrist, aiming the pistol an inch from her temple.

Four.

Skulker reached his position. Brain hurting more now. Hurting bad.

Five.

He braced himself, pulling as hard as he could on the arm, it would resume its path exactly as before. He put his finger on the trigger.

Time resumed forward progress.

Immediately he pulled the trigger, killing the attacking woman instantly. He arrested enough of the momentum of the knife so that it barely brushed Delta’s throat. The knife dropped from slack fingers. I’m sure there’s a parallel to draw to Jurassic Park somewhere, but, goddamn it, I can’t think of a good one.

She screamed, “SHIT,” as he shouted, “SAVED YER LIFE!” He laughed.

She stared at the body, then at Skulker for a couple seconds, then said, “So? Don’t just stand there. We don’t have all day.” He rolled his eyes under his mask. Kinda funny.

“How did you not see her?” he motioned to the body. They began to jog again.

“I can only keep track of so many things. I’ve got a map, police communications, and the others to worry about. I don’t need to see everything in thermal vision on top of that.”

They hurried, eventually coming across a boarded up grocery store. “There,” she said. Then, “Uh oh.”

“Ooh, ooh, I wanna guess. The military’s nukin’ the city. Olivia ate a toddler with some A1 sauce. Angry Cyrus is standin’ right behind me. The Mother is invadin’ with Cuauhtémoc and the Siberians. Stop me when I get close.”

“Shut up, jackass. The Koitsenko and MHU have the others.”

“Balls. What’re they doin’?”

“Nomad had them surrender.” Good, resisting arrest is just another charge against you. And if anyone gets killed, you get charged with murder regardless of whether you were guilty in the first place. Also, Olivia would absolutely kill someone. “The Koitsenko are just holding them for now. They don’t know who Miya is, and they haven’t shot Olivia yet for some reason, so not all is lost.” And Olivia’s out of ‘kill everything’ mode apparently. Called it!

“I suggest we get this over with as quick as possible, then we’ve got some explainin’ to do to some humorless military people.”

“Agreed. Let me take a good look at the building.”

He waited and observed their surroundings as she did so. No one. This is freaky.

Delta spoke up again, “OK, we’ve got six people. One of them is missing the same arm F.F. is, so the odds are excellent this is the right place. Oh, and bodies. Looks like some people tried attacking here.”

“How come the other five with F.F. ain’t killin’ each other?”

“Don’t know. He might have an inner radius as well, so people close by don’t go berserk. Our best bet at getting in is looking like the back entrance. They’ve got two guys hauling out corpses. We can ambush them, then make our way in.” Now that they both discussed ways to kill and not get killed, they were all business.

“Gotcha. Sniper time?”

“Can you take out both quietly?”

“One, absolutely. The other you might wanna cover instead. Better odds that way, in case something stupid happens.”

She nodded, and they moved off. Skulker took his position, another fire escape overlooking the back loading area. Two men unceremoniously added two bodies to the small pile at the base of the building, then disappeared back inside. He pulled out his rifle and aimed. The two didn’t seem particularly observant, probably just dumb hired muscle. Delta took position around a corner, near where the men had been, pistol drawn. Exactly like that one woman who nearly offed her. Funny old world we live in.

The two men came out, bodies carried fireman style. One’s skull was split wide open. Nice and burdened and slow moving. “Now,” said Delta. Skulker shot the first one through the center of his chest, the rifle making a low thunking sound. Headshots are so stupid hard they’re not even worth trying. Shooting the heart and lungs makes them just as dead. Delta turned the corner as he did so, shooting the second man in the chest with her taser pistol (Quieter than a gunshot. Good girl). The man convulsed and went down.

He looked up from his rifle. “Come on down,” said Delta as she waved ‘all clear’. He returned his rifle to his back, then rejoined her at the back entrance. He got out a knife, the long triangular one Rob had made for him before they split. Cuts through armor like butter. He knows his stuff.

“We good to go?” he asked.

“Yep.” They entered the store, moving through the darkened hallway and into the storage area, devoid of any food. Some blood spattered the walls, the occasional spent bullet casing caught Skulker’s eye. Delta took the lead, Skulker behind and to her right. Suddenly, Delta frantically motioned for him to go back, find cover. Someone ahead of them muttered something in Spanish. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that wasn’t Delta.

He teleported silently to midway between the two walls of the room, then ducked behind an old shelving unit laying on its side. Delta moved to behind a counter, closer to the walkway they left. A small man in a black balaclava and street clothes walked by, calling out to who Skulker presumed to be the two men they’d taken out outside, in Spanish still. Skulker readied his knife. I should probably learn Spanish for real at some point. The man stopped briefly, then broke into a run, not bothering to turn, shouting something that sounded like a warning over his shoulder. Noooooo! Fucking son of a bitch. He had some sort of stupid warning power didn’t he?

Skulker immediately popped up, jumping and teleporting in pursuit. The man moved faster than Skulker thought, but instantaneous teleportation is faster than running. Delta better be moving up to cover where the others are behind me. He raised his knife, teleported, and discovered as he slashed that the man had ducked in the nick of time. This is going to be frustrating isn’t it? I can’t just freeze time again either.

The man turned and struck Skulker’s stomach with a fist, withdrawing before Skulker could bring his knife to bear. Skulker managed to turn away a strike to his head with his shoulder, feeling it glance off as he tucked his head. He heard sounds of fighting behind him as well, including a zap from something Delta used.

Skulker took a step back, presenting the side without the knife to the man. Come on. Attack and get perforated. The man began to draw a pistol, interrupted as he sidestepped around a kick Skulker aimed at him with his lead foot. The man grabbed at his leg, but was forced to retreat with a stab of the knife. Let’s see if the overwhelming approach works on you.

Skulker focused on attack, punching, kicking, stabbing, and slashing. The knife never connected, the man considered it the greatest threat. Strikes with hand or foot rarely stuck home, usually bouncing off some bony part of the man’s limbs, rather than anything satisfying to hit. Though this kept the man more concerned with staying alive and intact than hitting back. Skulker did spare a look at Delta over his shoulder, exchanging fire with three other men. They think they can take the two of us, no need to run.

How do I end this? The man in front of him was focused more on the knife than anything else… Bwahahahahahaha! Idea! Skulker feinted forward with his knife, the man dodged, as expected. Skulker turned his body during the motion so that his front was blocked from view of the man. Skulker grabbed a small grenade attached to his chest, detaching it and pulling the pin. To buy time, Skulker followed up with another slash, just to keep the man occupied. The man apparently didn’t expect Skulker to turn 180 and teleport away. Good thing I dropped that live grenade on the ground next to him right before I teleported!

A second teleport took him to a safe(ish) distance, about where he had taken cover before, right before the grenade exploded at the feet of the confused man. Skulker heard a scream from him. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Excellent. This is most pleasing. His internal laughter died down as he saw Delta. She crouched behind a counter, occasionally raising her pistol up and firing randomly in the direction of her assailants. Her other arm was injured, he saw a small trickle of blood. On the bright side, there were only two others firing at her now.

They didn’t appear to be focusing on Skulker, however. He traded his knife for Señior Lopez and took cover. He flicked a switch. An orange light, then green popped up in the scope. He focused on one of the men firing an AK-47 (why is he using such an old gun?) at Delta through a broken window, tearing up the wall right above her head. The gunman was behind a different, thicker wall, according to the scope. Plasma time, motherfucker. Skulker took aim and fired, feeling the temperature around him raise about twelve degrees. A blinding white bolt burned a hole through the wall, and a good chunk of the man behind it, whose clothes also caught on fire from the heat. A ‘suck a dick’ cherry atop the ‘fuck you’ sundae, if you will. The remains of the bolt melted partially through the outside wall of the building itself, eventually losing enough energy to become relatively harmless.

Skulker put away the rifle. The barrel was blisteringly hot, but the case on Skulker’s back was meant to hold and insulate the rifle, so as to not completely cook his back. Knife out again. He took a moment to assess. Delta still knelt behind her cover about three teleports away, more relaxed now that she wasn’t being shot at. The other man was…where the fuck is he?

There he was, slinking to Skulker’s left, trying to avoid sight. He only had one arm. Delta was beginning to get up, exposing her head to Freedom Fighter. “Delta, down!” shouted Skulker, teleporting with knife in hand. Freedom Fighter saw him coming and aimed. Fuck, he’s knows where I’m going next.

Before Freedom Fighter pulled the trigger, Delta shot at him, disrupting his aim enough. Skulker teleported again, roughly near to Delta. He began to reach, and draw his knife to throat level. Another teleport. He wrapped his free arm around F.F., the other bringing the knife across F.F.’s throat. Pull.

Say a one liner, say a one liner. How do I not have one prepared for this? “You just… got… got… stabbed… graaaah!” He stomped his foot in frustration. “Goddamn it! Almost had one.” I am deeply ashamed of myself right now.

Delta joined him in looking at F.F. emit a final gurgle. After a moment of silence, she said, “That’s over with. Let’s go figure out what to do with the others.” Skulker laughed.

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