Month: October 2014

Chapter 29: To Find a Dragon

“So he’s gone then?”

“He left this morning. That’s when he turned his keys in at least.”

Will shook his head and sighed. His breath was visible in the cold chamber. “Is he going to come back?”

The Court sat on the floor in the center of the room. He wore a long brown cloak over a green tunic. The hood which normally cast his face in impenetrable shadow was pulled back to reveal his long brown hair.

His eyes were closed and his mouth never moved, but his voice echoed off the stone walls all the same. “His fate is uncertain. His mind has been shielded from me. I cannot predict what the outcome will be.”

Will scratched the back of his head. “Well, it was worth a shot. I guess we’ll just have to track him down ourselves then.”

“Is that wise? He has left on his own. You should respect his decision.”

“He’s not making a decision. He’s running. I don’t what he’s running to, or what he’s running from, but until I do, we can’t help him.”

The chamber began to warm and The Court’s eyes opened. “If that is your decision.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Your aura has been growing clearer. I thought you wished to keep yourself separate from these children.”

Will glared at the mage. “I am keeping separate from them.”

“Really?” The Court stood and took a moment to stretch his legs. “How many times have you used your power in these few weeks? In public.”

Will shrugged. “Actively? Once or twice. I can’t exactly turn it off.”

“True. But in these last few years, I have not known you to use your power where you could be seen more than twice. You were drunk both times.”

“And?”

The Court stood to his full height, seemingly filling up the room. His voice grew deeper and his eyes glowed with an ethereal light. “You should not be acting so lightly. Your power is not a mortal gift, and you chose to reject its purpose years ago. Using it frivolously will cause disaster.”

Will shook his head, chuckling softly. “You can stop posturing. My power isn’t weak-I know that better than anyone-but it’s not some sort of divine gift. It’s in my blood, on both sides, remember?”

“How you obtained your power does not change what it is. These children are not your protégés; you are supposed to guide them to a decision, no more no less. Can you honestly say you would have gone after this child if he had been in a different group?”

“I know my job,” Will snapped. “But they’re still my responsibility, and I’m not letting one of these kids run away from his problems. No good comes from that.”

The two locked eyes and The Court’s presence in the room faded back to normal. After a moment, The Court nodded. “How do you intend to find him?”

“I’ll think of something. It’s a shame you couldn’t get a better idea of where he’s going.”

“If I had not met him, then I would not have been able to tell you as much as I did. Are you sure you cannot tell me more about him?”

Will raised an eyebrow.

“Very well.”

The Court walked over to Will.

Will had to stop himself from stepping back. He knew the mage wasn’t a threat, but there weren’t many people who stood half a foot taller than him.

Will reached out his hand and The Court grasped it firmly.

Will took a deep breath of the suddenly freezing air. When he spoke, his voice echoed deeply throughout the room. “The boon is fulfilled. The debt is erased.”

“The price is paid. The two are equal.”

Warmth rushed back into Will’s lungs and he stepped back. He grasped his chest and breathed deeply. “Do…we really…have to do that…every time?”

The Court nodded. “Debts are serious business among practitioners. You did me a favor, and I had to repay it equally. To do otherwise would cause me great pain, and likely you as well. I have explained this to you on more than one occasion.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to like it. I prefer my noisemaker thawed.”

The Court smirked. “I doubt that would be enough to keep you quiet. Now, if you would, I have other business to attend to.”

“Right.” Will turned to walk out the door. “Have fun fighting the forces of darkness.  And you can tell your spirit thingies that they should talk for themselves next time.”

The Court stayed behind shaking his head softly at the retreating man.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Will watched the bear disappear into its cave at the back of the habitat. He could still see the bandage on its side from when Tigroar had had to convince it to return to its cage.

As it vanished into the darkness, he heard the group approaching him from behind.

“Glad to see you got my message.”

He turned to face them. They were all in costume, like normal, but Allspades’ seemed much more wrinkled than normal.

“You ruined a perfectly good nap. I hope you have a good reason for this.”

Mach glance around the group. “Will Burnout be attending?”

Will shook his head “He’s the reason we’re meeting today. For one reason or another, he left town. As far as I can tell, he didn’t tell anyone he was leaving.”

“Is something wrong?” Hawthrone asked.

“I don’t think so. But this isn’t the type of thing I can keep from you. And you all need to decide what you’re going to do about it.”

“Why would we do anything?” Allspades asked. “He left on his own, and if he wants to come back, he’ll come back on his own. We shouldn’t have anything to do with that.”

“I disagree,” Mach said. “You saw what happened in the warehouse. If he is fleeing because he is afraid, then such events will likely grow worse.”

“But if we try to force him, it could set him off,” Hawthorne said. “And you saw what happened in the cave, he was lucky no one died.”

“That’s not fair-air! You’re the one who made him go in the cave-ave,” Red Racer said.

“What?” Eveyone looked at Red.

“He started shaking as soon as you mentioned the cave-ave. I thought he was gonna be sick-ick.”

“How did you have time to notice that?” Allspades asked.

“You guys are slow-ow.”

“Thank you, Red,” Mach said.She turned to Will. “If he was experiencing such an emotion while trying to manipulate his powers then his control would have decreased significantly. We need to tell him that we understand it was not his fault.”

“No, we need to give him his space,” Hawthorne said. “Most people don’t like it when you hound them, even if you’re saying you’re sorry. Confronting him would make it worse.”

Will cleared his throat. “Unimportant? It sounds like you’re out tie-breaker.”

Unimportant stayed silent for another moment.

“Compromise…we wait for a couple of days…then we go after him…If he has not returned by then…then we should ensure he is not fleeing for the wrong reasons.”

“Can everyone agree with this plan?” Will asked.

Mach and Hawthorne nodded immediately. After a moment, Red Racer followed suit. Allspades eventually did the same.

“Good. We wouldn’t have been able to leave right away anyway.”

“Why not-ot?” Red Racer asked.

“Because we have to figure out where he’s going,” Will said with a smile.

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Chapter 28: Fang

George stared out the window as the train pulled to a stop.  “Hyrfell,” he said forlornly.

The tall man stood up and reached for his bag. “Your stop too, huh? You don’t talk like a local. Got family here?”

George shook his head. “No. Me and a friend went hiking around here a few years back. I’m just trying to figure out some things.”

“A friend and I.”

“What?”

“If you’re going to claim it’s your language, you should at least learn to speak it.”

“You aren’t exactly being formal.”

“It’s not my language.”

The doors to the train slid open and the two stepped onto the empty platform.  George glanced up at the mountaintop. He had barely noticed the train climbing up as high as it had, but now he could feel the thinner atmosphere tickling his lungs.

Well, never noticed that last time.

The tall man clapped a hand on his shoulder. “It’s a beauty, isn’t it? Say what you want about the big city, you folks’ll never manage to build anything to match that.”

George shrugged.

“Where are you heading then, kid? Straight up the mountain? Or do you plan on staying the night first?”

“I’ll grab something to eat, I suppose. No point in heading up there on an empty stomach.”

The man smiled. “Good, I’ll join you then.”

“I thought you said-”

“The dead aren’t going anywhere, boy. You gave an old man some company on a train; the least I can do is buy you some food. It looks like you need it, and I’m not letting you climb a mountain on whatever fast food joint you think counts as a meal.”

The man looked George in the eye, daring him to say no. After a moment George sighed. “Okay.”

“Good. There’s a little place just a few blocks away. I don’t know what they’ll be serving today, but it’ll still be the best food you’ve ever had.”

George smiled slightly as he followed the old man down the street.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

“Okay, I’ll admit it. That was the best pie I’ve ever had.”

“I told you. You can’t beat the little places like this.”

George nodded and glanced down at his watch. “Well, thank you for the food, but I really should get moving. I have a decent bit to go before sunset.”

The old man’s smile dimmed a little, but it didn’t grow any less large. “Are you sure you want to go today? It might be best to start fresh in the morning.”

“No. I need to do this today,” George said quietly.

He stood up to walk out of the restaurant.

“Wait just a moment there.” George paused. “Take this with you. It might come in handy.”

George turned and saw the man pulling something out of his bag. After a moment he pulled out a large pearly white fang.

“Here. It belonged to my brother when he was younger. It might not seem like much, but I swear it likes being near that mountain. If you don’t mind, leave it up there, as high as you bother to go. He would like that, I think.”

George looked at the fang. “Are you sure?”

The man nodded. “Yes, yes, I’m a bit too old to go hiking up that mountain myself. You take it.”

George reached for the fang a little reluctantly. The old man gently set it down on his palm and George gently wrapped his fingers around it.

“It’s…warm.”

The man nodded. “It gets that way around here. Now get going, you have quite the hike ahead of you.”

George nodded and shook the man’s hand. “Thanks for the food.”

“Keep an eye out up there. I heard that mountain’s been ornery lately.”

George smiled and walked out the door.

The tall man sat there for a little bit longer. After a few minutes, a new waitress walked out of the back and over to his table. “My, my, haven’t seen you around for a while. And here I thought you’d never get here early enough to miss my shift. You here to check up on your brother again?”

The man took a sip of coffee and smiled. “Oh, there’s not much need for that anymore. It looks like the little prick finally decided he doesn’t need an old man like me looking out for him any more.”

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

George shifted his bag and stared at the entrance to the main hiking path. He’d have to follow it for a few hours before he reached the half covered almost-path that his friend had led him down before.

The cab driver rolled down the window behind him. “You sure you wanna head up there now? Sun’s gonna set before you get anywhere interesting. I know a good place to stay the night. You can get a fresh start in the morning.”

George shook his head. “No, I’m fine. I don’t plan on taking too long anyway.”

The cab driver rubbed his head through his hat. “Well okay then. But hey, take this-” he pulled out a business card. “No one’s gonna drive out here without a call. The ranger station we passed a few minutes back will lend you their phone, so don’t try to stay out here all night, got it?”

“Yeah, I’ve got it. Thanks.”

The driver rolled up his window and pulled away.

George took a deep breath and started up the path.

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Chapter 27: Around the Round

The group sat together around a round table in the center of the room. The walls were covered in pictures and newspaper clippings.  But everyone’s eyes were focused on the seventh, empty chair.

“We’ll have to start without him,” Will said. “He’s probably just sleeping off the other night.”

“Yeah, cause he got hurt.”

“Can it, Allspades,” Hawthorne said. “The rest of us actually have normal lives.”

Allspades’ eye twitched slightly. “Well maybe you’re just not trying hard enough then.”

“Stop it,” Mach said. “That is not why we are here.”

“Agreed,” Will said. “But we do need to talk about that night.”

Red Racer smiled brightly. Allspades sighed and rested his head on his hand.

“Around the table or all at once, your choice.”

“What’re we supposed to talk about?” Unimportant asked.

“How about getting shot?”

“It hurt.”

“It always does,” Allspades said. “You get used to it.”

A wave of annoyance washed off of Unimportant. “I’d rather not…if it’s all the same to you.”

“Seconded,” Hawthorne said.

“Not exactly what I meant,” Will said. “Getting shot hurts, but knowing that is different than feeling it. Allspades, Unimportant, you’re the only two who’ve felt it head on, unless one of the rest of you wants to jump in…so, are you still afraid of it?”

Allspades shrugged. “It happened a lot back then. The bullets don’t make it past my skin, but the bruises hurt like hell. Last forever too.”

Will nodded. “You have it easy, compared to most. A lot of tanks do. What about you?” He looked at Unimportant.

Unimportant’s hand drifted toward his shoulder, stopping just short of actually touching the wound. “It’s a good reminder…if nothing else….I never thought I’d get shot…I always thought my powers would keep it from happening.”

Will nodded. “You’re not the first.” He lookedto the rest of the group. “Mach, your armor would stop a bullet right?”

“Yes. It was based off of Sherman and Panzer’s old suits. They had their prints on display in the museum a few months back.”

Will raised an eyebrow. “Okay then.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick case. He reached inside and gingerly picked up a long bullet with a spiraling blue tip. “Would it stop one of these?”

Mach’s chair scraped against the floor as if she was trying to get as far from the bullet as possible. “Where did you get that?”

“What is it-it?” Red Racer asked.

“It’s one of Gale Forces bullets,” Mach said. “He stole Slipstreams old spear and based those off of its design.  Their designed to pick up speed the farther they go. A couple dozen suit mechers died because they never had to avoid getting shot before.” She stared at Will. “Where did you get that?”

“Souvenir,” Will said. “At half speed it could pierce through any armor on the planet. At full speed it’s probably faster than you.” He nodded at Red Racer.

Red Racer stared at the bullet in awe.

“And I’ve yet to see a fire manip burn hot enough to melt t before it hit, or a physical tank who it would bounce off of.”

He carefully returned the bullet to its case. “Bullets are always a risk, but they’re not the worst thing that could happen to you out there. No walker in their right mind isn’t afraid of getting hurt. Even the ones who seem invincible, Adamant, Miss Mirror, Maestro, are afraid. It’s what keeps you alive.

“A few nights ago, nearly a fifth of the city was in chaos. You all barely saw the worst of it, but you did a lot to keep it from getting worse. That’s something to be proud of. But, I’m sure at least a few of you thought you weren’t good enough. That…is completely normal, but not entirely wrong.”

“Huh-uh?” Red Racer asked. “But you said we should be proud-oud.”

“You should. But none of you were perfect.  People think that fear is the greatest weakness for a walker, but they’re wrong. Fear, when it is controlled, is one of your greatest strengths. The greatest weakness for a walker to have, is overconfidence. If you never look back, never wonder if you could have done better, than you never can. The best way to remove overconfidence is to figure out what you were the most afraid of. Allspades, you’re more used to this than the others.”

Allspades glanced around the table, and shook his head. “That night wasn’t that special to me. I’m pretty used to things like that…”

“But?” Hawthorne asked.

He shot her a dirty look. “But…do you all remember what I said the second night? About losing control? It’s…not entirely true.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t lose control…I give it up. I enjoy what I do. I saw my reflection at the warehouse, when I was fighting those guards. I…I didn’t know I could look that…happy. The thing that scared me the most that night…was me.”

The rest of them avoided looking at him. Red Racer had stopped fidgeting entirely.

Allspades focused on his hands, resting on the table.

Will stared at Allspades. “Allspades, listen to me. …That’s a good thing to be afraid of. As long as you feel that fear, as long as you’re afraid of how far you’re going, you won’t go too far. But…if you ever realize that you stopped feeling that way, that you stopped being afraid, that’s when you need to stop…Do you understand?”

Allspades nodded. “I think so.”

“Good.”

There was a moment before the next person spoke.

“I’m sorry but I have to know. Why did you all let me take the lead?” Hawthorne asked.

Red Racer shrugged.

“You made quick and well thought decisions,” Mach said. “At no point did I feel reason to doubt your capabilities.”

Unimportant nodded. “That’s right… We didn’t have time to argue over who was in charge… You kept us organized and tried to keep us out of danger.”

Hawthorne looked at Allspades. “And you? You had the most experience. Why didn’t you try to take over?”

Allspades chuckled quietly. “I was a bullet, not a gun. My contributions to plans usually consisted of, yes I can break that, and no I can’t. The only thing I had really free reign on was distraction work, and that wasn’t exactly a group project.”

“But…”

“Tell me,” Will said. “Did you ever put your teammates in a situation where they were definitely going to get hurt?”

“No.”

“Did the words ‘necessary sacrifice,’ ever cross your mind?”

“No.”

“Would you have acted differently if you had the same information you do now?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re a better leader than I had to deal with. Nothing that happened that night could have been avoided with the information you had. You followed the leads you had to the best of your ability, and, unless I’m mistaken, you’ve already spent at least one night trying to figure out where you messed up. There’s nothing for you to regret.”

After a moment, Hawthorne nodded and a smile formed behind her mask.

“Mach, would you go next?”

The mecher nodded. “I feel that I was relying too much on completely borrowed tech. I had not even tried to modify the code for the vehicle tracker or create a gadget for the type of fighting that occurred in the parking lot. You told me that mechers who survive have learned to prepare for any situation. That night was the first time I realized that I was not even close to being that capable. I spent the last few days focused entirely on those problems. But every time I thought I’d solved one, three more popped into my head. It felt like I would never be ready.”

“You can’t be prepared for everything,” Allspades said. “It’s not possible.”

“He’s right,” Will said. “I believe that I made a mistake in trying to explain that to you. The best mechers don’t have a tool for every situation, they figure out how to use what they have in any situation. Don’t worry about what you can’t do. You need to really understand what you can do. Do you understand?”

After a moment, Mach nodded. “I believe so.”

Will smiled. “Okay. Who’s next?”

“I think that getting shot was mine,” Unimportant said.

Will raised an eyebrow, but moved on.

The group turned toward Red Racer, who gulped.

“I-I…I really don’t know-ow. That night-ight…I was nervous-ous, but I was really excited too-oo. The scariest part was when that guy tripped me in the tunnel-nel. But even then-en, I wasn’t scared-ed. I tripped all the time at first-rst.”

He smiled nervously at the group.

Will smiled gently at Red. “Don’t worry about it. You were excited, and this was probably the first time you were out in a while. You aren’t going to learn something every fight, just make sure you don’t stop trying to, okay?”

Red Racer nodded happily.

“Okay!”

Will looked at the group. “All right, let’s move on then.”

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Chapter 26: Flight

The heat didn’t bother him anymore, and he could deal with the cold. But it looked like rain, and he hated walking through the rain. It was time to go.

His eyes ran over the room again. The wires that had cluttered the corner by his desk were gone now, neatly packed away in a bag as long as he refused to open it to check.  His mattress was bald, his drawers empty, and his walls stripped bare.

He’d finished his work a week ago, but he hadn’t wanted to hand it over yet. He’d sent Susan the code a few hours earlier, and then he’d finally unplugged his modem.

The lock sounded louder than normal. The scientist in the back of his head decided it was echoing on the other side of the door. But it just reminded him that he may not be coming back.

A small bag hung off his shoulder. Everything else was already on its way to storage. He’d be back for it eventually. The keys made a heavy thunk when he tossed them on the front desk. The receptionist would find them when she woke up. His rent was good for another few weeks; he could get them back if he need to.

He walked purposefully down the street. The train station was only a few blocks away, and nobody was going to bother him; most of the city was still asleep.

He’d made sure to pick the earliest train. The longer he stuck around, the more likely someone would stop by his place. He didn’t need that. He wanted to be gone before they had the chance to realize he was leaving.

The street lights were beginning to dim as the dawn crept up behind him, but his pace never slowed, and he never looked back.

The train station was huge. He knew that dozens of trains stopped by every hour; most of them never left the city, but the rest went out in every direction spreading across the country like a web of steel.

Knowing that didn’t change the feeling of walking under the massive domed roof that covered the atrium. Giants would feel too short walking under that golden dome. Ants would never realize they’d left the street outside.

It had been built a hundred years past, with hand tools no less. Somewhere in the back of his mind a history lesson forced its way to the surface. Dozens of people had died, and the rest didn’t get half the pay they deserved, but when they asked one of the workers if it had been worth it, he’d just told them to look up.

It was sad really; the few other people walking into the station didn’t even bother to. They were walking under a marvel, a structure built before walkers, before the mechers had figured out how to raise a skyscraper with half the men and at a third the time, and none of them even cared.

For a moment, he bathed in their apathy, the uncaring nature he wished he could emulate. Maybe then he’d be able to stay.

Maybe he wouldn’t have to run away.

His train screeched to a halt in front of him, and he took a deep breath. He made sure to focus on the windows as he made his way to his seat, and counted his blessing when he found himself in an empty row.

The train gave a lurch as it pulled away from the platform. In moments it was streaking across the city; it would be an hour before it reached its next stop.

He shifted his seat back and forced himself to relax. After a moment George Sadler fell into an uneasy sleep.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

A light touch on his shoulder woke him up.

“Sir? Sir? I need to see your ticket now.”

He gave a light grumble and dug around in his pocket. After a moment, he pulled out the wrinkled ticket and held it up to the conductor.

“Ah, you’ll be with us for a while I see. The refreshments are sold two cars up, when you’re hungry.”

“Thanks,” he muttered. “About how far out are we?”

“We left Macropolis 45 minutes ago. Your stop is still about 5 hours out.”

“Thank you.”

“Have a nice day, sir.”

The conductor continued down the car, stopping every few rows along the way.

He checked his watch. He wanted to go back to sleep, but he knew he wouldn’t get any rest before the next stop. He could feel the train begin to slow down even now.

A tall man with red in the row across from him scooted to the aisle and gave a light cough.

“You pack light.”

George’s head tilted a bit to the side when he answered. “What?”

“You’re heading about as west as you can go on this train, and you don’t look like a day tripper. Most people would want more than that tiny bag.”

“I don’t need much,” he said. “And you aren’t exactly packing heavy yourself.”

The man shrugged. “When you get to be my age, you learn to do without. And I’m visiting family, I don’t need to worry about that stuff.”

“Because you’re much older than I am.”

“Ha!” the man barked. “Don’t let the hair fool you, boy. Most men would be long past grey when they were half my age. I have enough years under my belt to make your mother look like a tot.”

“So what? You’re going to visit your grandchildren?”

The man’s smile shrunk a little. “My brother actually. He’s been dead for a few years, and we have a lot of catching up to do.”

George’s teeth clenched and he felt a small pang in his heart. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”

The old man shook his head. “Exactly. It’s nothing for you to worry about. And the wound is long since closed anyway. There isn’t anything a kid like you could do to open that back up.”

“Still.”

“You’re fine,” the man shook his head ad sighed. “What are you heading out there for then? Visiting someone?”

“Searching,” George said, turning to look out the window. “I have unfinished business out there, and I don’t think I’ll be much use to anyone until it’s done with.”

“Unfinished business will do that, especially to a kid like you. But finishing it can turn out even worse.”

“Not for me. I can’t ignore this any longer. I need the answer.”

The old man shook his head. “Kids your age always think that. You think you need the answer because you think that knowing is always better than not. Well trust me kid, there are some things you don’t want to know.”

“Maybe, but it’s the only way to figure out who I am.”

“Oh, don’t get all sappy on me kid. That’s an old man question. You aren’t supposed to worry about that until after you’ve been fired a couple of times.  You punks these days keep trying to grow up too fast. “

“Maybe.”

“No maybe about it. Now I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong for asking, and I sure as hell can’t tell you not to do what you think is right, but don’t pretend like this is some sort of special quest you need to do. This is you, making a choice, to run from whatever problems you have at home, just in case the answer is somewhere out west.”

George smiled at the man. “You’re probably right. But I already bought the ticket.”

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