Prior To The Asylum
By Rel Fexive
Disclaimer: Amber, it's concepts and it's characters are the creation of Roger Zelazny. RIP Roger.
Feedback: If you have something to say, you can e-mail me.
Summary: A scion of Amber unaware of his heritage discovers the universe is bigger than he thinks it is. An ADRPG character origin story with a crossover into the SLA Industries role-playing game.
Comments: This is the transcript of a story told by Intruder regarding his introduction to Amber. It may well be apocryphal or intentionally inaccurate in parts.
So, despite my knowledge of the Ebb and Glyph Cards I was no nearer to being Close than someone right out of Meny. There were no voices, no flickers at the edge of vision, no terrible nightmares to plague me. The watchers were real enough. Necanthropes took particular interest in me; they couldn't figure out how I could be such a potent vortex of power and resist the call of evolution. I used to think they were a little jealous.
Other than them I saw some operatives more often than others and often enough that they gave the impression they were following me and watching my every move, no doubt reporting it back to Head Office. Everyone seemed to want to know what I was up to.
The actual level of interest in me was quite amazing. Protagonist, Father and Protector of the Ebon race, was said to be "concerned" about me, and probably thought of me as some sort of "next step". I suspect it was he that orchestrated most of the surveillance, though Preceptor Teeth's watchers were the more overt.
There were a number of Necanthrope auras I grew familiar with over the years, as well as the faces of the numerous, more mortal watchers. I always wondered if they knew I knew they were there; they probably suspected but I doubt they ever knew how aware of them I really was. I could almost tell the time by their shift changes, and I knew when they were distracted enough that I could get away from them. Fortunately, I was not always tailed.
My life began as a gutter Ebon, an orphan on the streets of Mort. By the time I was five I had found my first illegal Glyph card; when it was found on me I was taken away to a SLA-sponsored school, and eventually went to Meny. Early on I recognised I was different; just that bit faster and stronger than the rest. My Ebb senses were exceptional, and my mind was stronger than everyone else's too. I learnt to keep my gifts a secret; street-bred wariness.
Over the years I gained in skill and power. My knowledge of the Ebb and formulae increased quicker than anyone knew; I just seemed to be better at using it than everyone else I knew. I could reach out through the Ebb and draw the thoughts out of the minds of others like what I wanted to know was written on their foreheads.
As a result of this sensitivity my specialisation became investigation. Sometimes I hardly needed to search for evidence at all; I simply learned where to look from the minds of those around me. Of course, I also sidelined in my more 'normal' work, namely espionage, assassination, sniping, scouting and the occasional assault when the mood took me. For quite some time I had been picking my BPNs rather than having them assigned to me; I kept the number of jobs down and the pay high.
Off duty I kept to myself, a result of both my natural tendency towards solitude and a distinct amount of ostracism. I was not like other Ebons; with my blood-red eyes and stoical attitude I had been described as passionless. Some even said I was like a Brain Waster, but without the aggression and hyperactivity. Unfeeling was the least insulting of the descriptions given to me; I've always attributed this to my survival in the warrens of Downtown. A calm head and cool reactions can keep you alive.
And I will admit I can be very suspicious of people at times.
I spent time in the Pit like everyone else but preferred more subdued spots, usually in Downtown. It was quieter there, and easier to spot my watchers in less crowded and noisy conditions. Besides, if I was not seeking solitude in my Uptown apartment I secreted myself away in my Fortress of Solitude. I called it The Hole.
It had been several years since I had encountered Dwyer, an ex-DarkNight infiltrator turned forbidden librarian. He had maintained his library of secrets in an ancient storage area built inside one of the giant support pillars that keep the higher levels of Downtown from falling down on the lower ones. It could only be reached from an area known as Mower's Corner, so called because of the Manchine that was known to have a lair in the area. It was supposed to be big, with gleaming red eyes and four arms with huge blades attached to them.
Several attempts to flush it out and destroy it had failed because the operative squads had been unable to locate it. That was because Dwyer had somehow reprogrammed it to act as his personal guard. It was occasionally let out to cause a little carnage, to remind people to keep away. He called it Slo Mo.
I had met Dwyer while on a locator mission, looking for a stolen briefcase; he had shown me his hoard of secrets and effectively bought my silence, as he had hoped. Everyone knows that to get ahead in the World of Progress one must know things, important secret things. My own Shoebox of Knowledge was nothing compared to the library of cuttings and video clips he kept stored away.
Eventually Slo Mo went haywire, out of Dwyer's control. The squads that were sent to destroy it found Dwyer out of his hole, rightly identified him as an anti-SLA subversive and in the ensuing firefight Dwyer was killed.
No one found his hideaway though. I saw to that.
I explored the reaches of the storage area, locating the cargo lift above that ran almost all the way up the top of the pillar, somewhere in the western sector of Mort Central. Satisfied that there were other entrances I moved some furniture in (quite a lot of it actually) and set up security and communications links before sealing that lower entrance with solid steel plates, girders and rubble. Then I made the outside look unremarkable, not a simple thing to do, I can tell you.
Fortunately that lower area was in something of a blind spot; no radio system would broadcast in or out. The girder work and the concrete mass of the pillar blocked it all.
In the end I had a three level apartment ten times the size of my luxurious Uptown apartment, complete with Jacuzzi, weight-training room, two huge bedrooms, a dojo and more. And that library, of course.
The communication links consisted of several kilometres of fibreoptic cable linked to line-of-sight lasercomm units; these beamed my signals to and from repeaters around the city. The cables had been placed by a small army of Scuttlebott™ maintbots; the lasercomms and repeaters were effectively undetectable and could give the impression that the signals were being sent from various reception cells around Mort Central. Thus I could send or receive messages (or watch TV) while I was down in the depths and no one would know any different.
I was glad to have the Hole, as it meant I could get away from everyone whenever I wanted to, relax, train and read up on the dirty underside of the World of Progress. In theory I could access The Hole by taking the cargo lift from topside, but that would have attracted far too much attention. On a few occasions I had been forced to catch it lower down, in a (fortunately) very dangerous area of Downtown; a couple of bad missions had sent me fleeing to my lair by that more mundane route.
By comparison the less mundane route involved a bit of surreptitious Reality Folding, a pinpoint teleport taking me directly to the loading bay above The Hole. Some would cringe at the thought of the amount of Flux used so wastefully, but as far as I could tell I had more than most so I had Flux to burn. It did save on a lot of walking.
Prior to taking the Folding option I always did my best to loose myself in a crowd, preferably in one of the night-spots I was known to frequent. I did like to go to them sometimes, but three out of four times I stayed only long enough to give my watchers time to relax before heading out the back and vanishing. I had deals with several club owners to be able to go out the back way whenever I wanted; I won't say what they got in return.
Of course, because of the Flux required it meant I could not leave in the middle of a major conflict; I needed all the energy I could to stay healthy. So even I was limited to 'porting when there was no danger grabbing my attention. That was why I been forced to walk on a number of occasions.
If I pushed it I could even 'port right into the back of my wheels, a classic Dante '81 Battle Taxi APC. It was dented, it was scratched, but it ran like a dream and went through traffic like a bulldozer. Not surprising; it was shaped like a brick and protected by mid-grade War World armour. Not the fastest set of wheels on the block but it could drive through or over anything in the way so that did not matter. Wherever it was, if I had the time to properly visualise the interior (I had spent hours fixing it into my memory) I could appear right inside it. Not always perfectly, or accurately; there was one time I arrived upside down (it was very far away at the time), and on another occasion I materialised on the roof. But no one else I had heard of had ever pulled it off.
They might have been keeping quiet about it, of course, as I did.
The hardest part of using Reality Folding was keeping the Ebb resonance down to a minimum so no one could track it. I could have blasted my way around easily, but that would have left a trail an FNG could have spotted.
Fortunately it took more skill to interpret the trace, and more still to follow it. But if They were really interested in keeping an eye on me, I wanted to make sure that I could not be followed.
As in all good stories, this one began with a phone call. Ricky 'The Butcher', one of the many BPN Hall fixers I regularly paid to keep an eye open for interesting jobs, had located a likely one for me. Since he was known as 'The Butcher' for his seeming preference for heavily violent missions, I was expecting some kind of assault or assassination. Instead, he had a White, for investigation; more my run-of-the-mill daily bread kind of mission.
I got him to fax me the basics (it would go to my home machine as well as to the one in The Hole) and this was what I got:
BPN : White
DESCRIPTION : Investigate squad disappearance in Pemton district, Downtown. Possible Soft Company insurgency cell active in vicinity. Inquire at Department of Investigations for further information.
I'll admit, I was eager for a little action, even if it was of the simple variety. Besides, the fee would just about cover the new stereo I had been considering buying. So I called up the DoI and inquired as suggested. It had all begun when a gang in the area, the Geckos, had begun to find itself depleted in numbers. Thinking it was a rival gang, the Chohanas, they set about taking payment in blood from them. All this had come in reports from an investigation squad that had been sent to determine the nature of the war in the area. The only reason anyone investigated it at all was that it had boiled up into the streets above on a couple of occasions.
The interest level had gone up since then. The investigating squad had reported a sudden drop in both numbers and activity in both gangs and had said they were going deeper into their territory to investigate; they were sure whatever had caused the original depletion and some of the subsequent ones was hidden away somewhere. They had suggested either a Manchine or a DarkNight cell was responsible.
They had not been heard from since, two days ago.
The Powers-That-Be needed someone to go in and find where everyone had gone. It sounded entertaining, so I accepted the BPN.
I definitely began the "search for someone" trend early on, unlike some poor saps who had to pick up all the tricks later on.
I took the lift up a few levels to the loading bay I usually teleported in and out of, checking I had brought all I needed with me. Once there I focussed my mind upon an image of the car park the Brick was in and in a trice space twirled around me and I was there. I climbed in and rechecked my gear. Blast flintlocks - check. Deathsuit helmet - check. Custom Blitzers - check. GAG LongArm rifle - check. MAC knife - check. Pointy things - check.
I fired her up and drove through the busy, rain-soaked streets to the Pemton district. As usual - no sun. Just rain and misery, broken by flickering neon and the promise of a better life, doled out by SLA's thousand and one TV stations. Just an ordinary day in Downtown.
I parked the Brick by a support pillar and activated the security system. Since no one could actually break in (as in smash windows or prise open locks) the only thing that had to be protected was the lock. It was sturdy, War World sturdy, and since I used a infra-red remote melded into my Deathsuit the rest of the lock system could only be activated by voice command. Still, you had to be careful.
Since the bar across the road was fairly central to the district I knew that if anywhere knew about the movements of the gangs of the area the people inside would. Besides, I already knew that the last squad in the area had got that information there themselves.
In the ZanziBar people stared at me as I entered. The only Ebons who came to Downtown were either slumming it (and thus someplace else) or working (and thus likely to be annoying and requiring immediate obedience). They logically picked me as the second, as the totally non-shiny black Blitzers told them I was on duty.
I shrugged the rain off my leather coat (not genuine, of course) and ordered a drink of the local ale from the barkeep.
"You're here about them missing ops, ain't ya?" he asked. His skin was yellowed and his teeth were definitely on the way out, probably dissolved by his breath. He clearly sampled too much of his own slightly poisonous, home-made merchandise.
I kept it cool and nodded. I could tell he was a little disturbed. Those un-Ebon, Brain Waster eyes of mine were good for unsettling people, though I generally came across as cold rather than psycho, as a Brain waster by the name of Rancid once told me.
He's obviously never seen me interrogate a Nalveer agent.
"Where were they last seen heading?" I asked him.
"Why should I tell you?" he replied. Obviously he saw the opportunity for some money to come his way. I thought about whether I should threaten or pay him; either might work. But I was in a charitable mood. His breath made me hope that money might either kill him with drink or pay for medical help.
I waved a five credit bill at him and he gaped like an FNG facing a pig for the first time. I almost regretted giving it to him at that point. He took the note like it was gold (which it was; with a roughly fifty-to-one credit to UniDollar conversion it was probably half what he made in a month) and carefully placed it under the bar.
The look he gave me was like the look a puppy gives to someone holding a ball. It was sickening really. Everyone else in the ZanziBar snickered.
"They went down around Sloortar Street; they went real tooled up," the barman told me eagerly.
"Any idea why exactly?" I asked him, sitting back on a stool in an attempt to get out of range. He just leaned forward in a conspiratorial way. So much for avoidance.
"I overheard them say they reckoned whatever was getting at the gangs was down that way," he replied. That went with what I already knew but now I knew the location (hopefully).
"How did they settle on Sloortar?"
"I think they asked a Gecko. He was in a clinic. They found him the day before."
"The one on 16th and Rampage."
--------------------------------------------------I got the complete address and decided to walk as it was not that far. The Brick was safe where it was for the moment. The only time there had been a problem was when a GoreZone duel had come by and Schreck had blasted two wheels and a window with his Power Reaper while taking out three Props who had thought they could take him. They were wrong, of course.
The "clinic" was little more than a dozen beds gathered in somewhere cleaner than most places. A couple of nurses saw to the patients, who varied from children with minor child-type injuries to the real serious "coughing the guts up" types. A harried female doctor who barely looked better than her patients wandered about, never getting too far from a bottle of something on a desk at the back.
I enquired about the Gecko and was shown where he was. Apparently, his name was "Slither", but the doctor called him "psycho little git". He was maybe in his early twenties, and his bright red and yellow hair looked really rather incongruous with the stained blankets and the gown he was obviously forced to wear. One arm was encased in rags and splints, while he moved in the stiff way that suggested a lot of bandages were out of sight somewhere.
He did not look pleased to see me. He even hissed at me as I approached, so I sat down heavily on the side of his bed; the movement caused a wince to cross his face before he quickly smothered the reaction.
"What you want, Ebbo?" he asked, putting on a brave face. I took my shades off and stared at him in that intent way that tends to scare people. Even on Mort red eyes on an Ebon helps with intimidation. His façade cracked slightly.
"Why did they go to Sloortar?"
"Who?" he replied. I leant forward in a way that suggests threat. Psychology at work; he buckled under slightly.
I raised an eyebrow.
"The ops, right," he said. "I told 'em I knew where the first Gecko's had been killed. Told them everything I knew. So they went down to Sloortar."
"What do you know about it?"
"The first two died when they went a little close to the Sloortar tunnels after some guy who was supposed to be carrying some KickStart. We figured the Chohanas had got to him first and greased our boys. So we decided to make them pay."
I gave him another intent look and he leant back slightly as if he could get out of range. However, I had already run a little Ebb formula and reached out through the flows of the Ebb to contact his mind. It opened like a door before me and I pulled the details out of his head like paper from a folder. It had been as he had said, except it had been UltraViolence they were after, not KickStart.
"Slither" himself had been one of the Geckos who had gone in search of their lost comrades, and he had been injured in one of the big fights just before their numbers really went down. Predictably the battles had taken place around the Sloortar area as well.
"Slither" shuddered at the intrusion, but just thought it was fear. Incidentally, his name was Wesley. No wonder he preferred "Slither".
I looked around and waved at the doctor to get her attention. She wandered over to me eventually, once she had seen to both a patient and her bottle.
"Is he alright to be moved?" I asked her, gesturing at the Gecko.
"He can walk, he just don't want to," she said, before belching in a most unladylike manner and wiping her nose on her sleeve. "Slither" began to look a little wild about the eyes. I grinned mirthlessly at him like a predator looks at small furry things.
--------------------------------------------------Back at the Brick I got him to retell his story to a tape recorder. I would feed it through some dictation software later to produce a reasonable facsimile of a hand-written official deposition; it saved time. While he did that I drove us as close to the rubble-strewn Sloortar area as I could get.
It could still have been something other than gang war. The lost squad had thought it was more than that, and I thought the same. So when I dragged "Slither" behind me into the Sloortar area I went fully tooled up.
I had "Slither" direct me through the rubble to where the bodies had been found. My over-firm grip on his shoulder convinced him to behave.
The area itself was unremarkable; rubble, broken stuff, some strange stains on the ground. However, there was something in the Ebb; a peculiar resonance and an abnormal lessening of the Ebb's flux. Not much, but it was noticeable if you knew to look. It was nothing like Ebb's Bane, or depleted uranium as the unpretentious called it. It was something else, a "something else" I did not recognise.
"This is the place," mumbled Wesley. Of course it was; how could it be otherwise? The Ebb resonance sent shivers through me.
"How did they die?"
"One was cut up real bad by a sword or something. The other looked as if he'd been roasted; set on fire."
I looked around and a flicker of movement caught my eye. I barely saw it; someone or something ducking down behind some boulders, or so it looked. I quickly scanned the area and could see no other sign or hint of presence. There were some tremors in the Ebb that felt like nothing I had ever felt before.
I unholstered a Blitzer into my right hand and drew a Force Flintlock with the other. I gestured with the non-gleaming revolver towards a particularly large pile of rubble and suggested to Wesley that he get into cover. By the way he ran I think he thought I was going to be shooting at him.
I carefully picked my way across the 'road' in the direction of the movement. The tremor became slowly more pronounced in my etheric senses as I went, so I found myself heading more towards that than where I had spotted the ducking figure. At the last minute a mental cry of warning from my Deathsuit combined with a sense of danger from my own Ebb-enhanced senses to make me to throw myself in the direction of a rock pile as numerous firearms started firing at me.
--------------------------------------------------Bullets zinged and zanged all around me as I waited for a respite before acting. It sounded like three, maybe four assailants, possibly with subguns but probably assault rifles. After a time they stopped shooting the scenery and decided to wait until they actually saw something.
I pulled my LongArm around from behind me and blind-fired it over my head in the direction I guessed one of them would be. I was immediately rewarded with some sporadic fire that allowed me to roughly figure out where some of them were at least.
So I dropped the rifle before leaping up and flipping right over the rock pile towards one of them. He was sheltered behind another clump of rock so I channelled the Ebb with the appropriate equation and used some Telekinesis to lift me up and over his head in a big somersault and put me down behind him. A neat little trick I had spent hours practising.
He was quite surprised to see me land behind him, but that did not last long before two shots from the Blitzer dropped him.
I took a brief moment to look him over as he fell. His Body Blocker armour had the patchwork look of a scavenger's work. His gear was very similar, and his weapon, a FEN 223 copy, had seen better days. But what really told the story was the DarkNight patch on his shoulder.
I had not encountered many DN combat teams in my years of Work; smaller infiltration teams, yes, but not actual fighting squads. Which is what this lot almost certainly were. That meant at least six, maybe as many as ten.
All this took a moment before I ducked down to avoid another burst of wild fire. Running in a crouch behind some scrap I got around close to where I guessed another attacker was hunkered down. Creeping around the corner I found myself looking at the back of another patchy-armoured figure; a Force bolt, channelled through the flintlock, burned a hole straight through him.
The sound of an object falling to the ground near me caused me to act instinctively; another Ebb-empowered leap took me up and away before the grenade erupted into flame-driven shrapnel. I took the opportunity while I was in the air to take a glance at the battleground from my momentarily high vantage point. I could make out another six figures crouched in cover, and another walking down the 'road' towards us. The walking figure looked odd somehow.
Landing, I quickly trotted around some cover so as to get a good look at the approaching person. As it got closer I could see why it had seemed so strange. The individual in question wore some kind of armour that looked like a powersuit of unknown design painted white. Over that was worn a huge deep red cloak; a large sword of some kind rose up over the left shoulder. Other than that the new arrival appeared unarmed.
The figure gestured towards my position and the guns started up again; as I stayed low I could see through the girder pile before me that one of the rag-tag bunch had approached the armoured figure and was talking to it. It nodded and raised it's hand again; this time something quite unexpected happened.
I felt a drawing on the Ebb, centred on the strange figure. It was like someone had taken a deep breath and drawn in the Flux rather than the air. The figure held it's hands before it, palms towards me, and a burst of something very bright and almost certainly very hot came pouring out from them.
It had none of the signs of Ebb-channelling; it felt nothing like it, and I was concentrating on it quite closely. Fortunately, not closely enough to stop me from throwing myself aside to avoid the blast of whatever that melted the girders and rock to pools of slag.
I took a running jump over some rubbish before taking another long jump in the direction of one of the DN ops. As I landed I passed my MAC through his throat and his head fell to the floor as I passed at full speed. My intention was to keep as much scenery and Cloakman allies between me and the plasma bursts (that was how they looked to me, anyway) as I circled around in the direction of the Brick.
I took another two out on the way round; one with a blast of Red Thermal (I melted him into his armour and then cooked him) and the other was left staggering around blinded. Frenzied gunfire tended to concentrate in the vicinity of my victims almost as soon as I vacated the area; at least they were not anticipating my movements.
I had to duck back as the last three opened up on the spot I had just been about to roll through. Obviously they had learnt. It was not that they were a bad team; they were highly skilled. It was just that I was better than they were; reflexes and experience mixed with some serious Ebb power and that little extra edge of superior equipment, namely my Deathsuit. A number of rounds had already struck me but they don't call it Super Angel for nothing. I've bounced far bigger in my time.
When it went quiet I listened intently. I heard a couple of weapons being reloaded but the one thing that stood out was the chanting. It seemed to be coming from where I had last seen Cloakman. I threw myself forwards into a long dive and was rewarded with not being obliterated by another bright bolt of plasma (?). Rolling to my feet I ran headlong through some fortunately tall piles of random trash on the last leg to the Brick.
I passed the semi-natural foxhole I had left Wesley in and saw that he had been neatly sliced in two. Apparently Cloakman's sword had been busy. I ran on like a big Thresher powersuit was behind me with one of those obscene cannons trained on my heels.
I reached the Brick and was just rounding the side and scrabbling for the key when I took the opportunity to look back. I ducked instinctively as both Ebb senses and Deathsuit screamed out 'danger!' and narrowly avoided being hit by a blue bolt of some kind of energy; maybe they had lasers too. Whatever it was it melted a small crater into the side of the Brick that hissed nastily as molten armour dribbled onto the ground.
In the distance (but far away enough for my liking) I could see Cloakman lowering his hands and the last four DN ops running past him towards me. I raised my hand and a run of the mill Force Bomb sent them scurrying aside into cover. I was about to get inside when yet another remarkable sight caught my eye.
A figure in some kind of very old looking armour came out from behind some rubble. The armour looked a little like some of that ancient "plate armour" that GoreZone's current darling, Siegfreid, wears, only not as ornate and more functional looking. Not that Siegfreid's armour is not functional; it just looks shiny and polished where this set was dull and unadorned.
He did not wear a helmet, so I could see the new arrival was a man with red hair and possibly a beard. He bore a sword of some kind that seemed to be golden in colour. Before the op nearest to him could react he deftly swiped off his gun arm with one smooth blow. This was swiftly followed by a decapitation worthy of Serial Thrilla's Hall of Fame.
Red advanced on another while Cloakman spun to face the new threat. A second passed (during which Red smiled in an almost cordial fashion) before Cloakman backed off rapidly in what could have been fear (it's difficult to read body language or expressions through armour). One of the three remaining active DarkNight soldiers tried to take Red with a burst from his rifle but Red just raised his left arm in front of his face and lunged alongside the gun and skewered him in the chest.
Wisely, the other two took the opportunity to flee. Cloakman was still backing off; Red saluted him with his sword and advanced, but he raised his hands in what looked like supplication. Red slowed but did not stop. Cloakman then seemed to reach forward towards Red but his hands seemed to begin to glow. I thought he was going to blast Red with plasma but the glow spread to the rest of him too. All this happened in mere seconds.
Red made to jump at him, blade outstretched, but then the cloaked shape of the white armoured man stepped forward and seemed to turn two-dimensional before vanishing in a flickering rainbow.
I could sense something at work; I could feel it like a cool trickle of water down my back. It certainly was not Reality Folding as I knew it, but then nothing Cloakman had done followed the rules I knew.
Red looked around before sheathing his blade. Kicking a few of the corpses he appeared to assure himself that they were dead before turning to look straight at me. The look he gave me was calculating to say the least; he appeared to be assessing me not only as a combatant or threat but as a person. I shivered when he raised a hand and waved.
Then he went to take a close look at the space Cloakman had occupied when he had vanished. While he scrutinised that spot I quickly got into the Brick and battened down the hatches, so to speak. He was still crouched, staring at the ground, a minute later when I drove away.
--------------------------------------------------I was fortunate that it had been a non-supervised job; no surveillance or anything. So I told them I had found a DarkNight cell that had been trying to protect it's headquarters, and that I had taken them out. That was close enough, as far as I could reason out. No mention was made of strangely armoured men wielding swords or of plasma and laser blasts. The report was long and detailed, and they did not have the resources to determine whether it was accurate or not. Besides, why would I lie to them?
I retired to The Hole after a serious relaxation session. I cleaned my weapons and readied every one of them for use. I had a feeling I might need them. I trained and practised, I shot and I did kata. I pumped iron. But most of all I thought on what had happened; the two strange men and the apparently Ebb-powered plasma caster.
Nothing in the Forbidden Library spoke of anything like it.
--------------------------------------------------On the third day I settled down and tried to work my head around the strange power I had seen the cloaked man employ. I did not know exactly where to start, so I just worked from what I knew of Reality Folding and tried incorporate the sense of the thing into some whole that might tell me what had taken place.
It took a few days, but I found the best way to analyse the effect was through the use of Glyph Cards. I went through quite a few of them; the first two did nothing while the next burst into flame and was consumed. The fourth twisted and bent itself into a tiny and very heavy ball when o channelled some Flux into it. I finally captured that cool feeling and the flow of power that accompanied it to my complete satisfaction in the fifth set of glyphs.
That was the simple explanation, of course; in truth I had attempted to capture the complex interplay of Ebb energy and how it related to the environment in a form similar to a photograph. That was how most Glyph Cards worked.
Even that explanation was a simplified one.
The final Card was rather inert. It had the cool sensation I had sensed when Cloakman had vanished, but seemed to do little else. Since I had created it almost entirely from inspiration and Ebb-reinforced instinct the design was like no other Card I had seen; I could almost see a real image inside the twisted runes of the Glyph.
I decided to leave it for a day before I tried anything with it. I took myself back to my Uptown apartment for a rest and some quality alcohol. Then I slept for about twenty hours straight.
--------------------------------------------------I could feel eyes on me all the way into Downtown. And they were not friendly ones. It felt like everyone was against me that evening. Maybe I was finally getting Close? I hoped not.
I stopped in 'Bushido' for a couple of hours with some people who passed as friends before 'staggering' round the corner to a nice little fast-food joint I knew of for one of their 'Bestest Meals', hand-cooked fare served only to special friends in 'the back room'. That gave me the opportunity to head on down to The Hole for the rest of the night, and much of the next day or two as well.
I cleared a space in the middle of the living room and set the cool Glyph Card on the floor in the centre. Then I stood about ten feet away from it and focused my concentration on it, losing myself in the twists and curls of the runes, feeling it pull on my mind and draw the Ebb flux from within me and my Deathsuit. It felt different to the way it usually did; the normal flow of raw force felt more like a stream of iced water showering down over my head.
First the Card glowed prismatically, then vibrated like it was on a metal walkway with several people wearing MAL Shock dancing nearby. Finally it flickered with a myriad of colour and seemed to fall trough the floor and vanish. All it left behind was the now-familiar cool sensation down my spine.
Naturally I was concerned. I examined every square inch of that section of floor with normal and Ebb senses to no avail. I had apparently duplicated that feat only to have the thing I had created disappear like ice in a furnace. I dutifully wrote up my experience and the knowledge I had gained in my Ebb Journal, then spent the rest of the day getting completely rat-arsed.
--------------------------------------------------I woke up with quite a bad headache, but I soon cured most of that with a hefty dose of Flush. I don't think the makers ever intended it as a hangover cure, but it did the trick nonetheless. I dragged a robe advertising the benefits of the SLA Training Centre Gym and Spa over the top of my white gi and went in search of some coffee.
Almost immediately I knew something was not right. Don't ask me how.
So I went back for my favourite of the two Blitzers (the one with the Dark Lament look) and crept out, taking as much advantage of the wall shapes and furniture layout as possible. Since I had made parts of the apartment intentionally to act as useful cover that was not too hard to pull off.
I had just made it halfway to the kitchen when someone came out of it, carrying a carton of milk in one hand. As I leapt forward to grapple with the intruder (insert canned laughter here) I caught the barest glimpse of an expensive Caz-U-All streetwear jacket topped by a head sporting flame red hair before the figure spun and grabbed me by the front of my robe and hurled me one-handed across the room. I just missed my stereo but not the disc stand beside it; I knocked it over and sent music discs spinning across the floor.
I groaned and quickly rolled over to face my assailant; I was not surprised to see it was the swordsman from a few days previous. He drew an unassuming pistol from inside his jacket and pointed it at me; despite its appearance I could see it was a powerful little package so I did not argue with it, or him, and stayed where I was. I did not recognise the design of the pistol, which surprised me slightly.
That just led credence to my theory that this guy was a Dark Finder or something else again; his speed, strength and non-standard hardware all suggested it. Since he had found his way into my sanctum so (apparently) easily I felt it was wise not to antagonise him by being so impudent as to try to attack him. I certainly was not in a position to use the Ebb against him; I needed either my Deathsuit or Glyph Cards to do so and I had neither to hand.
The Finder sat down on a chair opposite and looked around the room, nodding. His weapon did not waver in the slightest, however, so I remained still (other than shifting in place to get comfortable).
"So," he said, smiling, "what to do with you, eh?"
Not the sort of tone or question I had expected. I did not answer.
"You made my job a little easier, flushing them out like that," he continued. "They obviously thought you were someone else, which gave me an advantage, of course. I could pick my moment to go for Harihn, once you had cleared the field somewhat." He smiled again.
I remained quiet.
"I suppose I should thank you for that."
Still no reply was made.
"Speak up, man," he said.
I cleared my throat and shifted a few discs out from where they had been annoying me.
"What are you going to do with me?" I asked quietly. I fully expected him to show me my termination warrant and end it all right there and then, or maybe just to drag me up to Central for a spot of gentle questioning.
"Well, I'm in something of a dilemma. On the one hand I could just leave you to your own devices. On the other, not only have you proved useful but certain events have shown that you could be more useful still, on a long-term basis." He grinned. "A very long-term basis."
He stood up and returned his pistol underneath his jacket.
"You are going to have to come with me, I'm afraid." He almost sounded as if he really meant it. Reaching around the kitchen door he picked up his sword from where it had been leant against the wall. It was sheathed in an unadorned scabbard; since it was such a singular blade I guessed he did not want to bring attention to it. "What you did the other day will have caused quite a stir so they will come looking for you. I am sure that you would prefer to fight on advantageous ground with no worry about furniture damage, yes?"
"Then I suggest you get ready. All your weapons are out here, even the knife under your pillow. You can get that armour on and we can grab a bite to eat on the way."
"Just along from Sloortar. There's someone I would like you to meet."
--------------------------------------------------Once I was suited up Red put his sword in a long sports bag with my weapons; knives, Blitzers, Flintlocks and ammunition. Of course, he carried it. We took the lift upstairs and snuck out into one of the less unfriendly Downtown districts; we ate in a little restaurant around the corner that did incredibly tasty but unhealthy breakfasts.
We ate well (Red consumed a "Brekfast Fore Too" by himself) before going to the Brick. Red pulled some contraption out of a pocket that looked as if it had been seriously jury-rigged and activated it; the Brick unlocked and opened after a brief fit of bleeping and juddering. I glanced at Red but he was already climbing in. As I followed I found myself with his gun in my face. He smiled apologetically and gestured towards one of the back seats.
Once I had sat down he handcuffed me to the seat railing with a particularly hefty pair of binders. Putting the sports bag under the driver's seat he started her up and off we went.
--------------------------------------------------He stopped about four hundred yards up the 'road' from where I had stopped before. He freed me and led they way out of the door. He looked around before turning to me.
"Hold out your hands," he instructed. I did so and he put the bag in my arms.
"Prepare yourself," he said, drawing his sword out of the bag and pulling the Brick's door shut. I quickly strapped on holsters and scabbards while he continued to survey our surroundings. I was a little concerned that he did not think me that much of a threat, since he had given me my weapons back. But then, I was gripped by no small amount of curiosity.
When I was ready he led the way to the left of the previous battleground, in the direction of some abandoned buildings crouched underneath a number of sturdy walkways.
Stopping outside the one furthest from the 'road' he knocked on the drainpipe beside the huge double doors in a rhythmic, coded way. We had only to wait a short moment before a reply of some sort was forthcoming; satisfied with the response, Red led the way inside.
It was big, gloomy and very damp. It seemed to be an old warehouse; rusted trash was the only thing it stored now. One corner of the front of the structure had a raised office reached by a staircase that joined with the few overhead walkways that remained. By the look of the office it would give a good view of the whole Sloortar area. Red led me across the floor to the office and up the stairs.
The office had been made to be as comfortable as possible, considering the dilapidated surroundings. A television sat in the corner, though it was unplugged. Several crates and plastic boxes sat around the room, some of which were clearly intended to be used as chairs while another couple served to support an old door to make a table.
Half the table appeared to be dedicated to weaponry; several pistols, a couple of subguns, two assault rifles and a sniper rifle sat amongst boxes of ammunition. While the guns had characteristics that proclaimed them as being made by FEN or GAG, they were in no catalogue I had ever seen. The rest of the table consisted of a small but terribly complex chemistry set. Flasks, beakers, pipes and tubes; a small centrifuge; several vials of chemicals; syringes (they worried me slightly); and other assorted paraphernalia.
Three things beyond the table caught my attention; the first was Red's armour, standing upright of it's own accord with the assistance of a stand. The second was four suits of Silverback armour stood to attention up against the back wall; no one appeared to be wearing them. The third was a short woman whose features and long, red hair that clearly marked her as a close relation of the red-haired man who stood beside me. She looked rather out of place amongst all the hardware.
She looked me up and down, assessing me intently.
"This is him, is it?" she asked my red-haired escort.
"Yes," he replied. "I'm not sure how far he has taken it; it might only have been his first attempt."
She came round the table to stand beside me. Green eyes stared up into mine unflinchingly, seeing beyond the surface to what lay underneath.
"Give me your hand," she instructed. Like an automaton I raised my right hand and she took firm hold of it. She smiled, in a more catlike way than Red ever had.
"This won't hurt," she said just before sticking a needle in my neck.
I awoke feeling slightly light-headed. I was laying on my back on some blankets in one corner of the office. I was not bound, and I was surprised to see my weapons carefully stacked up on the box beside me. I carefully stood up and leant against the wall to keep my balance.
Both of my hosts were seated next to the table; Red's eyes flicked towards me as I looked over but the woman had her back to me. She was holding a test tube up to the light and gently swirling the contents around. As I watched the liquid in the tube turned a bright yellow colour. Red was cleaning a large rifle of, yet again, unfamiliar design.
"So that's it, then?" Red asked her, turning his concentration back to the rifle.
"Yes," she replied. "He definitely has the same markers; exactly how effective this test is is a matter of opinion."
"But I would say the result is definitely positive. Plus, there's the matter of his experiment"
Red nodded, digesting this information. With a final look at the test tube the woman put it in a stand and stood, turning to face me. She smiled slightly when she saw me awake and active and came over to me.
"Good afternoon," she said. She held her hands up, showing they were empty. "All safe this time."
"Who are you?" I asked in a rather rough voice; I needed a drink.
"Sometimes I despair," she said, shaking her head in mock-disbelief. "Occasionally my brother just lets his standards slip, and no matter how many times I tell him to be polite he just goes and does it again and again." Red chuckled at this comment and set to cleaning and loading the weapons on the table.
"My name is Fiona," the woman said, "and this " a nod of the head in Red's direction "- is my brother, Bleys. You, of course, are Intruder. An interesting name, or perhaps I should say alias; appropriate, naturally." Fiona poured some water from a plastic bottle into a beaker and handed it to me.
"Perfectly safe to drink," she told me. "And don't worry about before; we had just to be sure you would behave while I did some tests."
"What sort of tests?" I asked once I had swallowed.
"Genetic testing, of a sort," she answered. "You may or may not be pleased to know that you are a member of a very select group of people. Exactly who that group is and what this means for your long-term plans I will tell you later."
"You are not making much sense."
"Of course not. If I made sense at the beginning I would lose my aura of mystery".
"Let us for now just say that you may find your horizons broadening far more than you might have guessed," said Bleys without looking up from the rifle.
"To get to the point," Fiona continued, "at this moment in time we need your help, and I would rather we got it willingly."
"In what way do you need my help?" I asked.
"The man in the white armour; we are pursuing him. We need to know what he knows about a certain incident that we are investigating."
I knew better than to ask questions about the "certain incident", though I was even more curios than ever. These two were definitely not normal SLA operatives, unless their presumably extremely high security clearance made them appear strange to others because of what they knew.
"We think he was responsible for the death of someone fairly important to our current political affairs, and it appears that he hired agents from here to accomplish that deed."
"Where do I fit into this?"
"When this person came here he set up a kind of headquarters very close to where we are now, or so we surmise. The gang members who died probably found him by mistake, and when he disposed of them it started the gang war. Then, when we arrived, we were forced to take steps to ensure our safety, leading to the rash of deaths that followed. Finally the SLA operatives arrived and Harihn killed them too.
"Then you arrived. You were slightly more than Harihn's agents were expecting, so he made a personal appearance to combat what he thought was an attack from one of our assets. The rest you know."
"Not entirely. Why am I here now?"
"That experiment of yours rattled some cages. He knows someone is around here now, so has probably taken steps to ensure his safety, and part of that will be dealing with you."
"Me?" I asked, surprised.
"You sent him the calling card, and I would guess he still thinks you to be connected with us. He has enough ability to seek you out so as to confront you, find out what you know and then in all likelihood kill you. That's when we shall strike and get him."
"So I will be the bait?" I sat down and began to wish I had brought that spare Power Reaper with me.
"You should not be in too much danger; I think you can handle it. Besides, I think you could be a good investment and it would be a shame to waste you." Fiona smiled sweetly while Bleys chuckled quietly to himself.
I picked up my favourite Blitzer; if they tensed I never saw it. I checked the load and holstered it.
"Just one question: what was that 'calling card'? I'm sure now it was not a true Glyph Card. What was it?"
Fiona looked intently at me for a moment before replying.
--------------------------------------------------Two hours later I "relaxed" in a seedy bar in Downtown called "The Nest". Under a big, ragged robe I wore my Deathsuit and Blitzers. A MAC knife was sheathed on each thigh and a small FEN Blitzkrieg subgun rested in my lap, hanging from one shoulder on it's sling. I carried a few other surprises as well. My helmet was concealed in a thick canvas bag beside me. I slouched in the seat, concealed by the cloak, a perfect study in potential energy waiting to be released.
Few people paid me any attention. I had staggered in and slumped in the corner seat just over an hour previously, once Fiona, Bleys and I had agreed that this corner of the New New Hampton district was perfect for an ambush. The streets were cluttered, there were numerous back alleys and plenty of cover. Plus there was nothing anyone from Above was interested in or cared about, pretty much ruling out any SLA interventions.
There was an explosion outside. It took all of my willpower not to leap into action; instead I mumbled incoherently, sticking with my vagrant disguise. The second explosion rocked the bar and knocked me out of my seat.
I leapt up and threw off the robe. People who were already fleeing scattered even more when they saw my Deathsuit. I pulled on my helmet and drew a Blitzer before heading towards the hole in the wall facing the street.
Outside, behind some rubble and a rusted shell of some cheap automobile, I could see the white armoured figure of Harihn accompanied by perhaps eight men wearing gear that suggested Harihn had brought more DN ops. When they saw me framed in the smoking hole in the wall the agents opened fire, hitting a few civilians but missing me completely.
A quick calculation later and I was protected by a sphere of hardened air; another projected me down the road like an overpowered Silverback and into cover behind some more rubble. The gunfire failed to follow me with any accuracy and at the greater range was even less accurate than ever.
I stood and quickly aimed through the sight on the back of the Blitzer in my right hand. A pull of the trigger put a hole through the head of one of the DN agents; several rounds flattened against my shield before ricocheting away.
Then some of my backup arrived. Two of the suits of Silverback I had seen in Fiona's workroom leapt down from the rooftops to grapple with the soldiers. They were tougher and quicker than most men as they were empty and heavily reinforced. Somehow Fiona and Bleys had acquired powersuits that were controlled by internal computers; they moved in all ways like incredibly fast and skilled operatives. Armed with MAC knives they were lethal in close quarters, especially since they were so resilient.
They drew fire away from me but also momentarily drew my attention too; dangerously so, as the rubble I crouched behind began to be chipped away by bursts of much more accurate (and thus closer) automatic fire. My shield suffered serious degradation from that gunfire, so as I crouched back down into cover I strengthened it, especially around the head. Suitably protected, I took a look over the rubble to look for my newest assailants.
The four men had somehow been concealed about halfway between my location and The Nest. They were very different to the DN combat squad that had accompanied Harihn before, and from those who were grouped around him fighting the robot Silverbacks. They wore what looked to be solid armour; that is to say the armour appeared to have no joints of any sort, instead appearing to be made from one solid, dark red plastic block. There were no markings on the surface of the armour, not even any kind of goggles, visors or helmet cameras. Each "man" appeared to have a sword over his back, partly concealed by the sort cloak somehow attached to the shoulders of the armour, and carried some kind of heavy SMG or snub assault rifle.
Beyond the smoking ruin of the bar I could see another, similar group moving towards the main group, keeping behind cover.
I let loose a protracted burst from one of my 'Kriegs at the nearest group. The mixed HP and AP rounds tore up the walls around the alley the squad was crouched in, while some appeared to hit the men but had no effect; they actually seemed to ricochet off their armour. The 'Krieg rounds are not very powerful, but I had expected them to penetrate the armour a little.
The soldiers snuck back into cover and fired wild covering fire, hitting the few civilians who had yet to reach decent shelter.
There was a loud BOOM and one of the soldiers crouched closest to the mouth of the alley toppled backwards with a hole in his chest. Strangely, the armour appeared to ripple as he fell and, even more oddly, gave off flickers of red fire. A few seconds later another BOOM was followed by a hole appearing in the wall next to the alley; Bleys' big rifle at work. He had established himself in a sniper's position on the (now rather shaky) roof of The Nest and proceeded to direct his attention towards tying up the squad coming from the other end of the street.
I took a step back and then leapt up into the air, projected by a healthy dose of Flux up and over the street and onto one of the roofs above the nearest soldiers; I dubbed them Alpha, the other Beta. From that vantage point I could see that one of the robot Silverbacks had been downed by a several sustained bursts of fire that had cost the DN agents two of their number. The second unit had retreated onto the rooftops as I had, and was occupying the attentions of the remaining four ops with it's twin pistols. Beta looked to be trapped behind a fallen wall by Bleys' rifle, though that cover was being slowly whittled away.
I pulled out one of my little surprises and activated it before dropping it down into the alley behind Alpha. The grenade detonated, throwing the squad out of the alley and actually injuring the rearmost man. He staggered out and was summarily dropped by a Blitzer shot from above. By that point they had all but figured out where I was, so I dropped another grenade on them and leapt across the street and up into some of the ever-present Downtown girders that hold up the 'sky' (the upper levels).
While they tried to figure out where I was another died from a Blitzer shot. Clearly the more powerful fifty cal AP round was better than the weaker 'Krieg rounds. Only one man was left, so he decided to retreat in a surprising fashion; a strange drawing on the Ebb marked his disappearance from the field of battle in an explosion of fire.
Another explosion drew my attention to the vicinity of The Nest. A cloud of smoke (probably from a grenade) obscured the roof of the bar, while the second Silverback drone staggered backwards with a gaping hole in it's chestplate. Harihn lowered his hands and I guessed from the melted chest of the robot that he had zapped it with one of his plasma bursts. Another explosion on the rooftops coupled with movement amongst the Beta squad suggested that someone in that group had a grenade launcher of some kind.
I performed a fairly lengthy Ebb calculation and was rewarded with the slight shimmering to my vision that told me I had been rendered mostly invisible. I leapt from where I hid (with more help from the Ebb) and landed a short distance away from Harihn's position. Another leap took me over the top of them in the direction of Beta, who were sneaking up the street towards the area of The Nest.
I landed behind them and hit the rearmost one with a double strike from my MACs. They stuck firmly in his back (I was glad of that) and he reacted as one would expect, dropping his gun and reached backwards while staggering and falling over. I knocked him down with a close burst from the 'Krieg and finished him with a Blitzer round in the head. Then I dove for cover as his companions turned to react to this attack.
No sooner had I got into an alley behind a solid girder but several drawings on the Ebb warned me of an attack, as did my Ebb-enhanced danger sense and my Deathsuit both. I ducked and several red bolts of fire or plasma filled the air around me; two exploded, scattering bits of brick and wood all around. My shield absorbed much of the blasts, so I ran fast and low across the street while unleashing some blasts of my own.
Two medium Red Thermal fireballs exploded amongst them, scattering them but having little effect beyond that. When I got down behind a now rather heavily damaged car I loosed the most powerful Force Bolt I could manage, and took the head off one of my attackers.
Yet another explosion by the now very wrecked Nest made me glance that way. Harihn and the men with him had been blown out of their cover by some kind of massive fireball. Two of the ops lay smoking in the street while a third lay dead at the Silverback drone's feet. The fourth op took that opportunity to fire a burst from his weapon at close range into the back of the drone, which caused it to stagger and then fall, shuddering in a way that suggested it would not be getting back up.
The last man in Beta was distracted so I took him out with a Force Bolt.That left Harihn and one DN agent to deal with.
--------------------------------------------------Confident that Harihn would not use his plasma bolt at close range I took an Ebb-boosted leap over to where he hid behind the rusted car. He glanced around when he heard me land but the hectic background behind helped to conceal me; the chameleon effect was only so good, but effective if used properly. He then looked back to the card he was holding.
I could feel the cool sensation gathering, but it felt different. Whatever it was, I decided to try and stop it by attacking Harihn. I tried to soften him up by using Senses to strike him blind, but I could feel the structured wave of Ebb Flux just flow around him as if he were a rock in a sewer pipe. He did not resist it, as such; it just could not touch him.
The power continued to build. As it reached a crescendo Fiona's voice came over the radio.
"Get back: something is coming through."
As I stepped back Harihn turned to face the open area next to the car and extended his hands. There was another of those rainbow flickerings and something appeared out of it. Something large.
It was maybe ten feet tall, heavily built and humanoid. It looked a little like a blend of a Carrion and a Chagrin, but with many more spines and claws. On top of that, it's skin was striped black and red and seemed to smoke in some places. Looking into it's eyes was like looking into two Power Reaper barrels.
It turned around where it stood to get it's bearings. It saw Harihn and grumbled to him in some strange language and he answered it, pointing towards the ruins of The Nest. It nodded, turned and leapt surprisingly nimbly into the wrecked building and began tearing the place apart.
I just stood there and watched in astonishment.
I heard Harihn chanting behind me so I shook myself out of my daze and turned to face him as he turned towards me and removed his helmet.
He was revealed to be a normal man, albeit a man with dark red skin and yellow eyes. His smile was cold and revealed some sharp teeth. The smile made me instinctively draw my Blitzers.
"Give it up, little man," he said. His voice was level, calm and unworried and carried a hint of some strange yet elusively familiar accent. "You can not hope to oppose one such as I. I am your superior in every way."
I remained calm and pointed the Blitzers at him.
"Are you so sure?" I asked him.
"Of course," he replied, unruffled. "I am a Lord of Chaos. You, however powerful you may seem, are merely of Shadow. My powers far outstrip yours."
I kept the pistols aimed at his head and held a Force Bolt ready.
"And were those soldiers Lords of Chaos too? They went down easily enough."
"They were but peons, warriors with no true Power to speak of."
Fiona's voice whispered in my ear through the radio.
"Be careful. He is a powerful entity, but not without weaknesses."
I switched to whisper mode on my radio.
"What was that creature?" I asked her.
"Some variety of combat-oriented demon, probably quite powerful to be this far from home. It's gone in search of Bleys."
During this brief conversation Harihn had drawn his sword over his shoulder and now held it ready. It looked as if it had been carved from a huge bone; the back of the blade still bore teeth, as if it were made from a giant's jawbone. He looked at it a moment before shifting it into his left hand.
"I will not demean this blade with the taste of your flesh," he announced. "I would rather have it taste royal blood, the blood of the witch Fiona, but we shall both taste it soon. You, however, shall die slowly for your impertinence."
He smiled again and his grin seemed to grow wider as he did. Then I saw that he was actually getting bigger; his shoulders widened, his arms grew slightly longer and his face began to look more and more like that of a Carrion, with the usual horns and fangs. His armour even expanded somehow to accommodate these changes. I first thought that perhaps he was some kind of super-Vevaphon, Karma's biogenetic shape changers, but the way the changes occurred looked nothing like theirs do.
He eventually ended up looking similar to a Stormer-Xeno cross, but without the drooling. He made a gesture towards the wrecked bar and called out surprisingly loudly in that peculiar language he had used before. A loud, rasping voice answered and the 'demon' pushed it's way through a side wall onto the street. I moved back as it stepped out into the street, slit nostrils flaring. Harihn called to it again and it's dead, black eyes turned on me.
"I have given you to Tir'Ran as an offering, an appetiser," Harihn declared. "He will get the main course soon enough." Smiling coldly in a satisfied manner he stepped back towards the alley behind him to watch the show.
I promptly emptied both Blitzers into the demon, but they had little effect, serving only to enrage it. It roared like a hundred angry Mutant Carrions and crouched low, arms outstretched, like a man trying to catch a small animal. The comparison was painfully appropriate.
The rapid flurry of Red Thermal and Force bolts that followed had more of an effect; burns and holes appeared in the chest of the demon, causing it to stagger backwards slightly. It continued to stalk me, however, and as I circled around and retreated further up the road I could see the oldest wounds closing up and healing.
Harihn walked behind it, watching the demon pursue me with a fanged, predator's smile on his face.
I decided to try and get to him and avoid the demon at the same time, so I charged up what little of my Flux remained and calculated a quick line of sight teleportation. I appeared about twenty feet behind Harihn, which confused the two of them mightily. Harihn tracked me down first, probably using some Ebb sense, and called the demon's attention to me before moving aside so it could pass.
My reservoir of Flux was beginning to be seriously depleted, a considerable achievement when one considered how much I and my Deathsuit could accumulate. I was beginning to run out of options.
I scrabbled behind me for my 'Krieg and opened fire on Harihn only to find he was protected by a shield of some kind; the hail of bullets dissolved into steam as they struck it, causing the shield to flicker like red neon. He was, naturally, unconcerned and probably did not really notice as he watched the demon gather itself for an unstoppable charge.
Then there was a bright blue flash from behind the demon and it suddenly bellowed in agony, reaching behind it's back to get at whatever was that had caused it pain. Another roar was accompanied by a golden flicker and another blue flash at the back of it's left leg. The demon tried to turn around to face it's attacker but staggered around clumsily instead, slowed by the wounds that were beginning to burn with blue flame.
As the demon turned it's assailant came into view. Bleys, his armour slightly blackened by fire but otherwise apparently unharmed, waved his sword threateningly at the massive creature. Amazingly, it flinched back from it. Somehow his golden sword had seriously injured it where my weapons and Ebb powers had been unable to.
Obviously Bleys had evaded first the grenade attack and then the searching beast, then made his move.
After making the creature retreat back a few yards he waved jauntily at me while he kept one eye (metaphorically speaking) on the demon.
"You deal with Harihn, nephew, while I dispatch this creature!" he called out.
"Nephew?" I thought.
Harihn, as had obviously been intended, heard this comment and turned to face me from where he had been watching the advance of the demon.
"Then perhaps you are worthy of my blade, young one! Come," he cried, "feed my blade!" He began to advance on me, sword held ready in one hand.
"Then drop your protection," I told him. "Any man can defeat another when he fights from behind a solid wall. Are you a coward?"
He smiled coldly at my comment, refusing to rise to the insult. The faint flickering of his shield did vanish, though. The only weapons I had to match his were my MAC knives, but I also had a few Ebb tricks up my Deathsuit's sleeves, though little in the way of Flux to implement them.
The melee had a simple rhythm to it. He chopped and sliced while I dodged and deflected the occasional blow with the MAC. Then I would attempt to get close enough to him to get a hit while he just held me back at sword's length. We circled and got nowhere.
Behind Harihn I could see Bleys slowly cutting the demon into pieces. I debated techniques; I did not really want to try for becoming an Ebb Beast as it would take too long, and I did not really have enough Flux to spare if a quick escape or trick was needed. Bolts and the like required too much concentration to be used in a melee and I would end up skewered. Then I got it.
The first Harihn would have noticed was a slight reddening around my head. This was quickly followed by a noticeable increase in heat around me and a few licks of flame appearing on the ground underneath my feet. I think he guessed what was coming and leapt back just in time to avoid the explosive manifestation of a sphere of fire around me, about ten feet in diameter.
Now all Harihn could see of me was a dark figure in the centre of a fireball, while I could see quite well (other than a distinctly red tinge to everything). He could not get close to me without risking burning like a candle. I was insulated from the effects, of course, otherwise it would have been pointless.
Harihn stood back and took this development in. After a brief moment of thought he raised his hands in the manner I had come to associate with his strange plasma blasts, but different. I had planned for this, however, and was relying on the hope that whatever it was that he was doing had enough of the Ebb in it for my trick to work.
He drew his hands apart to reveal a sphere of red light about a foot across. The sphere elongated towards me slightly then became a bolt of red energy that hissed though the fiery globe towards my head.
I called upon the Ebb and channelled all my remaining Flux into forming the reflecting effect; Rebound! I had to use it all as I was not sure how much power the thing held. The bolt stopped for a heartbeat right at the end of my nose, quivering, before it suddenly reversed direction straight back at Harihn.
I think it was that brief moment of hesitation that caused Harihn to be surprised by the return of the bolt. He had obviously not been expecting it. But he did react quite quickly when it began to retrace it's path, though his attempt at dodging was not really successful. On top of that the bolt was poorly redirected and suffered some from a certain amount of scattering too. The narrow bolt was transformed into a weaker, larger blast that engulfed Harihn, lifting him off his feet and throwing him back about ten feet. His armour fizzed, giving off a white, nasty-smelling vapour, and the body underneath probably got burnt more than a little as well.
Harihn screamed for a brief moment before going limp.
All my energy gone, the fire globe dissipated, leaving me trembling on my feet. I slumped down onto my knees and panted with exhaustion as a serious migraine came on. I could make out my Deathsuit grumbling almost below my level of awareness; I promised it (and me) a serious holiday.
Bleys came over, wiping his steaming blade on a rag he had picked up somewhere. Behind him the demon smoked and fizzled with blue flame. He nudged the still body of Harihn with one foot.
"Nice work," he said.
Fiona picked her way across the battlefield towards us. She gave the burning demon a cursory glance before crouching down next to the prostrate form of Harihn. She held her hands over the body and then ran them up the torso and over his head before nodding in a satisfied way to herself.
"Is he still alive?" Bleys asked.
"Yes," she replied, "though only just."
"Still alive?" I asked incredulously. "How is that possible?"
"He's a shapeshifter," Fiona replied in a way that suggested I was being a little dense. "As soon as the bolt hit him he went into a healing coma. Most people would think him dead and thus leave him to recover enough to get to a hospital, or somewhere similar."
I shook my head; it was all becoming too much for me.
Fiona looked up at me.
"I think someone in Central has heard of the trouble down here," she advised us.
"How do you know?" I asked her.
"I heard it over the radio, of course. They are sending a team or three to investigate a 'major DarkNight incursion'. We should probably move out."
"So now we need to talk about young Intruder's long-term options," Bleys said, grinning.
"What are these 'options'?" I asked.
"Well," said Fiona, "you could stay here and end up being persecuted or made into some kind of guinea pig for tests."
"Or, you could come with us, receive training regarding that Trump card you tried to duplicate… And you could discover the truth about yourself and your heritage."
"Such as why Bleys here called me 'nephew'?"
Fiona turned to Bleys.
"You called him that?" Bleys shrugged.
"It got Harihn to attack him so I could concentrate on the beast and save you from harm, dear sister." He grinned as she raised her eyes in a mock suffering expression.
"And if I went with you," I interrupted, "where would we be going?"
Bleys and Fiona looked at each other and smiled small mirror image smiles that spoke of private jokes aplenty.
"Amber," said Fiona.