Disclaimer: Wild ARMs isn't mine. The belong to Media Vision. Or XSeed. Or whoever the fuck owns the rights these days. I'm too lazy to give a damn, really...

~V~

- The First Prologue: Virginia Maxwell -
"Death Comes On Swift Wings"

~V~

Wanna know what it's like to have a price on your head? It's kinda like having that tickle-feeling on the back of your neck, that sense that you're being watched… only, it never really goes away.

Unless you're wasted. Then you won't care.

Take that in whatever sense you will.

– excerpt from Dream Chasers, the memoirs of Virginia Maxwell

~V~

- Part One -
"Last Laughs"

~V~

"I never had a chance to meet this Clive Winslet bloke. Jet tells me he liked to drone on about all kinds of academic bullshit. Virginia said the same thing, except reworded to make him sound more endearing… honestly, he probably would have bored the shit out of me. That said… he was the family man, right? Why did it have to be him that croaked? It's like God was just feeling all vindictive that day, or something…"

— excerpt from a letter written by Nathan Winchester, sent to his lover in Winchester Heights five months after he resumed his travels as a Drifter

~V~

Two weeks before that "fateful" encounter, Virginia Maxwell was sitting alone at a table in the Ballack Rise village saloon, and for the first time in her life had decided she wanted to know what it felt like to drink irresponsibly. This was a place that was quite a bit further away from the rest of the world than any other city she'd been to, and it was a fair bit risky for her to be here — not so much because the residents might rat on her, but rather because without the Teleport Orb, which Gallows had been carrying when (DON'T GO THERE DON'T THINK IT JUST DRINK), it wouldn't exactly be easy to get back.

She'd only been able to even get here in the first place by hitching a ride with a prominent traveling salesman — Roykman — and his Teleport Orb. She wasn't likely to find another one of her own anytime soon. Teleport Orbs were rare, remnants of a time long dead and gone. According to her now-dead archeologist companion, they were widely believed to be a lost technology of the Elw, and the humans of today were completely incapable of duplicating them. Like the ancient art of Crest Sorcery that had produced such arcane wonders as the Crest Graphs she made such frequent use of, the knowledge of exactly how such artifacts worked or had been made had been lost to the sands of time — the sands that ate away at the collective minds of the world's populace as surely as the crashing waves of Filgaia's sand-oceans wore away at the shores.

Seriously, losing the Sandcraft had been a blow. Losing the horses (more specifically, losing three over the course of a month and a half, and then having to put the fourth one out of its misery three weeks later) had been heart-wrenching. Losing the Teleport Orb was like… like… like someone up there wanted to rub salt on the bleeding stump of her mobility. Like, "Heya, Ginny! Clive is dead and Gallows is gone, probably dead too! But that's not enough for me, now I'm going to take your last convenient mode of transportation so running the hell away takes some actual effort now! So, bleh!" (Gods, my brain sounds really bratty when I'm wasted, Virginia mused through her biggest hiccup yet.)

Getting drunk was a spontaneous thing that had caught even Virginia by surprise. She'd been drunk before, of course, but only mildly so. Still in charge of her wits and all that, like that time at the Baskar Colony, when they were celebrating the massive and extremely epic vaporization of a certain blue-armored demon knight. She'd never been honest-to-gods drunk, never been plastered on a wall before.

See, Ballack Rise had been her choice for a supply stop for a couple of reasons.

Reason the First: because it was impossible to reach via any means but the air, meaning she'd probably catch a slight break from looking over her shoulder.

Reason the Second: because the villagers here had all been acquainted with Clive Winslet, who had apparently accepted a monster-hunting assignment here at some point (they'd been healthily skeptical when the wanted posters first went up, but Virginia guessed that their sparkling personalities had eventually won them over, or some shit like that I DON'T KNOW I'LL THINK ABOUT THAT WHEN I'M SOBER).

Reason the Last: because Ballack Rise was the furthest town from Jolly Roger she could think of off the top of her head, and she'd gone and gotten herself spotted… and Roykman had been in town at the time. He was a decent enough fellow, not prone to swallowing bullshit, an acquaintance from the road who'd been nice enough to ignore the fact that he was selling antidotes to a quartet of outlaws.

Gods, and it RAMBLES when I'm drunk, too. I wonder how scatterbrained the hangover'll be…

Anyway, which one had set her off? OH YEAH, that would be Reason the Second. It hadn't occurred to her until after Roykman had dropped her off, and that weird barkeep (the one with the narrow eyes, white labcoat, and receding hairline) had asked how Clive was doing and why she was by herself, that she just might be breaking the news about Clive's death a couple times while she was here.

That had set her off.

She probably shouldn't drink herself silly while on the run from every bounty hunter in the known universe, she realized. And then she shrugged and asked for another.

~V~

Two months and two weeks before the fateful hangover:

The three members of the so-called "Maxwell Gang" that hadn't yet deserted the so-called "Maxwell Gang" were hoofing it, sans the hooves. The hooves were all dead. It was hard to think of the horses attached to them when you had so many blisters on your foot, Virginia found, but she still felt a bit like a self-centered bitch when she realized she'd been identifying their dearly departed mounts by the fact that it was presently their own feet doing all the walking instead of OH MY DARLING RAFTINA THAT STINGS.

A single mis-step: Virginia hissed in pain and hopped up on one foot, catching her other in her hand and swearing like a sailor. It was a sight that Clive, bringing up the rear guard of the party formation, found amusing enough to crack a smile, but Gallows, who was up front (and thus looking the other way) first reacted by whirling around and drawing his modified Coyote M17F sawed-off shotgun. As he half-panicked, looking back and forth for an imagined assailant, Clive's amused grin cracked into a stupid, twisted thing, the sort of look that you have on your face when you're trying not to laugh and being totally fucking obvious about it.

Seeing Clive's retarded I'm totally not laughing at our fearless leader's excruciating discomfort expression, Gallows regarded the spectacle of the Drifter lady in the magenta dress with the nicely-done hair and the normally charming and innocent demeanor… bouncing on a single foot and howling curses at the uncaring, sunny sky.

Gallows wasn't as tactful as Clive, so naturally he just cracked the hell up.

Virginia turned a sour look on Clive, who stood leaning upon his proud and trusty Gungnir HAG35 sniper rifle as if it were a crutch, clutching his abdomen as if in mortal agony.

"Yes, yes, it's all so high-larious, isn't it, that I'm walking on pincushions while the rest of you have perfectly pretty feet sweating up stinkystorms in your own boots without having to worry about fucking blisters —!"

Those last two words were another yelp of pain, as in her temper, she'd stomped her right foot down in indignation — which was the foot that was in so much pain. Which was a very stupid thing to do.

The blisters were a sideplot all their own, involving an epic and perilous trek through Sunset Peak in search of a man who'd robbed a bank in Southfarm, attempted to escape to East Highlands by train, and… had a Teleport Orb on him at the time. Roykman's, in fact, which he'd stolen some weeks before in Boot Hill by sheer coincidence. They hadn't actually known about the bank robbery until after the fact (that had happened in Winchester, a somewhat secluded keeps-to-itself village situated on a mountainside of the Southfarm region that Virginia hadn't actually known about until recently). Roykman had enlisted their aid in retrieving the item. As they were still contemplating the risks of using their own Teleport Orb to quickly inquire at any towns the sod might have beamed off to, they'd checked with the ticket-stand guy the Southfarm train station, and learned of a suspicious-looking character who'd bought a ticket to East Highlands and… just up and disappeared.

Which had sent Virginia into a hysterical fit of giggles not unlike the one gripping Clive at this very moment. But the important point is that they'd found the thief, knees shaking and the crotch of his pants bearing a rather foul-smelling stain, hiding from the local wildlife in the lobby of a small ruin Virginia knew to be one of the twenty Millennium Puzzles. The point that hadn't struck Virginia as important until the blisters hit was that she spent half the trip there and the entire trip back with a bare right foot, the boot having been mauled beyond functionality by a small, sneaky little bastard of a monster who'd run off before Virginia could retaliate.

So yeah, let's all laugh at the valiant and fearless leader as she suffers the consequences of being a goody two-shoes in only one shoe! Virginia seethed, sitting flat on her ass in the middle of the modest grass-speckled East Highlands region, attempting to rub her foot through the replacement boot she'd bought in Boot Hill (I see what you did there, she thought bitterly as she spotted the pun) after the whole escapade had concluded. They were now (she reckoned) about halfway between the East Highlands station and the village of Humphrey's Peak. She was going to get her skirt all grass-stained again, but what the hell, her feet hurt. She just wished Teleport Orbs weren't so flashy. They wouldn't even have to walk if they didn't have to worry so much about bounty hunters descending on them like vultures every time they materialized.

Clive was the first to collect himself, straightening his glasses and standing to attention, straining to hold back that last bubble of laughter before clearing his throat and saying, "Aah — apologies, Virginia, you — surprised us —"

Gallows was still laughing at this point. Virginia scowled at him, but it was a softer scowl this time. She tried to remember the last time the team had genuinely laughed like this, and couldn't. Suddenly the fact that it was at her expense didn't really seem to matter all that much.

Then she realized how foulmouthed she'd been, blushed, covered her mouth for several moments, and then asked aloud:

"Uh… where, exactly… did I pick up the phrase 'wangsucking pillbug needlecunt'…?"

A long, awkward silence filled the fifteen seconds or so following the question. And then Clive was leaning on his rifle again, looking as though his windpipe was about the make a violent exit through the lower-left corner of his ribcage.

During this little episode, none of them saw the black hawk that had glided in from the west, circling in the sky above them exactly one time, surveying them with its piercing eyes — they, its assigned prey — before flying off in the exact direction from which it had come.

Not that any of them would have guessed the significance, even if they had.

~V~

A knock on the door snapped Catherine Winslet from her reverie in the kitchen. And the moment it did, she completely forgot she was cooking, let alone what it was that might burn (it was nowhere near dinner time, but she was in one of those "I just have to do something with my hands" moods). She tried to retain enough composure not to run to the door—it was getting harder and harder these days — and reminded herself that it probably wasn't even —

She heard the front door open in the living room. Then, the blissful voice of her only daughter, cheering in delight:

"Daddy!"

It is! she thought, and almost made a break for it, then caught herself, put on a calm, happy smile, and stepped out of the kitchen.

~V~

Virginia stepped into the house first, clearly favoring one foot over the other.

"Hi — ow — Kaitlyn, how have you — ow — been? Oh, hey, Mrs. Win— OW — Mrs. Winslet, it's been a — ow, ow, OW… OW." A pause, as she took a deep breath, and then: "It's been a while!"

Catherine stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, regarding Virginia's schizophrenic greeting — which flashed back and forth between honest cheery greeting and honest wincing "OW" every couple of words or so — with an expression which could have been worry, bemusement, or simply blank "Huh?"

Clive, watching all of this from outside the doors, tried not to give into another bout of The Chuckles, tried to remain The Calm One (As Ever), but it was a losing battle, so instead he stepped into the house behind his team leader, resolutely keeping his eyes on the ceiling, the only un-funny thing in the room. He could still feel the corner of his mouth trying to twitch into a grin as he answered his wife's questioning look.

"Ah, our leader seems to have contracted an extreme case of this is why you don't run on rocky ground with bare feet. You'll never run on rocky ground with bare feet, will you, Kaitlyn?"

The small girl, possibly the cutest little girl Virginia had ever seen in her entire life, who wasn't quite as young as she'd been three years ago but was still in that absurdly cute phase of her life by what Virginia had decided to be the sheer force of her innate cuteness, shook her head and brightly replied:

"Oh no, I did that last week, Mommy says the bubble on my foot was a bad listener and that it'd pop and sting real bad if I played with it."

"That's 'bad blister,' Kait," Catherine tried to say, only to be drowned out by the sudden gale of laughter that erupted from Virginia, Clive, and Gallows (stepping through the door at that moment) all at once.

Before the other two had even stopped laughing, Clive had strode around the table and hoisted his daughter into the world's most long-overdue hug. When it had subsided, Clive said in a more fatherly tone, "Well, let's promise on your ribbons that you'll never run on rocky ground without shoes again."

"I'll promise better than that! I'll promise on that gross foot-bubble."

"Well, I suppose that works, as well…"

~V~

Whatever else Virginia might have been feeling about their presence in Humphrey's Peak that night, she knew one thing above all else: hot water… was God. And that was the truth of the Universe uttered in a single orgasmic breath.

Seriously, she wanted to just sink right into the bath and never come back up, but, alas, that pesky need for oxygen kind of forced her to spend most of the time with her head above the water. Damn those selfish goddamn lungs. Well, shoot. She was last in line, so she could sit here for pretty much however long she felt like, and that was good, because she needed it. Hadn't realized just how much until she'd stripped down and felt all of her tension just float away into that abyss of hot, steamy, watery goodness.

They'd had dinner; or, more appropriately, they'd eaten a relatively hearty lunch/dinner combo meal a short while after they'd arrived, which had been at a random hour somewhere between lunch time and dinner time. They'd been hungry (having opted to skip lunch in favor of just getting there a bit sooner), and Catherine had insisted on it, anyway. And Catherine was quite the cook. Weird how you came to appreciate simple things like good food and hot baths oh so much more when you'd spent the better part of three years not even being able to check in to most two-bit inns.

Virginia was feeling more and more uncomfortable with these family visits, and had spaced them out farther and farther apart as time had gone on. She knew it was a risk, but even though she could shut her conscience up and let Aunt Shalte worry for a little longer than she herself was strictly comfortable with, she couldn't really do the same when it came to the Winslet family. When she thought of the worry they must be feeling (she could see how Catherine's expression became strained now and again, as she watched her husband while he wasn't watching her, or as the conversation shifted to their drifting activities from time to time), Virginia's insides squirmed with guilt. She must have dealt with a fair amount of stress in the days when Clive was just an average drifting bounty hunter, but back then he hadn't had other bounty hunters gunning for him.

She also couldn't bear to keep her companions away from their families. On the one hand, they all knew full well the risks of possibly involving their loved ones in any attempts on the "Maxwell Gang's" hefty dead-or-alive reward, but on the other hand, she'd also come to realize that occasionally reminding them that there were people who cared, who would welcome them home with open arms, unconditionally and no matter how hard the wind was blowing against them — it helped them maintain their sanity.

The news that Catherine had brought to her attention earlier in the day had made Virginia want to pack up and run for the hills this time, though.

~V~

Backing up by about four hours, Virginia was helping Catherine in the kitchen. She wasn't helping to cook. She was terrible at cooking anything more complicated or classy than a wild rat or squirrel — wasteland survival she could handle; fine cuisine… not so much. But she was willing to help out just the same. Sitting down. Where her feet couldn't pester her. So she was peeling corn.

As for the others, those lazy good-for-nothing heroes were enjoying the soft couch and the rare opportunity to banter undisturbed. Virginia hadn't actually volunteered, however — rather she had been volunteered, Catherine calling out to her with a "request" for an extra pair of hands. Virginia knew full well that Catherine didn't need, or want, any help with the food (especially from Little Miss Butterfingers Maxwell who had somehow managed to screw up scrambled eggs beyond edibility). That she had selected Virginia before Kaitlyn, though, that'd set off a clear warning bell in Virginia's mind.

So the silence was almost tense enough that you could actually hear it as Virginia waited patiently for Catherine to pop whatever question she was currently gathering the courage to ask.

Eventually, Catherine put down whatever she'd been working with (Virginia's back was turned) and spoke up. Finally. Virginia thought she might go insane and start snapping at passing leprechauns if the silence went on for much longer.

"Tell me honestly," Catherine said with an admirably steady voice, "what you think the chances are. Of all this coming to a happy end, I mean."

Virginia stopped peeling a cob a quarter-way through, stared at it for a bit, and set the corn slowly down in the "still not finished" bowl on the small, round table she sat at, and then she slowly slid around to where she was sitting sideways in her chair — where she could stare out the back window of the house, out at the East Highlands wasteland horizon.

The East Highlands had always been a bit on the greener side by Filgaia's standards, but it was a bit more greener than she remembered…

Virginia stared out at the horizon for a long time, and Catherine stared at her for a long time, not pressing for an answer, probably knowing all she wanted from Virginia's volume-blaring silence. Virginia felt obliged to answer the question, but couldn't, and somehow couldn't lie, and —

"It's just not fair," she murmured, and heard Catherine stir slightly. Virginia gazed out the window on the far side of the Winslets' homely little kitchen, almost talking to herself but not quite, and she realized that she was giving her answer even though what she said in no way qualified as a direct response to Catherine's question.

She gazed out the window, eyes verily glazed over, seeing through the window but no longer really seeing beyond it. She was almost completely spaced out now, not even paying enough attention to notice the bitter look on her own face.

"It's not fair," her voice said, and Virginia felt more like a spectator now, though she couldn't deny that a large part of her agreed with what she was saying. "The world has a future now, see it? It's right there. It wasn't there before. I…" she gulped down a suddenly very dry part of her own throat and continued: "I don't like to brag, but the four of us—we fought so hard to make that future possible, and now it's like—it's like the world we gave that future to won't share it with us."

Her voice stayed no louder than a murmur, no louder than she and Catherine and no one else could hear, but the edge that voice had taken on was undeniable. And for some reason, with no transition that Virginia could detect, she found herself snapped out of that isolated little world by Catherine's hug, and Catherine was saying something and Virginia realized that she had a hint of a tear's ghost cooling a thin line down the right side of her own face and —

~V~

— and Catherine, who had come to think of Virginia as a little sister of sorts over the past three years, found herself strangely terrified by the uncharacteristic bitter resentment seeping out of her husband's Drifter companion, usually so bubbly and optimistic and full of smiles and laughs. And so she'd locked her in a sudden, frantic, reflexive embrace, spouting words of encouragement that were probably hollow and definitely uninspired, not really hearing them herself — she could only think of how selfish she'd been not to think of what they must be feeling, to have thought of her own worries before considering theirs, and of how tactless the question had been —

~V~

"Aah, I'm fine, I'm fine!" Virginia sputtered, feeling her face burn, firmly (but gently) rejecting Catherine's sisterly hug, pushing the woman back to her feet. "Sorry, I've just had — a rough couple of months, y'know, team leader and all."

She tried to smile, but never mind feeling bitter or resentful of the world — it was just really hard to smile a genuine smile when your own embarrassment felt like it was searing your cheeks off.

Catherine considered her for a long time, and then remembered that she was supposed to be making dinner. She returned to her work with a kind of floaty, pensive attitude about her every move, hands working slowly, almost dreamily, and (had Virginia not returned to the corn) with an expression somewhere in the realm between relief and melancholy.

It was a good two minutes before Catherine, almost as if there had been no pause in the conversation, and seemingly as if the awkward moment hadn't happened, said, in perfectly conversational tones:

"I bet you've been having a rough time, what with the bounty going up and all —"

"The bounty's gone up?"

Virginia said this with such honest, clueless surprise that Catherine couldn't stop herself from looking over her own shoulder and half-exclaiming, "You didn't know?"

~V~

Remembering it almost scared Virginia away from that happy hotwater-bath place she'd snuggled into at the back of her mind as she reclined in the hot water. But only "almost."

As it turned out (and as Virginia had been too lost in her own thoughts to notice on the way into the kitchen), there were two posters on the counter, shuffled off to the side to make way for Catherine's culinary things. One of them was the wanted poster they'd all come to know and love — except now the poster advertised a reward in the five-hundred-thousand gella range, almost five times what the price had been the last time they'd looked, which had been — aaaaah, it was hard to say, she was sure they'd spied the notice in Boot Hill, but it might not even have been up-to-date, and they hadn't really looked, but Aunt Shalte and Uncle Tesla hadn't said anything, so…

…In any event, it was the other poster that had set a fleet of hyperactive butterflies afloat in her digestives. This one advertised a contest, calling out with obvious sarcasm to the "Fine, Upstanding Men & Women" of the Outrider Drifters' Guild to bring the still-at-large Maxwell Gang to justice! The first team of Drifters to report back to Guild Headquarters with proof of the deed would be granted fifty thousand gella and a years' supply of free ammunition for the ARM of their choice (how the hell do you even measure ammo in terms of time, anyway?), and that on top of the base bounty.

She knew the Outriders well enough by reputation — a loose-knit guild for Drifters of all trades, ostensibly just a hub where leads and assignment contracts could be found or requested (read: "bought and sold with the friendly assistance of a Guild official near you!"). It was a guild primarily comprised of outlaws, ruffians, and other brands of scoundrel. The exact location of central headquarters was unknown to her, but supposedly the guild was based in Little Twister, and she suspected a connection to their old "friends" at the Black Market. There were, according to Clive, representatives in nearly every major settlement.

Some representatives were rumored to be members of the ARMsmiths' Guild as well, he'd said as the three outlaws had discussed this strange turn of events over dinner, and Virginia had felt strangely chilled by this tidbit. How many Outriders in disguise might have spied them, ratted on them, been responsible for the various bounty hunter run-ins they'd had over the years…?

But they'd known of the Outriders for years, had expected the guild itself — which remained patently neutral on such matters as bounty and outlaws specifically because most of its members were outlaws, some with pretty hefty prices on their own heads in this or that part of the world—to treat them at least the same way as any other perceived gang of criminals, which was to say, to mind their own business if the Maxwell Gang kept to theirs.

"Something's rotten in Quartly, or my name's Jack Van Schroedinger."

The Baskar had spoken, and the rest of the team had shared the sentiment, if not the incredibly lame joke attached to it.

It wasn't the twenty-thousand gella or the almost-satirical Year's Supply of Free Ammo! that the poster had put forward—it was the idea of having a legion of egocentric, prideful thugs all vying to take the Maxwell Gang out first, just as concerned, if not more concerned in some cases, with attaining bragging rights, making names for themselves amongst the guild by being the ones to beat all the others to the big money —

Virginia had dunked her head underwater for a third time, wondering dimly how long she'd been in here—the water was starting to verge on lukewarm — when she heard a dull thumping sound coming from somewhere outside that happy hot-bathwater place.

She emerged from the water, indulging those selfish lungs a bit as she listened for the thumping —

A knock at the door.

"Still alive and still not decent," Virginia called. It was Clive who responded.

"I'm sorry to interrupt, Virginia, but Kaitlyn is nowhere to be found," he said. Not worried or frantic, just calm and concerned, but still a little more worried about politeness and tact than Kaitlyn. "Would you mind helping us search for her?"

"I'm on it," she responded, "I'll be out in a jiffy!"

She sounded unworried as well, but when she stood up, exposing her drenched, naked form to the chill bite of open air, she felt a shiver run down her spine, and wasn't totally convinced it had much to do with the cold.

~V~

Kaitlyn wasn't in the house. The bedroom window hung open and the curtains waved in the wind almost as if to accentuate the absence of the young girl who had, to their knowledge, retired there to read her favorite book before drifting off to sweet dreams in Candy Land, where celery was a foreign concern. It hadn't occurred to them to associate the window with the girl's absence, as it was a warm night and the window had been opened by Clive himself well before sunset. The book, on the other hand, lay neatly closed upon the bed, and when he'd first entered the room — to read his daughter a story, in fact — he'd surveyed the empty room with puzzlement and then walked over to pick up the book, leafing through its pages thoughtfully, trying to remember why the book laying on the bed struck him as such an oddity. It wasn't coming to him, though, so he put the book back on the shelf in its place. They were kept in alphabetical order — he'd unintentionally made his little girl quite obsessive about organization — and strolled off to check the kitchen.

When Clive couldn't find his daughter anywhere in the house, the first hints of worry creeped in, but first he assumed she'd gone outside. It was a starry night, and his daughter had a soft spot for stars and their twinkle, so he'd gone out and strolled around town (it was a very small town).

When he hadn't found her there, and returned to the house to find that she was still absent, he'd roused Gallows from his haphazard sleeping position on the sofa and reluctantly enlisted his wife and Virginia. That last was incredibly reluctant: he had been, for some time, more aware even than she was of the strain things had been putting on her. It had actually been a relief to know that she was surrendering herself to good old-fashioned rest and relaxation, if only for a single night. Taking that away had felt like stealing fried chicken from a starving beggar.

They had reasoned that with no sign of Kaitlyn within the town's walls, it was possible she had wandered out into the area beyond, so they'd split up. Catherine fought a brief but hopeless verbal skirmish with her husband, insisted on being allowed to join the search, only to be shot down by the obvious points that she wouldn't be able to do anything if a monster happened by, and that someone needed to hold the fort in case Kaitlyn wandered straight back in beneath their notice.

So Virginia scouted the east, Gallows the north and west, and Clive, the south. They had flashlights, and there wasn't much in the way of visual obstruction. The landscape here was pretty flat, but it was dark, and the dark could hide any number of things.

Like a bounty hunter who happened to have a knack for communicating with hawks, perhaps.

~V~

Clive adjusted his glasses, nervous now. He'd been out searching and calling for nearly five minutes, and there was a nagging thing on his mind, but he still couldn't put his finger on it, so he tried to focus on finding his daughter — but she knows not to leave the town, knows monsters will come and gobble her up, she promised on her ribbons…

The only promise on Kaitlyn's ribbons that had ever gone unfulfilled involved celery, and even that hadn't been for lack of effort on his daughter's part. Why wasn't Kaitlyn in town, then? Why wasn't she in the house, why was the book not on the —

It was a funny thing, really, the way Clive's mind had tripped over its own thoughts that night: he'd thought the book being on the bed was odd, but at the time, hadn't realized why, even though he'd realized why even as he somehow missed the point. Kaitlyn was obsessive about keeping her books on the shelf, in alphabetical order. It was a silly little point of pride for the girl. She always put the book she was reading back whenever she stopped reading, even for a few minutes, perhaps with a bookmark saving her place, but always on the shelf and in the proper place. He'd been so disconnected from his family for the past three years that this fact had gone straight through his brain, eluding his grasp, in one thought and straight out the other.

The tragic punchline is that he never fully registered this mistake in judgment: his thoughts froze for a brief instant and his eyes widened as he felt the cold barrel of an ARM lightly pressed against the back of his skull, dead center. And then Roland Carrowheit blew his brains out before they could bring the realization to its logical conclusion.

~V~

They all heard the gunshot, a sudden blast of thunder on a cool, clear night. It was a shotgun blast. Virginia heard it, Gallows heard it, everyone in town heard it… but, in a sense, it was Catherine who heard it first, heard it in her treacherous imagination as she stood outside the front door of her house, trying not to wring her hands in anxiety and occasionally wringing them anyway. She was the first who heard it, and she was the first out the gate, running through the village and out into wasteland. She was also the first to the body.

And that's where Virginia found her, collapsed on her husband's still-warm body, crying hysterically, perhaps begging her husband to come back or not to leave her, but Virginia's mind was in a state of complete, sheet-white shock, and her stomach was trying to escape through her throat, and Clive's head had exploded.

Virginia wasn't a squeamish person by any means, but she threw up anyway, collapsing to her hands and knees and expelling the only good meal she'd had in some time onto the grass-speckled dirt beneath her shuddering frame. And there was something about the simple act of hurling her insides onto the ground that heaved Virginia's mind back into the realm of focus and practicality.

Virginia staggered to her feet, starting as if someone had snuck up on her and put a gun to her own head, and drew her pistols, realizing the killer could still be close by, was probably gunning for her as well, and where — where was Gallows, where was —

"Where's Kaitlyn? What have you done with Kaitlyn?"

Virginia had spun around several times, searching frantically for any sign of the killer's whereabouts, but now looked back at the scene playing out nary two yards away. Catherine was still collapsed on her husband's lifeless body; the sudden shift from grief to panic hadn't changed her position in the slightest. The only difference was that she wasn't shaking with sobs anymore.

It also struck Virginia in that moment, quite at random, that apart from the screaming woman and the man with the lump of crimson gore where a green-haired head had once been… that the scene before her was completely unremarkable. There was no dark and stormy night; the stars were just twinkling away as if nothing at all had happened. There was no creepy mist to accentuate the point; just the same old dry land and grass. It wasn't exceptionally cold or exceptionally warm, actually it was a fine spring night in the East Highlands, one of Filgaia's most favorable climes.

And all of this just didn't want to stop being so pleasant and ordinary; a good man had been murdered in cold blood and his daughter had probably been kidnapped by the killer or an accomplice, and… Filgaia just didn't give a shit.

Those were her thoughts as she holstered her guns and firmly — maybe a little too roughly — attempted to pry Catherine up and off of Clive's dead body, saying that there was nothing they could do, they had to get back to town, back to safety, had to regroup and come up with a plan of action to save Kaitlyn —

~V~

— the mention of her daughter snapped Catherine out of it well enough to stop resisting Virginia's pull, and she let herself stand up, feeling disconnected from her own movements, her eyes never leaving the grizzly sight on the ground before her until someone physically turned her away. She didn't realize that several others from the village had gathered around Clive's body, not until several other pairs of hands joined Virginia's, perhaps a comforting hand on her shoulder, or another on her hand, guiding her as she dragged her suddenly heavy slipper-clad feet back into town and toward her cold, empty house. She was so dazed, so unaware of everything that she didn't even notice the local ARMsmith grimly surveying the scene of her husband's murder, eyes searching in all directions for the culprit or some sign of their identity, glaring the promise of swift, painful death by way of three-shot-burst pistol fire. She was already inside her house with the old man from across the street, who was making her a cup of strong, hot tea and remaining respectfully silent as she stared into the abyss contained within the closest solid object, seeing nothing but Clive, cold and dead, his calm, smiling face and tender words of love all obscured by a thick blanket of red and by her own freely-flowing tears.

~V~

Gallows didn't cry, puke, or even falter in the slightest when he saw the corpse or the crying woman on top of it, or Virginia trying to hoist the newly-appointed widow out of her hysteric grief; rather, his vision now filtered into his brain through a haze of red, and every muscle tensed, and he wanted desperately to find the bastard who had done this and shoot his goddamn balls off. Three years on the run from bounty hunters had taught him, on some fundamental instinctive level, that losing focus could be costly, so he breathed in the bloody haze without even having to think about it. He embraced it, and instead of flying into a vengeful frenzy, channeled it. What in the first instant of realization had obscured his vision became a lens of sharp focus, making every detail about everything he could see or hear shine through so much clearer — except for the color. That was the one thing he lost a sense for at that time, the color. Everything was red.

And then Virginia had finally managed to coax Catherine to a standing position, and the villagers who had come out of their homes had gathered around the two of them. They'd probably been reluctant to do more than poke their heads out their front doors until the distant sound of Catherine's cries floated in from the expanse of nowhere outside the town's modest borders…

Gallows roughly strode over to his friend and comrade's lifeless husk, and began, by all appearances, to loot the corpse with his free hand while he held his ARM drawn and ready in the other.

"Really, now —" the ARMsmith, whats-his-face, growled, harsh and affronted, but Virginia had now joined Gallows, hunkered down next to what was left of Clive, looking up at the ARMsmith and shaking her head before quietly requesting help moving the body. At this point Virginia seemed to realize something, and she looked around almost frantically, eyes skimming the grass nearby for something.

"Clive's ARM is missing," she sighed, and to both Gallows and the ARMsmith, it sounded like a grudging afterthought — an annoyance peppered like salt on a larger wound.

Gallows nodded without saying a word, and a few seconds later, finally found what he was looking for in the highest inner pocket of the left side of Clive's long coat — three small, golden plates with familiar runes etched upon their surface, no bigger than the palm of his own hand. He took only the smallest, vaguest comfort in the familiar tingle of magic that accompanied the guardians' mediums — as Moor Gault, Dan Dairam, and Luceid silently promised their aid as they always had, and Gallows, now unaware of the action as his attention returned to his surroundings and the sawed-off shotgun in his right hand, slipped them into his own pocket. Gallows was silent, watchful and deadly calm for a long while, but he also knew that his present vigilance was now probably a formality.

It had been a blatant hit-and-run: whichever opportunistic raptor was responsible, they had shot Clive Winslet in the back of the head and then made themselves scarce, taking with them only the large and obvious Gungnir HAG35, probably too visible a steal to resist taking even had the victim's companions been half a foot away at the time.

Gallows figured they might be able to track the man by footprint, but it was dark, and examining the ground closely enough to see the dim outline of his fleeing footsteps would just divert their attention and open them up for another ambush. Gallows knew that they couldn't risk that, not now. Whoever was responsible probably lived and breathed by the word "blindside" — even in the dark, Gallows couldn't even imagine how it were possible to catch a man off-guard while he was looking back and forth with a flashlight, or how they'd managed to keep the dirt and grass from betraying the sounds of their footsteps…

He knew, before receiving any real confirmation of the fact, that his friend's daughter had been abducted, and that whoever had abducted Kaitlyn was most likely in league with the killer, if not the same person, but —

"How the hell could they have tracked us here already?" the would-be Baskar priest demanded in a half-shout, half-growl, almost asking the surrounding wasteland instead of his leader or the ARMsmith, who had enlisted a second man's aid in carrying Clive back to the village. Virginia could only look back at Gallows with a face as hurt, confused, and lost as Gallows himself felt beneath his gruff façade.

Presently, the two villagers — the ARMsmith and another man whose face Gallows knew but whose name was currently lost somewhere in the back of the Baskar's own personal neverland — were wrapping the dead man in a thick blanket they'd hastily retrieved from town. It struck Gallows then that Humphrey's Peak was a chummy, tight-knit place, that Humphrey's Peak was a pretty cool guy, stuck together through hell and high water and didn't afraid of anything.

He'd kind of taken that for granted until he found himself following the makeshift procession, the ARMsmith carrying a man-sized bundle of blanket from one end and the villager supporting it from the other. Guardians only knew which end was the feet and which was supposed to be a head. Yeah, he'd taken it for granted until then. Baskar Colony, too. But this was why they were always drawn back to home and family no matter how long or hard the winds of bullshit blew against them, wasn't it? Because Baskar Colony and Boot Hill and Humphrey's Peak were home and family, tight-knit, chummy, trusting and accepting, believing in them and in their innocence unconditionally, not even hearing the claims of the rest of the world. And why did these villagers trust them so much? Because they were all tight-knit and chummy, and stuck together through hell or high water. Because they were like family, as well…

Gallows was rarely philosophical or introspective, but this was what he thought about as Clive's bundled-up corpse was respectfully-but-discreetly lain aside in a back room of the ARMsmith's shop: that if the world were a different place, there would have been nothing for them to come back to. It was these small, tight-knit, and chummy places that got all bunched-up and familiar, wasn't it? If the world weren't so harsh and unforgiving, would any such small, chummy places even exist? Would people get so close and loyal if the world didn't force them into it?

And if those places hadn't existed, what kind of deaths would he and his friends have had to look forward to in a world that had rejected them? With no family to give a damn, would they just dry up and shrivel in the sun, doomed to bleached-boned obscurity in the middle of a cozy sunlit ditch, with no one to remember them for what they were?

I need a drink.

It was just his personal way of shutting down thoughts he didn't feel like exploring at the time. He didn't really have the urge to drown his sorrows (not just then, anyway), and he knew in any case that the night would be devoid of both booze and rest for all of them. What he didn't know was that while everyone's attention had been on the dead man outside of town, a thin, lanky figure had slipped back into Kaitlyn's room through the same window he'd used not half an hour before, just as planned, and then just as quietly and invisibly, had slipped back out, leaving behind only a slip of slightly crumpled paper pinned to the wall with a small knife.

~V~

When Virginia opened the front door of the Winslet house, she was still looking over her shoulder. She'd caught a glimpse of Catherine on the sofa with her head down, and was still trying to think of a way to comfort her when she shut the door, sighed, turned around, and saw that Catherine was not hanging her head or crying… rather, she was sitting on the couch with a strained, distant looking on her face, eyes fixed on what appeared to be a note. There was a small knife sitting on the table as well, it looked to have been discarded without a thought. As Virginia neared the table, she spied a small slit of a hole in the paper just above where the sloppy scrawl began, and then she tilted her head to one side so she could read the text properly. It was hard to read even when she wasn't looking at it sideways — whoever had written it had quite possibly the ugliest, bulkiest handwriting she'd ever seen. So she picked it up. Catherine's eyes remained fixed on the table.

There was a set of map coordinates on the back, but Virginia didn't even give them a passing glance, turning the note over in her hands to read the message on the front:

Maxwell Gang:

We have the girl.
If you want her back with her throat intact,
we will be waiting in the deepest part of "Faraway Lands."
Come alone. And don't even think of resisting.

You have three days.

Virginia wasn't reading it anymore, but was still staring at it, when she sat — not so much "sat" as "slumped" — into the armchair next to the table. The motion seemed to hit Catherine like a backhanded slap, and her head jerked up to look at Virginia, eyes wide and afraid.

"You can't…" she moaned.

Virginia looked up at Catherine with a dull surprise that didn't cause any change in her own blank face. It was at this point that Gallows lumbered in, slamming the door behind him with a bit more force than necessary, still unaware of the nameless bounty hunter's ultimatum. Virginia picked up the note, and then just stared at it again for another few seconds, torn between showing it to Gallows and stuffing it out of sight as fast as she could — and before she could decide which of the two actions she wanted, Gallows had snatched it out of her hand, looked it over, and grunted "Knew it," before crumbling the note in one hand and punching his other fist into his palm, smashing the crumpled wad between them.

"Knew that was it," he snarled, "Shoulda seen it sooner. But how the hell'd they follow us here so fast? I thought we'd be safe for at least a couple days —"

"Maybe they were waiting for us," Virginia said, her tone flat, her eyes hovering on Gallows's fist and the damning ransom note beneath. "Maybe they figured out where our families are, and had the place staked out." She looked Gallows straight in the eye. "Maybe they knew we'd come back here sometime and just hunkered down to wait us out."

"I haven't seen anyone suspicious in the area," Catherine said, shaking her tear-stained head. She stood up and started pacing around. "I haven't heard anything from anyone in the village. There aren't many places to hide, and there aren't many Drifters that pass through here." She paced around, thinking, thinking, then came to a dead halt and turned around to look at Virginia again. "—but you can't just go out there and give yourselves up, you can't! You —"

"What do you want us to do?" Virginia said, almost snapping back but not sounding more defeated than defiant. "They have your daughter. It's us, or her. And…"

She looked at Gallows and bit her lip.

"…I… I can't just leave Kaitlyn with those monsters," she said — apologetic, pleading.

Gallows grunted. "Like hell I'd leave her with those rat-bastard thugs."

"N-no!"

Catherine's voice was shaking as much as she was, which was a lot; she looked like her legs might give out, but they didn't, though she almost stumbled and fell on her way around the coffee table, where she stood between Gallows and Virginia, looking back and forth with desperate eyes. It occurred to Virginia that Clive's widow wasn't looking at them, so much as searching for a way out.

"You can't, you can't, they'll kill you, they'll just kill you —"

"And there's no guarantee they'd return Kaitlyn if they do."

It was pretty rare for Gallows to provide calm, collected insight in a crisis — he was usually the hothead who said a lot of stupid things. This insight was more like something Clive would have thought of before any of the others, or maybe Jet, who at least had experience in the way of thinking like an asshole. But neither of them were there, and Gallows recognized that Virginia was too busy wading through whatever emotional baggage Clive's death had dragged to the surface, so he'd grudgingly shut up his angry, get-out-there-right-now-and-kick-em-in-the-bolts side and forced himself to be the rational one. It was not easy, and before that night, Gallows wouldn't have known it were in his power to pull off.

He looked at Virginia, then at Catherine. "We can't just give ourselves up. Whether they take us dead or alive, it's completely on them to get Kait back here, and Faraway Lands is that ruin we dug the Kizim Fire out of," he looked back at Virginia, "You know, our first assignment for the Ark of Destiny guys."

Yeah… Virginia hadn't picked up on it until then, but she remembered it now. The downed immigrant structure they'd traveled to, a mission they'd undertaken at the behest of a passing Order member named Albert. The derelict from which that crystallized flame had come was two days away, and they couldn't trust a band of ruthless outlaws to go out of their way to bring a hostage back. At most, they could trust them to keep Kaitlyn alive just long enough to ensure she was there to show off to the Maxwell Gang, so they'd have added insurance that their marks would come quietly. After that, perhaps they'd be nice enough to leave the girl for dead in the wasteland, but most likely they'd just kill off the witness to their crime. She doubted they wanted the officials at the Ark of Destiny to know they'd abducted an innocent girl to obtain the bounty…

Virginia stood up, grim-faced but no longer defeated or distant, and Gallows saw her not as their old, optimistic leader; he saw her as a woman who knew there was no chance in Hell of this situation ending happily for anybody, but was going to do what she had to do. And Gallows meant to do what had to be done right along with her.

Catherine was staring at Virginia, even more afraid now, mouth opening a bit as if she wanted to say something, but it was Virginia who spoke first.

"We have to rescue Kaitlyn. We stand no chance if we fight them head-on, but if we just let them take us, it's almost certain that Kaitlyn will end up dead."

Her eyes met Catherine's in silent apology as she said this — Catherine, they said, I'm sorry, but I can't bring myself to lie to you and promise that you'll see your daughter again. Then she looked back to her only remaining teammate.

"Gallows… are you with me on this?"

The Baskar clicked his tongue in gruff annoyance. "Do ya even hafta ask?"

~V~

It was sheer, retarded coincidence (the "Great Equalizer," Fenril had once called it) that a certain Ark of Destiny rep was trudging through the dark toward Humphrey's Peak that night, lugging a large, long, and rather ungainly supply pack on one shoulder as she went. She'd been far enough away at the time of Clive's murder that the shotgun blast had been but soft thunder in the distance, which she had groggily assumed to be yet another Drifter shooting yet another monster in its monstrous gonads, and had thus ignored. She was sleepy as fuck, but so badly behind schedule that setting up camp had seemed unthinkable. She was supposed to have been in Humphrey's Peak two days ago, but had received a call by way of empathite communicator from her dear, sweet honeybuns, who she loved with all her heart but my fucking GODS was he a slave-driver.

She really had no right to complain, their business was urgent, but having to change course and take the train all the way to Jolly Roger, which was (by the way) literally the most out-of-the-way as it got from East Highlands by train, all so she — sorry, I mean, all so Kara Kalamity could hitch a ride by Sandcraft to Laxisland and extend an employment opportunity to the most ridiculous, motley Drifter troupe she had ever met in her life… well, that was beyond tedious. It didn't help that Maya Schroedinger had ranked among one of the most infuriating people she'd ever met…

So, in order to avoid rousing suspicion with her official boss, she'd made the return trip a really goddamn fast one that had little room for sleep. Her feet were sore, her Order robes smelled like gymsocks, and her silvery-gray eyes kept drooping behind her overlarge, thick-rimmed spectacles.

The Ark of Destiny representative known as Susie Lynne was supposed to have performed regular maintenance on the Memory Figure in Humphrey's Peak about two days ago now, and a two-day delay was tolerable. She could say she'd been waylaid by monsters and had twisted her ankle in the escape and been forced to stop and recuperate, and the story would probably fly —would, in fact, even account for the sweat-drenched state of her clothing (which was the result of spending half the time at a respectable jog). She had to be at least timely enough to avoid arousing doubt as to her motives or dedication, though.

Forget blowing her cover; if she so much as lost the trust of Xavier because he doubted her work ethic, that would be enough to screw her over for years, and if Fen was telling the truth, years were something they wouldn't have before the shit hit the proverbial fan.

She couldn't jog anymore, though. Hell, she couldn't even walk without forgetting to lift her feet every couple of steps. When she got back to Valeria Chateau, she swore to the unheeding silence of the surrounding night, she was demanding serious compensation from her dear, sweet honeybuns. She would wring that slave-driver for every last drop he had le—

There was a man standing at the entrance to town, just outside of the stone bridge that spanned the town's dried-up moat. He had an ARM in his hand, and he looked ready to fire it — at her — and was shouting a warning to stand still, show yourself, state your business, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth…

Yes, she promised the night air a second time. Dear, sweet honeybuns was giving up serious compensation, the moment she got back.

Ah, well. Showtime. Three, two, one… aaaand… action.

"Ah!" squealed the high-pitched voice that she'd adopted as the disarmingly timid outer persona of helpless, meek, and nerdy little Susie Lynne. She held her arms up, trembling, cringing. "I-I'm not a monster!"

The man — whom she recognized, as he approached with his heavy pistol held aloft — was the local ARMsmith, whom her information had confirmed not to be connected to the Outrider guild… but she still had to be careful. Being a member of the ARMsmith guild meant he might make contact with one who was an Outrider, and although the risk was slim to naught at best… it was better not to take chances. So she kept her face partially obscured by the hands she held aloft in a classic stance of please in the name of Zephyr, DON'T SHOOT ME.

"I-I'm not a monster," she whimpered. "P-please put that — that —"

"You Ark of Destiny scum aren't wanted here."

A hateful growl, spiteful, full of some personal grudge.

"W-what?" she said, artfully altering the tone of her whimper from simple meekness to bewilderment. "But we received a message stating that — that the Memory Figure malfunctioned —"

"You're not welcome here," the man said again, dangerously now, and she knew he probably wouldn't actually shoot her, but that she was supposed to believe he would, and "Susie Lynne" was a stuttering coward under pressure, so it wouldn't do to call his bluff, would it?

So her immediate response was a yelp. She covered her head, turned tail, and ran for the hills, as it were (there weren't much in the way of actual hills). But beneath her façade of please in the name of Zephyr, DON'T SHOOT ME was a suddenly wide-awake and fully-energized lady Drifter forming a plan of action to infiltrate the small village and find out exactly what had changed.

It was time for "Susie Lynne" to exit Stage West and for "Kara Kalamity" to enter Stage South.

~V~

Virginia sat on the couch next to Catherine, Gallows in the armchair. Gallows leaned forward with his arms on his knees as he discussed his plan, and Virginia sat stick-straight as she shot it down. Five minutes ago, the roles had been reversed, if not the sitting positions; Virginia's plan had been equally hopeless. When all was said and done, the two fell silent, thinking some more, and Catherine sat on the outside of the two-Drifter strategy meeting, unwilling to leave but feeling useless. She spoke up once or twice, usually just pointing out things that had already occurred to one or the other, and then falling silent again.

Outside, the dry winds blew, and, somewhere, she imagined her daughter, bound and helpless, swept away on horseback, away and out of reach, never to be seen again—imagined her rotting in a ditch, pecked at by vultures and swimming with insects and —and —

— and she looked to the two Drifters as they engaged in another back-and-forth of how about this and that'll never work, the words swimming through her brain without registering, and knew that if she lost her daughter as well as her husband — she — she —

She remembered Cheville, the former doctor who had once lived in Humphrey's Peak, whose grief had been so profound that it had bound her in a deep bog of despair for nearly a decade —

— so why had her first reaction been to beg Virginia not to give herself up?

Catherine watched as the two Drifters planned, voices becoming more desperate as the night wore on. It was around midnight when a knock came at the door, and things took a much more hopeful turn.

It was a desperate, fleeting hope, but it was knocking, so the only thing to do was let it in, right?

~V~

Back up just a little bit, though. Before that, a really enthusiastic yawn forces its way out of the wide-open mouth of a black-haired gal who was around thirty-two but looked not a day over… well, thirty-two, but who was she trying to impress? Dear, sweet honeybuns was over forty, dammit, and she was still young at heart, especially when the pants came off…

Humphrey's Peak was a ways over yonder, and it was a wrench to take such a roundabout route after the hell she'd been through just to get here on time, but a Drifter gal striding in from the same direction in which an Ark of Destiny gal had scampered away, that would be just a little bit obvious. So she approached from the south, not altogether sure there were any places she might have reasonably come from in that direction, but not terribly concerned. Suspicious or not, it's not like the townfolk would have the lay of the land committed to memory twenty-four/seven.

This persona was "Kara Kalamity" — because spelling things wrong is cool. Picture a shapely lass (with a shapely ass, which she was quite fond of, by the by) in short-shorts, a sleeveless shirt belly-shirt, the obligatory ammo belt hanging at a slant on a set of respectably curved hips, and then add about five years of aging to whatever you picture. Make it something with black hair tied down on the right side, hanging cheekily over a shoulder in a plait, and add a pair of silvery white eyes.

There you have it: Kara Kalamity. A flashy, slightly memorable, but ultimately unremarkable lady Drifter, as lady Drifters go. The most interesting things were the legs, which were fully exposed and goddamn proud of it. The boots were stylish, but practical. She carried a large, long, and ungainly supply pack, which happened to be long enough to contain a bolt-action rifle. The gun at her side was a standard bread-and-butter six-shooter.

Kara strolled into town and found the issue of suspicion to be a moot point; by the time she'd stripped down in the night wind (good thing it was dark) and slipped into her Sooper-Sexy Drifter Gal ensemble, the ARMsmith had apparently blown off all his steam, or given up keeping an eye out for whatever he was keeping an eye out for, and gone back to the great indoors. So, she looked around for a village saloon, then remembered that Humphrey's Peak didn't have one. Or an inn, for that matter. Well, fuck.

Hm. Well, let's knock on a random door — should prob'ly avoid the ARMsmith — the lights are out on that one, and that one too, and — ah… ha.

A house with a blue roof, windows shut, curtains drawn, but a light filtering out nonetheless, and she thought she could hear some kind of argument floating out through the glass, muddled by the impediment but still audible enough to —

She edged closer, and listened.

"Well, what do we do, then?" A male voice, loud, mildly obnoxious. It was answered by a strained-sounding, but determined, woman's voice.

"If we go in one at a time, they'll suspect something. It's — it's not a bad idea, it's best I've heard all night, but pretending one of us ran off instead of surrendering —"

"It's believable! A band of outlaws would be all one-for-all-and-every-man-for-himself, y'know?"

A band of outlaws? Interesting…

"I don't think they'd believe it if we tried that," Virginia said, "A-and, the one who goes in first would be completely helpless, there's no telling they'd live long enough to back the other up when they followed —"

"Hold up, why wouldn't they believe it?"

A third voice spoke up, softer, dejected, but seeming eager to have at least some input: "Because they expect you to care about an abducted girl."

An abducted girl? Kara wondered. What possible connection to the Ark of Destiny could an abduction have? I mean, I know about him, but he's interested in ancient magical relics, not getting the underage poon-tang —

"Exactly," the first female said in a tone that was practically a sigh. "They already have us pegged as the good guys. They expect us to act like heroes, which means they'd most likely know something was up if we didn't."

"Well, shoot," the male voice said, "I got nothin', then."

"That's what you said the last three times, now let's come up with something else!"

The voices all fell silent, and Kara realized she had edged even closer to the house without realizing it, now standing under a burning streetlamp… next to the Memory Figure, an oversized mechanical bobblehead in a sombrero which was currently looking to and fro and sputtering gibberish to the night, telling everyone who wasn't listening about two flying monkeys supposedly being the keys to unlocking the doors of a nonexistent ruin called Giant's Cradle.

Cursing under her breath, she hunkered down, opened the control panel on the back of its sombrero, and held down the power switch for five seconds, stilling the little blighter. Yeah, the thing had malfunctioned, alright. It had spliced a bestiary report with a random local legend and a long-debunked rumor about a ruin out in Dune Canyon. Its time had likely come, which meant more work for Susie Lynne in the morning. Someone had evidently known just enough about operating it to turn the volume down from a blaring racket to a dim annoyance.

Memory Figures were something like tour guides, each individually programmed with information about the wildlife, known ruins and legends, and other useful information that travelers might find handy, including information about the towns themselves. Repairing them was irritating; replacing them was a pain in the ass. But it was all the shining and extremely handy legacy of the Ark of Destiny's late founder, Lamium.

Ah, Lamium. I hardly knew ye, but you will be missed —

Wait.

Lamium.

Ark of Destiny.

Outlaws.

Humphrey's Peak.

Winslet.

Abducted girl.

Maxwell.

The six dots flared in Kara's brain like little fireflies, fluttered about her sleepy skull, and for a good thirty seconds eluded her grasp — pesky flies — but then she physically slapped her forehead, stilling them. And then connected the dots.

"…Oh," was all she said, and then she retreated to a more secluded corner of the tiny village. Just outside the northwest wall, she put her pack on the ground, looked around to make sure she was still alone, and fished out a small, square, metal device.

~V~

Valeria Chateau, early morning — a lone, opulent estate nestled atop a secluded cliff in the Midland region. It was cold outside, but the house itself was comfortably warm. The man who stood at his window, leaning on a crutch and staring out at the darkened clouds, was a consummate night owl. He wouldn't have been asleep on any day of the week at this hour even if she hadn't called, but he still grumbled a complaint into the compact device that had been set on his bedside table, waiting a few minutes before actually turning it on, just for effect.

"This had better be good," he said. "I was having a good dream."

"Sure you were, honeybuns."

His contact's response came in as clear as ever, only slightly fuzzy from the other end of the empathite communicator. "There's been an unexpected situation in Humphrey's Peak, Fen, and I'm gonna stick my guns in."

"You mean to say something more akin to 'requesting leave to interfere,' I hope," Fenril Valeria said, his annoyance genuine this time.

"Nope, can't leave a hostage in danger. But I thought you should know what was up, aaaaand that it's kinda hostile for Ark of Destiny reps in Humphrey's Peak at the moment." A pause. "…Well, uh, the guy who sells the guns doesn't like 'em, anyway."

Fenril remained silent, then said: "Humphrey's Peak is one of the villages associated with Virginia Maxwell and her Drifter companions, yes?"

"Uh-huh. And that's kinda part of what's up."

"It's 'kinda' part of what's up," Fenril echoed dully, massaging the place where his nose became his forehead. He was probably just imagining the beginnings of a headache, but it was always hard to tell when Kara was involved.

"Well, I don't know the details yet, but from what I've heard, there's been an abduction, and I think the ransom is 'give yourselves up,' also known as easiest five-hundred-grand bounty gig in the history of the multiverse."

Fenril sighed. "You wouldn't listen if I told you that getting involved with the Maxwell Gang might be hazardous to your position as my informant at the Order, would you?"

"Nope."

"And you wouldn't listen if I told you not to interfere."

"Not a chance, honeybuns."

"So do you have any idea what exactly it is that you're going to do?"

"We-e-e-ell… I thought I'd knock on the door all sheepish-like, and say 'hey, I'm a stupid fucking retard Drifter who forgot to research this town and I didn't know there wasn't an inn! Got a bed to spare?' …and just sort of see where it goes from there."

"You do realize how many ways that hair-brained scheme could go wrong, right?"

"Ah… yeah."

"But you wouldn't listen to me if I told you that it was a goddamn stupid idea, would you?"

"Not a chance, honeybuns."

…Yep. He could definitely feel a headache coming on.

~V~

So it was that Catherine shooed the two wanted outlaws who'd been discussing battle tactics in her living room into the kitchen, cautiously walked over to the door, and opened it a crack.

In the light that filtered out from the door, an exasperated smile greeted her, worn by the tired face of a woman who might be a little older than Catherine, but dressed like she was sixteen and extremely horny — a sleeveless belly-shirt, hotpants, and a gunbelt with a positively tiny six-shooter on it. This woman, obviously a Drifter, folded her hands in front of her in a mocking imitation of prayer, tilting her head to one side, and said:

"Hey, I'm a stupid fucking retard Drifter who forgot to research this town and didn't know there wasn't an inn! Er…" and then, apologetic: "Pardon my hobgob, ma'am."

The last four words sounded like she was mentally berating herself, and Catherine remembered the last time a Drifter had floated into town and realized they didn't have accommodations for travelers available.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said, shifting awkwardly. "I don't have any spare beds. We have a big family."

"D'aaaaw…" the Drifter groaned. "D'ya at least have a reasonably cozy sofa cushion I could huddle up on? I can offer a couple hundred gella…"

"No… sorry. I wish I could be of more help."

"Why not? Couch looks empty enough to me…"

Catherine realized she'd opened the door wider at some point, exposing the whole of the living-room to the visitor's view.

"I don't want to be Pushy McPushpush, but, uh, three hundred gella for a night on your sofa is, like, the grandpappy of all train robberies…"

"Please understand," Catherine invented, faltering only slightly. "My daughter, she has a… mental condition. She doesn't trust strangers. It's a phobia." A bow of the head. "I'm sorry, but you can't stay here."

The look on the Drifter's face then seemed to be one of admiration. Then she held her hands up in front of her, a gesture of surrender, and said:

"That… is a smooth, smooth lie, Mrs. Winslet. I salute you."

Catherine gasped.

~V~

Virginia, listening at the kitchen door, gave a little start, tensed, and reached for her handguns; Gallows, on the other side of the door, gritted his teeth, looked to his leader, and muttered, "What now?"

"Could be one of the bounty hunters who took Kaitlyn, but why would they send someone here so soon?" Virginia whispered. And she listened, waiting, as the woman at the door spoke again.

~V~

Catherine flinched backwards, but the woman at the door just raised her hands a little higher, saying, "Easy, Mrs. Winslet, I come in peace. Live long and prosper. You, nice. Me, friend. That sorta thing."

"Who are you? What do you want?"

"Well, it's true that I forgot there wasn't an inn here," the Drifter admitted, "But actually I just overheard… some of that conversation you guys were having a little while ago." She kept her hands up, bowing her head a bit as if offering servitude. "I wanted to lend a hand, but without knowing exactly what's going on…"

Catherine eyed the woman with wary, narrowed eyes. "How much… did you hear?"

"I heard something about an abduction, and about —" she raised her voice, looking over Catherine's shoulder and addressing the house at large, "— and about giving yourselves up." She took a deep breath. "Please, don't be alarmed, but… this is the Winslet household, right?"

Catherine didn't respond, her eyes now staring with icy coldness at the Drifter.

"Well, then… the other two voices I heard were… members of the Maxwell Gang."

~V~

Virginia couldn't leave Catherine hanging any longer. She stepped out, swift and nimble, and with nary a motion her ARMs were leveled at the stranger. She called out to Catherine as she emerged, sharp and commanding: "Get away from the door!"

Catherine yelped and staggered aside, nearly falling over the armchair, but the stranger at the door kept completely still with her arms in the same gesture of surrender as when she was addressing Catherine.

"Who are you, and what do you want?" demanded Virginia. (Gallows remained hidden, ready to spring out with a surprise burst of high-pressure water Arcana at the first sign of hostile intent.)

"I go by Kara Kalamity," the stranger said, and then, "Ah, can I shut the door? I think our conversation should be jus' between us."

Virginia nodded once, not taking her eyes off of the woman calling herself Kara as she stepped into the house and closed the door behind her, keeping her hands respectfully visible.

"So, what about this abducted girl?" Kara asked, turning back to face Virginia with her hands still displayed in the air.

"What's your angle?" Virginia parried.

"Fair enough question," Kara said. "I'm — ah — well," she faltered, blushing slightly as her eyes flicked to one side in embarrassment. "I guess you wouldn't believe me if I just said I'm a goody-goody flyin' around this awesome ball of wasteland in search of wrongs to right and all that…"

Virginia kept her face stone-cold and her guns fixed on-target, but something in her heart fluttered at that, like a bird in a cage, yearning to be set free so it could go out to the older girl standing by the doorway, who suddenly seemed so innocent —

— and she said, "No, I wouldn't."

The woman at the door seemed to deflate, and Virginia instantly felt a pang of guilt. It was almost like — like Kara was a younger her, and she was in Maya's shoes —

"Guess not," Kara grumped. "But — but I've heard stories 'bout you guys," she said, brightening up. "All kinds of stories. Like how you stopped Cascade from making off with the Ark Scepter, and how you all beat that horse-munching mouth-monster that'd been gobblin' all the horses down in Claiborne — all stories of four badass Drifters chargin' in, gun's blazin' for truth, justice, and good booze for all."

Virginia's puzzlement at that last must have shown on her face, as a second later, Kara said: "— I mean, the big guy with the dark skin 'n' weird hair bought a round o' drinks for the guys in Ballack Rise with his pay, after one o' your bounty gigs." A pause. "That did actually happen, right?"

Virginia was intrigued, now. The Drifter in front of them was looking at her, eyes swimming with nervous admiration as well as apprehension that she might have poked her nose where it didn't belong.

"And they say you murdered that Ark of Destiny guy," Kara continued, "but the stories of you guys doin' good deeds and takin' good jobs" — particular emphasis on the word good, that time — "never stopped, even though you're always on the move, keepin' one step ahead of money-grubbin' bastards who'd slit your throats and cart your heads off to the Ark even if they knew you hadn't done nothin'. But you guys…" — she looked Virginia straight in the eye — "…y'all never even shoot back. Punch, kick, and run for the ditches, but you've never shot a single one o' the guys that's tried to bring you in."

Virginia felt something strange, then. Thinking about it later, she decided it must be a bit like what an outcast feels like when she meets someone who understands and accepts them.

"…I just, well…" — she faltered again — "…I-it's kind of, well, inspirin'."

Virginia glanced at Catherine, and saw that the woman wasn't so tense — in fact, she looked halfway to convinced.

"That doesn't explain why you're here."

"I overheard," Kara said. She sounded a bit more confident now, if a bit embarrassed. "I heard about an abducted girl, and — and that the kidnappers wanted you to surrender in exchange for her safe return, I think. It was kinda hard to hear, but I remembered a rumor that one of the Maxwell Gang had a family here and, well, just sort of did the whole 'two plus two' thing."

Kara shrugged. Then added, sheepish: "I really did forget that this place doesn't have an inn."

Virginia considered the girl for a long time, and then, to her surprise as much as anyone else's, returned her ARMs to their holsters.

"Alright," she said. "I believe you."

~V~

Why the hell do I feel so dirty? Kara asked herself as Virginia put her ARMs away, finally. It — it's not like I was lying about the stories and it being inspiring and all, but —

— but she'd been manipulative and had poked what she'd accurately guessed to be a sensitive nerve. It felt like a bastard move, even though it was partly just her being honest. That was an aspect of being able to lie well, of course, peppering a little truth in here and there to make it seem truer than it was. But it was that same admiration for the outlaw before her that made Kara squirm a little inside. She had no problem telling lies or putting on an act when she had to, but she really wished she didn't have to deceive this particular woman.

Outside, she just let her relief at being semi-trusted show. "So, what exactly happened? And how can I lend a hand?"

Virginia didn't sit, and neither did Catherine — still a bit wary, that was understandable — but Virginia stepped away from the doorway she'd emerged from, all the better to allow her muscular Baskar companion to step out into the room. He was eyeing Kara with suspicion, but she caught his eyes flick down to where her legs were and his face betrayed a little bit of this guy probably spends a lot of time thinking with the wrong head.

"Dude," she couldn't stop herself from saying as she looked the man over. "That is one bitchin' haircut." She popped her hand over her mouth and glanced guiltily at Catherine. "Ah, pardon my hobgob again, ma'am, but… damn…" she looked back at Gallows with wonderment as the man tugged his dangling white hair-tentacle, caught off-guard by the random outburst. "How the hell d'you guys keep the bounty hunters off your backs with that hair announcin' that the Maxwell Gang's in town everywhere you go?"

Virginia smirked. "It isn't easy," she said, casting an amused sidelong look at the Baskar, who was now giving Kara his yeah, yeah, that joke got old after the sixteenth telling face. Kara muttered a quick "sorry" before shuffling over to an armchair. "May I?" she asked Catherine.

"Oh — yes, make yourself… at home." Er, I guess, her face seemed to add.

"Thanks," said Kara. Then, to Virginia: "So, tell me what happened?"

Virginia nodded, sat down on the sofa (somewhat uneasily), and began to speak.

~V~

Gallows watched Kara's face throughout the whole story, which began with them arriving in town and ended with the death of Clive Winslet and the covert kidnapping of his daughter Kaitlyn. Kara sat attentive and silent throughout, and Gallows couldn't get much of a read on her — she suddenly seemed so all-business to him — but when Clive's untimely end came up, he noticed her face get a bit grim for a second.

Got a bit grim, but only for a second. Either she had slipped and showed her true emotions for a moment, or she was a really good fucking actor and the grimness was a ploy. But —

Who the hell is this woman, and why is she here?

He couldn't shake the suspicion that there was something she wasn't telling, some ulterior motive or hidden agenda, but he couldn't see anything that suggested she was an enemy…

What got him was how timely her arrival had been; of all the nights for a potentially friendly Drifter to just show up, why the one night when it could actually matter? Between the number of Drifters who might actually count themselves as the Maxwell Gang's allies (counting Maya's bunch, they could probably be numbered on one hand) and the number of travelers that passed through this town in general (not very many)…

Never, ever, state the odds, his brain told him. And yeah, it was true enough. He shouldn't state the odds. The odds just sucked.

If Kara could have read his mind at that point, she might have laughed out loud; the center of his suspicion was, after all, a completely moot point. Regardless of her hidden agenda or ulterior motive… her being there at the time really was just a coincidence.

~V~

Kara let out a somewhat shaky breath when Virginia finished speaking, closed her eyes, and then opened them. Turning to Catherine, she said in a quiet voice, "I'm sorry for your loss."

Catherine said, "I don't even want to think about it until I know that Kaitlyn is safe."

Kara nodded. Then she closed her eyes again, and held her head in her hands, palms pressed into her closed eyelids. "Lemme think, lemme think, lemme think," she half-sighed, and for a long time the room was empty of sound. A wind gently rattled the window, and Kara thought.

"…I could go in first…" Kara said slowly, murmuring. "I'm not with the Outriders, but there's a chance they might have heard of me…" She sat up, looked at the others. "The name 'Kara Kalamity' isn't big, but it's not exactly a nobody's name, either. I even got an article in Badass Weekly a ways back."

Virginia's brow furrowed, incredulous. "There's a newsletter called Badass Weekly?"

"Yeah, it's actually an Outrider thing," Kara said, "although I think you can only pick it up at Gunner's Heaven."

"…Oh, that explains it."

"Yeah, well, I don't like to brag, but I took down a pretty big fish in that region — not in the arena, it was a bounty job — and I guess it caught someone's notice. But that's beside the point. I was sayin'," she said, "I go in first. You guys lag behind by about, say, three hours. I go in all 'this place is a dump, is there really any treasure here?' and act like I got duped by my informant."

Virginia waited with bated breath, desperate for a real plan…

"…and I put on my womanly charm, and they just think I'm a random Drifter, see? And while I'm there, I — well, I guess I just kind of wing it," she finished, and Virginia looked comically crestfallen.

"Well, that's about as specific as it gets without knowing how many there are or what they did with Kaitlyn," the black-haired girl said, a bit perturbed. "But it's the only way to catch 'em off-guard, isn't it? They were the dumbclucks who decided to hole up in an old ruin. Its not your fault that, say, I happened to pick up a lead from a dubious dude who told me some super-special energy gem happened to be hidden somewhere in that same ruin."

"The Kizim Fire," said Virginia, smiling a small smile at the idea. "There was a treasure in the ruin about three years ago — an energy source, a crystallized flame —"

"There was?"

Sudden, sharp surprise. Then, Kara cleared her throat, composed herself, and asked, "What happened to it? Where is it now?"

"Huh? Oh, well, it was our first job for the Ark of Destiny," Virginia said. She was looking at Kara in puzzlement. "We delivered it to Lamium ourselves."

"Oh, I see…" Kara said, a sour look on her face for the briefest instant, then: "Sorry, I guess that's beside the point."

"That's fine… but why did you ask?"

"It's not important."

Gallows, leaning on the wall next to the kitchen door, wondered just how important it really was.

~V~

They had nothing better than what Kara had proposed, so the rest of the night passed in silence. Kara had insisted that they all get some sleep — had insisted that she get some sleep, most of all ("You got blisters on your feet, Ginny. I got blisters on my eyeballs, I've been up so long.") — but Catherine couldn't bring herself to even try, so she just stayed up all night staring out the window. Whether or not she cried at some point was anyone's guess; she never turned from the window, and never once made a sound.

At Gallows's insistence, he stayed up part of the night on guard duty, and then traded off with Virginia in order to get in a few hours of shut-eye before go-time arrived. In the morning, they would be on the move, and it wouldn't do to brave the wasteland — or face whatever waited for them at Faraway Lands — without all of their wits about them.

~ V ~

Virginia slept like a rock. A very troubled rock that tossed and turned in her sleep a lot, but a rock nonetheless. She'd expected it to be harder to find sleep this night, especially with that strange Drifter sprawled obnoxiously on the guestroom's other bed, snoring with such gusto as to rival Gallows, "The Man," himself… but the night's events had simply knocked her first, second, third, and thirteenth winds clean out of her body. She didn't so much as drift off to sleep, as plummet like a boulder.

When Gallows roused her, lightly shaking her by the shoulder and repeating for the sixth time that it was her turn to take over the watch, she sat up, still so far gone that she actually asked Gallows, "How're you talkin' 'n' snorin' at the same time…?"

And then she remembered the stranger, and looked over to the other bed, rubbing her eyes to get the sand out.

The image of Kara that greeted her was neither cute nor peaceful, and would not have been remotely sexy even if Virginia swung that way. Virginia had never in her life heard a woman snore so shamelessly, and had never pictured a woman in such an ungraceful, splay-legged position — left leg dangling right off the side of the bed, hand on her exposed stomach as if she'd been scratching at it in her sleep. Virginia had dimly wondered why Gallows had been shouting, and the answer was now obvious: the other woman in the room snored like a pack of freakin' bulldogs. She wouldn't have heard him if he hadn't shouted.

Shaking her head to clear the last of the cobwebs, she staggered out of bed and Gallows promptly tumbled straight into it.

Virginia made her sleepy way out into the living room, and saw the couch, and oh gods she wanted to sit down, maybe curl up and rest her eyes, not a good idea, so she looked to the window at the front of the house. There stood Catherine, staring directly up at the top of the streetlight. She shuffled on over to the window, herself. The light was out, but the stars and moon made for a nice little nighttime view of the town…

Oh, would you look at that.

Sitting stock-still on the lamp was the proud outline of a hawk — she saw it the moment she approached the window. She glanced at Catherine and realized she wasn't just gazing out into the abyss, but was looking at the hawk, brow slightly furrowed.

Virginia looked up at the hawk again, and it was looking right at her, she couldn't see its eyes, but —

"How long has that hawk been there?"

Catherine jerked her head toward Virginia in a reflexive whoa don't sneak up on me sort of way, then looked back at the hawk. "It's been there since a little while after you went to sleep." Her voice was low, nearly a whisper, as if she didn't want the bird outside to overhear. "It hasn't moved at all since it landed. Is that… do you know anything about birds? Is that normal?"

Virginia looked up at the hawk, its unseen eyes drilling holes right into the deepest parts of her soul —

Could it really…?

The thought of a bounty hunter who could use a hawk to track a target seemed ludicrous to Virginia, but she had once met a girl who could talk to flowers, so maybe she should tell her brain to cut the idea some slack…

~ V ~

Author's Note: Usually, I write my chapters to be roughly 4000-8000 words long. This story was started before I fell into that habit. As such, I intend to write the chapters to average out at about the length of this one. Consequently, updates to this story will take longer to come around.

There are two blatant references to other fandoms in this chapter. The name of the guild "Outriders" (said guild is my own invention, by the by, and does not actually exist anywhere in the Wild ARMs series to my knowledge) and their newsletter, Badass Weekly. The newsletter is a reference to Mass Effect 2's "Stolen Memory" DLC; the name "Outriders" is a reference to Dash Rendar's starship in Shadows of the Empire, which is a damn fine book whether you're a fan of the Star Wars expanded universe or not.