"You know, I distinctly don't remember you asking my input on this," Arcade muttered, stepping carefully through the wreckage of outer Vegas.
"Hey, if you've got any comparable job opportunities, I'm all ears," Cain replied without bothering to turn around. "Because believe me, if safe and secure cashed out, I wouldn't bother with the whole 'hunting down psychopaths' deal. I could use less psychopaths in my life."
Alex trailed behind them, footsteps crunching against the debris. He had a niggling suspicion Cain was doing this to placate him, at least in part. But even if that was the case and this was all some sort of stupid carrot-and-stick measure, he didn't think he cared that much. If she thought he wanted an excuse for some bloodshed, then she had him dead to rights.
Cain had plotted out a course for them to take; she knew the area better than he did, after all, with a little map on her wrist at all times. They were going after Nephi and his group first. Violet was camped nearby, and then Cook-Cook would be the last, after a decent travel northeast. With any luck, they could have the job done before the night was over.
Vegas's destroyed landscape was eerie in the moonlight, strewn with scrap and fallen poles. They passed under a ruined highway overpass, a lone, rusting support the only thing holding it from gravity's grasp. Around them, snagged, slackened power wires trailed like vines. In comparison to this, Freeside looked like a utopia.
"We're getting close," Cain said. "I need the heads intact, so no headshots. Or headclaws. Or head-maiming in general."
Alex grunted his assent. Killing people without horribly maiming them wasn't his specialty, but he could make the effort. And it was only those three leaders that needed the special treatment, so he could handle everyone else with his usual lack of restraint.
He was a bit impressed with the whole deal, really. The justice system he was used to, from the various police officers he'd consumed, consisted of a lot of red tape, standardized punishments, legal weaseling, and a frustrating lack of just killing the people who deserved it. This was much more straightforward – go out, kill that guy, bring back proof. No pointless ethical waffling against getting rid of people that needed to be gotten rid of. No getting off on technicalities. He liked it.
…Unfortunately, the 'bringing back proof' part might not be too ideal for a guy that liked to eat his enemies whole. Well, he didn't plan on getting any stable jobs in the future, anyway, especially not where any military was concerned. He didn't think he had a future in contract work; he had no need for money. It was just that the whole 'show me my enemy's severed head' deal resonated with him a lot more than Old World justice ever had.
Old World… his world, now two hundred and sixty-seven years disconnected. Was he honestly getting used to this? The desert hellscape didn't seem quite so alien to him anymore, but neither did it seem any more real to him than the familiar skyscrapers and crowds of Manhattan. Even if he knew that it was, now. Maybe he'd travel across what was left of the country someday. See the ruins of the Big Apple with his own eyes, prove to himself that his home was gone. Maybe that would give him that final piece of closure.
But for now, he had a mission to distract himself with. The fun kind of mission, where body parts flying was an acceptable outcome to the whole thing.
"So who are the Fiends, anyway?" he asked, breaking the silence. A little knowledge never hurt. Well, that wasn't strictly true, but he was pretty sure that this wasn't one of those exceptions.
"Huh." Arcade turned to raise one thin eyebrow at him, his blonde hair falling to the side. "You're awfully eager to go exterminate a group you know next to nothing about."
Alex shrugged. "I know they're assholes," he said, voice flat. "That's enough reason for me."
"Remind me to never introduce you to Shady Sands' law enforcement," Cain commented.
Arcade gave her a look. "Do I even want to know what you did?"
"Since you're asking me, I'm going to guess you do? Trespassing, possession of contraband, um, uncontrolled fires… forgery… oh! And defacement of public property. They kind of have a thing about that." She frowned pensively. "It really did look better without the statue, though."
"Really," the doctor said flatly.
"Hey, it was an accident!" she protested. "Kind of. I was just the courier – I didn't actually know what was in the package. And the forgery thing was something else." Alex was completely lost at this point, and it must have showed – she looked to him and cleared her throat. "Uh, so, right. To answer your question, the Fiends are a bunch of raiders. Nasty ones. So drugged up they practically bleed chems. Real vicious, though. I'm not sure it's even about the raiding with them; they'll kill anyone they see just for the hell of it. And we're going after the baddest of the bad."
Alex nodded. No particular reason to change his initial opinion, then.
"Okay, stop." Cain's voice was abruptly low and intent. "See that in the distance? The house with the lit barrels in it?" Alex wouldn't have called it a house, but he did see the wreck she was motioning to. "They're in there. Keep your voices down and follow me. Slowly. …And get the fuck back here, Alex, we aren't going in yet!"
He scowled, but retreated anyway, resigning himself to Cain's glacial sneaking pace. The thugs had created a makeshift shelter from the wreckage of a building, decorated with a few salvaged signs and a ruined car.
"Which one's the target?" he muttered, once they'd finally stopped again, this time much closer. They all looked the same to him. Cain wordlessly pointed to a bare-chested, dirty man with what appeared to be a golf club strapped to his back. He was surrounded by six lackeys, all unaware; some warmed their hands over a guttering fire while others leaned against the wall, empty syringes littering the ground around them. A good number of them seemed to be wearing what looked like cow skulls on their heads. Alex was unimpressed.
"This is it?" he said.
"What do you mean, this is it? There's seven of them," Cain hissed under her breath. "We're outnumbered. And Nephi's supposed to be really deadly with that iron of his."
"It's a golf club," Alex said flatly.
"It's his signature weapon!" Cain protested.
"It," Alex enunciated slowly, "is a golf club. You have guns. I have tentacles. I don't see what the problem is."
"Hey, not all of us are immune to minor inconveniences like getting our skulls caved in. Now shut up, here's what we're going to do…"
Alex sighed heavily. Enough of this. "Okay, watch and learn."
He narrowed his eyes, locking on Driver Nephi's stationary figure. Tendrils shivered and then wrapped around his right arm, coiling and shaping it into something new as he raised it up.
Then he flung it down, and Cain and Arcade watched in amazement as the clawed tentacle he'd created launched out, stretching to impossible lengths as it rocketed towards Nephi and separated his torso from the rest of his body with a single, well-aimed flick. The result it had on the rest of the Fiends was immediate and, quite frankly, hilarious to watch.
His companions stared at him as Alex reeled in his whipfist and used his other hand to calmly clean off bits of gore.
"What?" he asked, when he couldn't ignore the eyes on him any longer.
Arcade's eyebrows were practically level with his hairline, but his voice was passably even when he finally spoke. "Well. That's a new one. Dare I ask how you do it?"
Alex scoffed. "New? I had that one figured out when I was a week old."
"If that's so, then I really don't want to know what your first birthday party was like."
"You should have seen the baby shower," said Alex, thinking of Penn Station. That particular party had gone on for three weeks.
"Neat trick," Cain said dryly, cocking her rifle. "By the way, his buddies may have noticed us after that little stunt. Just a warning."
Alex glanced over. Indeed, the rest of the Fiends had started running at them, screaming profanities in a drug-fuelled rage. He grinned tightly. "So they have."
"I honestly can't tell if your cavalier attitude is reassuring or disturbing at this point," the doctor muttered, leveling his pistol. "I'm banking on the latter!" he called out irritably, as Alex abruptly sprinted forth.
The viral abomination didn't bother with a reply, having singled out his prey – the closest thug to his position, dressed in some kind of poorly crafted, uneven armor and toting what he recognized as a Colt 10-millimeter handgun. Alex chose to cut off any chance of the guy managing to land a shot.
He crossed the space between them with a powerful leap, grabbing him by the neck and flipping him onto the ground in a single, vicious motion. Gunshots and high-pitched pew-pew sounds that could have come straight out of a video game rang out around him, but Alex only had eyes for his prey, on his back and flailing like a stuck pig. He wasted no time on fancy tricks; he slammed his fist through the man's stomach, then straightened up, grinding his torso under his foot. He had to remind himself not to consume the idiot as he spasmed; Cain and Arcade were too close, even if it meant wasting a precious resource.
He reluctantly stepped away from the body, struggling to keep the feeder tendrils beneath his skin. Ahead, two more of the bastards were already facedown on the ground and showed no signs of getting up. Cain was singing something as she stared down the scope of her rifle, but the words were lost amidst the Fiends' battle cries. Her finger jammed the trigger with an explosive crack, and like that, another one of the raiders was missing a recognizable head. The fifth guy was now a puddle of dangerous-looking green goop, probably courtesy of Arcade. The last fell victim to Cain's accuracy; she shot out both his legs before he could reach them, then finished it off with a headshot.
"I just want to staaaaart… a flame in your heaaaart…" she warbled. And then, businesslike, "That's all of them."
"I'm sorry, Cain, but you're just not my type." Arcade feigned a dramatic sigh. "And in case it didn't go unsaid, I prefer going out to dinner over building our relationship atop the corpses of our fallen foes. Although he might be into that," he added, nodding at Alex.
"…I am not interested in either of you," Alex felt compelled to say after a moment's thought.
Cain had been working on a retort, but one look at Alex's completely serious face and she couldn't help but laugh. "Oh, come on," she guffawed. "It's a song. Ink Spots. Anyway, let's see what we've got here."
And thus Cain began the time-honored practice and staple provider of adventurers everywhere – looting. A repeater, a rifle, some ammunition, and a bottle of water were taken from the first two. She gave the puddle of goo a forlorn look before moving on to Alex's victim.
"Yeesh, Alex," she started, taking in the ex-Fiend's pulped chest. "You're not really a fan of the clean kill, are you?"
He frowned. "I'm a fan of whatever gets the job done."
"And more." She shook her head. "Seriously, this guy is dead enough for at least five people. Five very dead people. But not quite as dead as this. Just… sufficiently dead. Really, man. Moderation."
After she'd picked up everything worth carrying, Cain headed over to the Fiend's camp, where Nephi had been struck down. The Fiend leader's head was intact… but that was more than Alex could say for the rest of the man's body. Still, that had kind of been the point, so he figured she had no right to complain.
She did anyway.
"You know," the redhead said archly, leaning down over the front half of Nephi's body, "I remember telling you to stop and wait."
He shrugged. "It worked, didn't it?"
"Urrgh, that's not the point, Alex. I thought we agreed that we were going to talk to each other like civilised people before running off and doing our thing?"
What was she going on about now? "Hadn't we already decided to kill this guy?"
"Yes, but that's not the only thing to it! I get that you're not used to working with people, but in a team, you can't just hare off and do whatever you feel like."
"So, what, do I need your permission to do anything?" Alex demanded, bristling. He did not like where this was going.
"No, it's–" Cain made a frustrated sound. "Look, if a bunch of dickheads attack us on the road or something, do whatever the hell you want. But when we're trying to ambush somebody and we've spent the whole damn night trying to get into position, don't just go running ahead going 'Hey, look at me, I'm flagrantly doing whatever the fuck I feel like!' If it's something that I really don't want to mess up… I really don't want to mess it up."
"…All right." Alex was somewhat mollified, although he still didn't understand the problem. Why did it matter, as long as everyone got what they wanted in the end?
"Good. Now to get this stupid head off…" Cain rummaged around in her pack for a knife. The one she drew out was rusty and could have used some sharpening – probably saw more use slicing food than enemies, going by Cain's unimpressive strength.
She gritted her teeth as she started hacking at the head in broad strokes, grimacing at the bloody work and trying her hardest to keep her coat clean. She managed all right for a while, but any semblance at progress ceased the second she hit bone.
After watching her hack in futility for half a minute, swearing copiously, Alex made the rare decision to make her life easier. He stepped forward, one arm writhing with tendrils, and used a single talon to neatly and quickly do the job. One draw across Nephi's neck and the head rolled free.
"Oh." Cain glanced up at him, nonplussed. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," he grunted. He noticed that Cain gave his claws a contemplative look, but whatever was on her mind, she didn't say anything.
She considered the head, expression half thoughtful and half disgusted. "I have to carry this thing around, don't I?"
"That was the idea, yes."
"Shut up, Arcade." She took an old, bloodstained shirt from her bags and sliced it into wide strips, then began the messy task of wrapping up the head. It was an awkward job, and she ended up taking a few Fiends' shirts for more cloth, but she ended up with a cocooned head and enough leftover strips for the other two.
"Ugh." She grimaced, gingerly lifting the now-completely-wrapped head. "I'm trying to pretend this is just a package. Yep. Just another package delivery. The fact that it's shaped exactly like a human head and… ew, it's oozing a little now. Yech. Let's just finish this job as fast as possible. I'm really not in the business of carrying severed body parts around."
Alex wasn't, either. Snacks went bad too quickly to be saved for later.
Violet's camp, according to Cain's Pip-Boy, was a ways to the northwest. The terrain passed in a blur of scrap heaps and Cain repeatedly complaining about getting head juices all over her pack. As was fast becoming a habit, Alex resorted to the usual coping method of tuning her out. Old Vegas's ruined streets gave way to a short stretch of open desert, white under the moonlight, before they reached their next target.
Violet, apparently, had chosen to make her fortress in a haphazard mess of broken car parts and eviscerated trailers. Why anyone would make their home in something that could so easily be blown away, he had no idea. Hell, he could probably knock these things over with a light tap.
…Okay, it sucked that Cain needed the body intact, because it had been far too long since he'd had the opportunity to throw a trailer at somebody.
There didn't seem to be anyone around, but the way that the vehicles were arranged (or rather, not arranged) eclipsed most of the view. Cain found a makeshift board ramp leading up to the roof of one of the trailers, and climbed up for a better vantage point. Alex followed extremely gingerly, quite aware that balancing his mass wrong would cause the trailer to cave in and give them away.
Violet's little nest was in the center of the sprawl. There was no sign of the woman herself, but one broken trailer in particular was crisscrossed with unsteady wooden walkways and surrounded by rusty metal shelves of questionable contents. Alex squinted. There seemed to be an awful lot of raw meat there. Not particularly fresh, either, if the color was anything to go by.
However, the trailer park wasn't quite as empty as his first impression had implied. A closer look revealed that there were several creatures stalking around.
"Her dogs," Cain breathed. For all Alex's heightened hearing, he might not have caught it if not for one of his many Blackwatch victims knowing how to lip-read. "How many?"
Alex's eyes flickered yellow as he switched over to the infrared spectrum, scanning the area for blotches of heat and moving figures. He almost missed one that was sleeping near to its master, its orange shape almost indistinguishable from the larger human one beside it at this distance, but the rest were walking around and were therefore easy enough to spot. They were mangy things – far closer to the strays that had prowled Manhattan's dirty alleyways than the sort that would be kept as pets. He held up seven fingers when he finally turned back to Cain, and she nodded at him.
There was a sudden whine from the camp; Alex looked back. One of the dogs was standing alert, ears raised and lips drawn back warily. It whuffed quietly, and Violet shifted in her sleep. She didn't wake, but two more of the dogs perked up, and the sleeping one uncurled itself and rose, growling softly.
Mercer grimaced, letting his eyes shift back to normal. Animals had never liked him much – they always seemed to be able to tell there was something wrong with him, and unlike people, they never tried to convince themselves otherwise out of some mistaken fear of being judgmental or illogical. He had consumed a few dogs before. They didn't have fully formed minds, per se, but there was always a sense of confusion and panicked aggression in their vague, short-term memories.
It didn't really matter to him – he didn't need a surprise attack to kill a few mutts and their keeper, not by a long shot – but he doubted Cain was going to get the stealthy approach she wanted, not with his scent riling up all the guard dogs. Violet wasn't going to stay asleep for long at this rate.
Cain swore softly when she saw the dogs had been disturbed. She held a finger to her lips and made a show of crouching and moving very lightly on her feet, edging towards the end of the trailer. But the damage was already done, and stepping quietly wasn't going to make a difference when the problem lay elsewhere.
He followed her lead carefully, Arcade close behind him. The dogs didn't appear to have spotted them, but the ones in their line of sight were clearly agitated – ears flat and noses to the ground, occasionally lifting their heads to growl or whimper.
It was inevitable that their frantic whining and patrolling would rouse their owner. A dark-skinned woman appeared from inside the center trailer, her wild, bloodshot eyes darting around. "Hee hee," she cackled, pacing around her fort. Her gait was wobbly and uneven. "Have my little doggies spotted a friend?"
"I don't think these are the friendly kind of dogs," Cain whispered unhelpfully.
"Oh, really?" Arcade hissed back. "I was so sure I could go up to one and have it lick my hand."
Seven sets of ears swiveled towards him.
Cain summed up the obvious. "Well, fuck."
Violet's head snapped up so quickly Alex could have sworn he heard a crack. "Visitors! Come to see my dogs? More meat for us!"
"You really have no idea how the food chain works, do you," Alex muttered under his breath. Cain shot him a curious look as she propped up her rifle, which he ignored. He glared at the six mangy hounds that raced towards their position, ropes of spittle falling from their snapping jaws. Then up at the Fiend woman, who leveled a rifle at them in unsteady hands. Then back again.
"I'll take the dogs," he said brusquely, standing up from his crouch. "Deal with the addict."
"We really need to work on this decision-making thing!" Cain yelled after him as he sprinted down the ramp. "I really don't – oh, fuck it. Dick."
Alex met the dogs with a flying leap, slamming his newly-formed claws to the ground. He landed short and had to yank his hands free from the dirt; the hounds surged around him, baying and snapping.
Maybe a tide of angry mutts was dangerous to a person, but without any real way to harm him, they were just an annoyance to viral abominations of science. Alex kicked them away and slapped the ground again, more purposefully this time. A small shockwave knocked most of them off their feet, giving him enough time to leap elsewhere.
A crack rang out overhead, and his head jerked towards it, momentarily distracted – but that was Cain, not the Fiend they were after. One of the dogs spasmed once where it lay and didn't rise. His lips twitched briefly downward. Zero-one. Time to step up his game.
His arm flashed out, impossibly long, fingers melting into hooked barbs. When he snapped it back against himself, his whipfist was fully formed. He spun it above his head for a loop, letting it build up momentum, and then lashed forward.
When he was first exploring his powers, Alex had created many different fighting techniques from the numerous opportunities his unique abilities had offered him. One such move had aptly been dubbed 'the Street Sweeper', after its ability to turn a street full of all but the sturdiest enemies into a street slathered in so much paste. It was a simple but effective concept – swing the whipfist in a circle, cutting through everything within a good thirty feet of him.
This was all well and good in theory, but Alex realized his mistake a moment later, when his broad strike barely grazed the hairs on their backs. He was used to fighting human-sized opponents – the height he could neatly lop a man in half at was a good few inches above the head of a dog. One second and zero kills later, his whip was abruptly stopped when it punched through the side of a trailer. It immediately went rolling - his barbs had caught the metal, though, and he had to give it a good tug to rip it free, causing it to topple in the other direction.
At this point, the dogs had reached him again, a fact made known to him by something chewing on his legs. His brow furrowed in anger. It wasn't so much that they were hurting him as it was that they weren't dead yet. That was kind of embarrassing.
He violently threw them off; the two that had the audacity – or lack of self-preservation – to gnaw on him found themselves impacted against a trailer, hard enough to leave dents. With that much room to spare, he twisted again and swung around, lower this time. Three yelps were cut short with the wet sound of tearing meat. For good measure, he impaled one of the dogs he'd kicked away and smashed it into the other. After that, there wasn't enough left for either one to be called a dog.
Violet roared in outrage. "Violetta!" she barked. "Kill him!"
Up on the trailer, Arcade snorted. "Violetta? Somebody was feeling creative. Or narcissistic. Er." He watched as the last, largest dog sped from her master's side and straight into Mercer's lashing whipfist. "That didn't last long."
Violet shrieked. "And here comes the mother complex," he added dryly, as the psychotic woman began to fire randomly in Mercer's general direction, apparently blinded with rage. "I suppose this would be as good of a time as any to start shooting."
Cain didn't even glance up, busy with the process of fixing Violet in her sights. "That was the idea, like… two minutes ago."
Arcade sighed. No respect for this kind of thing at all. Honestly.
Either Cain's aim wasn't as steady or she'd have liked to boast, or Violet seemed to sense what was coming, because she leapt out of the way just in time to avoid the round that bored a hole into the floor. Two more bullets pinged off the metal shelves unsuccessfully, and Cain cursed as she jammed a fresh round of ammunition into the magazine.
By the time she looked back up, done reloading, the woman was already falling backwards. This was possibly because of the new, fist-sized hole burnt through her chest.
The doctor looked from Violet's corpse to Cain, and then to his gently steaming gun. "I'm just as surprised as you are, really."
"Good one, Arcade!" Cain complimented. "Nice shot."
"Uh, well, thank you." The doctor fiddled with his glasses, looking abashed. "Somehow, I don't think I can put this on my resume."
Cain tilted her head thoughtfully. "I guess it doesn't count as assisted heart surgery if you're not using bullets, yeah," she agreed. "Maybe shock therapy? High-energy tanning?"
Arcade shook his head mutely.
The trailer shuddered under them. They looked down to see a rather gore-splattered Alex standing halfway up the ramp. "Are we done here?" he asked.
"No. We need the head, remember?" Cain frowned. "Also, you have blood on your everywhere."
Alex shrugged. For one uncomfortable second, his form blurred into a human-shaped mass of wriggling reddish-black. When it coalesced back to his usual hoodie-and-jacket ensemble, his black tentacle was a regular arm again, and not a spot remained.
Arcade shuddered delicately. Cain's frown only deepened, her eyes turning appraising. "Handy," she commented neutrally. "Are you going to get out of the way or not?"
"Oh." Alex stepped off the ramp, letting the others pass. "…Sorry."
"It's okay." She strode past him, fitting her rifle back onto her shoulder-strap. "Come on, we've got a head to messily hack off. Unless you'll do the clawy trick again?"
He shrugged noncommittally and followed. Cain and Arcade both blanched at the bloody mess he'd turned the dogs into, and took a frankly unnecessary amount of time treading around it. Alex rolled his eyes and cut straight through it, kicked the gore from his shoes, and waited.
Violet's trailer was rickety, filthy, and smelled like carrion. Cain pulled a face as she stepped inside. "Ugh. That's pretty bad, even by Fiend standards."
Arcade shrugged. "I've seen enough cases of gangrene at the fort to be used to this sort of thing, honestly."
Alex pointed to the shelves. At this distance, it was pretty easy to see the maggots.
"I'm surprised her dogs were still alive, if that's what she was feeding them." Arcade leaned over to inspect a crudely-fashioned food bowl. "Yep. Rotten meat laced with Psycho. Seems about par for the course."
"She must have really cared about her dogs if she was going to share her stash with them," Cain commented. "For a Fiend, that's about as close to a declaration of love as you can get."
"What's Psycho?" Alex asked.
"It's a chem," Arcade replied. "Highly addictive. Causes mood swings, aggressive behavior, and a lasting surge of adrenaline. Over time, it'll deteriorate the user's brain; the aggression sticks. It was originally designed for military use – it makes a person ignore their wounds, so they'll fight longer and harder – but nowadays, it's just another drug. The Fiends will inject, inhale, and ingest anything they can get their hands on, but Jet and Psycho have to be their favorites. Not a good combination."
Alex nodded. That made sense – it sounded like something Blackwatch would have used, at least on the lower ranks. Ethics had always come second to getting the job done, and anything that made men lose their self-preservation was a plus in their eyes.
"Alex, can you give me a hand over here?" Cain was kneeling by Violet's body, going through the pockets that hadn't been vaporized. "Or a claw. I'd prefer a claw, really. The cutty thing is a lot cleaner than watching you try to pull a head off."
"Sure. Here." He knelt down and ran a claw through the Fiend's neck. Cain watched his shifting arms with interest. He half-expected her to ask a question about it, but she just drew some more cloth strips from her bag and began wrapping up the head.
She pulled a face as she stowed the bundled head next to Nephi's. "Well, now that that's over with, let's see what she's got. Besides the armor. I think that one's a loss."
That was a pretty accurate summary – Violet's armor wasn't exactly saleable with a giant hole burnt through the middle, and nobody was particularly keen about trying to peel melted Fiend from it.
Arcade scratched his head. "I'm sorry?" he apologized. "I think."
Cain shrugged. "Don't worry about it. You can't get that much for Fiend armor anyway. It's hard enough to pawn the stuff off, since it's usually just old pieces they've cobbled together. Better than nothing, but you can't say much else for it." She unceremoniously tugged the body over so that she could prize the gun out from underneath it. "Ooh, it's same model as mine," she said approvingly, turning over Violet's rifle. "Not in the best shape, but I can use a few of these parts."
Alex watched as she got to work, deftly unscrewing and replacing parts, working with expert hands. She was aggressive with her handling – a few of the gun enthusiasts within him flinched when she pried off the casing with an audible crack and tossed it aside - but he couldn't find fault with her methodology. Even he didn't know some of the things she was doing, and he had over a thousand soldiers in his head.
Apparently satisfied, Cain weighed her rifle in her hands, then slung it back over her shoulder and stood up. Alex gave her a sideways look. "Are you done?"
"Of course not!" Cain said indignantly. "There's still loot to be had! …And it's mostly rotting meat," she added with less enthusiasm, looking around. "And drugs. Probably not the best quality, too, looking at the state of her." She nodded at the headless Violet. "Okay. We can go, I think."
She still spent another minute scrounging through the shelves for medicine, in spite of Arcade's protests about freshness and Alex's impatient glare, but they were out of the reeking place soon enough, leaving the abandoned trailer park behind them.
Alex frowned as he realized he'd never gotten to throw a trailer at anyone. Oh, the sacrifices he made.
Once more, they headed off into the open desert. It was very quiet, something Alex was still getting used to. The only sounds came from the crunch of earth underfoot and the occasional whispering zephyr that blew dust across the ground, white in the moonlight. Even Cain didn't have much to say, for once. Maybe she was tired.
It was sort of… peaceful, even. Like he might just lie back and watch the stars and think, settle the usual pounding rhythms of war in his head. Normally such an action would have bored him, but there was something tranquil in this quiet white night that New York City had never had. Almost soothing, though he never would have used the word to himself.
He was just beginning to enjoy the feeling – or maybe it was just the lack of pointless chatter – when the desert gave way to ruined buildings once more, and he remembered why he was here. If he wanted to sit and stare at nothing for several hours, and reminisce about the precious few things in his life that hadn't involved violence and hatred, there'd be time enough for that later, when his allies went to sleep. For now, he had blood to spill, and that was the sweetest oblivion there was.
Cain was the one with the map, so he settled for following her lead. She held a finger to her lips as they stepped onto the road again, as if anyone had said anything for the past quarter of an hour. Alex shot her a glare, to which she responded with waggling eyebrows. He resolutely ignored her after that.
They'd been following the old highway for about five minutes when Cain suddenly stopped. She held up one hand, fingers splayed, and indicated somewhere down the road. Alex peered after her and tensed. Two silhouettes, loitering up ahead. He wasn't sure how he'd missed them, but he resolved not to do so again.
Cain was fast. She might have been too far away to make them out clearly, but nobody waiting around armed in the middle of a path ever meant anything good. She had already freed her rifle from her straps before she made out the curved horns on their helms, and that told her everything else she needed to know.
Alex was faster. By the time the either of his companions had drawn their guns, he was running forward, right arm lengthening into a whip. One bound forward and it was lashing out in a blur of deadly intent.
He might have been a bit too eager, because it came down on nothing but asphalt. Cursing, he yanked it back and fired again. His next shot was better – his clawed whip launched out and impaled the Fiend's torso with a violent spray of blood.
The other Fiend was firing randomly, shouting something Alex couldn't make out. Then he spotted them – probably following the direction of the black tentacle that had speared his friend like a bloody marshmallow on a stick – and the shots started going in their direction. Alex shook his arm irritably, trying to dislodge the piece of meat that had gotten stuck on it, but the barbs – so often used to drag meals to him from a dozen meters away, at extremely high speeds – were working against him.
While he was still flinging his whip around, the woman behind him was taking aim. Cain noted the Fiend's sideways steps and fired on the legs; from the way he crumpled, she'd probably taken out his knee. Arcade must have shot at the same time, because a plasma bolt streaked by as he fell, a sizzling green star in the night. It missed the Fiend just barely, but clipped the edge of his pistol; the man shouted with pain as part of the barrel melted into sludge. In a titanic display of drug-fuelled willpower, he tried to crawl toward them, but Cain was having none of that. One last crack, and the Fiend slumped, a hole where one eye used to be.
With one last snarl, Alex slashed his whip into the ground. The effect on its unwanted passenger was immediate and considerably messy.
There was a long silence. Arcade looked rather pale. Or green. It was hard to tell, with the light his pistol cast on his face. At last, Cain rolled her eyes. "Are you always going to do that?"
Alex frowned, considering the question. "No."
"Well, that's a relief, because honestly, I'd think you were trying to compensate –"
"I don't always splatter people. Sometimes I just cut them in half. Or crush them."
Another awkward pause was lovingly nursed and coaxed into full bloom.
The redhead blinked. "…I don't know whether to be happy that you're gaining a sense of humor, or if I should stew in abject despair over what's to come in our continued partnership."
"I was being serious."
"Abject despair it is, then."
What was the matter with these people? "I don't get it," Alex complained. "I thought you were used to killing things. Why does it matter how you do it?"
"Alex, I've been travelling with you for two days and already I know that trying to answer that would be a complete waste of time." Cain heaved a dramatic sigh. "Come on. I don't think these two boys were out here on their own. We're getting close."
Cain had been right about that much, Alex concurred several mercifully conversationless minutes later, after treading down several streets lined with piles of scrap and listing frames of buildings. They had indeed been close.
Now they were extremely close – perched on a hillock of hard-packed rubbish overlooking their target. It shifted somewhat noisily underfoot, at least to his ears; any seasoned soldier would have heard their ascent for sure. But the Fiends were not Blackwatch, and they'd managed to get to a good vantage point without alerting anyone. Cook-Cook had made his encampment within the skeleton of what might have been a large warehouse. He had a large following, even more than Nephi; at least nine of them were hanging around. Ten, Alex amended, spotting a horned helmet shift slightly behind a barrel.
He took a brief once-over of the area. Shelves, sleeping bags, the guttering remains of a campfire. Lots of discarded bottles. There was a crudely fenced enclosure outside the walls, containing a small herd of cows – presumably livestock. It made sense, he supposed, although he hadn't expected any amount of organization from these idiots. A group this large probably needed a reliable food source. There was only so much available looting.
"See that guy with the helmet?" Cain whispered. "The metal helmet, I mean, not the stupid ones. That's Cook-Cook."
Alex followed her gaze to where the indicated Fiend was leaning against part of an old frame, cigarette poking through a mouth-slot. It was hard to tell the man's build – he was clad in thick armor, the kind that hampered movement and left its wearers sitting ducks for whatever Infected beast of the day came for their throats. As for protection itself, well. Steel, concrete, cardboard – what was the difference?
"Well, at least you don't have to worry about accidentally pulping his head," Arcade mentioned.
"Yeah. Real considerate of him." Cain frowned. "I've heard stories about this guy. If any of them are true, we're doing the Mojave a hell of a favor."
"Then let's get on with it," Alex said.
"Wait." Cain held up her hands, and Alex gave her an irritated glare. "First off, we need a plan. I want to know what the rest of you are doing so we don't end up accidentally killing each other." She gave Alex a pointed look. "And no more of that spinny-swipey tentacle thing. I don't want you accidentally ruining Cook-Cook's head."
"The first guy's was fine," he protested.
"Look, Alex, if you do that to everyone, I'm not going to have anything left to pick up afterwards." She exhaled through her nose. "Just listen to me, okay? I have an idea. If you go in and do your wiggly-arms thing, I'm pretty sure the Fiends won't have much room to pay attention to anything else. Arcade and I will pick them off from a distance. Just avoid Cook-Cook." She frowned again. "You're really not good at the whole 'neat killing' thing."
"Fine," he grunted, unsure of whether or not he should feel affronted at that.
"I am perfectly okay with that plan," Arcade added. "I'd offer to handle the melee myself, but I'm not particularly in the mood to die horribly tonight."
"I'll be fine." Alex glanced over at the group of Fiends. "And in a few seconds, they won't. I'm going in."
"Give 'em hell," Cain said, then slapped him on the shoulder. He paused briefly, shooting her a quizzical look, before shrugging off the unwanted contact and slipping forward.
He loosened his shoulders. Bounced on his heels twice. Stepped into the open moonlight. Silence fell across the encampment like dominos as Fiends stopped their conversations and turned to peer at the newcomer in their midst.
"You want something, punk?" Cook-Cook crunched down on his cigarette and spat it out. "Either you've got something for us, or we're taking it anyway."
Above and afar, a red-haired woman peered down the scope of her rifle.
Alex let his grin speak for him. Coils raced up his arms.
"What is that–"
"Goddamn, man, what the fuck was in that last batch–"
Alex's claws wrapped around a barrel. He hefted it over his head, tested it once, and hurled it at the nearest sack of flesh.
All hell broke loose.
It was chaos. Within a matter of instants, the air was rife with bullets and beams of plasma, forcing him to duck. In the midst of it all, Cook-Cook was laughing as he sprayed gouts of burning fuel from his flamethrower. At this range, he was a greater danger to the other fiends than he was anyone on Alex's side.
Leaning away from a burning green streak, he seized two Fiends that were stupid enough to try to fight him up close and smashed their skulls together until they broke. Then he threw them back into the fray. Those animal-skull hats were pretty dumb, he remarked, but the way they cracked was pretty satisfying.
He jerked back when something sharp abruptly plunged into his side. He yanked out the knife, lips pulled back in a snarl, and hurled it for the offending thug's skull. It split straight through the asshole's stupid hat and struck him squarely in the forehead, stuck fast. He toppled with a thud, and Alex spun away, already onto another victim. He jabbed his claws into the next Fiend's chest and wrenched them out; she fell back, gurgling.
He paused for a second to make sure she was dead, then hunched over with an involuntary whine as a sudden searing pain blossomed in his gut. He ducked away, one arm transforming into a wide shield that he covered himself with. A glance down showed him that the damage was as bad as it felt; his midsection was a charred mess, flecked with crawling traces of green. The damage went deep, beyond the superficial burns he was used to; the surge of heat had been intense, quick, and penetrating. Worse, it had triggered some sort of adverse reaction; everything around that area was convulsing as if electrified. His biomass crawled as he struggled to repair the damage, narrowly avoiding another blazing green bolt that came close enough to singe his cheek.
Ten seconds later – seconds that he very much didn't have – he managed to force his biomass into order. He straightened up, letting his shield form back into a claw. The pain had faded, but his biomass still twitched, and he was starting to feel oddly warm again. Fucking plasma weapons. His claws whirled, instinctively reacting to a raider that was trying to bludgeon him from behind, and he had to refrain himself from plunging his feeder tendrils into the Fiend's falling corpse to heal the damage. Cain and Arcade are watching. Dammit, I should have gone behind a strut. Or that wall. Watching all these perfectly good, guilt-free corpses go to waste was nigh physically painful.
He hissed viciously as another bolt of energy seared a hole in his side, eyes roaming for the culprit. He spotted the asshole just in time to watch him go down from a neatly-placed bullet to the head.
His allies had made good work from their vantage point; the herd had very much been thinned at this point, although he was hardly keeping count. He glanced around, looking for the next moron in need of a good disembowelment. The nearest Fiend was on the ground and missing part of her face. Actually, when he looked around, the only one left standing was fifteen feet away, metal-clad, and toting a flamethrower. Cook-Cook, no doubt.
Alex took a menacing step in his direction, then hesitated, mouth dragged into a grimace. Cain had told him not to engage, but at this point that was sounding like a pretty stupid instruction. He was right in position, and hell, the things he could do... Every inch of him screamed to move in and teach the man just how little his notoriety meant in comparison to a power that could crush buildings. Preferably in the form of a Hammerfist pulping his skull, but then he'd have to listen to Cain bitching at him all the way back. Heat of the battle notwithstanding, that was a very compelling threat. She only wanted the head to be intact, though. Surely she couldn't complain if he used the blade?-
At least, that was what it looked like to Alex. As he sprawled backwards, skin blackening under intense heat and spattered drops of burning fuel, he reviewed the events of the last few seconds in his mind. He'd paused midstride – pausing in the middle of a fight was unutterably stupid, but so were the limitations that had made him do so to begin with. Cook-Cook had turned in his direction; presumably noticing him. He had hefted his flamethrower. A flash of green from above. Arcade had probably meant well with that shot, but then the Fiend had moved, and even without knowing much about plasma, Alex could guess that it didn't mix well with gasoline. Or, alternatively, it mixed very, very well.
He hit the ground with a grunt, briefly dazed. He rolled onto his stomach and up to his knees, scraping sand out of his eyes with his one hand and sloughing charred skin from his biomass.
Cook-Cook was not so quick to recover. He scrabbled in the dirt, gasping and choking and swearing profusely. His armor had protected him decently enough, save for several very scorched spots where it didn't properly cover him, but its weight was working against him. Alex spat dust and stood, ready to finish the job. The Fiend propped himself up with both badly burnt hands, only to buckle and slump. He did not move again. Alex followed the wisp of smoke and saw Cain setting her rifle down, looking quite satisfied with her work. She caught his gaze and gave him a thumbs-up.
He nodded at her as she and Arcade approached. "Good shot."
"Thanks," she replied. "Lower spine. He had a better suit than most, but when you patch together your own armor from scrap, you miss places. You patch together your own armor while you're tripping on at least five kinds of drug, you miss more. They never learn."
"I'm not sure about that one," Arcade commented dryly. "Most people wouldn't be in much condition to do anything on that many doses. The majority of chems don't mix well."
Cain shrugged. "You can do Med-X, Jet, and Stimpaks all at once. Uh, not that I would know about it. Look," she said defensively, wilting a bit under Arcade's exasperated glare. "If you were backed into a corner by four raiders with plasma pistols and flamethrowers, you'd be shooting yourself up for all you're worth too."
"At that point, I think I'd just resign myself to die sober." Arcade shook his head. "Maybe it's just the exalted doctor in me speaking, but when faced with extreme adversity, my first instinct is not to scrounge for drugs."
"Hey, I'm not an addict!" She scowled back at him. "Look, sometimes you need something to take away the pain in a firefight. You learn that pretty quick if you get in the business of tangling with assholes, and lately there have been a lot of assholes getting in line to tangle with me. And the Stimpaks don't even count. Besides, it worked, didn't it? Everything was kind of spinny for a while, and I might have passed out a little afterwards – just a little!" she stressed, to Arcade's very flat stare, "but I'm still here, aren't I?"
Arcade pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled slowly.
Alex tried to follow the conversation, but drugs and actual danger and having to rely on anything other than his own strength were all foreign countries to him.
"Four people aren't hard to deal with," he said. "I'd just take the closest one and throw him at the second closest. You can get two like that if they were standing in rank and all three if they were in a tight group. If not, even just hitting one of them usually scares the rest, and you can kill them before they get it together."
"Shush, Alex, the ordinary humans are talking," Cain said. "Not all of us can pick up a man and toss him like a football. And do you really have to do this every time?" She nudged what was left of a Fiend with her foot. "I could have sold some of this stuff if you hadn't shredded it."
Alex scowled. From where he was standing, she didn't have much room to critique his tactics.
The courier leaned down to peel a blood-soaked scrap of leather from the body. "Eesh. I don't even know if this is good for patching. Gonna need to wash that down. At least."
Now she was just being annoying. He ground his teeth. "I'll try not to kill them so hard next time," he snapped, making a note to make a bloody crater out of the next idiot that pointed a gun at them.
Cain gave him a narrow look, then sighed. "You like clawing things, I get it. But seriously, have you ever tried using guns? I bet you'd be a good shot. Try working with a little more precision, a little less blunt force. You can make it a personal challenge or something.
Alex considered it. "Do you have a missile launcher handy?"
"Then I'm not interested."
"God, Alex. If I didn't know better, I'd say you're compensating for something."
Alex gave her a blank stare.
Cain shook her head slowly. "My dazzling wit is entirely wasted on you two," she lamented. "I'll be off collecting the guns. At least you left those intact, Alex. Although I'm pretty sure that was by accident."
He scoffed irritably and watched her go. Arcade gave him a look that might have been something like sympathy, but gave up and followed her when Alex only stared blankly back.
Too many words, not enough of a point to them. God, he was looking forward to when they both went to sleep.
Cain, meanwhile, was in the act of prying Cook-Cook's helmet from his head. It came off with no small amount of effort. She weighed it for a moment, tapping her foot half-consciously; eventually, she shook her head and tossed it aside, where it landed with a clatter. She glanced down at the body speculatively. After a moment's thought, she whacked his head with the butt of her rifle. "Might have still been alive," she explained to Arcade's questioning stare. "Just in case."
"Alex!" she called. "Come over here and do the thing. Be a good virus-monster-thing."
Alex's hands curled into fists. "Don't call me that," he growled lowly.
There was real menace in his voice; Arcade looked up in alarm, and even Cain took a step back. "Whoa, whoa," she said, holding up her hands. "Calm down. I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to insinuate anything – I mean, it was just a joke. Yeesh."
He scowled. "I'm not a thing. Don't try to order me around like one."
"Hey, I really didn't mean to insult you. I'm sorry about that, okay? If - I mean, if that's really a problem, I won't do it again. Okay?"
He squared his shoulders, but didn't say anything. After a tense minute, Cain ventured forth again. "So, uh, could you cut this thing off for me? Please?"
Alex eyed her for a few seconds, then turned away. "You can do it yourself," he grunted.
Cain hesitated. She wanted to protest – he was being a dick right now and he knew it – but she had struck a nerve, and pressing on it further would be a stupid idea. Alex was scary when he was angry. She wasn't ashamed to admit it; anyone with that kind of power and that poor a hold on their temper was to be treated with all the caution she might use to handle a plasma grenade. Best to leave him alone when he got like this. She could work on his many, many issues when he was in a more agreeable mood. She sighed and pulled out her knife.
She spent the next few minutes sawing away at Cook-Cook's neck, spitting the occasional curse and grumbling to herself about how somebody could have done the whole damn thing in one clean cut. The bone was the problem – her knife wasn't meant for this sort of thing, and couldn't do much more than scratch shallow scores across it.
Cain was in the midst of leaning back, rummaging around in her bags for some other tool she could use, when a shadow fell over her. She looked up to see Alex hovering over her; before she could say anything, he lifted his foot and brought it down on the Fiend's neck. There was an audible crack.
"Thanks?" She only got another grunt in response as he stepped away, but she did mean it. And it was good to know that he wasn't holding a grudge. He seemed like a grudgy kind of guy.
After that, it was easy to cut through what was left of Cook-Cook's neck. She held the head at eye level, giving it a critical once-over. "Well, the bottom's a mess now, but it's recognizable," she commented. "Decent shape. Although a few well-placed bullet holes might be an improvement. No wonder the guy wears a full-face helmet all the time. I've met better-looking mole rats." She shrugged. "Well, can't complain. Looks like we're getting paid in full."
She wound the last of the cloth strips around the head. They ended up coming a bit short, but at least the deficit wasn't on the end that might have oozed blood and possibly cranial fluid into her pack.
"I guess that just about wraps things up." Cain waited for a moment. "That was supposed to be a joke. Get it? Wraps? No?" She sighed when all she got were flat stares. Seriously, these two. "Come on. Let's see if he left anything around for the taking."
Alex rolled his eyes and grudgingly followed Cain over to the now-extinguished campfire. He didn't see the point in bothering, especially after Violetta's belongings had turned up nothing but junk, but Cain was a born scavenger. She homed in on the jumble of bags and grimy shelves with the unerring accuracy of an FGM-148 Javelin seeker missile, lifting, examining, and then setting aside or stowing away objects with a practiced eye.
He watched. Cain was definitely a survivor, going by her choices; she prioritized bottled water and food, preserved in bright little boxes from the Old World. On that matter, she avoided anything that looked like it had been prepared by the Fiends, though, which was wholly understandable – even to him, to whom human food was utterly foreign. She packed up batteries and duct tape and ammunition for her rifles, and the occasional metal part or empty can; most of it looked like junk to him, but she seemed to know what she was doing. A few power cells were handed off to Arcade. At her side was a growing pile of discarded items; glass bottles, bowls, paper, and pieces that were too large or too heavy to carry. And then there were those stupid bottlecaps, which she unerringly pocketed whenever they were uncovered.
She was in the middle of reading something from the shelves when she abruptly frowned. "Word around is that Cook-Cook was a cannibal," she commented, a dark note to her voice.
"Is that so?" Arcade frowned too, although where Cain's was more subtle, his was open disgust. "I admit I never paid the closest attention to rumors, but if that's the case, we definitely did the world at large a favor tonight. Although I suppose there's no way to ask the man for clarification."
"Oh, there's no need," Cain said grimly. "Looking at these recipes, the rumors would be right. Ugh. Look at this stew here. Maize, something I can't read, this handwriting is terrible, jalapenos, potatoes, human. That's just sick."
Arcade barely repressed a shudder. "If that's the sort of thing that they've been eating, little wonder their behavior has degenerated so much."
"I knew the Fiends were crazy, but this is a whole new level." Cain's face twisted into a grimace. "Were they holding captives for this? I've heard stories…"
Alex kicked at the ground. They were going to have all kinds of problems when his method of finding food came up.
Eventually – and he was rather grateful for that – the two moved away from the shelves, Cain leading Arcade to inspect some new gun poking out of their supplies. He didn't follow, watching them furtively. He wasn't surprised – people were never particularly comfortable with the idea of being eaten, especially by other members of their own species. And even though he wasn't one of them – well, he walked and talked and spoke like they did. Their peculiar standards and frustrating morals were all but seared into this skull at this point, branded all the worse for the fact that he'd believed he was human, once. Even though he wasn't one of them, he was perceived as one, because he was walking around in human skin and people in general just didn't know how to deal with things that looked like them but weren't them, no matter how many times he reminded them of that fact.
No, the anthropophagy did not go over well. Even Dana – his throat clenched at the memory – had reeled away in terror when he'd let slip the things he'd done. She'd recoiled from his outstretched hand, refused to meet his gaze, and begged him to leave – and he had, because he couldn't think of anything else to do. And she'd been the most compassionate, the most trusting of them all.
He could hardly expect two strangers he'd barely met to take it any better, or even remotely as well. He'd never expected otherwise – hell, he'd omitted that part of his past for a reason – but it still wasn't particularly reassuring to hear their thoughts on the subject. He resolved to remain discreet. What they didn't know… well, he wouldn't have any cause to hurt them, so the old saying did work.
"Well, that can't be all they were eating," Arcade pointed out, and he looked up. "It looks like this was at least a semi-permanent settlement, which is unusual for raiders. They were keeping Brahmin and everything. It's unusually organized, for a bunch of cannibalistic Psycho addicts."
Alex followed his gaze and did a double take. At the side of the encampment, what he'd taken to be a pen of ordinary livestock was… a pen of ordinary livestock. With one major alteration.
"That cow has two heads."
"That cow," Alex repeated, enunciating his words very slowly, "has two heads."
Cain regarded him with utterly puzzled look. It took a few seconds for the realization to click. "Right. Old World. Uh, technically those aren't cows, they're Brahmin. I mean, they're pretty much cows except for the head situation. Unlike every other damn thing in this waste, they're harmless. I wonder if they ever have trouble getting anywhere 'cause of that. Though I guess if you're a Brahmin, your interests kinda stop at food."
"Radiation can do that?" He shuddered. No wonder he'd been getting so sick. If all the indigenous life wandering around was carrying enough latent radiation to grow an extra head, incorporating it into his biomass wasn't going to leave him in good shape. He was amazed those things were still alive, what with the state they were in.
Arcade shrugged, the small motion making his coattails flutter and pockets clink. "They're not necessarily that irradiated. It was their ancestors that managed to survive massive amounts of radiation, directly after the Great War. Many species died out in the fallout, you see – cats, horses. Even the ones that survived – well, most animals as you would have known them don't exist anymore. Cattle is one such example. Thankfully, the species survived, although not without a considerable range of birth defects in all subsequent generations. What you're seeing are the most common ones."
Birth defects indeed. The cows' skin was furless, and looked more like a thin membrane of glistening scar tissue over muscle – not unlike the Hunters and more deformed Infected he'd known in his day. Their udders were bloated, tumorous things that dragged against the ground. But they seemed unperturbed about getting the shortest end of the genetic stick possible; they were nosing at the ground, looking for stray shoots of scrub, both heads ultimately unbothered by the other.
Adaptation, he realized. The world changed, so they changed. Just like I do. Always growing. Always evolving.
He thought of an apartment, a heart-shaped face, a smile meant only for him. His heart twinged.
But they don't remember anything better. None of them do.
He was pulled from his musings when Cain cleared her throat. "Well, we're done here, yeah? Unless any of you wanted to take another look around."
Alex and Arcade managed to say the words 'no thanks' at exactly the same time. The two of them stared at each other. Cain laughed.
"Let's find a place to pass out for a bit," she suggested, zipping shut all of her bags as best she could – there were a few barrels sticking out, in spite of her best efforts. "We can return in the morning – Dhatri's just going to cuss us out if we wake him up in the middle of the night anyway."
"I'm not going to argue with that." Arcade suppressed a yawn. "You know, this may sound rather silly, but this whole thing involves a lot more walking than I was expecting."
"How else were you expecting to get around?" Cain wondered. "A car?" Arcade gave a quiet snort of laughter at that, which Alex didn't understand. "Come on, let's get out of here. I'd rather not sleep here, 'cause corpses aren't the greatest company. And there might be more Fiends around."
Things were relatively quiet for a while as they left. Alex craned his neck up at the starry sky and sighed. "I was kind of hoping that would have been more of a challenge," he admitted.
"Really," Arcade said dryly. "I'm going to have to beg to differ with you on that one, although personally, that surprises me about as much as finding sand on the ground."
He shrugged. His footsteps crunched on the dry ground. "It could have lasted longer, at least. I was just starting to have fun."
"Heh. Tell you what." Cain patted his shoulder. He only flinched a little. "If you think this sort of thing is fun? Stick with me, Alex, and there will be a lot of fun in your future. I guarantee it."
He turned to look at her; her grin was very white in the moonlight. He smiled back – an expression that was half anticipation and half teeth.
"I'm looking forward to it."
[Achievement Unlocked! I Take Enthusiastic Walks Through the Desert (10pts)–And kill homicidal raider chiefs? Very enthusiastic walks.]