I finished off the last dumpster dog quickly, jumping on its back, grabbing its neck, and twisting violently. It snapped with a crack, and the creature fell limply to the ground.
Ling stared in what might possibly have been awe. “Derek, that was…”
“Slow,” Akane interrupted. “You took too long. You’re still injured.”
I disentangled myself from the corpse, taking care not to trip over the other dead dogs in the process. “No, I was slow on purpose. Weren’t you the one who told me to take it easy?”
She sighed as she pulled her sword out of another hound. “You’re right. Sorry.”
I smiled, trying to set her at ease. “C’mon, let’s get them loaded up.”
We had borrowed my mom’s car for this, since there were a dozen of the dumpster dogs. We couldn’t lug those the two miles back to our employer, and requesting she come get them would have cost us money. Thankfully, my mom was generous. She had even put a tarp down in the trunk so blood didn’t get everywhere.
It was nearly noon (Akane had missed kendo, but that was no big deal) by the time we stopped outside a tall and thin ‘scraper, one of the places with the really small shops on each floor. This one was mostly informal restaurants, with the food prepared inside the actual building, but bought and served outside, where small tables with umbrellas were bolted to the sidewalk. It was around lunch time, so the courtyard was about half full.
It had taken us almost two hours to get here. Domina traffic was bad most of the time, and late morning was one of the worst. I was getting a little too used to the retinue’s van, with the colors of Necessarius painted on the side, cutting through the traffic.
Regardless of our tardiness, our employer met us outside the building, smiling.
“Good, good,” she said, nodding. She was an old ghoul with big claws and daygoggles hiding her eyes, but she was a kind woman. “My son will be very happy now. The beasts were hounding his customers.”
I smiled. “That’s funny, Miss Nervi.”
She cocked her head. “What is?”
Sometimes I forgot English was her second language. “Nevermind. Where do you want the bodies?”
She waved towards the door of the shop. “The freezer is fine. We’re just on the third floor. The boys will show you. Ragazzi!”
A couple of the nearby customers, ghouls with the same shape to their faces as Gloria Nervi, jumped up. I opened up the trunk, and they helped us wrap up the tarp and carry the bodies upstairs. The freezer was large and well-stocked, but we found a plastic box to put them in, so that the blood didn’t get everywhere. My mom would want the tarp back.
When we came back down, Nervi was on her cell. She hung up as we approached.
“I’ve sent the money,” she promised. “As we agreed, a hundred dollars each. Twelve hundred total.”
I glanced at Akane; she had her phone out, and was checking texts. After a moment, she flipped it closed and nodded.
I smiled at Gloria again. “Thank you, Miss Nervi. We were happy to help.”
She grinned. “You come by more often, you hear? You never come by for lunch any more.”
I shrugged uncomfortably. “College. It’s…a busy time.”
I don’t like lying. It’s a filthy habit, and a slippery slope. Even simply not telling the truth was something I liked to avoid. But revealing our nature as the Paladins would cause problems. Not too many to deal with, I’m sure, but it was better to keep it quiet for as long as possible.
But she just nodded. “I know that, for certain. You sure you don’t want to stick around for some steaks?”
“Sorry,” I apologized honestly. “We have too much to do today. If traffic hadn’t been so bad…”
She waved her hand. “Bah. Traffic. Don’t talk to me about traffic. I drafted a proposal to replace all cars and streets with more light rails. Got a couple hundred signatures, too. But it was vetoed by Congress.”
Somebody from inside the restaurant called to her, asking for help with something.
“We shouldn’t keep you,” I said. “We’ll be going now. Call if you have another job for us.”
“I will,” she promised. “Take care.”
We left pretty quickly, but it still took another two hours to get back to the dorms. Of course, traffic got better pretty much the second we dropped off the car at my mom’s. At least she wasn’t home, so we didn’t get stuck in some conversational sandtrap.
The reason we were in such a hurry was waiting outside our rooms. Obould, with another box in his arms. He grinned when he saw up rounding the corner.
“Ah, Huntsman! I thought you weren’t going to make it.”
I waved my hand. “Remind me not to deal with cars ever again.” I opened the door to my room, and everyone piled inside. Obould plopped the box on the bed again, and opened it up quickly.
“Since both of my creations were such failures last time, I pulled out all the stops.” Akane’s armor hadn’t exploded like Ling’s did, but it turned out that it wasn’t anywhere near as flexible as it needed to be, and had slowed her down dramatically. She had quickly decided it wasn’t worth wearing and sent it back.
“Ling, let’s start with you.” The orc pulled out what at first glance just looked like a black wetsuit, but on closer inspection didn’t bend nearly enough.
“You didn’t ask me for help making it,” the blonde girl noted. “Did you find something that was shaped right?”
“Well,” he said slowly, frowning. “I think the slate will work, but we’ll have to see. I actually plated it in titanium, so hopefully it will be strong enough.” He held up the suit, and I could indeed see rectangular plates, sewn under the fabric, at all the vital areas. It pretty much looked the same as any other military tactical armor, except the plating was covered in fabric.
“It’s a one-piece?” Ling asked. “How do I put it on?”
He turned it around to reveal a long zipper at the back. “You should be able to do it yourself, but if not, I’m sure Akane can help you.” He put it down on the bed. “Derek and I will leave, let us know when we can come back.”
It only took about five minutes before we were called back in. I opened the door to find Ling looking very smug and covered head-to-toe in black. As she moved, I noticed that there were a few slits in the cloth at strategic locations, probably to help the armor breathe better.
“I like it,” she muttered, doing a few stretches. “Feels great.”
“How’s your range of movement?” the old armorer asked. “I had your measurements, of course, but there’s only so much I could do without you actually wearing it.”
“It’s not perfect,” she admitted. “But good. I’m not the agile one, anyway. I just need to be able to hit things hard.”
“Speaking of which,” I pointed out. “Did you test your power on it?”
She flinched a little. “No…not yet. I mean, I’m sure it will work. I can feel the plates, even under the metal. I’m just afraid something will go wrong again.” She shrugged. “Like maybe they’ll break if I push them too hard.”
“I’ll be ready to shield everyone if the suit explodes again,” I promised. “And you can always get new plates.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “You’re right. Okay, give me a second.” She fell into horse stance, her legs bent, her breathing shallow. Akane and Obould dodged behind me. I’m sure they were both confident in his creation, but better safe than sorry, and one of those plates moving at high speed could actually kill someone. Which reminded me, we needed to look into some sort of stone bullet for Ling, if only as a last resort.
Bah. We were in a city, and she could control concrete. She’d be fine.
My thoughts were brought back to the issue at hand as slowly, ever so slowly, Ling’s arms began to move.
She moved them like in swimming class, bringing them into her chest, then out, then in again and out again. From our perspective, it just looked like she was moving her arms slowly, but I could see the strain on her face.
“Okay, perfect,” Obould said from behind me. “Now fall back and catch yourself, like last time.”
She nodded, and slowly leaned back on her heels. She fell back normally at first, but slowly lowered to an impossible angle, then back up, then back down.
I grinned. “Perfect. You’re doing great. How’s your reservoir?”
She brought herself to a normal angle and opened her eyes. “Pretty much empty. I can’t keep that kind of thing up for long.”
“Let’s take a look at Akane’s while you rest,” Obould suggested, scrambling past me for the box. “Now, I thought we could put some reactive armor weave in here, which should be able to enhance her movements even at super speed.”
Akane perked up at that. “Really?”
“Yes.” The old man paused briefly. “Well, that was the idea, but we’ve had some trouble finding anything that isn’t too bulky.”
Akane’s face fell.
“However,” he said quickly. “We did find a temporary substitute.” He pulled out what at first glance looked like another wetsuit, but I quickly realized was far too flexible to be made out of that kind of material. It was still black, though. I think Obould didn’t trust his eyesight enough to put colors in something. “It’s fitted to your size down to the millimeter. It should feel better than your own skin.”
She touched it gingerly. “Soft.”
He nodded. “It was sewn by a Minerva, using her own silk. It’s not bulletproof—there’s too much give for that—but it is cut and stab proof, and should be mostly fireproof as well.”
“We’ll leave,” I said, as she took the outfit from him.
She grinned devilishly. “No need.” She started taking off her top.
Obould quickly looked away. I started getting a migraine again, and sighed. But before I closed my eyes, right before she got her shirt off, Akane…blurred.
She was suddenly a rush of motion. It lasted barely a second, but when it was done, she was dressed in the Minerva weave, adjusting her sword around her waist.
I blinked. “You…”
She grinned again. “Been practicing in the mornings.” She shrugged. “Getting faster.”
“You should’ve seen her the first couple times,” Ling interjected, smiling a little. “She pretty much just ended up throwing her pajamas everywhere.”
My migraine came back again, and I pinched the bridge of my nose. “That’s…great.” I shook my head to clear out the mental cobwebs. “Anyway, how does it feel?”
Akane flexed her fingers a little. The material there was thinner and tighter than the rest of the suit, probably to make sure it didn’t get in the way of gripping things. The rest of the armor wasn’t quite skin-tight, but it was very well-fitted, with slack in just the right places to give her full range of movement.
“Perfect,” she practically purred. “Much better.” I blinked, and suddenly she was gone, only a slight breeze noting her departure.
“Wow, that’s something,” Obould muttered. It was hard to tell, but I don’t think he was being sarcastic.
I was a bit more impressed. I had thought I was the only one practicing my powers with any regularity. Sure, using them for mundane tasks might not be perfect, but it was something. I was glad she was finally taking this seriously. Before, she had been…hesitant to use her powers outside of combat.
She sped back in suddenly. This time, my eyes happened to be open, and I saw her speed in, albeit as little more than a blur of motion. So she still wasn’t fast enough to be effectively invisible. Well, perhaps I was setting the bar a bit too high.
“Perfect,” she said again, grinning. She blurred again, and it took me a second to realize she was going through a couple quick sword moves. She stopped, sheathing her sword, with a look on her face like…well, like a soldier given a new set of armor. Satisfied. “Perfect.”
Ling picked at Akane’s arm. “You’re right, it is soft. What’s mine made out of, anyway?”
“A high-quality variant of spandex, mostly,” the orc admitted. “It needed to be flexible and breathable. But there’s still a good amount of kevlar woven in there, especially around the plates. It will hold, I can guarantee that.”
She looked at her own arms in admiration. “It feels nice. Though I’m sure the silk is better.” She twisted, apparently trying to get a look at her own rear end. “How much is this going to cost?”
“Five thousand dollars each,” Obould replied.
Ling tripped and fell to the ground.
I raised an eyebrow. “You okay there?”
From the floor, she stared at me in shock, then at Obould and Akane. “Uh…I don’t have that much money. I’m in Domina on a soccer scholarship.”
I bit back a laugh. “Is that what you’re worried about?” I smiled and reached out a hand to help her up. She took it, and I pulled her to her feet. “Don’t even think about it. I’ll be handling the cost.”
She stared up at me again, though it was a bit more disconcerting when she was standing three inches away. “How much money do you guys make from monster slaying, anyway?”
I frowned, trying to think. “Well, that’s a bit tricky…”
“About five thousand dollars a week,” Akane said. “After expenses.” She shrugged. “Better, if it’s something unique that we can sell for a high price.”
“There have been more gargants recently,” I mused. “Which is great for business, but not a good sign.”
Obould snorted. “The Autumn courts are the most inventive of the fey, but not the most prolific. Which means we’ll be seeing fewer of the smaller monsters, and more of the unique ones—like gargants.” He shrugged. “Not much we can do, except kill them when we see them.”
Ling shook her head, as if to intentionally derail her train of thought. “This is depressing,” She grinned and pressed herself against me, which might have actually felt nice if she weren’t wearing armor. “There’s always at least one way to boost spirits.”
Before I could come up with a decent reply, Akane rushed forward at superspeed, ripped Ling away from me, and tackled her out into the hall. The little blonde delinquent yelped and tried to fight back, but Akane had much more experience. She stayed on top without any difficulty, pinning Ling to the floor.
Ling apparently realized she wouldn’t win by fighting fair. She suddenly rose into the air quickly, if a little wobbly, intent on dashing Akane against the ceiling.
Even without factoring in her power, Akane was fast, and backflipped off Ling’s chest before she was in any danger. Ling, in turn, flipped her feet back down, landing in what at first looked like a fighter’s crouch, but which I quickly realized was actually a goalie stance.
I closed the door just as they rushed towards each other.
Women. It seemed like all they did was screw with me. Seriously. I don’t understand why teasing someone is so much fun. It gave me a headache just thinking about it.
“Well,” Obould said slowly. “At least they’re putting the armor through the wringer.” He paused, thinking. “And their powers, too.”
I nodded. “That’s true. Akane’s been getting more comfortable using her speed, and hopefully this will do the same for Ling.” I shook my head. “I’m not quite sure why Akane was so hesitant, though. Usually she’s good about practicing.”
“Oh, that,” the orc chuckled. “She said something to my wife about it. She was afraid using it would age her faster.”
I blinked. “And…what’d your wife say?”
He shrugged. “That there was no way of knowing if it was true, but she needed to practice regardless. Could save her life.”
I turned to the door, beyond which I could still hear the two fighting—hopefully without bringing the entire ‘scraper down.
She was worried about aging? How was that even…what did that have to do with the fight? Maybe it was true, but what did it matter? We lived dangerous lives, in a dangerous city. We were almost certainly going to die long before old age caught up with us. What was the point in worrying about such miniscule time differences?
“Huntsman?” Obould asked. “You worried about the girls?”
I snapped out of my fugue. “No, they’ll be fine. I’m sure they won’t do anything unexplainable in sight of anyone, or destroy anything valuable.” I gestured to the box he had brought the armor in, which also contained a small pad for calculations and transferring money. “Let’s work out exactly how much I owe you.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 55)
Ling’s armor sprung from two related questions I asked myself. 1: What reason is there for her not to be wearing armor? Sure, she’s flexible and stuff, but her power has little to do with that. 2: Remember that cool scene near the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender where Toph metalbended a set of armor for herself? And here we are.
Oh, and Akane’s speed does not age her any faster, even though it really should. None of the powers have any side effects. Sure, a pyrokineticist will still burn himself if he’s not careful, but using the power itself isn’t going to give him a tumor or something.