Scene 197 – Aerugo

AERUGO

DEREK

Sunday. Ling had been missing for a full week.

And we still weren’t an inch closer to finding her.

Between Obould’s orcs, Dispater’s warbloods, Necessarius, and Tecumseh…we should have found something. A scrap of clothing, a scent of perfume, something.

Laura had been using a seismograph to monitor the city, maybe find some odd earthquakes from Ling struggling against her captors, but that had just led to a bunch of dead ends. Especially loud machinery and oddly large explosions, but no little Chinese girls kidnapped by the aves.

“She has to still be on the island,” Laura muttered at my side as we walked down the street, past a maintenance man installing a speaker on the corner. “No one’s left the city recently.”

I thought about it. “What about—”

“I already thought of the space cannons. Each package is thoroughly screened before being fired. Besides, a human wouldn’t survive the launch anyway.”

“Good to know,” I admitted. “But not what I meant. What about the Dagonites and so on?”

But she just shook her head. “Unlikely. Soaring Eagle has never had any allies with them, and Butler apprised them of the situation early on. It’s doubtful she found any friends there.”

“She doesn’t have the money to bribe anyone?”

“Not last time we checked. Though Lizzy—Elizabeth—always had some gems squirreled away for a rainy day.”

“I thought Necessarius got that when they went through your room and searched her bank accounts.”

“Everything they could find, sure, but I doubt that’s everything she had.”

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “This would be easier if we knew how close the two groups were. If Soaring Eagle is a Blackguard, then Ling’s dead, and this whole thing is just us chasing our tails.”

“I don’t think so. I think the Composer would have made some kind of announcement if Ling was dead already.”

Now it was my turn to shake my head. “She managed to hide for years. Somehow, I feel like whatever her flaws, ego isn’t one of them. She’s not the type to just pop up and gloat.”

“Pretty sure that’s my cue,” a voice I recognized called from behind.

We both turned to see a young man with the ruddy red skin of some type of islander and garish green hair grinning at us as he stepped out from an alley some fifty feet behind us.

Mitchel St. John. Ling’s orphanmate.

One of Elizabeth’s Blackguards.

I immediately pulled Laura behind me, and heard a click as she readied her pistol. She couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with the thing, but she might be able to distract him.

“Oh, is that any way to greet an old friend?” the man called mockingly as he stepped closer. “After I went to all the trouble of finding you, too!”

“Any particular reason you were looking for us?” I asked. “Or just the standard ‘let’s spy on the heroes and kill them if they do anything iffy’ plan?”

He shrugged. “Eh. That’s about it. The Lady Greene is a little annoyed by Akane and that other one showing up at the birds’ nest, but mostly it’s cuz I had nothing better to do.”

“Oh, that makes me feel wonderfully important.” Behind me, Laura tapped me on the shoulder in a short pattern I recognized; she was saying there was no one else around. That was good and bad; no reinforcements for the renegade, but none for us either.

I just needed to keep him talking long enough for Laura to get a text off to MC. We were on some unimportant side street I didn’t even know the name of, but we probably had allies within a couple blocks. They’d come running when called.

“You are important,” Mitchel insisted. “Did you know the mistress has given us specific orders regarding you?” He smiled magnanimously. “You’re the only five people in the city who have that honor!”

I raised my eyebrow. “And what are those orders?”

He grinned and raised a finger to his lips. “Shhh. It’s a secret.”

My eye twitched. “I’m beginning to see why Ling hates you.”

He shrugged. “Not too long ago, that would have thrown me into a frothing rage. Now…”

He rushed forward, covering fifty feet so fast I could almost swear he had superhuman speed. I barely managed to dodge out of the way, dragging Laura with me, and land painfully on the asphalt.

Mitchel grinned at me again. “Now it drives me into a cold rage.”

The renegade lunged forward again, but I threw up a glowing blue shield in front of him, stopping him in his tracks.

For about two seconds.

He grinned—I was starting the hate that smile—and placed his hand on the shield, only for it to dissolve under his touch effortlessly.

Crap.

“Mistress Greene calls it ‘rust,’” he said, looking over his hand as though searching for damage. Behind me, I heard Laura scooting away; good girl. “I can accelerate the rate of decay for non-organic matter. In other words, I make things get really old, really fast. Turns out that includes your shields. Who knew?”

Idiot, I thought to myself as I slowly climbed to my feet. If he had any brains at all, he wouldn’t have explained it to me. He should have let me assume he could do that to anything, so that I’d be flinching away from his touch during the fight.

I briefly considered whether or not it was a double-bluff, before dismissing it. Unlike his boss, Mitchel seemed to like to show off. That was the entire reason he had revealed himself. He wanted me to know what he was capable of. He wanted me to be impressed.

I kept my face neutral, hiding my fear. I was Derek Huntsman. I would not be intimidated just because someone took away my cool new power. I had fought gargants unarmed before, a renegade would be nothing.

“Good for you, you can negate my shields,” I deadpanned, masking my fear. “But your power can’t hurt me. Which means this is a hand-to-hand fight.”

Mitchel grinned even wider, revealing sharp teeth. “Oh, I’m hardly worried about that. I’ve fought vampires with these hands, you know.” He rushed forward, throwing a punch at my face with the speed and force of a bullet.

I stepped aside, letting it fly past me, and tripped him before he could recover, sending him sprawling to the ground.

“I’ve fought vampires too,” I noted. “Mine were warlords.”

He spat on the ground, before coming back to his feet, cracking his neck. “Right, right…I forgot you used to be a wrestler. Killed a couple kids, right?” He fell into an advanced karate stance. “Well, I’m not a kid, Huntsman.”

I didn’t bother correcting his misconceptions; I just pushed down my fear and concentrated, observing his posture.

To my surprise, he actually appeared to know what he was doing. There were no obvious weaknesses in his guard, and the muscles of his arms—all I could see with his short-sleeved black shirt—were taut as steel cables.

“You mind if I take my jacket off?” I asked after a moment. It was a bit cold out, but we’d both be sweating soon enough. And maybe I needed to buy a second to psych myself up.

Mitchel swept his hand out. “Of course. And, even though you didn’t ask, I won’t attack while you’re doing that!”

“How kind of you,” I muttered as I started to pull off my jacket. “You’ll forgive me if I assumed you’d be a bit more…underhanded.”

“What? Just because I’m working for someone with plans that involve murder and bloodshed, I have to forgo all honor?”

“Actually, no. I meant because I thought you were smart.”

I threw my jacket in his face and rushed forward as he struggled with it, hitting him with a quick one-two punch to the gut.

“Tezuka—” he spat, before spinning to the side and throwing aside the jacket. His grin was gone now, and his eyes were filled with hatred. “I thought you were the hero of this story. Honor, chivalry, all that.”

“Different kind of honor,” I insisted.

“What does that even mean?

“It means I can do this,” I swept his legs out from under him, sending him sprawling to the ground. “And this.” I followed up with a stomp to his head, which could have killed him if it connected.

But he was done playing around. He rolled out of the way of my foot and backflipped back onto his own feet, before expertly blocking my lightning-fast punch to his face.

“This is all you’ve got?” he asked with a laugh. “I mean, c’mon, this is kinda sad.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really? You really want me to try harder?”

His grin disappeared. “Wait, I—”

I moved inside his reach, sending another punch rocketing towards his face, but he blocked it as he backstepped—which I had intended. With my other hand, I struck at his throat. I couldn’t get enough power to break anything, but it still made him cough with the effort of breathing.

He tried to counterattack, drawing in as deep a breath as possible before stepping forward while performing a powerful double-palm to my chest, but he had left himself too open. I sidestepped him easily, wrapped my arm around his throat, and kicked him in the back of the knees all in one motion.

The Blackguard went down. Not too hard, he could have easily recovered…except that I still had my arm around his throat.

No hesitation. Before he could struggle out of my hold, I took his head in both hands and twisted it.

Crack.

I let the corpse fall to the ground like a rag doll and took a deep breath, trying to steady my shaking hands.

Silver and gold, why was it still like this? Every time it was the same. The same nameless dread, fear of…I didn’t even know what. Death, obviously. But what else? Failure?

I had fought in thousands of battles. That wasn’t an exaggeration in the slightest. Literally thousands. Why did I still shake like a novice every time? It was going to get me killed one of these days, I knew. If Mitchel had been smart enough to attack while I was taking off my jacket…

I shivered. Didn’t want to think about that.

I heard footsteps on the street behind me, and turned to see Laura, with my jacket draped over her arm.

“You okay?” she asked, watching me closely.

“Yeah,” I said with a nod, smiling at her kindness. Then I winced. “Got a headache now, though.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You’ve been getting those a lot.”

“What? I…I mean, yes, I am, but I didn’t tell you that.”

“I noticed. It’s hard not too.” She quirked her head. “You think it’s a remnant of Elizabeth’s brainwashing.”

Rubbing my forehead didn’t really help with the headaches, but I did it anyway. “Yeah, it’s the only thing I can think of. It’s just so specific, and always around you, so it has to be that.”

My old friend frowned. “That is worrying. MC can find you a psychiatrist, if you like—”

That made me laugh. “In the state the city’s in? No, I don’t need a shrink who would be a spy for any of a half dozen people. I’ll manage.”

“Well, it’s your call.” She turned her attention to Mitchel’s corpse. “At least we know how she escaped the warcage.”

“What?” I thought about it for a second. “Oh…yeah. I guess his ability would cause rust, huh?”

“He did call it rust. I thought it was obvious.”

I shrugged. “I was mostly thinking about how it made my shields useless.”

“Hmph. I suppose you did have other things on your mind.” She knelt down next to the corpse, and checked his neck for a pulse. “And I guess you didn’t really have an option to capture him alive.”

“Yeah, he was tougher than I—” I smacked my hand against my forehead.

That’s what she meant. With Mitchel dead, we were out of leads.

Again.

Behind the Scenes (scene 197)

I have a bad habit of having waay too many characters, which leads to the very bad habit of enjoying killing them off, since that means fewer to worry about.

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