At the prompting of the taunting gunshots, Pithy rushed out of the ruined barracks in time to see the honey badger that had caused her so much trouble dive into an alleyway behind the stack of boxes it had used as cover only a few minutes prior. Pithy ran to the mouth of the alley, momentarily pausing to glance at the discarded fast shooters.
Empty, she assumed. Still, the sight of them made her hesitate. Had the hatted badger sprinkled the area with similar surprises for her? It was such a thought that prompted her not to dismiss her barrier of ice this time, the object obediently hovering behind her. How did it even get the chance to prepare like this? Was it dropped inside an armory?
Until then, her small enemy had been following an illuminated path that had made its route predictable and made ambushes difficult, but in the darker alleyways, with her night vision ruined by the artificial lights all over the area, Pithy would be forced to follow along the same trail, giving her enemy ample opportunities to surprise her.
It was then that an outraged shriek sounded out from ahead, followed by a crack of thunder.
Pithy instantly set herself on the path at a run, berating herself for wasting time. The frenzied encounters had made her forget, but there had been a cloud of bats trying to get at the badger when she had first come across it. It would likely be too busy fending off the black wings to properly lay in ambush. There was a reason her enemy had avoided the dark spaces between buildings until then. Which means that if it’s using them now, it must have a destination it wishes to reach quickly.
By the time Pithy caught up with her foe, she had been proven right. After a few twists, turns, furious screeches, explosive rapports and winged corpses, the alley opened, letting a building many times larger than most of its surrounding brethren into view. It was largely featureless beyond its size, and had what seemed like large, sealed entrances at its front, where a large space was empty and illuminated. It was along the side of the building that Pithy saw a more familiar door, along with the small, furry figure of the hatted badger running towards it. Pithy wasted no time chasing after it.
The badger reached the door first, shouldering it open—the lock had been destroyed before-hand, Pithy realized—and pausing to make a rude gesture with its paw at her.
“Come get me, honky b—” That was as far as the foul-mouthed critter got before a blast of wind slammed the door inwards and sent the badger flying into the building.
Pithy strode to the door, moving her barrier to her front and summoning a pair of ice blades to flank her. The lights inside the building rapidly came on as she set foot within, revealing rows upon rows of storage racks. However, the woman’s eyes were quickly drawn to the hatted animal staggering to its hind-legs.
Its teeth were bared in an expression Pithy took to be a smile. An aggravating one. “Damn, girl, where you holding out on—” The blades hovering at Pithy’s side shot forward, forcing the badger to shoot at one and duck under the other. The sharpshooter quickly dove through an empty pallet to another corridor, leaving Pithy’s line of sight.
Pithy held a hand back, pressing it against the destroyed lock of the door she had walked in from. Is this why you led me here? Wished to settle in a place with enough cover to hide behind? Fine, but there will be no more running away. A short moment later ice affixed the broken door to its doorframe.
But now the badger was out of sight, though the lack of claws skittering over the stone floor in the silence made her think it had not moved far. Waiting to strike in ambush, perhaps.
Pithy’s rapier glowed as several crystal spheres formed around her. She threw them over the pallets, and with an effort of will, the crystal shattered into a rain of sharpened shards.
Pithy heard a hissed curse and the badger dove out from the end of the racket row Pithy stood on. Guns blared, but Pithy moved in time to intercept the projectiles with her barrier.
A third shot cracked against the metal rack behind Pithy, and a sudden pain on the back of her left shoulder made her stumble, but before her enemy could press the advantage, another half-dozen spheres had formed behind her.
This skirmish with the foul-mouthed badger had dragged on for long enough to irritate Pithy, and as it had always done for the mage, anger threw matters into cold relief. The critter had said so itself, had it not? Not fast enough and not plenty enough. If that was its wish, Pithy would accommodate her. But while Pithy could sustain her assault for as long as her body did not give out, her enemy was limited to the projectiles that fit its weapons.
A few of the spheres, smaller as they were compared to the ones she had used in their first encounter, exploded into mist besides her, others were simply pushed back by what Pithy quickly realized was the bouncing ammunition. The rest shattered into cones of shrapnel directed at the shooter.
The badger dove out of the way, but before it could attempt a counterattack, another crystal ball rolled up to the corner. Pithy heard a curse and the scrabbling of claws on stone just before the crystal exploded. Pithy steadily strode forward, ignoring the shards that clattered against her barrier as she summoned more crystal spheres around her.
At first the sound of gunfire joined the sound of ice breaking like glass, but the rapid, thunderous sound of the badger’s six-shooters soon tapered off as the small beast struggled to juggle destroying the spheres, load new bullets into her weapons as well as jumping into cover to avoid the shrapnel she could not get rid of.
There were no taunts coming from the badger now.
Pithy made sure to toss the occasional exploding crystal ahead of where the badger attempted to flee, corralling it in. At times, she simply left them without detonating them as leftover hazards to activate should the enemy attempt to flee her. If the badger had hidden weapons in this area, she either could not reach them due to Pithy’s persistent assault, or understood that she needed the ability to rapidly shoot the spheres down to make openings for itself. Those that did explode or were destroyed by the badger’s shooters left behind a smattering of mist that soon enough began to cover the area in fine diamond dust. The enemy had chosen this territory for their battle, but with a sustained effort of will, Pithy was turning it into her own.
Here and there she came across droplets of fresh blood, evidence that some of the shards had hit their mark. The continuing struggle made it clear that these were flesh wounds at best, but she knew this could not continue for long.
Perhaps realizing that things would only turn bleaker if she continued to run, Trickshot Jo took that moment to make her move.
The badger jumped out of the way of another rain of shrapnel onto a pallet, hiding behind a crate and aiming along its side with her shooter.
Pithy pulled her shield in front of her as she had done before. She did not fear being struck by another bouncing projectile. She had stopped seeing them once the badger realized they could not break the spheres.
Thunder cracked, but this shot was not aimed at her.
The bullet struck at one of the legs supporting a loaded rack, and the metal dented. Pithy heard more than saw the metal groan and bend as the weight it supported was thrown out of balance.
One crate, large enough to fully fill the pallet it was stored on, slid and began to fell, forcing Pithy to backpedal in order to avoid being crushed. The crate smashed itself on the ground, sending splinters flying. The rack’s own fall was stopped when it crashed onto one of its neighbors, the sudden stop sending its contents sliding down its side.
Pithy continued to back away, forced to lift her barrier to avoid the detritus. Just as she cleared the pallet, she caught sight of the badger again. It was at the top of one of the racks, and had just hoisted a large, tubular object larger than the critter itself over one shoulder. It staggered more than turned to aim it in her direction, and the open hole at the end of the weapon reminded her vividly of a cannon.
The vicious glint in the critters eyes reaffirmed her instinctual thought that a barrier would not be enough to stop that weapon.
So she swept her rapier forward and sent out a hastily formed blast of wind at the badger.
The small animal tipped back under the force of the wind, throwing her aim wide just as it pressed the trigger, and the rocket sailed over Pithy. It crashed against a mound of containers behind her, the explosion sending her to her knees. And then there was another explosion.
Pithy felt the heat on her back and the wave of pressure picking her up for one weightless moment before she was slammed against the collapsed rack.
Her vision went dark.
She could not have been unconscious for more than a few seconds, but when she came to, the relative silence of the facility had been replaced by the ululating sound of a siren. Water was sprinkling down from above even though the last time she had looked, she had been inside a building.
But it is dark, she mused, slowly trying to piece together her thoughts. She recalled the weapon the badger had levelled at her, along with the ensuing explosion. Did that break the lights? Feeling her face, she groggily realized that her hair had been matted down by the water and was covering her good eye. She parted it, hissing as she touched what felt like a warm gash on her scalp, and studied her surroundings. The lights in the immediate vicinity had indeed gone out, but the light coming from the flaming wreckage behind her, along with lights from further within the building were enough to see by.
That explosive must have hit something flammable…
Water streamed down from the ceiling, a system clearly set in place to combat incidents such as this one, but whatever had caught on flames was rapidly catching on to other crates despite the rain. Pithy herself was in a nook between collapsed racks. If a gunshot from the badger had been enough to topple one, she imagined the explosion would have done better.
She counted herself lucky not to have been crushed as she crawled out from the crevice and gathered her feet under her. Her rapier was only a short distance away, and she quickly grabbed it.
From between gaps in the collapsed pallets, she caught sight of the large entrances she had seen before, now open. She set out towards them, knowing that any second spent in the flaming storehouse might meet her with another explosion. She was not eager to learn how many of those containers held something that would gleefully detonate when in contact with fire.
Metal surfaces slid and clicked against each other, bullets falling neatly into place in their chambers. Joanne Schrodinger hunched outside of the building, leaning against a wall as she reloaded her weapons with a practiced paw. The sirens blared from the storehouse she had just left, nurturing her growing headache.
These people’s toys were destructive, if nothing else. Not as elegant or as comfortable as her own revolvers, not by far, but the experience had been something. At least until the honky bitch had turned on the heat on her.
Or whatever the opposite o’that would be.
Blood ran down from several small cuts she had suffered, most concentrated in the limbs she had had to use to cover her vitals as she tried to escape the exploding crystals.
Should’ve killed the bitch quick instead of having her give me the run around, she reflected, but quickly dismissed the thought.
Trickshot Jo was not one for regrets. Better to go out and fix the damn problem than to sit back thinking on it. She intended to do just that. She had managed to find the switch that opened the big sliding doors at the front of the warehouse and stepped out for air. Now, with her guns reloaded, she would go back inside, find the ice woman and pop a cap on her while she wasn’t looking.
She turned around to see the woman only a few meters away. Her rapier was raised and one hand was aglow, another of those stupid shields forming in front of her. This was the end of the contest. Jo had been seen first.
But the trickshot was a quickshot as well. Her guns raised as though of their own volition and the hammers struck down. The bullets slammed against the barrier, sending a spiderweb of cracks running down its surface.
This one’s weak! she crowed in her mind. It did not matter why, as long as she could break through it.
But just as she cocked the hammers back down, blades formed at the woman’s side and launched themselves at Joanne. Acute reflexes honed by life as an acrobat and sharpshooter had her jumping up, letting one blade sail under her even as she fired a bullet into the other one.
Still in the air, she aimed another shot at the shield. This time, the crystal surface shattered, letting her see the woman behind it even as she cocked the hammer on her other revolver. She couldn’t comprehend what she saw.
How can this bitch be this stupid?
The woman had a six-shooter on her hand, the one she had embarrassed herself with earlier, and it was leveled straight at the Trickshot.
This sealed the deal. Victory was hers. The woman might fire, but she would miss. A wasted effort. Unimpeded, Jo’s next bullet would find the ice woman’s head, sealing her defeat and taking care of one of her Captain’s foes.
And yet, in the moment before she pulled the trigger, she saw something unnerving in the woman’s blue bombardier’s eye.
Fire erupted from both weapons.
As all except perhaps she expected, Pithy’s head whipped back, and the woman tumbled to the ground.
The badger landed messily, the six-shooters falling from her paws. As it rolled itself to lay facing up on the pavement, it exposed a large, bleeding hole on her gut, where much of the stomach and intestines would normally be. The revolver, made for big-game hunting, had wrought havoc on the small animal’s body, and it left it facing up on the ground, conscious, but breathing laboriously.
The winged drone hovered closer, almost uncertainly. This was not an ideal outcome, to say the least. If both combatants died together, what would become of the project? All that the College had set in motion could not be undone by a single stroke of rotten luck, could it?
And then, the body of the elf shivered. The drone distanced itself slightly as the woman slowly picked herself up, revolver still in one hand, rapier on the other.
Once she had her feet under her, Pithy slowly walked to the mortally wounded badger, pausing only to look down at it.
The glazing orbs of the shooter’s eyes regained some focus, fixing on her. It coughed painfully in its woman’s voice. “That revolver is too damn big for you… girl. Heh… done in by… fu… done in by beginner’s luck…” it wheezed. “How are you standing? I got you. I saw it get you.”
Silently, Pithy parted her hair, revealing the mask of ice covering the right side of her face. Where her eye would be, there was a crack, with a darker mound sticking out of it. Pithy dug at it with the tip of her sword, letting the smashed bullet fall to the ground. She did not need to hear the crackling of forming ice to know the fracture was repairing itself before the badger’s eyes.
She had been saved by the affliction she wished to remove. The irony was not lost on her.
It did not matter. Pithy had long ago learned that she could not afford to be overly fastidious. As for the stunt with the gun, that, too, had been the best idea she could come up with in the moment, and it had been a gamble. Neither was that something new. Nearly a half-century ago, Pithy had gambled with her life in a much deeper sense. She had done so numerous times since then.
Some might even say that the original wager is still ongoing. What is this in the face of that?
“Heh.” The badger’s gaze dropped to the bullet on the ground. “A freak… with freaky luck.”
“Takes one to know one.”
“I ain’t no freak. Don’t… make me laugh... I’ll cough stuff up.” The badger’s eyelids began to droop, and she looked past Pithy and into the sky. You could not see stars in that sky, hidden as they were by the lights below. Slowly, in the wings of a deep, struggling breath, its paws reached towards its bandoliers. “Nobody tell'im I said so, but it's the least I can do... for my cap'n. All I know is I ain’t waiting for this to take me.”
Pithy stepped back, bringing up her cloak to cover her face as lightning arched from the ammunition in the badger’s body.
The distinct stench of seared meat filled her nostrils a moment later, and she looked down at the corpse of her enemy. Smoke rose from the bandolier, and Pithy could see the projectiles that had been detonated. Its eyes were still open, unseeing, and its expression struck Pithy as one of intense agony. Or it could have been a dark satisfaction. She was too unfamiliar with the creature’s features to tell those apart.
A last ditch effort to take me with it? The blasted animal could not even die properly. Not all the dying had a chance to leave any last words to one who would hear them. So be it. If the beast had chosen to eschew a solemn end for a painful one, that was its prerogative.
Pithy sheathed her weapons and knelt over the badger, snatching the phylactery from its breast. It seemed to be inactive, but Pithy might still be able to learn something of use with it.
Then, she took one of the animal’s revolvers in her hand. It is a good name for these weapons. She spun it around, letting the cylinder containing its ammunition open, and compared them to those held by the one she had found. Pithy frowned. Wrong size.
She stole a glance at the ammunition still intact in the badger’s bandolier, then thought against it. The badger’s weapons could have come in handy, but she was too unfamiliar with the weaponry to make proper use of the animal’s strange ammunition. She left the weapons where she found them.
Instead, she once again turned her examination to the animal’s body and, after a moment’s consideration, took the small shooter also hanging from the beast’s neck.
With that, she tied the chains of both necklaces, the one with the gun and the one with the heart, to her belt.
The woman stood. She was drenched from head to toe. Blood was seeping from her scalp onto her cheek, and she could feel bruises forming under her clothes. This fight had been more exhausting than she had expected, though considering the badger’s skill with its chosen armament, the fact that she had escaped the debacle with only minor wounds was quite the feat in itself.
Still, the idea of enduring similar fights one after the other did not fill her with confidence. She wondered if there was medicine and food to be found in this facility. Would I even recognize it as such?
“How odd of you to wait, announcer,” she called out dryly to the drone still hovering nearby. “The badger is dead. What now?”