Hidden from sight, at the very back of the room, Mountain Dew sat waiting.
He had taken a bunch of office chairs from the building he had holed himself up in and had arrayed them all around him. He was currently sitting atop one of them, resting his feet atop another. Dorito bags rested on the few chairs next to him. A few were already empty.
His sniper rifle was in his lap, and he would occasionally peek into the scope to peer into the window of the tower up ahead. Moving with his injured arm had been painful at first, but in the few hours since the battle, the pain had diminished considerably.
That said, every time he saw Nero sitting at his desk, looking into the screens. Occasionally, he could pick him out speaking into a microphone.
Pithy had given him a sphere of ice, instructing him to break it if he thought Nero had left his post and had then proceeded to leave him there. He had simply chucked it into his hammerspace. Last he had checked, the thing had still not began to melt, but with how things were going, by the time Nero decided to up and move, the crystal ball would probably be gone.
“This is so fucking monotonous I sometimes think I’ll look into the sights and find the ass flipping me off. Hell, that ice queen might as well be standing next to him doing the same thing. She would too, if she knew what it meant. What a bitch.”
No romance option for this one, like way back when Bioware had yet to fall to Electronic Arts evil schemes, that was for sure. The woman was more liable to freeze something off if approached the wrong way than anything else. He had held some hope when he was forced into her party, but he was only a few hours into the route and he already had a feeling he knew how this character would turn out.
“Doesn’t help that I actually have to put an effort into voicing my thoughts when the bitch is around. Manages to cheat in a tourney match and hexes me afterwards. Good thing it goes away when she’s not around. Let it out, man. Let it out before she comes back and you can’t tell her about how stupid those pointy ears look on her.”
He shifted and dug a hand into another bag of nacho cheese goodness and brought it to his mouth, relishing the flavor. This world needed more of that. A surefire way to tell that a world was superior was by the amount of tortilla chips in the universe, which surely marked his own universe as the best of all. Why, he wasn’t sure why he insisted on staying. It certainly wasn’t the sudden pain in his chest that accompanied the thought, as though something had gripped his heart and threatened to crush it like some curse in a weeabo show, no siree. Anyone who said that should be smacked with a hammer, yes siree.
Mountain grunted and looked into the scope again. Seeing no changes, he put down the sniper again, and brought the one thing that made this stakeout bearable. He breathed deep, feeling smoke fill his lungs, and then exhaled, letting out a sweet-smelling cloud. With a lop-sided smile, he looked at the rolled-up paper in his hand. Seeing as he expected he’d be there for a few hours, he had made sure to make it last.
“Been saving these for the right time, and what time is righter than this time to blaze it, ice queen be damned. Bitch told me to keep a look out for Nero, but she sure as hell didn’t mention I needed to be sober while I did it. Heh. Gottim.”
Leaning back in a relaxed position, he closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the syrupy buzz that had slowly begun to fill his head.
Jo could not say for how long she had been lying next to the freezing girl. Minutes, hours or days, the white landscape remained the same, the sourceless lighting that permeated the fog neither receding nor giving clues as to the time of day.
Neither had the state of the girl changed, the cold feeling of her bare skin as permanent a fixture to the scene as the light regardless of the badger’s attempts to warm her with her fur or the strange fire. The thought that nothing would happen if she waited had occurred to her, but she was not certain when it had become a certainty. Certainly long before she finally decided to leave the girl to her resting place.
The little badger stood, looking out at the white nothingness. There had to be something else out there. A town, or a settlement, with people that could help her find her way and take care of the girl she had found. It wasn’t possible for the two of them to be the only living beings in these freezing wastes, she told herself, but she could not help but feel a niggling doubt that.
Once the badger began walking again, it did not take long before a glance back revealed nothing but cloudy white, the girl and fire swallowed by the mist. She hesitated for a moment, wondering if she was not doing the wrong thing by leaving the girl. Already her trail in the snow was disappearing behind her. Would she be able to find her again if she strayed too far?
The answer came back to her quickly and easily. The mysterious pyre still tugged at her gut, as though calling out to her when her thoughts turned towards it. Finding that fire would not be an issue, she realized, and so she continued.
For minutes, hours and days.
Once again, the white robbed her of her feeling of time. She tried counting her steps, but her short legs sunk into the snow, making it so that her gait was rough and uneven.
Instead she took to counting her breaths. One in, one out, focusing her mind on that so she would not have to think of the cold on her limbs or the exhaustion that had begun to assail her at a certain point in her journey.
No hunger or thirst, however, which made sense if she had died and turned into some kind of ghost, but then why did she feel so tired?
Jo let out a small gasp. Something ahead had drawn her attention, and the little badger approached, the irregularity in her surroundings drawing clearer and clearer as she moved closer.
It was a grown person, lying on the snow face down. They must have collapsed recently, for the white particles had only just began accumulating over it. Most of the body was covered by dark hair and torn, vibrant blue mantle. The clothing filled her with familiarity.
Approaching the body, Jo turned it over.
At this point, she was not surprised to see the face of the one who had killed her, but the fact still confused her. Much as she remembered, a strange mask of ice covered half the woman’s face, and a single eye blue eye stared blankly up to the sky. It was undoubtedly the woman she had faced, though it seemed as though she had continued battling after she had defeated Jo. Her clothing was ragged, and there was a red splotch coating one of her pantlegs that had not been present when Jo had encountered her. She had no weapons on her. Pressing a paw against her neck revealed no pulse.
Jo scowled, shaking her head. First the child and now this corpse? Why did she keep seeing her face? What had this woman done to her? Had killing her not been enough?
After a silent moment of brooding over the issue, the badger shook her head again and reached towards the woman’s neck, unclasping the cloak. Once she had pulled it out from under the corpse and wrapped it around herself, a relieved sigh escaped her lips. It was warm. She was not sure how, but it was warm.
There was no problem with her taking it, was there? After all, the woman had taken her gun after she had killed… her…
Jo frowned. It had been after, had it not? She could not recall the small necklace being pried from her neck before she electrocuted herself, so where had that thought come from?
She turned towards the body again, intending to give it a more thorough examination, but there was nothing there anymore. Suddenly wary, Jo glanced around, but saw only white around her. The wind was the only thing that moved.
Cursing under her breath, Jo moved away, deciding to continue her trek in the snow even as she threw occasional glances behind her, to where a corpse had once rested.
Minutes after the message left by the announcer had finished, Pithy heard the tell-tale sound of a firearm thundering in the distance.
She brought her hand to the device hanging from her neck on instinct. That was not a sound she wanted to hear.
“What are you doing, Dew?” she whispered to herself. Killing Nero had not been part of the plan. She had explicitly told him to keep watch for any movement and to alert her if the announcer left his post. Furthermore, she had explicitly given him a method to do as much that would not raise the alarm of everyone in the general area. What could have happened for him to fire his weapon?
A moment later, there was a prickling sensation at the back of her mind. The discomfort quickly lessened, replaced instead by a tug in the direction of the place she had left her ally. Pithy immediately set off, moving as quickly as she dared in the growing darkness. She found her eyes darting towards the darkness of allies and street corners, expecting something to jump out at her, drawn in by the announcement that had blared from her phylactery.
Already she had had an encounter with some of the local fauna when she had come across a small group of what she could only assume were a novice’s attempt at making chimeras. Creatures with bodies of mangy, street mutts and the enlarged heads of crows had jumped at her as she moved through the streets. They had died readily enough to her magic, and she had not seen any since then, but much like the bat creatures in the Justice Hub, she kept expecting to see the monsters when she rounded the corners of the increasingly dark city.
The feeling was not helped by the thought that had long since gripped her mind. There was something wrong.
Having reason to believe that Nero would not make a move until nighttime began to approach, Pithy had taken the chance to both plan and to replace some of the articles of clothing that had been enlarged beyond practicality after the mage had ‘mended’ them. Raiding a building singled out by Dew as a ‘clothing store’ had netted her a veritable mountain of apparel, and she had quickly found suitable replacements for her leggings and boots. Her dueling gloves, however, had been designed specifically for her, and as such had been discarded entirely.
Once she was no longer forced to wander in clothes meant for a person several times her own size, she returned to the vicinity of the tower. The first thing she had done had been to instruct Dew to go to a place where he could see into the announcer’s room, to alert her if the man left, and to continue tracking him after that. Since Nero could track her position, it made little sense for him to remain with her until he had been separated from the machines inside the tower.
For that same reason, she herself had to be the bait. Pithy had no doubt that Nero would know she was waiting for him, and would be looking for chances to slip by undetected. In that case, the best she could do was give him such a chance at her own discretion.
She had chosen a place where she could keep watch of the tower’s doors. Then, after she deemed enough time had gone past, she had moved away from her perch, taking a route that ensured she had no visibility of the announcer’s escape route, and found herself another place from which to keep watch. If Nero attempted to leave, he would have to do it while she was moving. When no signal came from her appointed lookout, she had simply repeated her ploy.
The chimeras had appeared on the second trip along with a nagging feeling that something was off. Grudgingly, she had chosen to trust the man she had defeated would follow her instructions, but when she had heard his weapon, her apprehension had come back at full force.
Finally, as she rounded a corner to follow the tugging feeling in her mind, she saw Mountain Dew emerge from a building. He turned at her approach, and she felt a pit form in her stomach at the way his expression twisted into a grimace when he saw her.
Pithy stopped a few paces away, suddenly losing her desire to come closer. “What happened?”
Dew brought a hand up, rubbing his neck in an awkward fashion. He stepped back, seeming to chew on the words before he spoke. “Alright, Pithy, don’t be mad.”
She felt her jaw set. How could one not grow irritated by that response? We lost Nero. The thought came unbidden, but there was no stopping it. There were few reasons why those words would come out of his mouth.
“About what, Dew?” and when he saw the way his eyes trailed away from her, as if trying to think, she added “Don’t you dare lie. Where’s Nero?”
“I don’t know.” He admitted, for a moment looking baffled by how easily the words had come out.
Pithy brought a fist to her forehead as Dew confirmed her fears. She closed her eye and took in a deep breath, trying to hold in her frustration, before uttering a single, accusatory word. “How?”
The silence that answered her was the last thing she wanted to hear.
Pithy opened her good, coolly regarding the man. “I do not wish to be cross with you, but you are making it difficult. Let’s start with something simpler, then. It was you I heard fire earlier, correct?”
“Yes. Seen any other snipers recently?” he answered, losing some of his previous sheepishness.
The man’s expression twisted. “A bit ago I noticed Nero was not sitting at his desk. Couldn’t see him anywhere, so I shot inside the room to see if I could spook him out of hiding.”
Pithy gave him a baffled look. “Why would you do that? I explicitly told you to call me if something like that happened.”
Dew’s brows furrowed. “I did. Smashed your little toy like you told me to.”
“That does not explain why you did that after you took a shot at the tower, nor why you aren’t up there tracking him.”
“That’s because I’m not sure when he left.”
The admission put a momentary halt to Pithy’s thoughts. How can he not know? He must have a general idea of when Nero left simply by knowing the last time he saw him. Unless… It was then that it dawned on her. She stepped closer. “Did you fall asleep?”
Mountain Dew drew back slightly, looking away from her. Was he ashamed? He well damn ought to be. Taking another step closer to him, she caught a whiff of a strangely sweet smell. It was not the only thing she noticed.
Suddenly, she grabbed his face in her hands, pulling him closer. Her thumbs roughly pulled at the skin on his cheeks.
“Your hands are cold!” he protested.
“Why are your eyes so red?” Now that she was this close, the stench was almost overbearing. At once, she realized what it was. Her eyes widened, her anger overshadowed only by her awe at this man’s stupidity. “Are you drugged? Did you drug yourself?”
The man tried to pull away, but Pithy’s nails pressed on his skin, making him wince. “Jeez, I know you’re the medieval fantasy lady but talking to you like this is a pain in the ass. It’s high, baked or stoned, thank you very much. Okay, maybe it didn’t mix too well with the painkillers.”
Pithy loosened her grip on Dew’s face, dumbstruck. Her fingers slowly traced down, and for a moment, Pithy found herself entertaining the notion of wrapping her hands around the fool’s neck and throttling him. Instead, her hands continued to move down, until they held a tight grip on his shirt.
“He eluded us. Because of you…” She had lost the one lead that they had into the designs of those who sought to meddle with the Crucible. Despite her making it clear just how important this matter was to her. She could have understood it had the man been distracted or outsmarted by the mage in the tower, but to willingly impair his faculties and fall asleep while she needed him to keep a careful eye out fell outside what she was willing to believe. And yet she had no choice but to do so. Her voice sounded hoarse to her ears as she spoke. “I put my trust in you. I thought you could handle this one task. Damn you, Dew, if Nero really intends to do something while the tournament is still underway your slip might cost me my life.”
“Pfft. Don’t feed me that crap.” The man rolled his eyes. “Nero might’ve bought your convenient sob story back in the tower, but I bet you just told him that so he’d do what you said.”
Pithy felt her blood go cold, strength leaving her grip on the man’s clothes. She did not stop him when he pulled away. “Oh?” she said softly, feigning disinterest even as she felt a horrendous headache come over her. “And what might my wish be, Dew, since you know me so well?”
“Unlimited power or something like that wouldn’t surprise me one bit,” he answered, irritably. “You got the villain shtick going for you even if you try to play it off. You even have what might as well be a demonic red hand sticking right out of your face. Cure gone wrong my ass, I bet that came from an insane experiment.”
The answer was so dreadfully predictable, she had not truly expected it to come from the man’s mouth. But why not? Many a sorcerer lived for their art, seeking to refine it until all its mysteries laid bare before them. Why, a conjurer that reached such mastery over their own element would be nothing short of a god, and what was unlimited power but the power to do whatever one wished? The idea stole a laugh from her, bitter and filled with loathing.
“I see, I see. So that is how you see the one who bested you. Why not?” she agreed with a dark glint in her eye. “I have never given you reason to think differently.” Indeed, the idea was attractive. So attractive, in fact, that in a moment of passion she could have grasped at that power even if it had no ability to save her. After all, if she could use such a thing, everything would become fair. Death was the ultimate equalizer for all things.
If only things had been fair to start with. She could not understand why things had begun as they had. She was so frustrated that she could not understand it.
“I don’t understand” she found herself saying it out loud, and then she was unable to stop. “It is something I have seen all my life, and yet I still can’t make sense of it. I have given so much… I have broken traditions and laws, been cut off from my roots and put my life on the line so many times only to earn myself the right that so many take for granted, to have at least a chance at living as one of one’s own kind would. Yet every time I share this burden, I am met with disbelief, pity, and even disdain, but never action, never aid.” She did not know when she had done it, but she was face to face with the man again. Her hands were balled in his clothing, trembling, and she had pushed him against the wall. She felt something warm and wet under her good eye, and she could not bear to think of what it might be—that feeling her schemes and chances crumbling in such an absurd way could have awakened such helplessness inside her.
“Every time, it is people like you,” she told him in a hoary whisper, accentuating the last syllable as though speaking a curse. “It is always people like you who act as if the right they were freely given at birth was something I am supposed to earn. Well, I am trying. Some do not even get the chance, so what kind of scum would I be if I didn’t? I have been trying for decades without rest, because every time I let my guard down and allow routine to set in, every time I allow myself to catch a glimpse of the life I am fighting for, years go by in the blink of an eye and I realize yet again that I cannot keep up with the speed your kind goes through life. No, I am tired beyond words of trying to keep up, but I must. The alternative is death.” She gritted her teeth. “Once upon a time, I might well have done as you said, if only so that I might have gained the ability to wipe everyone like you off the face of existence. Stars know I gave it my best attempt in another life.”
“So?” Dew met her gaze. “What changed since then?”
“I finally realized that you are not worth the effort.” This she spouted with all her venom, putting behind the words the weight of a century-old grudge in the making. “And as for why I won’t kill you specifically…” She pushed herself away, letting Dew steady himself. Pithy herself turned away, taking the chance to rub her sleeve against her cheek, to replace the armor that had, for a moment, cracked. “You are my only ally. Even if it is against your will. Even if you despise me for it. I will have you fulfill that duty until I have achieved my goal, or died trying.
“Now follow.” With that, she began to walk.
“Wait!” he called out. “What are you doing?”
“We head for the tower. If there are any leads to be found, that is where we’ll find them.”