Tatiana looked at the kid in front of her with her eyes narrowed. “Step away from her. We appreciate your help, but we will take over now.”
A kid he was, even if he was built like a linebacker and carried an iron wrecking ball like it was just a balloon. He shook his head slowly, his eyes never leaving hers. The poor girl was sitting behind him on the ground, shivering. Tatiana knew rationally that the kid had probably carried the poor girl here, but now he was a violent male presence. He needed to leave.
And if he wouldn’t willingly, she would make him.
Pushing her body to the limits, Tatiana rushed forward while drawing a stun baton. Having no real animosity with the kid, she set the baton to its stun mode. Then, eyeing his physique as she shot forward towards him, she upped the charge to incapacitate. If she had learned one thing from Baloo, it was to never underestimate someone based on their appearance.
And this fucking kid looked the part of battle veteran much more than Baloo did.
Much to her surprise, the kid deftly flicked his wrist and sent that dangerous metal ball careening forward. She rolled to the side and drew a small caliber plasma pistol. She only fired twice, aiming for his extremities, but he moved his arm and leg and stepped toward her, his face filled with aggression.
“What she needs right now isn’t violence,” Tatiana said, doing her best to keep her voice even.
The kid sneered at her. “Real rich from the bitch who started the fight.”
At the word bitch, Tatiana felt her heart grow cold. This time when she raised the pistol, she shot a dozen times, burning quickly through her Mana. The whole point was to impress upon him the danger of pissing her off. To follow up, she upped the charge on her baton once more and rushed forward.
But then her instincts screamed to her and she leaped to the side. The huge iron ball came shooting back, and would have smashed her to the side had she remained standing there.
As the ball arrived back before him, the kid twisted and kicked, and the ball was launched towards Tatiana just as she completed the throw of her stun baton, aiming for his head. But then her eyes widened.
Three times she used her Quickstep, moving backward away from the ball. But even then, it had arrived before her in less than a second. She had no time.
Her eyes flicked upwards, shocked at this kid’s power. Suddenly, a voice whispered that she had been too hasty to jump to conclusions when she saw the wounded women in his arms. He wanted to protect her too. She shouldn’t have started the fight.
But he was a dick for responding so aggressively, for sure.
She saw him calmly reaching for the iron chain, a sneer on his face. Then the idiot let her baton hit him. The electric current rushed through him, his body seizing. There was enough power in that jolt to power a grade school, and yet the guy just twitched as though he was paralyzed.
But that second meant that the iron ball was about to hit her. She raised her arms and crossed them, hoping vehemently that when she was nothing but paste on the dirt, the other members of the compound would hear and rush over from caring for the other women. Hopefully, this asshole had enough empathy to feel guilt and would remember this day for the rest of his life.
Tatiana didn’t like the twisted satisfaction she felt, imagining him torn up by the guilt, but there it was. Sometimes, you couldn’t help the dark parts of yourself.
‘Should I have kissed Baloo, that night by the fire?’ Tatiana wondered idly. It was a strange thought, she felt.
Coughing, Tatiana fell back. There was a figure in front of her.
“Is this serious?” A mild voice asked. A familiar voice.
To her surprise, the kid answered, sounding somewhat sheepish. “…no. She…. fuck man, no it wasn’t. Shit.”
Grumbling, the kid turned around and looked down at the girl curled up on the ground. She was a lovely thing, with long blonde hair and vivid blue eyes. The only problem was that her face was slack, her eyes empty. She had lost something, wherever these people had come from. But the look on the kid’s face when he looked down at her…
Even sitting on the ground 20 meters away, peering around the iron ball which Baloo had stopped, Tatiana could see the expression was pure and genuine empathy. There was a depth of emotion there, too, that Tatiana dare not examine too closely, lest it drag her own trauma back out of the box she had separated it into.
Then Tatiana blinked. Because Baloo had stopped that huge ball of iron like it was nothing.
He crouched down next to her, his eyes bright. He seemed somewhat bemused. “So, what did I just walk in on? A lovers’ spat? I understand sometimes there is a palpable connection from the first glance but isn’t this a little soon?”
Sighing, Tatiana leaned back on the ground and looked up at the sky. “Please leave me alone for a minute. I just thought I was about to die, and do you know what I thought, right at the end?”
“What were you thinking?”
After a pause, Tatiana said. “…that I wished the ball was a little smaller, so it would destroy my body but leave my face for an open casket funeral.”
That got a laugh out of him, at least.
Randidly looked at Dinesh with a frown. They were currently in a small tea room on the farm compound. As it turned out, Dinesh and company had encountered a strange bunker on their way South to find Randidly and had liberated the 4 women and 2 men that the people of the farm were now caring for. While the more conscious 5 were being helped into buildings by the women who lived here, Tykes had brought up the rear carrying the blonde girl.
She was a light thing, probably only weighing 120 lbs, but he had taken his time. Even Randidly’s meager social skills could discern that Tykes was smitten with the girl. Which was fine, but then Tatiana came over and demanded that Tykes release the girl. He had been somewhat slow to comply, and Tatiana, understandably concerned with the girl’s safety, took exception to it.
Of all the details of the story, the most shocking was that Tatiana lived and ran the farming compound. The same compound in the forest under which Randidly had a secret base. He shook his head, almost helpless. Life was weird, sometimes.
Clearing his throat, Randidly gestured for Dinesh to continue.
“Heavy resistance, for the Zone. But it was strange. These were people who behaved like monsters: high Stats, but their Skills were haphazard at best. All wearing these black cloaks. They wore crosses around their necks too. From the little we’ve learned of the Zone, we suspect they were a… less than savory arm of the Unity Church.”
They were alone in the room. Bruya had come up to Randidly and touched his shoulder briefly, but after that, the rest of the crew headed out to camp with the farmers. That was all it took to reinforce the illusion around him, which took one of Randidly’s worries away, at least. Once Tatiana recovered, she had to go check on the new arrivals and left Randidly to his own devices, without even questioning his presence.
He admired her commitment to these strangers’ wellbeing, at least. But Randidly had intuitively known that about Tatiana. She was rough but kind. A total cliche, in a way.
“Do… do we know what is wrong with them? They were all…” Randidly began slowly.
“Weak. Yes, they were.” Dinesh glanced towards the door. “Perhaps their doctors will have a better idea. I can only guess at the specifics.”
Randidly snorted. Knowing the small group living here, he doubted they had anything like a true doctor, with System related Skills. “A general guess then?”
“Organ harvesting,” Dinesh said, closing his eyes. “A lot of metal tables in the inner parts of the bunker. Large glass containers, filled with flesh. And there were a lot of empty cells that we found.”
Randidly breathed slowly out, his eyes narrowing. There were two bits of information here. First, that the Unity Church really was involved in some very dark things. From the first time he had run into them, he had suspected it, but he didn’t want to let his atheism color his opinion. But so it was.
The second thing… was that there was a trace around them. A hint of the scent of a familiar Aether.
“Unity Church, huh…” Randidly said, almost to himself, thinking over his scans of their area. Nothing of note that he could remember. But a lot of bodies.
Dinesh nodded as if it had been a question for him. “They responded quickly too. We hit the bunker hard, Tykes going wild on the cave fortifications they had to guard, and Karlito and I following to mop up the rest. They put up a good fight, but they did more damage to themselves in the fight throwing themselves against us than we actually inflicted. Within 10 minutes, a team of 20 had arrived, and we had to slip past with illusions.”
Randidly grinned and saw Dinesh shiver slightly. But he couldn’t help it. Because at that moment, Randidly finally found a target for his focus.
But even though he caught the scent, it was still extremely faint. Just passed along through several intermediaries. Perhaps the upper levels of the church?
But even more confusing… why was the Creature involved in organ harvesting?