The howling echoed through the hills around him as Eldar scrambled up the slope. Leaves, sticks and scrub slid downward beneath him and he began to feel like he was moving in place. His hands slipped and he fell flat on his face and slid down the slope a few feet. Exhaustion reverberated through him and took its hold.
Four days the hounds had ghosted them, stalked them, probed them at night and traced their movements in the day. At first they seemed to just be scavengers looking for any leavings. Then last night the pack seemed to make its decision. They knew that the pack had grown but it seemed that the hounds were actually hiding their numbers by never showing more than a few at the same time. When they came there were so many more of them than Eldar had imagined.
Tarrelson had tried to fight them off. When they had left Shelter all those long weeks ago Tarrelson had sworn to make sure that Eldar made it all the way. He was young, but so full of hope that Eldar could only believe his earnest promise to get the “Old Man" there as Tarrelson had sworn to Elia. Eldar’s Daughter, Elia, would lead the Shelter out once they had word of the journey’s success. Elia had laughed and kissed Tarrelson in a more than friendly way and then shrugged off her Father’s raised eyebrow. Eldar could see those moments clearly as he watched the hounds gauge the young man and the burning brand he swung at them. Three had stayed in front of him, snarling and nipping at him so that he never saw the two that circled behind. They came on him from his blind spot and tore out the back of his legs. As soon as he was down they were on him. His struggling only lasted a few more seconds. Eldar winced at the image of the man's limbs becoming still beneath the wagging tails of the large hounds. He knew that image would be with him the rest of his days, however many more of them he had left.
The howling struck up again, closer now, as if to punctuate that thought.
Eldar pounded the ground. There had been seven of them. It was a good number, a fortuitous number. They had all agreed upon that. As they ran from the hounds into these forsaken mountains there were only five left. The pack continued to stalk them. They did not attack again en masse but rather seemed content to pick off the group one by one. Any hesitation, any slip or fall, any lack of strength and the hounds took you. Eldar was the last and only because Tok and Clutch had turned to try and fight. Exhaustion was taking its toll and the two men hoped to scare the hounds off. Eldar could hear the snarling of the hounds and the gunshots. He ran for high ground hoping to find a place to hide and that the two men might fight them off. It had only been a few minutes before the guns went silent. Shortly after that the howling started. It surrounded him and he drove harder up the wooded slopes. He tried to choose paths that would be harder for the pack to traverse. These were also incredibly hard on him, but he hoped to gain some space to be able to find a good place to hide, or to fight, but most likely to die. The howling echoed from all around him. They were communicating to one another, sharing his location across the pack as they moved to channel him to where they could surround him.
Despite his fear and exhaustion, something would not let him stop. Somehow he knew that if he just kept going a little longer he would survive. He pounded the ground again.
They had been seven!
Now…it was just him.
Slowly, his hands reached up and grabbed an exposed root on the hillside.
Somehow his grip was strong and he pulled himself up.
Somehow his feet found purchase on a rock slightly jutting from the loose ground of the slope.
Somehow he pulled…
And scratched his way up.
At the top of the hill side Eldar found a gravel trail cutting across the slope and somehow he knew to follow it. Staggering, scrambling, crawling and running he made his way along the trail. Trees rose alongside the trail like ancient sentinels. Branches that reached out into the trail clutched and pulled at him, but he was not even aware of them. His mind had devolved into just one thought: take the next step. Keep moving. There was no room in his mind for anything beyond the effort it took to drive his hands and feet forward. The howling struck up again and seemed to be everywhere. Eldar pushed through a bramble and stepped over something. He had no mind for what it was, but the post with writing from Before rocked back and forth as he stepped across it. His foot caught on the post and he tripped and fell forward. The gravel cut into his skin and he collapsed on the path, losing the will to move.
The howling erupted again and Eldar looked about in panic. Shadows moved in the trees around him. He knew they were taking their time assessing him, circling him, and surrounding him. Somehow he pushed himself to move. Rolling off the path, he crawled towards a depression in the ground. It would be his grave he knew. As he started down into the shallow in the ground he began to slip on wet grass that lined the depression. He panicked as whatever strength had possessed him for the last few minutes fled him and he slid down the slope. The crunch of gravel alerted him to several of the hounds racing after him. He looked back as he slid and saw their over-large torsos appear at the top of the pit he was falling into. They were silhouetted against the twilight sky and the sentinel trees that surrounded them.
The ground fell away from him and he felt weightless for a second before another surface slammed into him. The air exploded from his lungs as he lay on his back looking up out of the pit he had fallen into. He collected his breath again in huge gasps and the world stopped blinking before his eyes. Now he could hear the whining and growling from the pack above as they assessed the slope and how best to get at their prey. As air heaved into him, he started to realize that the ground he was on was flat; perfectly, unnaturally flat. It was also very hard and cold. He ran his hand over it and felt its smoothness. He had felt this sort of material a few times in his life and knew this was a thing from Before. No one After could make a surface this perfect.
Eldar turned and pushed himself up to his knees looking around. He was about ten feet down in some sort of silo. Above he could see the sky and the branches of the trees overhead. He could not see any of the hounds but he heard them moving around the edges of the slope which led down here. They had shown uncanny intelligence up to this point so Eldar was not surprised and more than a little thankful they had not tried the slope yet. He had no doubt that they would slip as he had and it would rain immense, ferocious, man-eating hounds on him. It was only a matter of time though, so he needed to figure out where he was.
Reaching his hands out Eldar felt walls of the same smoothness as the floor under him. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could make out the confines of the broad shaft he was in. There was enough room at the bottom for several men to stand shoulder to shoulder without touching the walls. It was deep enough that he had no hope of reaching the top, even if he still had the strength to jump. He did not see any way back up. There was no ladder or hand holds of any sort. It looked as if there was an alcove in the wall to his left and he reached toward that. He did not have the strength to stand and so he crawled towards the deeper darkness of the alcove.
A scrambling sound from above preceded a whine from one of the hounds and a rain of dirt from above. They were getting adventurous and he knew the lure of their prey would override any fear of the strange terrain very soon.
Lurching forward Eldar's hand pressed against a firm surface inset a few hand widths inside the alcove. The metal ring on his finger connected with the new surface in a resounding metal on metal ping. A metal door? Eldar was amazed as he ran his hands over the surface.
There was a sudden snap-hiss and light flooded the silo from the alcove. The lights were blinding and Eldar's eyes reversed their adjustments to accommodate as he shielded his eyes. A low hum resonated from the door and a green light flashed over the inside of the silo. What Eldar could only describe as a beam scanned down the interior of the silo and over him, and then back up and snapped off as the hum faded.
"Please identify yourself for admittance beyond this point." a warm female voice spoke from seemingly everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Eldar coughed and tried to speak but could not find his voice.
"Please try again. Please identify yourself for admittance beyond this point." the voice intoned again. "Are you in need of assistance?" it continued in an almost too solicitous voice.
"Yes! Yes! Let me in please! By the light of Before!" Eldar croaked in the raw voice that the last few days had left him with.
"No Match. Please try a secondary biometric identity scan for admittance beyond this point. Please be advised that unauthorized access is subject to, but not limited to, significant fines and may result in imprisonment and, in rare cases, execution." For a moment Eldar was convinced there was a tone of anticipation when the warm female voice politely spoke of executing him. As his exhausted mind raced to process what was happening, Eldar saw a green square light up at about his shoulder height had he been standing. The image of a hand began to pulse brighter and darker upon the square.
Eldar tried to pull himself up, but there were no hand holds in the smooth silo that he was beginning to think would be his tomb. So far he had come, and so hard he had struggled these last few days and now all he had to do was stand up, but he could not.
"Do you require assistance?" the warm voice inquired again. Was there a hint of superiority in her tone? Eldar thought maybe he had finally snapped. Was he dreaming this?
"Yes! Damn you, please!" he croaked.
"Please do not be perturbed. What is the nature of your distress so that the proper assistance can be given?"
Eldar stared at the green blinking hand and loathed the voice with the deepest part of his being. He pulled in what remaining strength he had and lunged at that green hand.
Three things then happened near to simultaneously. Eldar's hand slapped onto the green square with a wet smack and the blood and grime on his hands left a distinct shape on the glass. The force of his slap spiked back through him as pain shot up his arm. Then there was a scrambling from above; a rain of dirt and the howling yip of one of the hounds as several hundred pounds of snarling beast came slamming to floor of the silo. Finally, the warm female voice intoned, "Positive Identification. Welcome Maintenance Worker number seven-four-two-four." Then, and Eldar later would swear there had been a tone of sarcasm, "Was that so hard?"
Eldar stared at the green pad incredulously. Somehow the smear of his handprint had registered with the disembodied voice.
A growl filled the silo and Eldar turned to look at the hound raising up on its legs and shaking the fall from itself. Eldar fell back against the metal wall of the alcove and stared at the hound. He memorized every detail of its snarling visage. From the wet gleam of its nose to the saliva lining its jowls as it exposed its reddish yellow fangs to him and the movement of each muscle as it moved forward. It was the last sight he would see so he absorbed its every nuance.
The hound stepped forward again and apparently crossed some threshold within the silo as the hum and green beam came to life again. It ran down over the beast and then back up again. The hound blinked at the light but was not put off from its prey and stepped forward again.
"Security override Seven-Nine-Delta-One. Assume BF mode alpha." The female voice spoke with sharp authority. Eldar believed he saw a green flash deep within the hound's eyes, but he could not be sure. The effect of the command was immediate. The hound lay down on the floor of the silo, head up and attentive, tongue protruding from the side of its mouth and panting lightly. There was no trace of aggression left at all to the beast.
Eldar stared in amazement and somehow missed the vibration in the metal wall he leaned against. It was brief, and was followed by the wall suddenly shot up and out from behind him. Eldar promptly fell back into what he now understood was a doorway, and slammed his head on another unnaturally and perfectly smooth floor. One that was also exceptionally hard.
As the world dimmed around him and Eldar felt consciousness slipping away from him he heard the too warm and too polite female voice.
"Leaning on blast doors is not recommended. This is a dangerous practice that can result in loss of limb or other serious injury. Safety mechanisms should have prevented this door from opening when it was leaned upon. Please report this to maintenance referencing error ID 10 T."
And then, with a distinct touch of smugness, "Thank you for your assistance."
Then all went dark.
It is not a word that I knew of when I started to travel with him. Or even during my travels. No, I found this word years after. Its meaning struck me as a blow and I realized immediately that this is what he was: A Paladin. The word is from Before and I have searched for any reference to it since I came upon it. I have found various definitions and so I will record here what it has come to mean to me, specifically in reference to him. A Paladin is dedicated completely to a singular cause. Often one much grander than themselves. They take direction from a higher power and they act unerringly towards that purpose. They do not question, they do not falter. Their willingness to accomplish their directive is indomitable, unrelenting and often unstoppable. What took years for me to justify is that a Paladin is often described as a champion of what is right and what is good; a warrior who defends those who cannot defend themselves from what is dark in the world. Their ideals are that of what is good in the world. This was not entirely true regarding him. In fact, ‘good’ was not the first word that many would use to describe him. It probably would not be the second or third. If it would be used at all, it was much further down the list. So for years this word danced in my mind on the edge of how I would define him. Then one day a student asked me about the world as it was when I traveled with him. Immediately I answered that it was not a good place and then it connected into place like the stones of a good wall. He was not good. Not by the definition of Before and not by the definition I have come know of what is good after I traveled with him. He was however the Paladin that was necessary in the dark world of After in which we traveled together.”
-- From 'The Paladin and the Prophet' Vol1, Ch.1
No one knew what had happened to the world Before.
Only that what had been Before was now gone and all that was left was After.
Of course, none of that was Mason's concern at this moment. His concern was that of making Contact. That was why he had the barrel of his gun lodged in the throat of the Caravan Master while he explained again that he and C'er had done as they said and were now leaving the Master’s service. Initially the Master disputed this but he was now realizing where he had been mistaken. His mistakes had started with the assumption that he could force these two strongs he hired on in Ironwood to continue on beyond the Salts. That would have been an extension of their agreement, and one that the Caravan Master planned to enforce with no additional barter. You see, the Salts were exactly nowhere. You did not want to be there unless you were there to meet the Salters who owned the mines and who would want that? Meeting with the Salters usually ended up in you becoming part of their indentured work force of miners yourself. That apparently was not the case with these two, and that would leave him two short for the rest of his route back out of the Range and through to Metro. So the Caravan Master had decided to hold the two strongs cargo to force them to stay. That is where things really started going bad for him, and how he had ended up with the barrel of an immense gun lodged in his face.
"Not my problem." Mason was saying as he continued to press the gun deeper into the man's over extended mouth. At this point the Master could no longer make intelligible sounds although he still seemed to be intent on trying.
"So we are going to leave now, with our cargo and barter as we agreed."
This met with continued unintelligible sounds from the Master.
"Here, let me help you." Mason said.
"We," Mason gestured to C'er and himself with his free hand ", are leaving and you are going to give us what we agreed on in Ironwood." Mason moved the large gun up and down, forcing the man’s head to move in a nodding gesture of agreement.
"And you," Mason drove his finger into the man's chest ", aren't going to do anything stupid that would get you killed, right?" Mason’s gun, and the face it was embedded in, moved side to side in a negative gesture.
"There, I think we understand each other now." Mason said and slowly the extensive barrel of the gun was retracted from the now whimpering man’s mouth. The Master immediately staggered back to the wagon behind him spitting out excess gobs of spit and offering a choking sort of cough. The other strongs that the master had hired looked on with elevated, but not yet violent, interest. As hired caravan guards they clearly did not want to see the master splattered all over the local terrain because it would make obtaining their own barter that much more difficult. Now that it was evident that was not going to happen then they all waited to see if the master might demand they try and take Mason and C’er for this insult. If the Master made the right additions to their barter, anything could be had. So they stood with hands casually close to weapons and waited.
Mason made an obvious showing of not being concerned by the tension among the group of men and shouldered the bag of cargo and barter items that had been at his feet during the negotiations with the Caravan Master. He paused for a moment and looked at the remaining members of the Caravan Master's company, meeting the eyes of each of the other strongs. They looked at Mason and took in his tall, dark form and the determined look in his dark, foreboding eyes. He had his long coat on which they knew to be armored and housing half a dozen weapons or more. The comfortable ease with which he held that huge gun was enough that not one of them wanted to take the challenge for this Master. Each looked away, or found something else to be doing as Mason's eyes turned to them. Only then did he turn and start towards the steep path leading down towards the outlying buildings of the Salts. As he walked, he shook the large hip cannon of a gun that he had used to make his point. The end of the barrel had been covered in saliva which splattered against the gravel path as he walked with a look of disgust on his face.
At the top of the path he looked out over the Salts. The terrain was hard and unremorseful. Loose scrub and rocky ravines were silhouetted in the dying light by the mountains in the distance. The path before him snaked its way down a loose slope, winding its way to a small plateau where a wider track descended further down into a broad, sparse valley. There were several places where the path dissolved into the loose scrub. This land was hard, as was its Masters. A place of one of the few remaining resources that was left After. Rather than use that resource to build something sustainable and that would grow, the Salt Masters used it to control and oppress. Watching the shadows deepen across the path before him, Mason wondered if this was to be his task this time. Would the Contact that he was being pulled towards be a way to change the course of this place into something more constructive? He mentally shrugged as he knew he would find out once he made Contact.
"You know, for someone who doesn't like getting that thing wet, you seem rather fond of sticking it in people's mouths." C'er said as he shouldered a smaller bag and started down the path behind Mason. The sound of the master’s choking cough faded as they cleared the ridge line and started down. Mason paused in his hybrid walk-slide down the hill, and looked back at his companion. C’er was several years younger than Mason and opposite in many ways. Where Mason’s features where rugged and dark, C’er had sandy blond hair and bright blue eyes. He looked even younger than he actually was and his boyish features were at odds with the monkish robes that he wore. They were the traditional garb of the order of Scribes that C’er had been raised by. The young man moved with an elegant gracefulness even when just sliding down the loose gravel path. Observing the casual ease with which C'er's steps avoided any loose gravel or other debris in the path, Mason wondered how much that was C’er’s Sight and how much was simple, natural ability.
"I find it cuts right to the heart of the matter." Said Mason, and then with a look back at C'er and with a chuckle he continued, "...and now he knows that he could have an impressive career in the pleasure trades."
C'er stopped his graceful descent down the gravel path at this and cocked his head a bit. "I don't understand."
Mason had already resumed his descent, but continued his chuckle. He often forgot how much C'er really did not know considering what he was often able to see. Many times something Mason said or did was met with that exact head tilted look of curiosity. It was something he was sure C'er had perfected under the long hours of tutelage with the Scribes who had found and raised him.
"Someday you will. At least I hope for your sake you do." Mason did not feel it was his role to continue C'er's education in the lesser reputable subjects that often came up. Something about doing that seemed just broken and the After had enough broken things. Realizing that Mason would not give further explanation, C’er resumed down the path with an exasperated huff.
They were about halfway down and Mason could see where their trail intersected with the wider path. At this juncture he could now see a larger but rundown sort of building. A chain fence stood out several feet from a low porch leading to an entryway. The building would be otherwise unremarkable except for several features that stood out so starkly in the world of After that Mason was actually taken aback and stopped his progress down the path. As he stood there looking at the building C'er came up next to him.
"That's where you have to go?" C'er said.
"Yes. I was wondering what could be out here, but look..." This was something Mason had no qualms about explaining. "There is no one at the gate of that fence, but do you see that box next to it?" He continued without waiting for a response. "It’s a call box that's probably wired to another inside the building, so people who want in just hit that button and then someone inside can let them in. That also probably means that the fence is wired and you really don't want to touch it, and that the gate can be locked and unlocked from the inside." C'er nodded at this. Mason continued, "There are several wagons strung along the road leading past this place so there are a lot of folks coming and going through that gate. Someone in there knows what they are doing with tek to make this work, and keep it working."
"You think?" asked C'er. "I figured they just got lucky with that huge blinking sign that says 'Torchys'.” he said as he gestured to the large illuminated sign on top of the building that alternately blinked red and green and cast those hues across the fence and gate that Mason seemed fixated on. “I mean that has probably been running since Before and they must have built that shack under it somehow." This last was said in a tone far too earnest to be serious.
With no warning Mason jabbed out his left hand in a startlingly fast punch. C'er's reaction started after Mason decided on the punch but before his fist began moving. He shifted back, pivoting his arm and torso out of the line of Mason’s strike. The same arm uncoiled in a lightning fast movement ending with the extended fingers of C'er's hand driving into the soft inside of Mason’s arm that had been exposed by the punch. Missing the intended blow threw Mason a step out of balance. The sudden pain exploding on the inside of his arm took his breath away for a second. He quickly caught his footing and shook his arm out, letting out a fast expletive.
"That is the fifty seventh time you have tried that." C'er stated. "If you could just let me know how many more times before you stop doing that, we can just do them all now and get it out of the way." He finished with smirk.
"Where is the fun in that?" Mason said while vigorously rubbing the inside of his arm.
"And yes," he said grudgingly, "The sign is also a clear piece of tek that is impressive."
There was loud buzz followed by a resounding click as the gate to Torchy’s unlocked and swung open. A background buzz that Mason and C'er only now realized that they had been hearing went silent. With this they shared a look and simultaneously said "Tek."
Mason started through the gate then stopped, straightened and looked back at C'er. "Look, do NOT do that thing in here. These Indentured are not exactly a happy group and this is a place they come to forget. So please just don't." He said.
"What thing?" C'er responded innocently.
"You know. Don't complicate this." Mason put his hand on C'er's shoulder. "This one feels different and I don't like it." He finished.
"I will try." C'er confirmed.
Mason fixed him with a black look and then turned and walked to the low porch, up the steps and through a door that was loosely bolted to a worn and damaged frame.
Torchy’s was about what one would expect from the Salts. The area was run predominantly by slavers known as Salters. At least everyone else thought of them as slavers. If you found yourself in the Salts and in any form of trouble then it usually ended in one of two outcomes. First, and this was the preferred outcome, you were dead. Second, you ended up as Indentured to the Salters. The Indentured were the sorry souls who worked the mines or performed other less desirable things to pay off any and all debts to the Salters. These debts could cover anything from food, medicine, and housing to not being raped and beaten to death, or in some cases becoming the food paid out to other Indentured. So the huddled mass of humanity in Torchy's was consumed with the singular practice of trying to forget all of this and not end up too much deeper into indenture. This was difficult in that each distraction offered came with a price of further indenture at one level or another. In a way, it was an elegant and self-sustaining system. On the other hand it ensured that the patrons, if you could even call them that, were the ones who clearly had decided they just did not care anymore.
The door opened on a main room that to even look upon was somehow degrading to the viewer. Everything was dirt and muck and the kind of smell that you knew was instantly burned into your mnemonic nostrils. Many of the patrons in the main room were indistinguishable from what passed as the furniture. They huddled in small groups around tables sharing or keeping to themselves a vast range of things to drink or smoke. The only true way to distinguish them from one another was from their various afflictions. This one had an eye patch, that one had no teeth, and the one over there was bald and had something illegible written on the side of his head. In one corner several were engaged in a game that consisted of throwing various heavy and sharp objects at something that was scurrying around a pen. Mason could not be sure if it was a dog or a child, but whatever it was it was horribly malnourished. In another small alcove someone that Mason could at least tell was a person was chained and bent over a table and several others were taking turns raping and beating whoever it was. A large man holding a club with several sharp shards of metal protruding from it was accepting the small coins that meant further indenture from those waiting for a turn. The main room of Torchy’s was the type of place that made you think about the poor choices you had made that had brought you to this place.
Mason moved quickly to an open table, righted a chair and sat. C'er followed and sat down without even attempting to process what he saw. Mason was glad of this, and as casually as possible tried to center himself on what he knew he needed to do; just make Contact and get the hells out of this hole.
One positive of a place like Torchy’s is that the people there really did not give a shit about you, themselves or pretty much anything at all. So their entry was hardly noticed by anyone, even considering their clear difference from the regulars. Having absorbed the visual cacophony of horror, Mason noticed a low thumping sort of sound with a rough musical quality to it coming from a few places. He realized there was no one in the room doing anything that could be making this sound and that it had to be more tek. Some form of recorded music was being projected into the room. Considering the hole that this place was the level of tek was becoming more and more concerning.
With this he noticed a bar running along the back wall. The familiar tug pulled in that direction and he knew where he needed to go.
"Stay here, don't talk to anyone, don't look at anyone and for my father's sake do not do that thing." He said and stood up to head to the bar. He noticed a somewhat distracted look on C'er's face but decided it was the same disgust he himself was feeling. Later he would think back and know that he should have recognized it immediately. That was a mistake but it was the kind of thing that later might have you wondering how much of your decisions are really your own.
Rod was having a good day. Well, about as good of a day as any Indentured could have. First off, there was a tunnel collapse. Sure that wasn't good news for the twenty three sorry bastards who were actually in the tunnel when it collapsed, but Rod wasn't, so that was their problem, not his. What the collapse meant for him was a long break and then much easier work clearing the pile and looking for access back into the tunnel that fell in. It was always much easier moving the loose stones then actually hammering and picking your way into solid stone. After the collapse there was also a reshuffling of the work teams. This always meant that you got a few more indentured on your team. While not new to the mines they were new to your group. That meant that they were outnumbered and would have to do the worst of whatever the team was assigned to. One of the new guys was newly indentured and clearly not the kind that would survive long in the mines. The crew chief, basically the largest and meanest of the group, decided to welcome this new meat to the team with a different sort of tunneling. When he finished with the man he let Rod and some of the other crew take their turns. Rod was third, and by then the man just lay there whimpering and it was much easier for Rod especially considering how the preceding rapists had effectively greased things up. Of course this sort of release was especially good because it required no further indenture. The way the little bitch took it made Rod think they may have a much better time in the mines for the next few weeks. Some of the crew was already betting on how long before their new hole gave up and did himself in. Now, sitting in Torchy's and numbing himself to the world with whatever drink the bar was pushing today Rod was in a real good way. So when the bright eyed guy in the robes came out of nowhere, patted Rod on the shoulder, leaned in, and said, "Today is a good day..." He could only agree.
"... It is a good day to die. Don't be afraid, death only carries you forward from this place and today is a good day." C'er finished as he looked into the somewhat hazy gaze of the indentured miner. At this, the man's gaze cleared from a haze to a shocked sort of anger. He jerked around in his chair, spilling his drink, and barked "What?" With that he realized he had spilled his drink and that really seemed to piss him off. As the man looked from the spilled liquor back up to C'er it all locked in place. It saddened C’er that the man did not understand, but at the same time his Sight showed him that he would only have a second to reflect on that.
Rod exploded from his chair ripping his knife from his belt and slamming it home into this fool’s belly. Well, that is what he had intended to do. The thrust never connected and now his hand was suddenly up over his head and turning back into him. Rod started to panic as he realized that his knife hand was now firmly gripped by the robed man, and was being twisted back into him. His whole body now seemed only to be a weight attached to his arm, and this man was swinging it like a dog with a bone.
C'er spun quickly to the outside of Rod's arm as the stab came in. He found himself waiting for the hand to get to the right place and then he grabbed onto the wrist with both hands and redirected it in an arc that went up and over Rod's head. While the focal point of the man’s energy was now over his head and moving backwards, the bulk of his weight was still committed to his thrust and moving forwards. The misplacement of this kinetic energy led to a spectacular moment where Rod's body found itself moving in two directions simultaneously. With C'er holding his arm, it was Rod's legs that lost the conflict and came off the ground. C'er channeled that energy into the man’s fall, directing him into the table, smashing it beyond salvage.
Looking forward in his sight, C’er kicked at the chair that Rod had been sitting in. That left him a bit off balance but if he judged the temporal displacement correctly the trajectory of the chair would slide across and catch the second man from the table in the shins as he was lunging forward...and it did. The chair was crushed into a tangle of legs and ‘Shins’ went down hard. As ‘Shins’ fell forward C'er leveled a fast kick into his face, snapping his head back just before he crumpled to the floor. C'er stepped up onto the unconscious man’s back and into a kick that swept around and snapped into the back of the head of ‘Toothless’. He had jumped back and out of his chair when Rod slammed down into the table, and then pulled a knife and had been trying to figure out how to stab someone with it. The heel of C'er's boot slammed into his head behind and below his ear. The world exploded inside Toothless’s head, he fell forward and dropped on top of Rod who was trying to get up from the remnants of the table. This all occurred in the first eight seconds but C’er was on the fifteenth second as he grabbed one of the cups that had fallen when the table went down and threw it casually straight up for no apparent reason.
Mason walked up to the large bar that ran along the back of the room. The bar itself was assembled from various left over pieces of wood and sheet metal. There were several Indentured there huddled over their drinks, looking to ignore him and just about everything else. This was all the better in his opinion and he looked for the ‘Tender. Mason knew he somehow had to get past the bar and into a backroom, or somehow get his contact out from out back. The tug was becoming more insistent and that usually meant he was getting closer to connection.
He saw the ‘Tender as the large man was pouring a dark liquid from one of the large metal barrels behind the bar into a clay cup. Mason was certain that the ‘Tender wasn't who he needed but he was not sure how he was so convinced of that. In a way he felt like he was looking for someone little or diminutive; a child maybe. That was unsettling; not only because of where he was and what condition a child would be in here, but also because he couldn't possibly make use of a child in whatever his next task was to be.
Shaking that thought off, he gestured to get the ‘Tender's attention which was met with a dismissive grunt from the large man, that Mason could only accept as acknowledgement. Mason took a seat and continued to examine the tugging and some of the additional feelings he was getting from that pull. He knew he was close now so he was really getting more of a sense of the Contact. He could not justify the sensation of immaturity and childishness with everything else he knew.
The 'Tender turned now and approached Mason. As Mason looked at the man and started to order a drink he was surprised by the look of frustrated disgust on the ‘Tender's face. It took a second for Mason to realize that the man was looking past him and into the common room. The ‘Tender grabbed a short, thick club that was hanging on the wall behind the bar and banged on the wall three times, probably to call out whoever served as a strong in this hole. At that point Mason realized that the man had been looking almost directly towards the area where he had left C'er. He groaned inwardly at this and did not even need to look to understand what had happened. C’er had done exactly what Mason had asked him not too. So as the ‘Tender climbed over the bar next to Mason, he grabbed the man’s foot and lifted it as he tried to step. This completely unbalanced the man and sent him into a headlong tumble off the bar that ended in a bone crunching sound as he landed awkwardly on his face.
Mason suppressed a sigh as he stood back from the bar and pulled his gun from the holster. Before he could turn around the tug of Contact turned into a full-out, violent pull that drown out all else. Contact was coming very quickly now and he was starting to feel that familiar yet unsettling tidal current sucking him in. He knew now that his contact was going to come through the large door behind the bar. Mason knew he had to get to the other side of the large wooden bar. Had he not been at the center of so many unsettling sensations at that moment he might have wondered why the door was so large.
As Mason started to look for a way over the bar an indentured slammed into it head first and crumpled onto his hands and knees creating a rather convenient step stool. Mason looked back quickly along the fellow’s trajectory and saw C'er ducking under another Indentured's punch before it really was in flight. C'er sprang back up into the man's extended arm and moved into a fluid hip throw. "You're Welcome!" He called in Mason's direction as the leg of the indentured, which was now in midair, kicked a cup out of midair that then slammed into the face of a man trying circle behind C'er. Mason waved a dismissive acknowledgement with his gun, stepped up on the crumpled man’s back and vaulted onto the bar. Now up on the bar, Mason felt like he was standing in front of an oncoming rad storm. Contact was coming through the over large door and he was not at all certain what that meant.
C'er was about five seconds ahead of the now by his estimate. Judging the temporal displacement accurately was always a challenge during this sort of thing. What he was starting to see was concerning him. The flow of the fight was turning against him and he was not going to be able keep it friendly, so to speak, much longer.
Once the fight started it was not localized to the one table. It seemed like the common room was a pile of tinder that someone had set to fire from several different places. One Indentured used the distraction to make a grab for the bag of coins that the large strong held in the corner where others had been paying to rape or beat someone. That resulted in the strong smashing the grabber’s face in with a club, but when the bag fell loose to the floor a melee broke wild among the other indentured standing in line. Another table on the opposite side of the room was upended after one indentured smashed the other over the head with a clay mug that shattered and sprayed a dark liquid and clay chips in several directions. Violence had gone viral in the room.
As C’er looked ahead in his Sight he slipped another knife thrust, moving inside the attack, and drove his palm into stabby One Eye’s chin. He then swept out One Eye’s leg and followed with a hip bump that directed the falling man's momentum into another man who was trying to move around behind C'er. As those two tangled and fell back away from him C'er suddenly saw something he had missed when looking from ahead. Rod, the one he had spoken to and tried to encourage about today, had regained his senses. He drove in low and plowed his shoulder hard into C'er's ribs. The tackle not only surprised C'er but it lifted him off the ground and carried him back several feet.
"Mason! A little help here?" he shouted over the din of chaotic melee that common room had become and tried to regain his feet.