Can You Breathe
The air lay heavy with anticipation, the high sun casting shadows in sharp relief on the edge of the treeline. Pickle could easily pick out the twisted shape impaled with the javelin she had shot moments before. The corpse was bubbling and fuming with acrid black smoke. Now it appeared to be melting around the shaft, sliding down slowly. The screams had lasted less than a second, though they had seemed to hang in the air for longer. The corpse had twitched for a short while. The smoke now was just continuing to grow in intensity, the corpse long since stilled.
Gunther had taken in the situation and was now giving clipped orders in a calm collected tone. Not barking or shouting, and frankly, the rooftop watchtower was now quiet as a church. A silent wake. He told the Ball twins to spin down the turrets and everyone to go dark but stay ready. For a moment, she wondered if red and ready were related. Gas, tension and chem weapons were brought out and checked. The spin weapons could be turned on relatively quickly, though the seconds for them to spin up could be their death. Right now, this was about managing the emissions, hoping the ripples would calm and deescalate back to the still pond of the routine she had grown used to.
This all registered dimly in Pickle's mind as her memories drifted into darker places. She watched the burning baby dragon corpse smoke with billows of black smoke. The guts and internals of the creature seemed to react with the ironclad javelin. Not a mild peanut allergy. More like a violent chemical reaction, the closest point of reference that Pickle's mind could conjure was the expensive cocktails, some chemical, others magic, occasionally served in the club. The stylishly dressed server dropping an overpriced cube of ice or magic charm into the beverage producing smoke, rainbow colour changes or full illusions to spring up from the liquid on contact. Though in truth, the foul black smoke reminded her of burning rubber. Her mind flashed to a darker and earlier memory.
The smoke stuck to the trees and stained them with a heaviness, making leaves limp. How could smoke, air, be heavy and still float up? Black particulate staining the world. Her mind searched for a connection. These days grav vehicles dominate the southern continent, with the main arteries of travel being rail. The efficiency of rail and the power of the metal tracks in this world of magic and low taxation were the easier to maintain options, typically over roads. Almost all wheeled vehicles were electric or drawn by magical beasts. Liquid fueling stations were speciality depos far and few between, not roadside repetitions. Anyone who wished to maintain the archaic and dangerous chem engines did so as prestige items. Still, you did see wheeled vehicles on occasion. High-end corporate variants might have articulating smart wheels or some other modern alternative. Rubber tires were still used in places and common in scrap heaps.
Looking at the smoking corpse, her mind flashed back to that day that Jack Jack and the boys had necklaced a rival gang leader. The practice was cruel and old involving flammable liquid, wearing a tire as a necklace and usually staking the person down. It had been popular in this part of the world once with freedom fighters and terrorists alike. Jack Jack boys had just used long sticks, spears almost, in a circle to keep the rival leader pinned in as he screamed and howled, it had been for much longer than the beasts' short shrieks, but they were now in her head again. The globules of melting black burning flesh on contact. The smell and clinging black smoke that stained the landscape came back into her mind as she saw the smoke billow.
Rough hands shook her. The world rocked, and then a slap ran out. Pain rising in her cheek. This was not a light tap on the cheek with a loose wrist but a forceful wallop literally knocking sense back in her. Pickle felt her brain rattle as she looked around and saw Gunther's eyes locked with hers.
"You good?" His question was urgent.
She nodded on reflex, feeling the memories retreat.
Sarah was now at the ballista in Pickle's place. Pickle was sitting on the floor of the watchtower, dazed. The Ball twins had spun down the turrets, as ordered, and now were sighting down two gas rifles, both single-shot long-range weapons. Gunther looked at Pickle intently, evaluating some hidden math from which he did not like the sum.
"You did good, the Wyvern is dead. It needed killing fast. Hopefully, we can deal with the fallout without this going hot. Every minute we can avoid killing or making a fuss, we are more likely to survive. Go join Leon and Ka on roof walk. Can't have too many on the tower."
With that, Gunther directed her to the wooden steps leading down to the roof. She grabbed her spin rifle and checked her gas revolver. She walked down the steps and watched Gunther joining Sarah by the ballista, mounting his large chem rifle on the railing. Walking down the steps, she saw Ka on the east side and Leon on the west side of the tower. Both were walking back and forth on the roof edge taking stock of the area down below. Not knowing exactly where to go, she went to Leon. He raised a friendly hand in greeting.
"Nice shot Pickle, it was a clean kill."
"Thanks. Where do you want me?"
"Walk with me for a bit. You can use your cap gun to support me until we go hot. Then spin up your rifle."
She briefly swung the rifle off her back and checked it once over before securing it on her back again. No spin rifles yet. She quickly checked her gas revolver and spun the barrel to inspect the caps. Thinking how little it would do to the baby Wyvern. The large dog-sized creature had thick scales. She was pretty confident it would kill a Wisp Cat or maybe even a Six Stalk.
"Don't worry, Wyvern don't normally stay close to their parents at that age." Leon seemed to mistake the point of Pickle's worried gun inspection. He pointed his rifle over the tree line. "Truth be told, that don't normally come this close to the line."
The smoke was now dying down from the corpse as everyone started to feel a bit more relaxed. Gone from billowing to a smouldering wisp. Maybe a minute after the first creatures they sighted were Pebbles. She had seen the little scavengers before and had been instructed not to shoot. Little bits of stone or wood crawled over the corpse. The climbing movement of the Pebbles was somewhere between the smooth motions of spiders and the linear scuttling of crabs. It depended on the little hermit creatures tiny white bodies and how they fit into their unique shell. Now they scrambled over the sight, picking at it.
They were carrion.
"Lekker, the little buggers will clean up the mess and leave the javelin well alone." Leon laughed.
"Leon why..." her question went unasked as a rough roar came from the nearby tree cover. More bark than roar. Leon dropped smoothly to a knee, taking aim. She followed him down with less grace using his aim to pinpoint the source.
"White Cats," Leon said in a severe low voice. "Only take the shot if you are certain. Body never head, not with that pea shooter."
Before she could ask for more, she saw the Pebbles had scattered from the sound. Washed away almost instantly into hiding. Though stationary, they were practically impossible to see. From the edge of the tree line, three shapes emerged. They were on all fours, cat-like, with long swishing tails. These tails were solid matter, thankfully, with maroon fur covering the body. Most disturbing was the dark brown, almost black bone growing out of their face. It was like their skulls had bubbled out. The bare white bones stained dark. Their eyes were set forward, the eyes of a hunter, small sunken dots in bone bowls. The bone flared on the edges, whiskers of bone matted together.
Not three shapes, five big cats. She couldn't believe she had almost missed the two larger animals as one jumped down from a tree branch. The dark bone had hidden it in the shadows proving a ballistic frontal shield as well as camouflage. They circled the corpse before sniffing the air. Leon adjusted his sight. Pickle pulled out her revolver. She wasn't confident at this distance on a moving target. She would wait.
Just as the creature seemed to catch a scent of something it liked and lowered its head to roar, its head exploded. Then all hell broke loose. Another cat flew to the side as its side exploded in a bloody fountain. Large javelin bolt narrowly dodged by the third cat. Some smaller bolts hit a fourth, wounding but not killing it. The fifth cat, one of two she had failed to see at first, was now charging towards them.
"Yours." Leon calmly ordered while keeping his aim on the charging cat.
Pickle fired. The first shot pinged off the creature's skull, staggering the cat but not stopping it. The creature had about 70 meters to cover, and at the rate it was running, it would be on them in under ten seconds. Her second shot missed, shooting high. Standing up, she aimed her third shot just over the skull, aiming for its rear. The bullet hit. The cat stumbled and fell forward into the dirt just shy of the red line. She quickly fired two more shots into the exposed chest of the creature. It jerked in pain at the first shot but fell still with the second.
Leon hadn't even looked up at her as he quietly gave the order to reload. She popped the drum, dropped the five spent caps onto the floor to collect later while holding her thumb over the unspent three left. Not wanting to touch the hot caps. They didn't get nearly as hot as chem rounds, but you could singe yourself on spent caps.
Pickle reached into her pouch to retrieve a few unspent caps and thumbed them into the empty chambers. She looked at Leon and then the horizon before asking the obvious question.
"What were those things?"
"White Cats, travel in packs. Hunters, so unless we get fokken unlucky, then sure, they are the last. Most things this far south will travel a far distance to keep out the way of White Cats. Just need to keep things quiet until the coast is clear. Not attract anything more."
Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Pickled looked over everything, evaluating the battlefield, the corpses of the five white cats. She was sure that the first exploded after being executed with a chem round from Gunther's rifle. None would have pre-empted his command except maybe Malcolm. Sarah had fired the Javelin, which had been dodged, but she saw now the corpse had bullet holes. She hadn't heard another gunshot from a chem rifle, so she assumed the Ball twins had finished that one with their cap rifles. Gas made noise, but it was easy to miss in the chaos. Then the bolts from Ka'Shek's crossbox had made short work of the fourth. Finally leaving her to kill, she wondered at what point Leon would have taken the shot. Before or after the creature had crossed into the minefield?
Flicking the gas revolver, so the drum locked back into place, she checked its action before looking over to Leon, who seemed transfixed with his arm hairs. Now standing on end. He looked at her, mouthing a single word. Spin. Leon looked up at the tower and shouted it.
Moments later, the turrets started spinning up, and Gunther called back down, asking for a direction. Leon had his scope back up to his eye searching, responding he had no idea. All the while, she swung the spin rifle off her back and spun it up. She felt the tug as the spin drive engaged the flywheel drums inside, and the gun grew sticky in its motion. Like moving a large stick in water, the rifle pulled as she tried to focus on what Leon was looking at. Ka was the first to spot it. Bolts flew from his crossbox in a flurry as he emptied the entire box in one volley. They watched as some of the wooden bolts missed and pegged deep into the dry ground. While others shattered on the tan brown scales of a giant serpent.
The beast was a fat snake with overlapping tan scales. Perhaps it was as thick as one of the high-pressure cylinders or Ka'Sheks beefy thighs though it was as long as maybe ten meters in length. The creatures hadn't fully emerged from the treeline. Its slithering motion was the oscillating creature pushing up little ripples in the ground. Its head is a flattish triangle.
The wall erupted as everyone let loose the full power of spin turrets and rifles backed by two loud gunshots from chem rifles and the large javelin. It was madness to watch all aiming for slightly different marks. The explosion of misses was at first confusing. Unlike Ka's bolts which had mostly found their mark but had been too weak to break through, none of the ironclad or tipped bolts hit their mark. The effect was underlined by the only wound being from the large javelin, which seemed to have only been deflected slightly due to its size, and it grazed the beast. Some scales flew off, and a nasty gash appeared on the serpent's side. A significant and sizable flesh wound, nothing more.
Dismissing her revolver out of hand, she immediately set to dropping in new bolts into the spin rifle. The turret continued firing for a moment before stopping, leaving a small garden of iron bolts sticking up from the ground around the snake. It only seemed to speed up the monster as it used the new poles to push off from. Seeing this, the turrets stopped. Then she saw Leon shoot not the snake but a landmine a few meters in the front of it off from the side of its travel. Since the Wisp Cat incident, she had learned that they were indeed mines but tuned for a heavy load, so posed little risk to humans or light beasts. The mine exploded in a plume of dirt and rock. Showering some back onto the roof. The snake paused momentarily, stunned by the explosion. This was their chance.
Leon swore out loud, protecting his rifle from the debris before reaching into a chest pocket searching something out. Distracted from her immediate task of reloading, she saw him pull out three shining rounds. As he slotted one into the rifle, she noted the sheen of gold. Before Leon could bring his rifle back up to his eye, a third gunshot clapped out. This time the snake's head splatted a bloody fountain into the air.
This was not the end of it as the creature thrashed about. Though it no longer moved with the sense of purpose it had before. Blood and dirt flew as it tore up the mown turf. Another volley of bolts from Ka's crossbox flew down, but they mostly found their mark, and when they did, they pierced the serpent.
The dust started to settle as the long snake lay there stationary but for blood seeping into the exposed dirt. Mixing into a dark clay.
They stood like that at the ready for minutes. The wind blew, the whirring sound of rapidly spinning wheels went quiet. She could almost hear the sound of everything breathing. Before long, Leon stood up and walked along the roof. The crunch of roof gravel under his feet as he ushered her to follow. They met a tired Ka'Shek at the bottom of the tower. No words were exchanged, but he looked ragged, having been pulled up from bed straight into combat. They walked up the wooden steps. Their feet are heavy on the boards.
Once they reached the top, they found a similar sight of everyone extremely weary. The Ball twins she noticed for the first time were topless. Sarah looked worried, but mostly Gunther just looked angry. Once again, she wondered where Malcolm was in all this? Had Ka woken up while Malcolm slept? That wasn't right. She had seen him awake this morning before coming on shift. Gunther nodded, acknowledging their arrival before turning to the console and dialling them back down to yellow status.
"Right, I think we can stand down for now. Ka and the Twins go down there and gather up what you can. Ka can you set the flame?"
This seemed a serious and notable question. Ka solemnly placed both his hands on his shoulders. Left hand on the left shoulder, fingers spread wide like a pauldron before bowing his head in a solemn gesture. The twins looked nervous. Brad twitched, seeming to remember the Wisp Cat. He seemed to be about to object when Brian elbowed him hard. They left their rifles, and Ka left his crossbox. They opened the hatch and went down the Tube shaft before emerging moments later from the front gate.
The entire squad watched with weapons at the ready, watching the process. They had collected bags from the entryway with the airlock ironclad doors which protected the entryway. The rope system Brad had used on her first day was preferred when one or maybe two people needed to head out. For larger excursions, especially with an Orc, the front door was the only sensible way. Though it put the base at slightly more risk, it was a much more practical route for a firing retreat.
Under the watchful eyes of the squad, they collected any metal they could. Both the twins wearing thick leather gloves. They left the shattered wooden bolts. Brian had a small but powerful magnet. He ran over the ground picking up bolt heads and bits of broken metal. It was risky but better than leaving worked metal on the ground. When they got to the serpent, they took some photos with a small film camera.
Pickle sympathised with them. She had felt exposed every time she had been sent out to check the mines, trim the grass and one time to document and dispose of the small creatures. The procedure was either to record or retrieve, then document before disposal. She supposed the snake was far too large to shoot out of the pult like its smaller cousin Leon had killed days earlier. It felt strange calling that tree trunk of a monster a snake. The word was too small for it. She watched them photograph its smashed triangle head. The single bullet wound had travelled through it, not cleanly but as a wrecking ball.
"Why couldn't we hit it?" Pickle asked.
Leon and Gunther looked nervous. It was not a look that suited either of the stoic men. Though her mentor Leon spoke first. "Shield, though I've not seen one at the wall in years. Usually only in the deeps, on some real nasty buggers. Kinda like a super magnet but different. You know the metal rhyme?"
Pickle thought for a moment back to the children's rhyme. Knowledge everyone had though she didn't really understand it.
"Wood to weave, Iron to bind, Copper to carry, Silver to shine, and Gold to Trust."
"Yeah, well," Leon ruffled his head. "Knew a different one, but the point is magic don't like iron, it blocks and burns. Two-way street verstaan? Magic doesn't touch gold much so those kind of barrier just don't crack it."
This thought confused her for a moment. She was certain she had seen mages wear iron and gold before. Though she knew the gold standard was on egg timers made with gold. They didn't get time drift. She knew there was gold in some of their tools. She had nicked some magic bits back when. The fence had commented on the gold inlay. Pushing it from her mind and resolving to make some gold rounds.
Watching Ka heft the White Cat she had shot from near the wall towards the pile of death that was being accumulated, she wondered what they would do with the bodies. They couldn't pult them and yeet them into the distance like they had the others. Bury them deep? That would take ages to dig.
It was then that Malcolm emerged from the Tube. Neither Leon nor Gunther seemed surprised. Sarah was studiously watching the work below with the ballista at the ready. Malcolm walked up next to Gunther, not even adding a smart arse comment. Maybe he was finally eating crow, and she would see him grovel and apologise. She pretended to be watching the work below, but really she was just waiting to see what would happen to the smug mage. Finally, Leon broke the silence.
"Bad business. Fred say anything?"
"No," Gunther answered. "I want to call a company meeting once they are done down there. He was still looking into some things for me."
"Malcolm, anything on your side?" asked Leon.
Malcolm shrugged, "Last thing I want to do is summon a spirit or daemon to ask. You know what they are like on the wall. But there was definitely something. What's with the big sausage?"
"Wyrm," Gunther answered. "Not seen, it's like in quite some time. Never seen this sort before. Maybe discovery bonus?"
The three old men watched the work below. Their conversation such as it was slow in pace, unhurried. The death and carnage below them another Tuesday. In truth, she had lost track of the days of the week. She took a moment to count the days back. She had ripped off Queenie after Saturday night takings, so Sunday was the day she had got on the train. Twelve days rotation meant today was Friday. Not that the weekday meant much here. She looked back at the Captain and his left and right-hand men before surveying the work below.
The twins had rags wrapped around their faces, probably due to the rank scent. She could smell it from here. They were standing back as Ka was circling the pile of corpses, shoeing away the Pebbles that were starting to get interested in the feast. It would take them days to pick that pile clean. Ka was singing in a low tone, throwing what looked like salt from a small cloth pouch. After encircling the mound three times, he stood back and finished his song with a mighty clap of the hands.
The pile burst into flame. Not a bright hot roaring red flame but a dead cold, an almost transparent purple-black flame which seemed to cast no light or issue smoke. The little smoke it gave off was more akin to white steam with flecks of colour. Though the bonfire raged, its strange optics allowed her to see the pile still. She looked through a hand scope picking out the details of the creatures now aflame. Their flesh coiled and burnt as usual from flame. It was like watching some grotesque timelapse without the obfuscation of heat haze. Some sort of magical cremation. She had no idea Ka could perform magic.
"Won't that fire draw more attention?" She asked.
"A small bit kitten," Malcolm answered, "though much less than death and decay had we left it. Necrotic flame is a rather elegant spell using the remaining life energy to burn away the corpse. I've tried replicating it though mine has a tendency to explode. Which releases the necrotic energy in a large burst. Not ideal."
Both Leon and Gunther winced at this description. She didn't want to think about the events which caused those expressions.
With the fire set, the twins and Ka walked back to the base. Entering without issue. They watched the flames burn as the Pebbles watched from nearby. Once the flames died down, the Pebbles moved in and claimed the bleached bones. Within an hour, the pile was being slowly disassembled piece by piece. She noticed a few of the little creatures trying to use some vertebrae and small bones as new homes. Though most were unsuccessful.
Usually, Ka and Malcolm would have the following shift, but instead, the twins and Ka took the shift as everyone else was called into the lounge at Gunther's orders. The swing shift would be picked up later, and they would sort it all out. For now, Pickle found herself sitting on a ragged bean bag chair, checking over her revolver. Doc had tried to save her a seat on the sofa, but she hadn't taken it. She was still a bit sore on her, no matter Fred had wandered in with a pile of notepaper, a worried expression on his face.
Leon and Malcolm had taken seats from the dinner table, and Gunther stood in the middle of the room waiting. Meanwhile, the Geek, Virgil, was by the kitchen sitting on a barstool intently interested with a notebook in hand. Everyone awkwardly shuffled as they waited for Fred, the last to arrive to get settled.
"Alright, Fred, you are here. What did you find?" Gunther asked.
"Diddly do. Not a thing. Temps were well within margin. I did not even have the vault spinners online or anything running hot. No strange gases or radio waves, and our neighbours hadn't been naughty from what I can tell?"
"Fotsak! No Wyvern comes to the wall, especially not a baby. I've not seen a White Cat within a mile of the wall for over a decade. Hell's bells a Wyrm by the Zambezi river I could go for but here. Fok that."
Fred shrugged, "I went through all the systems and meters. I checked the exotic supplies and gases, no leaks. If the cause is from our base, it is not technological."
All eyes turned to Malcolm, he lifted his hand's palm up in a comically exaggerated shrug smirking with amusement. "Don't look at me. I was just working on my journals. Haven't even got a potion on the boil. First I heard was Gunther's stay-put order. Though I did feel the aura of menace when I got the message. Sorry snacks?"
"What about Ka'Shek?" asked Fred.
Doc answered, "No dad, Ka was sleeping, and he has his catches for nightmares."
A prolonged silence drifted over the room. Leon looks agitated before glaring across the room at the Geek. "What about him?"
"I assure you Mr. Viljoen while you were on watch, I was merely compiling my notes. I have done nothing other than observe."
"Says you," Leon muttered.
Gunther made a calming gesture, "We have been over this Leon. The Geek, sorry, Virgil is our guest. Our contract gives him access to all areas save the vault and personal spaces."
"Besides, his sort, do magic? Please cookie. Be reasonable." Malcolm answered with derision dripping off every syllable.
The dry clerical voice interrupted Leon glaring at Malcolm. "Eh hum. Am I to understand you encountered a Cantio Lutum Viperia is my guess from what you have said. Florentia Spinus Felix, and I'm sorry to say Sagitta Scala Manga Vermis is a rare but documented genus, so there is no discovery bonus there. While the Wyrm and Wyvern have much in common, they share little with White Cats as you call them, except they all have a preferred food."
Leon, Malcolm and Gunther looked abashed, not wanting to acknowledge the contribution. Fred was disinterested, and Sarah was confused. Pickle looked around before she felt her curiosity burst out. "Well, what do they all eat?"
"Magic, kitten." came the quiet response from Malcolm.
Nodding, Gunther added, "I knew that about the Wyvern hence why I ordered Malcolm to hunker down. I assumed it was his magics which had drawn the beast."
"I had done nothing, and I had been off shift for a while. Ka knows better."
They all looked worried. She looked at Sarah only to see her look down. Suddenly she realised no one was meeting her eyes. She struggled, standing up from the bean bag.
"Wait, you all think me? I've got no magic. HE said it himself," she pointed at Malcolm in rage. "Human standard."
"Close enough, kitten, I said close enough."
She felt her world spin as her helmet grew hot. She felt light-headed. She didn't know what to say. She felt her heart swell, the air thick. More now than when she faced down that charging cat, more than that unstoppable serpent, she felt the reassuring weight of the revolver in her hand. Heavy. Her vision narrowed so she could feel her heartbeat in her ears. Not enough air. Breathe. She couldn't breathe. The gun was hot in her hand, her helmet too. The world was on fire.
Big hands grabbed her shoulder. She felt the gun drop as her wrist was twisted. Before she could register, she felt herself sit down on the floor, with big hands supporting her, rubbing her back. The room slowly came back into focus before swimming again. Colours vivid.
Malcolm was uttering something, swinging his hands through the air. The fucker was casting a spell on her. They were going to try to kill her. She reached for her holster. The revolver was gone. She had it in her hand. No. Where was her gun? She couldn't breathe, was he sucking out the air. She didn't think mages could do magic on you unless you were cut or mostly ware. Did that fucker with the third nipple lie. Wait, she had sliced him with her knife.
She reached for her thigh only to feel cotton. Wait, what happened to her fancy pants? Oh, right, they were going to kill her. Pickle sees red in front of her. Red hair. That fucker all in black waving his arms. Red hair going for her throat, heavy hands holding her. Fuck Jack Jack. She kicks out, back. Right in the coin purse. Foot back sprinters start and come up punching. Red flies. Two down. Moving. Exit. No need to stop the mage. Shoulder charge as she leaps. For a moment, she sees pupils through those goggles wide-eyed cat's eyes. Fear. The moment is frozen when Thwack.
She doesn't feel the shoulder connect but instead, her ribs hurt like a freight train hit her. The landing is softer than expected. She recovers, ready to jump up, when suddenly a large fist rushes into her face. She feels her nose crack. The world explodes in pain.
After a few moments, her thoughts return to her. She feels searing pain in her face and tastes blood on her lips. Her vision returns along with her breathing. Pickle looks about the room. Malcolm is standing watching her with his goggled eyes. His stance was ready, and his fingers in a strange configuration. She can feel a sense of something from him.
Sarah is on the floor out cold, Fred leaning over her in worry. Gunther is watching with an angry face, redder than she has ever seen it. She is on the sofa. Where is Leon? She tries turning around only to find her hands restrained. She feels her wrists bound. She is dead. Wait, why haven't they killed her? Gunther approaches his hands up in a calming gesture.
"Easy girl. Stay still."
Panicking, she glances around the room, trying to take it all in to get a sense of things. Few times in her life before had she ever failed to escape but never before in a life or death struggle. She had to beg, sacrifice much, but she had lived. She could do it again. He had said girl, she hated it but well, if that was the card to play. She started crying.
"Please, Captain, don't kill me. I'll go. I didn't know. You said it yourself I'm not cut out for this."
A light but firm palm tapped the back of her head. Some blood and spittle flew forward.
"None of that kak." Leon said from behind her.
"Malcolm, is it contained?" Gunther asked.
"For now, but I should get her in my workshop or the vault."
"Nevermind that for now, Fred, is Sarah okay?"
"I'm okay," Sarah's voice came through. "Just didn't expect to uppercut by a patient."
"Patient?" Pickle gaped, looking around the room. "You ain't killing me?"
This strangely seemed to relax Gunther. Though Fred still looked upset, Sarah was laughing. Gunther took a deep breath. "We just need to control your magic, is all."
"I don't have any magic."
The quiet paper voice came from behind, "Actually, the girl might…"
"Shut it." Gunther cut off the Geek. "This is company business you can observe, but I will not have you interfering with my family." He paused, waiting to see the acknowledgement on Virgil's face. Pickle couldn't see it restrained on the sofa, but she could see Gunther relax.
"Malcolm said you weren't likely to be a risk for a while. So I didn't want to jump straight into it, but he did say you would need testing and maybe training at some point."
She glared daggers at the mage. So they all knew. Her deepest secret and they had all been laughing behind her back. Fuckers. Malcolm shrugged.
"So you all know I'm not human? Well, I might not be, but I don't have magic. Even a mage said so." It was true a mage at Queenie's claimed to know how much magic a girl had. He had been very drunk, but he was down from Europe for the conference. He had read her palm and said she was enchanting but without craft.
"Some foreign idiot, no doubt." Malcolm scoffed. "I'm guessing you don't take off that helmet much. Regardless, you have a web woven tight around yourself. Not every metahuman has magic, but almost all who turn do. Though yours is buried deep. You have been soaking it into that helmet most of your life, is my guess. Though I wouldn't be surprised to discover you had some other sinks. So much so I doubt you will ever fully turn. Something got your emotions running high today, didn't it?"
Sarah, now standing shyly, said, "My fault, I am afraid. I was pestering her about her physical. Which in hindsight, I now understand why she was avoiding."
"You knew?" Pickle could feel real tears rolling up her throat now. "You all knew?"
Gunther looked solemn, "I knew the moment you walked up to the table. Been on the wall all my life. Didn't know what I knew, but I knew. That is why I got Malcolm to check you out. Malcolm obviously knew."
"Scraps told me," Sarah added, "I do not think she knew it was a secret. Her nose knows."
Gunther nodded, "Told Leon to watch out for signs. He was your trainer. No one else knows to my knowledge. Virgil is under NDA, and I didn't see any reason to tell Fred. Not his department. The other's aren't company."
She thought about Brad's horrible jokes at Ka. "Please, can we not? Not tell them."
"Sure girl, but you need to tell me what happened?"
"Sarah was right, I was upset. I just couldn't think about how to avoid the physical and I didn't do great at training this morning. Guess I was running a little hot. Didn't think about it because that's when the dragon showed up."
Gunther breathed out a heavy sigh resting his forehead between thumb and forefinger. Rubbing and pinching the skin, trying to work out the heady thoughts.
"Right. I have to go file paperwork, let the Tower Watch know why we went red. Let's get this cleaned up. Going to need to draft new schedules. We are going to need to make some changes. Leon, take Ka. Malcolm, you're with the girl, make her safe, and handle it if she flares. Meeting dismissed."
Everyone had a purpose and set off. Leon let go of her as Malcolm collapsed onto the sofa next to her in a lazy way. Throwing his arm over her shoulder. She wanted to pull away, but her hands were still retrained, and her nose was running bloody. He leaned over and whispered in her ear, "You're magic kitten."
This is an ongoing web novel updated every Thursday. I really hope you enjoy it, this is my first attempt but I've spent a lot of time in this world, over two decades. Running roleplaying campaigns, writing comics and creating stories so it feels really natural to tell a story in this world.