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When it was ascertained by the Deputy’s men that the dead man on the hillside was a wanted criminal, Hitoshi the papermaker’s apprentice was declared a hero.
Shuzo, whose life Hitoshi had saved, just wanted to know where he had learnt to fight like that.
But first, Shuzo had a performance to give.
“Will you tell this story when you go back to Edo?” asked the village headman’s youngest son, ignoring the way his older brother shushed him.
“Perhaps I will,” said Shuzo, smiling down at him. The boy had been fascinated by Shuzo ever since the first evening that the villagers had gathered at the grounds of the temple to hear Shuzo perform rakugo. A bit too fascinated, perhaps; enough that his father had sent the boy’s brother along as well now, to prevent his son from being whisked away by this unsavoury entertainer.
“‘The Accidental Killing’ has quite a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
Colin Cox was, for all intents and purposes, an average college student. He woke in the mornings after nights of partying, head dull and aching, and dragged himself through his day. In classes, he paid little attention and spent more time drawing in the margins of his notebook, until he chimed back in for some bit of information he supposed might actually make it onto the midterm. He dated, though sparingly–pretty girls with long hair and high-waisted shorts, now that it was finally starting to get warm outside. He was, whether out with the people he called friends or bent over textbooks in the library, an everyman.
This was, for the most part, a very cheaply constructed persona. He strove for it, but it was a thin veneer over a past and current life that he made a special point to avoid discussing–it had lost him friends and girlfriends and scholarships alike. It made his girlfriends, who didn’t press too hard, think he was dark and mysterious; it made his friends, who hung around long enough, think he was reckless and wild. Really, all it was was a clever means by which he avoided scrutinization and pity, and ultimately terror.
At a young age, Colin learned all about hiding. His parents were the kind of parents who tried to dissuade you from hiding–there was no reason, you should be proud of being so unique and different, and anyway, they would love you no matter what, and that’s all that should matter! But the world, he learned, was not his parents. The world did not care about being unique and different, unless it was to the benefit of others; the world did not care how much pain it put someone through; the world, and the other children in it, didn’t care about suffering and sadness. And so, despite the doctors and the administrators and the agencies and the constant check-ins from case supervisors mandated by a federal court order that governed Colin and all people like him, he learned that simply being Colin–not unique or individual, and especially not strange or special–was the best for everyone involved, that keeping his head down and his voice low and his test scores mediocre was the best way to slip through the world unnoticed and unimportant.
He didn’t look that heavy, but Taiye had been doing this for long enough to know one of the secrets of the universe, which was that a man doubled in mass as dead weight. He was alive dead weight, though, because the posting had been clear: back in a body bag was only worth a tenth as much as returned still breathing. Drunk and angry, he sputtered and thrashed as Taiye tossed him into the cell, but he might as well have been lashing out with noodles for all the strength he could summon. Taiye tapped the code on the outside wall and the force field shimmered, locking his bounty in. As attempts at evading capture went, Dr. Conall’s had been one of the more frantic and ineffectual ones Taiye had ever witnessed. Of all the bruises and scrapes the man in the cell would be feeling tomorrow, most had been self-inflicted.
The ship began to hum as the engines fired up, a low murmur that had become so familiar to him, Taiye only really noticed it when it was gone. A few seconds later, Taiye felt his stomach sway as the ship switched over from the planet’s gravity to its own. He was glad for this a second later when Conall doubled over and threw up.
Taiye made a face. “Facilities behind the blue panel,” he said, pointing over toward the wall nearest Conall’s hand. Already the environmental nanites would be swarming toward the biowaste, so as long as Conall didn’t roll around in it, he’d be fine for the four days it’d take them to reach the nearest waystation. “Need anything, shout. It’s a small ship.”
Conall rolled on his back — away from the sick, so at least his luck was holding somewhat — and folded his hands across his stomach. “Water,” he said, his voice a rasp.
“Water behind the blue panel too.” Taiye pointed again, just in case Conall had missed it the first time. “No shower, though.”
The room’s one interior door hissed open and Kehinde walked in, twisting her hair away from her neck and stabbing it through with a screwdriver to keep it in place. “Seventh in line,” she said to Taiye; she could have told him that from the pilot’s chair, certainly, but the ship’s autopilot could just as easily handle waiting in the departure queue, and she liked to keep an eye on things as much as he did. One long curl had escaped her earlier efforts at taming, and he gave it a little tug, a silent congratulation on a job well done.
When she didn’t respond, though, Taiye let his gaze follow hers, all the way back to Conall. He was still sprawled on the floor and looked green enough that he might empty his stomach again at any moment, but his light brown eyes were wide circles, binary moons in the sick-pale sky of his face. “I know you,” he said, looking from one of them to the other and back again.
“Sure you do,” said Kehinde, though the bluster in her words didn’t match the worry behind her eyes. “So at least you can tell your friends in prison you got caught by the best.”
But Conall shook his head with an eerie, spooked slowness. “3093-α and 3093-β. It’s you, isn’t it?”
It was a testimony to everything about their shared professionalism, toughness, and uncrackable poker faces that neither Taiye nor Kehinde so much as flinched. It was a damningly long minute, however, before either of them managed to speak again. “That doesn’t mean anything to us,” Kehinde lied, turning on her heel. “Better luck next time.”
It starts after that one battle – the one where they all think the Infernal Multitude is targeting that artist because she’s an old-soul, but it turns out she has one of the Shards as well.
(In fact, Luna’s pretty sure – and Astra agrees – that even the Multitude didn’t realise she had the Shard, making it a case of the world’s worst timing when the wretched thing activates and traps them all in its Broken Reflection just when the Guardians are winning.)
So there they are, all inside the Reflection: three Celestial Guardians, a battered cadre of fiends, and, as it turns out, Kestrel.
“The length of the acclimatization shaft is the same as the length of your penis,” Justin said, and I knew that he was wrong. The length of my flaccid penis was a precise 3.5 inches, and while erect it was 4.5. The tubular shaft he was holding was at least five inches, which rendered his a generous but inaccurate statement.
I told Justin as much.
“No, I’m sure that can’t be right,” he replied, and moved for the measuring tape by his station. “Take off your pants.”
Michel woke in an unfamiliar bed. It was too comfortable to be his own, more akin the furniture in his parent’s estate. The thought prompted a memory – his last memory before unconsciousness – and fear bloomed in his mind like a drop of blood dissipating in water. Michel struggled to sit up.
“Hello, my lord,” said a little voice. Michel looked down. A small automaton – no higher than Michel’s knee – gazed up at him with red eyes. It was not designed like any serving piece with which Michel was familiar. “Hello, my lord,” it said again in a half-note mechanical sing-song, seeking voice recognition.
“Hello,” Michel said with a dry throat.
“There is tea to ease your headache on the table,” the automaton said. “There are clothes for you in the wardrobe. When you are dressed, you are to come with me to meet the Duke.”
Michel now knew where he was. He swallowed with difficulty.
As soon as they hit the floor Joe presses Fist of Justice back, tongue in his mouth, hands on his wrists, just above the gloves. Christ, the gloves. Fist of Justice is gasping, shoving his knee between Joe’s thighs, and after a total of about 0.7 seconds he yanks his wrist free so he can pull at Joe’s zipper, which rips. Well. That’s another pair down. At this point Joe’s pretty sure he’s singlehandedly keeping JoS. A. Bank in business. “I want,” Fist of Justice is gasping, rolling Joe over onto his back; he drags Joe’s boxers down around his ankles and then rolls him over onto his face. Joe can’t do much more than gasp. Fist yanks Joe up onto his knees and spreads him, his gloves rough on Joe’s ass.
“Christ,” Joe gasps, as Fist of Justice spits into him, bending down with a groan. Joe blinks, hard; sweat is dripping down his face, rough with plaster dust and gritty in his eyes, and—and Jesus, Jesus Christ, if he’d known that there were good odds he’d end up with superhero tongue up his ass he would’ve started getting captured by psychotic villains ages ago.
Sebastian knew from the moment he threw his lance that it would find its target. He felt it radiating through his bones down from the tips of his fingers as it left his grasp. Even without the blessing that the old crone had placed upon it, he knew its path was true; her spell upon it just made it shimmer as it soared through the air, humming truth before striking hard in its new home: the heart of the Bandit King.
He fell to his knees first, his arms spread wide as though he was shocked, as though he was preparing to throw his arms down in surrender. When his sword and pistol fell from his hands, though, it was because his hands had gone still. The Bandit King would only surrender in death, Sebastian knew, and that was why it had to end like this. When he slumped backward he was held from falling fully prone by the end of the lance where it had passed fully through him. He died that way, pierced to the earth with palms bare and eyes open upwards to whatever gods would take him above.
The bandits that had come with him to battle were already dispersing, cowards now that their King had fallen. Sebastian raised a hand to hold his own retinue back and walked across the space between them, along the line his lance had sailed through the air. He stopped in front of the Bandit King’s body and laid a hand on the hilt of the lance. He tightened his grip upon the lance for a moment and then released it and turned back to his men.
“Let no one take him from this spot,” he called out, voice echoing loud enough that even the retreating bandits had to hear him. “Let him be covered with vine and leaf, let the elements take him until there is nothing left, and let this lance stay buried in the earth as a reminder to those who would attempt villainy against the barony, to those who would aim to sully the pure and noble,” he closed his eyes and put a hand over his heart, thinking of the princess and how her safety now was assured, “to those who would steal and rob and sow discord and fear among an innocent populace. Let those who would do ill here see what becomes of such: righteousness will finish you, and you will be swallowed up by the land that bore you.”
Silence hung in the air after he spoke, not even the birds willing to sing against him. Sebastian looked at the Bandit King, at how pale his face was now. He took the medal from his chest, the one he bore from when he still served in the Baron’s army, before he’d shown himself a traitor. Sebastian looked at it in his hand, saw it to be old and tarnished. “It could have been different for you,” he said, and shook his head sadly. “It could have been so different.” He held the medal tight in his palm, feeling its proud symbols press into his flesh, and turned on his heel to begin the journey home.
The Bandit King remained, blue eyes staring upward, unblinking forever more.
Robin let out a slow breath and stared at his laptop screen. “Well, that’s that,” he said to his empty apartment.
“…Shit,” he said, some five minutes of staring later, and made himself hit ‘save.’
“Congratulations on another daring rescue,” Ken said, his voice scathing as he refused to turn around from his console to watch Gale stump back into the lab, still smoking gently.
“Thanks!” Gale said, muffled by the polycarbonate faceplate now that Ken has turned the in-suit mic off, still hopped-up on adrenaline from the fight with the… whatever-they-weres. Ken thought they’d had six heads each, or maybe eight, but there had been a lot of them in kind of a clump it had been hard to see after everybody had figured out they could fly and the news helicopters had gotten the hell out of the way. Time to stop procrastinating on upgrading the external on-suit cameras. Ken tapped away at his console for another few moments, annoyed enough to make Gale wait as he went over the last bits of news footage, annoyed all over again as the marquee “SPACEMAN SAVES THE DAY AGAIN” scrolled along the bottom of the screen under a reporter. He still owed Gale payback for getting caught by a journalist and deciding to name the armor something as stupid as that, even if the attacks that had started around seven months ago did appear to be aliens, and even if the domed helmet did maybe sort of make it look like a spaceship. Ken took another few breaths before the sound of Gale’s trying to bounce on his toes still in the suit with three busted rotors in one of his calves ground down on his nerves sufficiently to force him to turn around and actually survey the damage.
There were some days where Kevin simply hated his job. Where something so horrifying, so unthinkably bad just blindsided him without sign or warning, and made him rethink his faith in humanity and wonder if he would be able to do enough good to make the world a slightly better place before they stuffed his ashes in an urn.
They got the calls minutes after the video stream went live online and the word ‘bombs’ and ‘destroy’ were said. They were already speeding out in their cruisers by the time the first explosions happened. But things escalated too quickly and the crazy bastard who claimed to be behind it had ended the whole thing with a bang that obliterated half of a school building – and himself – before they could even reach the nearest bombing site to the station. In the end, all the police could really do was help with the cleanup.