Orson took comfort in the idea that his forty-eight hour ordeal was nearly over. Despite his boasts, he wasn’t totally sure what he was about to attempt would work, but either way, he was almost done. Soon, he could rest or maybe get some pancakes. Yeah, pancakes first, then rest.
Orson checked the power on his solar cell – twelve percent. That was fine. If his idea worked, he would only need to use it about three more times.
Tucker slammed his metal monster down toward the wayfarer. Orson used two percent of his remaining solar power to rocket up from the ground. Both arms of the metal behemoth rippled down in an attempt to simultaneously stab and crush him.
Orson flew around the strike, blasting up in the air toward the roof of the pavilion. Tucker struck the pavilion’s floor, sending chunks of concrete in all directions and leaving a crater in his wake. Screams issued from the crowd.
Orson tried to aim himself at the face of the monster, but it was almost impossible. His HUD showed the enormous armor as one single roiling mass of constant heat. Tucker was slower in his beast armor, but Orson knew he still had only seconds before the monster took another swing at him. He angled his sword, took his best guess, and dove toward the clustered snarl of blades.
With a great swing of the sword of fire, he burned a hole into the top of the Cobalt Nine beast. Orson’s HUD showed him a smaller, pale heat signature in the center of the rippling waves of red. He’d found Tucker. He also got a good look at the interior of the behemoth. Inside, the monster had a lattice-like skeleton of support structures. These structures, dark red in Orson’s HUD, all radiated out from Tucker. This skeleton ended at the monster’s metal limbs and the constantly shifting solid Cobalt Nine skin.
Orson assessed this in an instant, his years of life-saving observational experience serving him, once again. But the monster’s metal skin slammed shut before he could act.
Orson didn’t need his HUD to tell him that both of the monster’s arms were swinging up toward him. Desperately low on power, he jetted straight up, away from the beast. If he lived, he’d always remember to pack a second battery.
Orson was yanked backwards. He’d kept moving, but his coat had not. The fabric was caught in some blade on the monster’s skin. He was stuck now, hovering, wasting power, level with the top of the monster’s head.
“Power unit compromised! Reroute in process.” This warning appeared on Orson’s HUD. His armor would hold back the spikes, but if they managed to destroy his weaponry’s wiring and the emergency reroute, he’d be done for.
Orson saw only one choice. He swung the sword with both hands, letting it burn a solid chunk of the Cobalt Nine from the monster’s face. Before Tucker could spare a thought from his efforts to tear through the coat, Orson removed his left hand from the sword’s hilt and shoved it into a gap in the monster’s lattice skeleton. The metal shut on the coat sleeve and it battled his armor with a horrible grinding noise. Before Tucker could alter his interior defenses, Orson let out a single flash of light from his left gauntlet, a blast of illumination so bright that Orson could see it through the closed metal around his hand. Tucker yelled.
Orson let the light subside. Around him, his HUD showed him what he’d hoped to see, darkness. No heat came from the metal beast. Only the faint heat from Tucker’s body could be seen. The Shaper had lost his mental sixth sense hold on the Cobalt Nine, driven to distraction by his unexpected blindness. On cue, the metal began to liquefy around them, pooling and dripping. The pressure slackened at his arm and his coat.
Before the mass could collapse, Orson sent a last burst of power to his repulsor. He flew through the wet gunk, straight at Tucker, driving his left shoulder toward the man.
Tucker didn’t have a chance to regain his mental control or his concentration. Orson slammed bodily into him. The wayfarer drove Tucker out of his own liquid mass. He blasted Tucker away from the metal, away from his sphere of control, out and down, down, down, into the early morning light and toward the ground.
Orson rammed Tucker down to the concrete, just as he heard the beeping in his ears, letting him know that his solar cell was entirely spent. If he wasted the next few heartbeats, the whole fight was for nothing and his one chance was gone.
Orson saw unfocused rage in the Shaper’s eyes. If he weren’t one mistake away from dying, Orson would laugh at Tucker’s literal blind rage. He said nothing. Both of them knew the fight had reached its end.
Orson did not see the small trace amounts of the liquid Cobalt Nine that still clung to his coat after the trip through the metal mess. He couldn’t see this metal turn red hot. His HUD was out of power. Orson caught the brief flash of red and blue glow from Tucker’s arms, but that gave him little time to act.
The Cobalt Nine sharpened and stabbed through the fabric at the zipper of Orson’s coat, aimed straight at the wayfarer’s heart. He tried to wrench himself away, but the thin metal blade slid through his clothing and buried itself in his shoulder. Orson shouted, but he’d had enough warning and had experienced enough pain in his life to make the sound ferocious, not fearful. But Orson knew he had only moments to end this. Even if the blade in his shoulder didn’t kill him, Tucker would soon have enough control to bring his monster back into play.
Orson let the pain fuel his adrenaline-driven strength. He took Tucker by the face with his free hand and drove the man’s head straight back into the concrete floor, in one final strike.
All of the Cobalt Nine went totally inert when Tucker lost consciousness. With a horrible splash, the metal mass fell in a great wet splat on the pavilion floor. The lifeless metal oozed out across the ground. The blade in Orson’s shoulder similarly liquefied and trickled out, followed by a stream of blood.
Orson sagged away from the Shaper, utterly tired and spent and half-broken, himself. He didn’t sheath his sword, not even with his hands shaking violently.
“Medic!” Orson screamed to the crowd. He didn’t look away from Tucker. If the man awoke and attacked again, Orson would have no choice but to strike with lethal intent. Without power and already wounded, he didn’t have another prolonged battle in him. “We need a sedative down here to keep him knocked out so he can’t use his metal. Somebody help me end this.”
Orson could hear a distant murmur from the crowd. He still didn’t dare turn away. He couldn’t. Once he let himself relax, there would be no rousing him. The whole world spun and swam around his head.
“Medic!” He yelled again. That time he heard footsteps, multiple pairs of footsteps, some walking, some running. He felt a hand on his uninjured shoulder.
“That was, uh, creative,” Sheriff Webster said. She introduced a medic, a volunteer who’d been tending to the wounded at the rec center. Orson immediately forgot the guy’s name, but he watched as the man knelt beside Tucker. The medic first checked Tucker’s vitals. Then he drew a syringe from a black medical bag.
Orson did not turn away from Tucker’s prone form until the syringe met his shoulder and the sedative was delivered into the Shaper’s system. Tucker did not visibly respond to the drug, and Orson watched the man until he felt satisfied that the battle would not continue. Then he struggled with his exhausted hands. He couldn’t keep them still. If he hadn’t wielded the sword of fire for over a decade, he could never sheath it in his current condition, but he did. He rose to his feet, slid the sword into the scabbard and extinguished its light.
When the crowd saw this, they understood the fight was over. They cheered and clapped. Some called Orson’s name. He considered turning to face them, but when he moved, the wound in his shoulder protested.
Orson unzipped his coat and was once again aware of the chill morning breeze. He shivered, but had to see the state of his wound. Blood had run all the way down his side and onto his pants. He held open the small hole in his shirt to see the wound, a mark no larger than a paring knife. It seemed to have stopped bleeding. Orson gingerly pressed his shirt to the wound, until two more volunteers arrived with a stretcher to carry Tucker away.
“Could I bother you for some help too?” Orson looked to Medic ‘Whatshisname’. He opened his coat and displayed the wound. The medic’s eyes widened, and he stepped forward with a small patch of some kind. The medic stuck this bandage directly onto the wound.
“We’ll take proper care of you back at the rec center,” ‘Whatshisname’ said. He and Webster supported Orson and angled him back away from the pavilion. Orson wasn’t sure how the crowd would respond to his visible exhaustion, but he guessed he’d lost some imaginary hero points he’d gained by besting Tucker. But they offered another round of applause for him as his escort ushered him through their ranks. Travelers and tourists, law enforcement and guests clapped for him.
Orson offered them a smile and a small wave. He could do no more. He allowed himself to be led on, back through the trees, along the path to the rec center. He let his mind go distant, relax, ignore his pain and exhaustion.
Back inside the rec center, he was escorted to a small conference room already filled with patients, mostly costumed travelers who’d brawled with the Liberty Corps. The injuries appeared minor and these travelers cheered for Orson when he entered. All he managed was a small nod of recognition.
Webster and the medic escorted Orson to a chair at the far end of the conference table, positioned two seats away from Enoa, who was leaning back in her own chair. A steaming cup sat on the table beside her.
“I thought about greeting you after you beat Tucker,” she said. “But Mr. Nesta insisted I come back here. I think he was afraid Tucker was going to get up and start stabbing people.”
“He would have if I hadn’t knocked him out.” Orson removed his gear, even his coat and his odd assortment of necklaces. He fell back in his own chair. The medic removed the bandage on his shoulder and began treating the wound with a wet cloth. “We aren’t going to have a fun time making it safe to hold Tucker. He has his damn cobalt shit everywhere.”
“The Liberty Corps have some means of tracking Tucker’s metal.” Sheriff Webster said. “Hopefully, one of their members we apprehended will be able to point us in the right direction.”
“I can track it too,” Orson said. “And I can stick around for a few days. After last night, I’m in no hurry to rush on to any other problems.”
“You’ll get to be here for the whole festival then.” The medic smiled.
“Yeah,” Orson agreed. “Convenient. Anyway, we’ll track it all down.” Orson had almost forgotten about the Liberty Corps. “What ever happened with the militia gang? I’m guessing you didn’t manage to nab Man Bun, did you?”
“Enoa blew him up.” Webster laughed. “But no, he disappeared when the rest of the Liberty Corps pulled back.” She stepped away from the table and walked to the conference room’s doorway. “Bring me Captain Gregory’s tape.” She spoke to someone he couldn’t see.
“My tape?” Orson asked. Then he turned to Enoa. “You blew him up? What the hell does that mean?”
“I…” She began to speak, but then she eyed the other people at the long table, the travelers, the medic, the law enforcement officials. She lowered her voice. “I’m like my aunt. I did… something.”
“She has a secret skill, herself.” Webster took the seat between Orson and Enoa. “Best surprise of the night.”
“You did a magic?” Orson said. “That’s awesome! Maybe it does run in the family.”
Enoa was spared from speaking when Sheriff Webster set a vintage tape player on the table.
“We found this waiting for us when we returned from your fight with Tucker.” She hit the play button, and Captain Maros spoke out into the room.
“Bravo, Captain Gregory,” he said. “You truly are as skilled as the stories say. I hope your new allies in the Nimauk Sheriff’s Department will forward this message to you. We have three matters to settle.
“First, my team has completed our investigation into Miss Cloud. We have determined that she did nothing to conceal Liberty Corps property from us. As such, she will find those belongings of hers that we confiscated prior to the unfortunate fire. They have been deposited at the town offices with our full apology. My advisors hoped we would keep these items in response to the arrests of my men, but I have insisted on this good faith measure. The same cannot be said for yourself. Captain if you…”
“Unfortunate fire?!” Enoa stood and shouted over the recording. “That bastard set the fire!” She wobbled on her feet, and Webster offered a steadying hand to guide her back to her seat.
“Second,” the Maros tape continued. “I want to issue an apology. If I knew what a violent and unstable presence Tucker was, I would not have allied my command with him. I am grateful, Captain Gregory, that you managed to resolve this situation without loss of life. And that leads me directly to my third point.”
“Why are we even listening to this?!” Enoa pointed to the tape recorder. “He’s doing nothing but spouting bullshit.”
“Wait,” Orson said. “Please.”
“The Liberty Corps is the rightful heir of the IHSA and the American government,” Maros said. “The Dreamside Road trove belongs to us. It is stolen property, and anyone who pursues these hidden materials will be treated as the criminals they are. I respect you, Captain Gregory, as well as your efforts, but if you pursue the Dreamside Road, you will meet the full force of the Liberty Corps. There are powers in the Corps far surpassing those you faced here. This is your only warning.”
“Oooh boy,” Orson said. “I’m spooked now. Man Bun’s gonna go tell on me to his bosses. Management’s getting involved, ooooh.”
“He certainly couldn’t threaten you himself.” Webster laughed again. “You should have seen him go flying through the air. He was hollering like crazy and his hair came down in his face. He’s really lucky most of his boys didn’t see it.” She tapped at the tape player. “What’s the Dreamside Road? Before we go on our search for Tucker’s metal, I need a full explanation of everything that went on here. I feel like I’m missing a few puzzle pieces. What exactly was the Liberty Corps after? What was Tucker’s role in this? Why did they attack during the festival?”
“I desperately need some sleep and some pancakes,” Orson said. “Not in that order, and I know we’ve got a long while before I’ll get some real rest, so I’ll try to sum it all up.
“The Liberty Corps thought an old bunch of stuff stolen from a secret governmental agency in the eighties was hidden under town. They needed Tucker’s help to find it. He wanted to maintain control here. I think Tucker wanted to use the Liberty Corps to help make the fake Sight-Stealer threat so he could publicly save the town and consolidate control. Burning Enoa’s shop also figures into that. I guess they wanted to blame that on the Sight-Stealers too? There might be more subtleties to the situation, like what Tucker thought of the Liberty Corps, but he was too busy trying to murder me to bother explaining his evil plan. Anyway, it turns out that Enoa has some weird inheritance from that old government operation, the train man came to help her with that information and got killed. Between that and the fact I showed up, we messed up the whole conspiracy and now here we are.”
Sheriff Webster nodded and withdrew a small notepad from her belt. She shuffled through the pages. Orson was content not to speak, and he let himself sag back in the chair, once again. He had failed to find the Dreamside Road. He’d failed again and had gained only one tentative lead. But for a few minutes, he had nothing to worry about, and that felt good.
“Stolen government assets from thirty or forty years ago?” Webster asked. “It’s a good thing there’s no state agency to examine my reports. This one won’t make any sense.” She stood. “Take a short rest. I’ll gather some reliable people, and we’ll find somewhere to put Tucker.”
“Sounds good,” Orson said, as she left the room. He enjoyed another brief respite from his worries. “So you used magic, huh?”
“I did,” Enoa said. “I don’t know how, but something… Something happened.”
“Well, before I skip town, we’ll make sure you’re all set up with your aunt’s films. That way you can learn about, uh, whatever your deal is. Even if you never use it, knowing is good.”
“Actually,” she said. “About that. Are you really going after the Dreamside Road? Do you plan to head to that island hidden at the Date Line?”
“I do,” he said. “I’m in this thing for the long haul. Man Bun certainly isn’t going to scare me off.”
“Good,” she said. “I haven’t left Nimauk since the shutdown, and I’ve never gone west, but…” She took a deep breath. “I want to go and learn to be a Shaper. I want to pursue my inheritance, like you said, so if you’re alright with it, I’d like to go with you.”