It wasn’t five minutes before I began to hear him talking to himself. “Agent Walker, guard the door. Agent Walker, watch for the Revenant,” he copied his superior. The fire in the fireplace cast comical shadows on the agent, capturing his mocking movements. “Take a look at that door, Fuzzball. You see a Revenant anywhere? No? I didn’t think so!”
Before I did anything else, I scanned my finger on the side of my handheld. The results indicated that I had 14 out of 15 sho, and that I would recover the fifteenth in just a few minutes. I hooked the rope to the rafter and prepared to climb down.
He didn’t notice; he continued his monologue. “I don’t see a reason why we should be afraid of a girl. And yet, stand by the door, Walker. Thanks for your contribution to the mission, Walker.” His voice was sarcastic. “Not like I approve of this anyway.“
Reaching the ground, I activated the laser skates and crept even closer. I noiselessly drew my sword behind him.
“What’s the point,” Walker gave up on himself. “Who am I kidding? She wouldn’t come through the front door! I’ll find out later, of course, that there was no need to be standing here and doing nothing. Nobody will come that way! And what if I did find her? She would be just like the others. Maybe a welcome challenge.”
From behind, I put my sword across his shoulder, next to his neck, and held out my glove so Darwin could land on it for extra effect. “A welcome challenge… I believe that you mean an unwelcome surprise.”
The agent turned to face me, avoiding the point of the weapon. He gasped. “Revenant…”
I adjusted the sword so it pointed to his chest. “So… Tell me more about Project Nero.”
He eyed his pocket nervously, probably to search for his handheld. “I don’t know about a project Nero…”
“Yeah, I’m not buying it,” I grinned sadistically, gently turning the blade so the edge pointed to his neck. “Sing.”
He looked down at my hands, but suddenly jumped. “Go, Fuzzball!”
The Astentian flying squirrel is not like earth squirrels. It has a pair of wings on its back and can sustain flight for over an hour. It is much larger than an earth squirrel and also has retractable claws.
Imagine this thing diving at your face in its full fury. It’s not pleasant. I recoiled before Darwin intercepted it, giving the agent enough space to draw his own sword.
I laughed out loud. “You’re challenging the Revenant with a sword?”
He quickly realized that it was a foolish mistake, but he held his ground.
Well, if that was his mistake, I would ensure that it was his last. I led off with a simple strike to his shoulder, but he made no move to block. I half expected to end up slicing his arm off.
He was wearing mail under his uniform. All I had done was poked him.
“Oh,” I said as distastefully as I could sound. “You want to play that game.” I sheathed my weapon. “Then perhaps I must resort to more… unconventional tactics.”
He lowered his sword, fearing what I intended by “unconventional tactics”.
Let the mind games begin.
“Well, you won’t need your sword.” I turned away. I whispered, “Shaolin ze,” under my breath, and his sword shattered itself.
But before I could continue the charade, he said, “Shaolin kha.” The broken pieces of the sword fit themselves together like a jigsaw puzzle and returned to his hand.
I stopped myself. He was also a sho mage.
Now I knew that I had to be careful. I decided to force him into maxing out his sho limit or to confuse him. “Shaolin silic!” The sword disintegrated into sand and drifted into the carpet.
He only stared at it, using a command I had never heard before. “Silic cryssalis shaolin!”
The sand in the carpet melted into a glassy liquid. It all raced together into a sword-shaped puddle and crystallized. He bent over to pick it up.
I realized I had to make a move. “Shaolin chien!” The sword rushed into my hands…
And I maxed out.
Maxing out on sho is very bad. All sho mages can attempt to use one extra spell when they either don’t have enough sho for a particular attack, or don’t have any sho at all. However, they pay the price, as I did then. There is a reduced chance for the spell to work, but as maxing out is usually only a last resort, this was the perfect opportunity.
I froze involuntarily in my position. I then turned into a stone statue, impervious to damage and immovable until I regenerated another sho.
“You’re all out,” he snarled. “Unluckily for you, I am not.” He wrenched the sword out of my hands.
I remembered that the first sho would regenerate within the next minute. I wished it would have been longer, so I could catch him off guard.
Darwin and Fuzzball were a surprisingly even match. While Darwin had the predatory advantage, Fuzzball was larger than an average squirrel, and was much, much more ferocious. At the end of this fight, both were exhausted, and they both fainted with no clear winner. Darwin looked unhurt, only ruffled.
Finally, my sho came back, and I was released from my statue form. I quickly avoided him to pace in the shadows, the firelight leaving me only as a silhouette in his vision. “You’re just difficult, aren’t you? I guessssss I’ll just have to deal with you mysssssself…”
The hiss sounded especially threatening, but it was not intentional. The first part of the transformation took place in my mouth. I loved the delightful feeling of my forked tongue sliding along the back of my new, pointed fangs.
He stared at the shadows obscuring me, and I saw his alarm when he saw that shadow changing shape and size. I relaxed the muscles in my back and released the tension as my wings grew out. As I grew larger and larger, the agent backed himself into a corner, dropping his crystal sword on the ground.
This was my secret. He could not be allowed to live after seeing me in this form.
I was a dragon.
I grabbed him in my monstrous claws. Perhaps he caught a glimpse of my bronze scales, slim tail, or huge, ribbed wings. My sharpened eyes connected with the green, widened eyes of the agent. “I do believe I can intimidate you into sssharing your information…” I bellowed in my draconian voice.
I could see his eyes dart around hopelessly, failing to find an escape. He could barely look at me, instead choosing to look at his own waist. He cursed in Astentian to himself.
“Pleassse tell me your name.”
He struggled to free himself, but began staring in fear.
I did my best to calm him. “I will not hurt you; I give you my word.”
But he was smarter than that. “What good is a dragon’s word?”
“Wissse,” I acknowledged. “Your friend, then. Your “fuzzball”. I’m sssure he would tassste delightful roasssted…”
“Alright! Alright! I’ll talk. I’ll talk!” He flew into a frenzy.
“Name and affiliation?”
“Agent Walker… Chance Walker… Corporal. I’m an official Plasma.” He gasped for breath.
I grinned a serpentine grin. “Chance,” I repeated. “A ressspectable name. Now tell me: what do you know about Project Nero?”
Chance did not want to tell, but he finally gave up. “They were going to launch it tomorrow,” he admitted. “It was an arson. We were going to burn the Capital. But it wasn’t a Plasma-sanctioned mission.”
I was very surprised. “Really?”
“No,” he declared. “This was a group of crazy break-offs. They didn’t want to tell me, but I knew all along that they were raising their own faction. I only got involved when I saw the opportunity to tip off the Plasmas. But that opportunity has passed, and now I am one of them. If I go to Plasma as a traitor, I’m going to lose everything, even Fuzzball.”
I was confused about why a small group of Plasmas would break off and do something radical like that. “You persssonally had no intention of burning the city?”
“None; I was not alerted to the objective of the mission until I was in. I have also done small jobs, like guarding the stupid door from people like you who wouldn’t use the door… but I’ve done nothing major against the command of Plasma. I haven’t collected any of the fuel or anything like that.”
I heard the jingle of a handheld. I set him down, but blocked the exit with my tail. “You may anssswer, but one word about a dragon or a Revenant, and I will flame you and your sssquirrel.”
He understood. He flipped open the handheld. I could hear much better as a dragon, so I listened in to the conversation.
“Agent Walker, where are you? This is Michaels!”
Chance rolled his eyes. “I’m guarding the same door that you told me to guard! And guess who showed up? No one!”
“Walker, this is no time for sarcasm! Why aren’t you out here?”
“What do you mean?”
The voice of Michaels came away from the receiver. “He missed the memo?” I could hear him shout angrily behind him. “Walker, you need to get out of there! The fire’s started!”
“We gave the go-ahead because of the possibility of the Revenant being nearby! We couldn’t risk it! You need to abort all missions and get out of there! We’re gonna rendezvous just west of South River City. Sending you coordinates. Call us if you survive! Over and out! Viva Sonaven!”
The sound cut out.
Chance raised an eyebrow. “Viva Sonaven? What does that mean?”
“Oh, no,” I said. I quickly shrank back to my human size and ran to wake up Darwin. Fuzzball was beginning to revive by himself.
“What am I gonna do?” Chance paced back and forth. “I can’t go back to them… but I can’t go back to Plasma…”
My own handheld jingled. A message popped up in bold letters, a mission priority that I had only heard of as a myth.
Operation: Save Rome is a failure. You will be reimbursed with 100 credits for consolation.
CODE BLACK EMERGENCY MISSION
Operation: Save Nero
Priority: Code Black
Objectives: Rescue the Emperor and escort him to the Delta Force headquarters.
Briefing: The fire has started in Whitesand and is spreading rapidly. Emperor Vao is extremely vulnerable. Your mission will be to locate the Emperor (50 creds), leave the city (50 creds), and escort him to headquarters (100 creds).
Mission Reward: 300 Credits
This mission has been auto-accepted due to priority. Good luck, Agent Bronzewing.
I showed Chance this message. “Vao! I almost forgot! The emperor!” He summoned Fuzzball to his shoulder.
I regretted having to do this. I growled. “Code Black…” I cursed in Astentian. “Come with me! We need to hurry!” Darwin woke up and perched on my glove. “Can you keep up with Laser Skates?”
He knocked his heels together. This activated his own pair of laser skates, which glowed purple. “I hope so!”
Why did this guy have to have just about everything in common with me? Well, what did it matter right now? We had to save the Emperor; the fate of the world depended on it.
“But what’s ‘Viva Sonaven‘? What significance does that have?” Chance asked me.
I knew the meaning of the Astentian words, but they had little meaning as of now. When I said them, it sounded like I was saying a poisonous word. “Long live the South Wind.”
And we ran.