Kal closed his eyes. No, none of that was going to happen. He was an agent of the Aleph Association. He was the master of weiyld, it was not the master of him. He forced his fists to unclench, squared his feet and put his hands together in a meditative pose. Control your breathing, order your thoughts. He took in a breath and exhaled, working to retie the knot of emotion in his mind. Torma and Gara got what was coming to them. More bloodshed wouldn’t accomplish anything. Obrin’s just a kid who made a mistake. Yomi’s screams faded into background noise. With effort he pushed the weiyld away and severed his attunement. He flopped to the ground. It was wet and cold. He didn’t care.
Smudge walked past and pointed at the dead monster, a lopsided grin on his face. “Wow. That critter took seven shots from a smash gun. Did you see that thing?”
“Yes Smudge, I saw it,” Kal answered flatly. “That’s why I was running.”
“Great signal by the way, what with the screaming and the fleeing in terror. I heard you way before you got here.”
Obrin was lying on his back panting. Kal stood up and walked towards the Githrox drawing his boot knife. A bolt from Smudge’s smash gun flew past him and slammed into the beast. Kal scrambled backwards, slipping and falling in an ungainly tangle of limbs.
“By Veska’s tales man! Is it still alive?”
“Nah, I don’t think so.”
Kal leveled a glare. “Then why in the Many Worlds did you shoot it again?”
Smudge shrugged. “My charge pack still had one shot left. Seemed like a waste.
Besides, look at the way it’s twitching. Don’t tell me that isn’t funny.”
Kal glowered, a rude gesture his only reply.
Rena flicked the power lever on her rifle. The weapon opened its vents, pouring out waste heat in a shimmering rush. She gave the rifle a moment to cool before spinning it in her hand and tossing it into the holster on her back.
She turned to Kal, a look of fierce satisfaction on her face. “Seems like we got here just in time and settled a Githrox, to boot.” Her expression grew concerned. “Are you alright Kal?”
Kal gave a quick nod, not wanting to meet her eyes. “I am now. That was a close one. I almost lost it.”
“But you didn’t. If you like, I can come in early tomorrow, and we can practice control and severing techniques.”
“Sounds like a good idea. Never hurts to brush up on the fundamentals. I’d appreciate that.”
Rena smiled and pushed a long cold object into his hand. It was his auldane. He ducked his head gratefully and slipped the beads in his pocket. The auldane was so cold it threatened to give him frost burn.
Smudge eyed Obrin’s collapsed form skeptically before leaning over to poke the young man with the tip of his gun. “Is this the guy we’re looking for? He isn’t dying is he?”
Obrin coughed. “No, not dying.” He levered himself into a sitting position, put his head in his hands and started shaking. Rena walked forward and sat down next to him. She put a hand on his shoulder, wise enough not to say anything.
They sat that way for a while. Kal waited for Smudge to power down his smash gun before drawing his knife again to cut off one of the Githrox’s claws. It would look very nice on the shelf in his office.
Obrin blinked suddenly then broke the silence. “What about my friends? I think they’re still back there.”
Rena shot Kal a questioning look. He gave a quick shake of his head. “I crawled through the area where you and your friends were tied up when I was looking for you,” he said slowly. “I’m pretty sure you’re the only prisoner who survived.”
“I still have to check.” Obrin looked like he was going to be sick, but he tried to stand anyways.
Rena put a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe we can let Smudge handle this one.”
Smudge rolled his eyes. “Great, guess I’m on corpse kicking duty. Fine.” He slapped a fresh alch battery into his smash gun and headed back towards the smugglers’ hideout.
They waited in silence until Smudge returned. Obrin looked up. Smudge gave an apologetic shrug. “Found some dead smugglers, some soon-to-be dead smugglers, and a few whiny smugglers who were healthy enough to beg me not to call the watch. I figure they can take care of their dying pals. That was it though. Your friends didn’t make it.”
Obrin nodded and then threw up. He wiped his mouth. “It isn’t fair. I know my friends were involved in theft, extortion and worse.” He paused. “I guess I was in just as deep. What we did was wrong, but nobody deserves that.” He pointed at the dead Githrox.
“No they didn’t,” Kal said sympathetically. “For better or worse, people don’t always get what they deserve. Not in this life.” He paused, choosing his words carefully. “All the same, the criminals who you and your friends were working for didn’t come and save you. It was your parents who contacted the Aleph Association, that’s us.” He made a gesture encompassing himself, Rena and Smudge. “If they hadn’t worried enough to get us involved, if they hadn’t given up their savings to buy your freedom…” He left the statement hanging. “They’re the ones who truly care. The others were using you. You let them do it.” Kal stopped and waited for what he said to sink in. Obrin glanced up at him, hot anger in his face. Kal met his gaze. Obrin locked stares with him for a moment, then looked away, rage dissipating as he silently conceded the point. Kal dropped the rest of his speech. No need to belabor the issue.
Obrin stood up and brushed himself off, a gesture that conveyed a sense of finality. “So, my parents cared enough about me to call in the Aleph. I’m surprised. I’ve said some things to them recently,” he bit his lip, “things I’m sorry for.”
Rena smiled. “They’ll still be happy to have you back. Parents are like that.”
“Even so, if you hadn’t risked your lives to help me...,” he let the sentence trail off. “I don’t know how to pay you back.”
Smudge shrugged then pointed toward his pants with a sadistic grin. Rena shot him a sharp glare. Smudge answered with his patented ‘just kidding, sort of’ wink. Kal sighed, grateful that Obrin had missed the exchange.
“Look, you survived today.” Kal put a foot on the ramp leading up to street level and waited for Obrin to follow. “That means you get a second chance. All you can do is make the most of it.”
Rena tapped her chin. “You could start by coming to work at the Aleph. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve paid someone to do odd jobs for us. You can earn enough money to pay back your parents.” She hooked a thumb towards Smudge. “That miscreant started working for the Aleph when he was twelve, though we won’t chain you to the boiler at night.”
Obrin eyes widened. “You chained him to the boiler? What? No, you’re joking, right?”
Smudge grinned. “Not every night, only if they were afraid I might bite a guest or light something on fire. These days I just have to wear a muzzle from time to time.”
Obrin smiled weakly. “Hah, well I guess I’d better not bite anybody.” His smile deepened. “A steady job sounds like a good change of pace, and I’m happy for a chance to repay you for saving me.”
Rena smiled back. “Good, you can start tomorrow. I’ll show you how our filing system works.”
Together the group made their way back to Obrin’s house. His parents rushed out and enveloped him in an embrace. Rena looked up at Kal and gave him a questioning smile. He lowered his eyes and smiled too. By unspoken mutual consent they left to give the family their privacy.
Kal returned to the Aleph chapter house, stowing his weapons and armor in his basement locker before heading up to his office. He took a moment to find the best spot on his trophy shelf for the Githrox claw. He admired it for a moment then turned back to the pile of papers on his desk. They never seemed to get finished. He sighed, powered up his char quill and got to work. Plenty of people had died in the tunnels under the city today, but Obrin hadn’t. He, at least, would get a second chance. In a rough, imperfect world, it was victory enough.
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