It didn’t take long for Shockwave to set up the fulfillment of their promise. The next weekend we were on a train heading out of the city. It was kind of odd riding public transportation in a mask, but Shockwave pointed out that there weren’t that many other options. Unless we wanted to take a car, but that was slower. Carrying some bags with us did make it even more awkward.
Midnight stood on my shoulder. He could survive without me for a few days, but I thought he might want to get out of town a bit. “Turlough… I was under the impression that trains were faster than this…” He looked out the window, swishing his tail.
“There are faster ones,” Shockwave commented. “But they mainly go between large population centers. Besides, this one is much quicker than last century’s model.”
“Our equivalent is much faster,” Midnight commented. “But it also does not have to accommodate such large passengers.” I know humans seemed large to Midnight, but the trains also had to support actually large people, generally in special cars that were basically empty except for sturdy poles and hand grips. It also ended up serving as a place for anyone with non-humanoid body shapes, but I was pretty normal in that regard.
Though not so normal that I didn’t have people pointing and whispering. Part of that was of course the outfits Shockwave and I wore, but I also still had green skin and tusks. Just because there were a relatively high proportion of non-humans in the area didn’t mean everyone was used to us. Including kids whispering to their mothers. I did my best to look non-threatening, but the problem was that smiling would only emphasize my tusks. Well, it wasn’t like I was a hero anyway- it was okay for people to be afraid of me.
The mother had her arms wrapped around her little girl as they looked at us, but when she pulled out her phone to look at something the girl slipped out of her arms and walked towards us.
“Excuse me mister. Can I pet your cat?”
Midnight was the one who responded to that, hopping from my shoulder down to a nearby seat. “I am not a cat,” he said proudly. “But if you wish to, I will allow you to pat my head.”
“Okay mister cat,” she gently put her hand on his head, “Your fur is soft.”
“Thank you,” Midnight bowed his head.
The girl looked over her shoulder at a worried mom. “I should probably go.” She turned and found her way back to the woman, exclaiming. “Mom, the cat talks!”
I didn’t hear the woman’s exasperated response clearly, but I had the feeling she didn’t believe her daughter. I looked down at Midnight. “Is it weird to have someone pat your head?”
He hopped back up on me, “Is it weird to have someone sit on your shoulder?”
“Kind of, yeah,” I replied.
“Oh… should I stop?”
“No, it’s fine.”
“I see. Well, I don’t find it that weird to be touched a little bit. Though it is weird to be treated like an animal.”
“You’ll probably have to keep dealing with that one,” Shockwave shrugged. “Because you look just like a cat. It’s hard for anyone to know any different until after they’ve met you.”
“I see. Perhaps I should make use of Disguise?”
I shook my head. “It can’t make you look terribly different. You’d still be some sort of small quadruped.”
“Oh well,” Midnight said. “I don’t mind if people are polite about things.”
A short while later we arrived at our ultimate destination. While Midnight had some complaints about the train’s speed, I certainly did not. The distance we traveled in a single hour could have easily taken days of walking or riding. Or a small fraction of the time for Shockwave to run.
“Hammerfist should be waiting for us,” Shockwave explained as we entered the parking lot. “I texted her our arrival time.”
A small little honk got our attention, and a little old lady waved at us from the driver’s seat of a truck. “There you are dears!” she waved at us out the window. “Come on over!”
Shockwave sighed as we approached. “Didn’t I tell you I was coming over for official business? Why are you… out of uniform?”
“Because I don’t care,” the old woman said as she looked down at us. “You all can go ahead and keep your identities secret if you want, but it’s terribly inconvenient for driving around. Besides, I’m retired. The only thing that might happen is that someone might try to kidnap your poor old grandma and use her against you.” Shockwave’s face twitched. “That would be just awful, wouldn’t it? Then you’d have to come save me, and I might actually see your face more than once or twice a year. Even though it only takes you a few minutes to get here on your own.”
Shockwave looked very close to running away, but managed to hold on. “Maybe we should get in before she reveals even more personal information…”
We tossed our bags into the bed of the truck before climbing in the passenger side door. The cab of the truck was plenty large enough to fit Shockwave’s skinny form in the middle as well as myself, and Midnight fit in my lap just fine. The old woman reached out her hand to shake as I stepped into the cab. She had a very firm grip. “I’m Charlotte. Or Hammerfist, if you must. You’re ‘Mage’, right?”
“You could also call me Turlough,” I replied.
“See? He’s not so stuck up about it,” the kind old lady replied as she started driving. “And your cat?”
“I’m Midnight Deathstalker, and I am not a cat,” Midnight answered himself.
“Oh, my apologies. What are you then? Shapeshifter, alien… magical construct?”
“I am from Celmoth, which would make me an alien.”
Something about what she said got my attention. “Did you say magical construct? Do you know about magic?”
“Only a little bit,” she confessed. “But I know you are ‘Mage’, and if you spend enough years in the business you come across a few people who use magic, even if it’s rare.”
“Could you introduce me to them?” I asked.
“I would love to,” she smiled, “But unfortunately they’re all retired or otherwise out of the business for good.”
If I understood correctly, that meant most of them were dead- which wasn’t all that surprising as magic users were just as mortal as everyone else. Even if some tried really hard not to be, but that usually didn’t end well.
The rest of the drive went fine, with Shockwave awkwardly shifting between the two of us while I chatted with their grandma. “Here we are, dears,” she said as we pulled out outside a small country style home, with one more car outside. “Looks like Reset is already here. Why don’t we all have a spot of tea before getting to the training?”
Reset turned out to be a man of around middle age, neither young nor old. He was in costume like the rest of us except for Shockwave’s grandmother. He was waiting for us on the back porch. “There you are! So this is the guy we’re training, huh?” He looked me over. “You do look like the brawler type. What did you do to get this one to call in a favor from me, huh?”
“Mage has many valuable uses to both myself and the Power Brigade,” Shockwave said professionally. “Training him will be beneficial to both of us.”
“Sure thing kid,” Reset smiled, “But if that were the whole deal, I’d be getting paid by the Power Brigade directly.”
Charlotte came out with trays laden with snacks- and the promised tea. We had a nice little break before getting to the actual purpose of coming to the area. She brought us all to a large barn I saw out back, flinging the doors wide to reveal a mishmash of the various sorts of things that belonged in a barn. An old tractor, sturdy pillars, and bales of hay complete with pitchforks.
“Here we are,” she said. “Take your time setting up, Reset. I’ll be back in a minute.”
I saw Reset walking around the structure, both inside and out. I wasn’t sure what he was doing, or why a healer would be so concerned about a building- but I could feel his power activating. If I was back at Power Brigade HQ I could have looked him up and gotten at least a vague idea how his power worked, but I hadn’t known who would be here besides Hammerfist.
It wasn’t long before Hammerfist returned, in costume true to her name. I could still see some wrinkled skin, and the spandex hung loosely on what had clearly once been a much broader form. The emblazoned logo on her chest, a fist with each individual finger being the head of a hammer, would make her identity clear even to those who hadn’t met her before. “Alright, we’ll step in there. If Reset’s ready, we’ll get at it.”
“We’re fighting in the barn?” I asked. “It looks… flammable.”
“What, you have fire magic and are afraid of fighting with a little bit of smoke and heat around you?”
“I just thought you wouldn’t want to have your property destroyed.”
“That’s what he’s for,” she gestured to Reset- whose plain costume didn’t do much to display his power. “Don’t worry about any of that. We can go all out here.”
Since nobody else seemed concerned about it, I stepped into the barn with the old woman. I wasn’t concerned about her safety of course. She was the one most familiar with the place, and should know her own strength.
“You ready?” she asked as we stood together in the middle of the area. I checked to make sure Force Armor was active, then nodded.
I was quite pleased to see that she wasn’t particularly fast. Not compared to some, at least. However, I also knew I didn’t want to fight her up close. Most of my spells were enhancements or for short ranged, but I still had Firebolt. I knew she was a bruiser of some sort, but while they were durable, they weren’t invulnerable.
A line of fire burst from my hands, crashing into her- and then spraying in various directions as she punched it. She continued to charge at me, but I cast Mage’s Reach as I backpedaled. I could have just hit her with a Shocking Grasp normally when she caught up to me and punched through one of the supports, but my time was better used rolling away. As I gained some ground and activated Shocking Grasp with the Mage’s Reach latched onto her ankle, I noticed some smoldering fire in another part of the barn. Hopefully it was scheduled for demolition and she just wanted to do it in a fun manner.
My training in martial arts helped me withstand her attacks to some extent, though it was clear she wasn’t just throwing punches and kicks randomly. She shrugged off the effects of Shocking Grasp and continued to charge at me, each of her attacks forcing me in a particular direction. I dodged past the tractor, hearing an awful wrenching sound as an axe-kick crushed it into the floor. But despite avoiding that blow, a moment later one of her punches connected with my shoulder. Force Armor barely managed to soften the blow, and I felt my bones snap.
During that time I’d been trying to repeatedly use Shocking Grasp, but it clearly wasn’t enough to stop her. I shot another Firebolt directly into her torso, hoping that something about her fists was simply more durable, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Grease delayed her for a moment, sending her sliding into a pile of burning hay. A moment later, she jumped out- without bothering to brush herself off. It was like I had a flame monster leaping at me, and I was barrelled through several of the supports before the barn collapsed on top of both of us.