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supernal

Ain't that just the way

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Matte's lambent lances punched clean through the green balls of force unleashed on the vigilantes. At first his gambit over-penetrated, so that each lance shot through their targets without even slowing them down all that much. In most cases the missiles continued for several ricochets, sending shards of glass and sprays of wine and splinters of wood into the air. Some even struck the Justice operatives on their way out. But then they vanished after that, deflated by the hole drilled through their cores.

Calling out the prince as a hostage served to give those in earshot pause. The conditions were chaotic and poorly lit. So long as they kept Velleh's body on the run along with them it was easy to say that the man looked like Velleh and much harder to say that, actually, he was dead. But those distant snipers and remote-mages take a little longer to get the message. All they saw were moving targets. They flung poisoned arrows, hollow point bullets, tight little fireballs, sizzling bolts of lightning, rays of frost, and splashes of acid onto Justice with prodigal abandon. Velleh had built quite a fortune on human trafficking and had clearly not skimped on arming his security detail.

"We gotta break up."

Jericho shouted at Matte and Levi, rolling to his feet after being tossed off them by the explosive shell. He shouted both because of the roar of machine gun fire and because of the ringing in his ears.

"Do what you gotta do to get out alive and meet back at the spot. Good work."

Since they moment they met and in all technical reviews of the operation, Jericho had never once indicated that it was a primary objective for him personally to take Velleh's body with him. To the uninformed mind his desire for a dead body was unnerving; to the informed, probably more so. He didn't want this to distract from the overall, critical objective. That of cutting the head of the snake and leaving the body to wither.

But part of what needed to happen was spectacle. He didn't want Velleh's death neatly covered up while a new boss with an alligator brain and a Komodo smile simply picked up where the old one had left off. He wanted them to know this was no accident. He wanted them to know that days were numbered, and that someone was doing the counting.

Amidst the shock and the awe of Velleh's armory and in the middle of his estate, Jericho held Velleh's body up. In one motion he separated the merchant-prince's head and one of his hands from his body. Even as the body fell to the ground and oozed out its remaining fluids, Jericho crouched down and jumped, generating force enough to crater the ground underneath and vault him into cloud cover in seconds, making for a short-lived window in which a nimble sniper could take a potshot at him midair.

As soon as he landed, Jericho jumped twice more, and on his third landing stopped to cleanse Velleh's head of any significant arcane markers. He didn't want to start off the night carrying a tracking beacon. He took an efficient hour to trim the head of its prized parts and to wrap them, along with his hand, for later use.

With the body parts of the deceased slaver so packaged and prepared, with the ghost pouch and the ultrablack gauntlet obscured on his person, Jericho made his way to the rendezvous - Minaiki

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"We need to break up."

"Aw, and I thought we had something," said Matte facetiously, caroming back first off concussive explosion waves before coming down to his footing and veering off to the left, Levi jetting off in her own direction. "See you there!"

Matte needed only hear the Justice leader's remark before departing from prior mission objective and adopting one of self-preservation. Panels of ghostly light hardened here and there as the floating crystal behind him analyzed trajectories and glanced rounds this way and that.

Exercising a softer, but altogether more effective method now that Matte was off on his own, he cloaked himself in light and shifted the hues until he was little more than a grey blur zigging and zagging away. Acid not only splashed, but permeated some areas in a fine mist between Daemon and escape. The crystal orbiting him scanned an infrared light forward that, while invisible to the naked and arcane eye, illuminated acids for its perception and Matte's in turn. Once outside the radius of shots fired, where Jericho was still a distant figure in a lateral direction from Velleh's estate, when Matte had gained enough reprieve from attacks and booby-traps, the crystal hummed at him.

Sir, there's something I want to show you, she said, pressing against his temple and projecting the image of Velleh's (his corpse's at least) gruesome last moments. It is clear the tactics of Justice come under a different stripe than ours.

"I know," he muttered consciously, walking into an alleyway as the light cloak slipped from over him. Now he had space not only from the enemy, but from those to whom he here served friend. He hadn't seen the scene firsthand, but the crystal's projection of Jericho's display touched something... primal inside Matte. Something not evil, but that he couldn't decide was good either. Not the good he wanted.

"Just another reason always to be wary. How are those schematics?"

Coming smoothly sir. I believe I can have blueprints for a device to track the gauntlets in two days.

There was no exasperated sigh, just a hitching of the shirt in acknowledgment as he ditched the Velleh guard robes in an alley dumpster. Things like this took time, so slipping into a crowded street, Matte commanded the crystal to set a course for Minaiki.

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Minakai was a small town, bordering a hamlet, known for its tranquil atmosphere – and for being virtually impossible to find in the nearly unassailable Minaikimora forest; it is precisely the confusing paths and screens of thickly interwoven bushes and branches that allows the small population of only a few thousand achieve their almost legendary peace of mind.   

If one was an entity on the run from one of the most powerful economic forces in the greater Izral area, you could do better and you could do worse. The forest was hard to beat, but not impossible. In another, slummier, more hectic city like Luka'reccia or Kitashiobara, if an enemy made it through the perimeter defense they still had to make sense of the constant traffic to find you in the specific. In Minakai the population was small and inter-connected enough to make it a relatively easy feat. But Jericho chose Minakai for all the reasons that one wouldn't choose it; it was not the most practical choice; hence it was not the most easily predicted.

He came prepared, too. He'd been to Minakai before. His contact wasn't around, nor did he expect the witch with the wandering ware-shop to wait around for his convenience, but he was able to use the remnants of that relationship to broach a discussion with the lessor and secured a small space in another part of town for cash up front. He did this with altered features so that someone who came to Minakai looking for orange-haired, freckle-faced, on-the-run Jericho would find only brown-haired, clear-faced, aspiring businessman Ogden. A businessman who, on paper, had been around the city for months.   

The shopfront had a COMING SOON sign on the front that had been placed there on the first day nearly a half year ago, and had never once been removed. Instead one might, on occasion, see one or two men coming and going through the shop to access the living quarters on the second floor.

Ogden did just that, just now, taking the stairs two steps at a time with a paper bag of groceries under one arm. He let himself into the apartment and put water to boil on a pot, then went to the one of two bedrooms he didn't occupy himself. He tested the door. It opened, so he stepped in to address the man formerly known as Matte.

"We're here a few more days. Things are still plenty hot on the outside."

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Matte’s journey to Minakai was rougher. This man, more specifically this boy verging on several different horizons manhood, had only ever left Terrenus twice before. This benefitted Daemon in that he could more naturally be a follower to Jericho in so foreign an environment. While trained against being actually disarmed by the newness, he thanked Alterion that all the wonder in his eye, everywhere they went, was so impeccable because it was so real. However, in other ways his lack of knowledge on the area was a boon.

I was only able to find journalistic documentation of supposed routes to Minakai. It’s supposed to be very hard to find to foreigners, said the crystal to Matte hovering freely around him. As you requested, I’ve begun searching all news, media, and available print records for an artificer worth his salt in town.

Here, ‘alone’ as one could be on a public transport toward the nearest city to Minakai. Matte’s face already having been a disguise, he obviously had the means on him to produce yet another visage with which to dodge recognition by Velleh’s men who probed out into Izral. While it was true Velleh’s men had no idea where his assailants had gone, this was a merchant prince in regard not just some schmuck. The search was a madhunt.

Luckily, they had no idea what faces they were looking for anymore. Both Matte and Jericho had under their belts enough years in the industry to know one of the cardinal rules to escaping investigation: avoid visual confirmation. 

Matte was forced to use several rudimentary methods to reach Minakai, but by walking and riding donkey and climbing impasses, he had made the trek. Now two men resided in a flat together, waiting out the heat as it dispersed rapidly and voraciously from the fallen prince’s abode.

Sevens heard Ogden coming up the stairs. The keys jangling as he unlocked the particular door to their place, Sevens had a choice to make. Call the crystal back to his neck and dismiss the schematics projected all around him, or don’t. It wasn’t even that the schematics were about the gauntlets, one of which Jericho wore, but moreso that his repeated interaction with the crystal could too handily call to mind another individual out there in Valucre. So he called it back to his ear. When Ogden entered, Sevens was moving newly bought clothing from a store bag, removing the tags, and hanging it up. He didn’t fake surprise because he knew that Ogden knew the walls were thin.

“I figured,” he said matter-of-factly over his shoulder.

As Ogden went to arranging his purchases in the kitchen and Sevens exited his room folding the bag his clothing had been in, there was a knock at the door. Their eyes met and Sevens moved for the door immediately, knowing he couldn’t hesitate in case there was reason to observe such a thing from outside. His footsteps made noted sounds toward the door, eyes never breaking contact with Ogden as he placed his hand on the knob and twisted.

“Hi there, I’m a neighbor right at 208 and I noticed you two had just moved in recently,” said a nice seeming old lady. Sevens was a little put off by the fact that she couldn’t see Ogden around the corner and still said ‘two,’ but he couldn’t be sure she hadn’t seen him walking out at some point.

“Oh well, hi then!” said Sevens, never having expressed more surprise than one might when an unexpected knock comes. “It’s nice to meet you! I’m Jeremy Sevens.”

“So nice to meet you! I’m Hel’gorah. Anyway I don’t want to eat up your time but I had some extra, so I brought you some homemade bread!” Hel’gorah’s gnarled hand extended a loaf of bread wrapped in wax paper. Honestly it was fluffy, warm, and smelled delectable. “You have a nice day, and tell your roommate I say hello.”

Hel’gorah left, the door closed, and Sevens turned to face Ogden with a loaf of bread in his hand. His face was a little pale. With his free hand, he locked the deadbolt.

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Someone knocked at the door; their eyes met; Ogden's brow crinkled with concern. Sevens made his presence known, his footfalls evidence, as he approached the front door; Ogden padded against the floor with a practiced stealth capable of evoking jealousy in a stalking cat. Meanwhile Sevens engaged with a perfectly ordinary Minakai geriatric, Ogden was around the corner, behind the door, a slim mahogany wand tip pressed firmly against the wall where he estimated the woman stood.

One wrong move on her end, and he'd drill a lightning bolt through her cerebellum.

But the woman went away without incident. When the door closed no spec-ops team broke through their window or their roof and descended on them in a hailstorm of bullets and directed energy spells. They were just left to take deep breaths and to ponder what to do with the woman's gift.

Ogden shrugged.

"I know we aren't the best of buds or anything but by now you probably know my style: I'd say throw it out but if you want to take a nibble I'll be around to help out if you go into cardiac arrest or something."

Ogden walked back to the kitchen to prepare his own food. Today it was a family-size pot of ramen. He didn't cook for his roommate explicitly but often made more than he could eat in one sitting and didn't mind if Matte, or Sevens, availed himself of leftovers.

While the noodles boiled Jericho, that is Ogden, made his way into the kitchen and slumped across the sofa, resting on his back with one of his legs up on the sofa back.

"I'm getting tired of playing cards. You heard of anything to do around here other than go sightseeing?"

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“Well then I’ll try some”

Sevens grinned at the other’s jest as he cut himself a slice after removing a plate from the sparsely populated cabinet. Ogden’s humor was dry, just like he liked. He made the Jericho who bore down on a glowing gauntlet with tinges of something detestable in his eye easy to forget. Matte was aware that first impressions could mold people into entirely different beings than they initially appeared. His first contact having been the Velleh missive, this stakeout was becoming the refreshing majority of his impression of Jericho. He remembered the way he had brutally excised Velleh before his men- but Matte was of origins neither prim nor proper. The brutality excited him.

Sometimes in the blue night, though, Matte lay awake staring at the ceiling. His blinds open and the haunting glow covering his face, he wouldn’t blink. He couldn’t. He was literally paralyzed with something he told himself was readiness; something he wouldn’t let himself admit might be fear.

Embedded was the way Matte, and whatever Matte was, had spent most of the last decade. So many layers deep, he had nearly forgotten his own allegiance once. It took… pushing the envelope to open his eyes to the truth. So it was that his gaze never lingered, his tone never faltered. The fact there was no gauntlet to linger on made it easier, but Tori supplemented him regularly with imperceptible buzzes to the earlobe with updates.

Although they always dined together; although, through the medium of Sevens and Ogden, Matte had taken somewhat of a genuine liking to Jericho; the bright duality within Matte battled with how to approach this gauntlet. Was it accounted for? Somewhat. In good hands? He wondered every day. It wasn’t worth a fight; at least, not without a good reason. He decided that, as Sevens or Matte or whomever, he would probe forward.

"I'm getting tired of playing cards. You heard of anything to do around here other than go sightseeing?"

Pausing mid-shuffle with cards on the table, sitting cross-legged on the floor across from Ogden, Sevens looked up. There was a dark five o’clock shadow on his round face. Which was funny, considering Michael—er, Matte— couldn’t grow much of a beard. 

“Any clubs around here? I could use a drink to loosen up after all this time,” said Sevens. In the times when it was his turn to pick up groceries, he had seldom seen guards under Velleh’s stripe. He knew there must be somebody somewhere, some serious threat, but he had yet to catch the trail of anything serious in Minakai.

This, combined with the disguises and a matter to discuss with Ogden that might require some loosening up, made getting a drink seem like a pretty palpable decision to Sevens.

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"For me the question is, can we afford to get loose at all?"

Ogden posed this question as he peeled himself off the couch and shuffled into the kitchen; the noodles were done, soaked through with flavor from the broth, and he put another pot to boil for the soft-boiled eggs.

"We still haven't heard a thing from Harper."

Levi's nickname; they had received no communication whatsoever from the apprentice Justice operative since they parted ways on Velleh's estate amidst the exploding shells, gun fire, and sizzling spells. The worst case scenario saw the woman trapped and precious information pried out of the depths of her mind; Jericho wasn't concerned that she would be able to blow the lid off their whole organization or hierarchy, but at the very least she knew the location of the safe-house they currently occupied, and that was enough to make for restless nights.

Ogden returned to the living room with two bowls of noodles, one of which he placed on the table for Sevens, the other he took with him to the shoddy, patchwork recliner the apartment had been pre-furnished with.

Seeing that Sevens had yet to keel over from poisoned bread, Ogden cut himself a slice as well and took conservative nibbles of it between great helpings of the noodle dish.

"You're right though. We should probably blow off some steam. It'll keep us from getting antsy, and besides which if tonight is the night I go then I deserve nothing less than an expensive glass of bitter poison to make me feel all warm inside."

# # #

Minakai wasn't very large; less than six-thousand citizens and the town itself cloistered in the heart of an obnoxious forest. The club scene was not what one would call 'hot'; the people were too familiar with one another for the rampant alcoholism and awkward social discovery which made clubs a lure for the lonely.

Minakai only had one club and it would have to do.

Ogden turned to Sevens, sipping conservatively at his rice wine.

"You dance?"

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There was a part of Sevens that needed unwinding which in all likelihood did not exist in Ogden. The part that kept him awake at night, wondering what his flatmate was up to. What he dreamt about; if he was sleeping at all. A drink would let them blow off some steam, and if Sevens hadn't seen anything of Ogden's truer self in a while then maybe it would ease his mind to see a pseudo-slip of something real.

"She'll show," said Sevens as he took another bite of his lightly seasoned bread. He had lost many a comrade in his day, and it resolved in his lackadaisical demeanor in the face of Harper's absence. He struck right to the core of the utility vs. attachment argument as they sat at their singular venue later. "How long have you known her?"

Sevens swirled something dark in his liquid, whiskey or brandy. Music that was more subdued and tranquil than that of some of the hotter spots in Terrenus drifted in the background, some people swaying casually on a pleasantly lit area of tile.

"I do!" he said, perking up over the glass. "Ever heard of the dice roll?"

Then, a more serious expression appraised the potential for humor in this situation.

"Why? Are you.. are you asking me to dance?"

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Ogden's face screwed up in a combination of confusion and skepticism.

"I've heard of rolling dice, but usually on a craps table or in an alley. And I'm asking you about dancing because you wanted to go to a club and all we've done is sit in the corner and get drunk. Coulda done that at home. So yeah, sure, I'm asking."

Ogden downed the remainder of his wine, patted Sevens on the shoulder and then used him as a platform. He didn't drag his partner to the dance floor but strode to the middle of it himself, and meshed into the sparse crowd already there.

Ogden was either a good dancer or a bad dancer, and which side of the line he fell on depended on how you defined dance. He wasn't great at improvisation or spontaneous choreography so he wasn't the guy to break into a dance circle and dazzle everyone with his moves. But Jericho was as magician, and that meticulously honed mindset meant that he was good at ritual, at repetition, at decoding and abstracting somatic gestures.

During the first few minutes he was clearly the odd man out, but soon he was emulating the moves of the people around him, and then went from making carbon copies to combining and recombining the gestures in novel applications once the geometry of the native dance culture revealed itself to him.

Ogden drank throughout; sips of wine matched against mouthfuls of water, ever and constantly aware of the looming threat which hung over their heads and which could see his head detached from his shoulders in dramatically ironic revenge by Velleh's soldiers.

Edited by supernal

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"I've heard of rolling dice, but usually on a craps table or in an alley. And I'm asking you about dancing because you wanted to go to a club and all we've done is sit in the corner and get drunk. Coulda done that at home. So yeah, sure, I'm asking."

Sevens grinned at Ogden’s obliviousness. His idea of a dice roll in this context had nothing to do with actual dice. Furthermore, Jericho didn’t know how aware— how painfully aware— Matte was of the gauntlets and their potential. Getting out of their unit’s claustrophobic space, dancing or not, did wonders for Matte’s paranoia. He watched Ogden move for the dancefloor and assimilate himself in, finishing his current drink and ordering another before taking its full container to the floor with him, where he proceeded to show Ogden what he’d meant by ‘rolling the dice.’

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At first, his dancing only consisted of a sway of the shoulders. As the alcohol set in, the crowd and lights closed in, Ogden and Sevens lolled this way and lulled that with the beat. Light burst in bright pinks and greens against their faces, yellow microcosms dancing in the air between them. Matte closed his eyes and tilted his head back, willing his brains to slosh back in inebriation. More than peacocking, here he swallowed the despair that came with being adrift away from home.

Later that night, when boys and girls left arm in arm and lechers smoked alone, Ogden and Sevens walked down the alleyway home with the peculiarity of fresh air permeating their nostrils. Theirs was one of the solitary rivulets of people splitting off from the club. When they were well alone on a stretch of road with no houses nearby, no prying ears to hear an inside voice, Sevens cocked his head to the side.

“Hey, I’ve been wondering something.. Like something real, about the estate where this all began… How does it make you feel when you, you know—” Sevens made a slicing motion at his own neck with the pointer finger, “somebody.”

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Ogden walked with his hands shoved into his pockets, his eyes lowered to the ground, and his feet kicking at stray rocks whenever one had the audacity to stand out above the rest. He drank more than he intended and was happy when the club announced last call; the hardcore broke away to find another place to keep the party going, and the reasonable people, like Sevens and like himself, made their way home.

When Matte posed his question Ogden visibly slowed. Stopped. Brought his eyes from the ground to Matte, face lacking even a hint of offense or circumspection, but a pause followed nonetheless. Ogden, placing his hands first on his knees and then on the ground, lowered himself to a sitting position, and from there to a full recline. He brought his arms underneath his head for the cushion and faced up at the night sky. Passing inspection revealed that Ogden was not probing the stars. His eyes were closed; he did not look out, but in.

"It really, really, depends. Velleh felt good."

Jericho was not accustomed to offering glimpses into his psyche. He was not accustomed to widening the gap of his armor and admitting the existence of vulnerability, let alone giving someone a clear line of sight to it. But this was necessary. What he wanted was a team, and a team could not function as a unit without trust as a foundation, and he could not build trust without honesty and without exposure. It was not enough to have five fingers – Jericho needed a complete hand if he wanted to make a fist.

"No one was making a dent on that little shit-eater because everyone was trying to bring him down playing his game, by his rules. House always wins though. That's the whole point. That's why Velleh set himself up the way he did, and the other merchant-princes, and the cult-leaders and despots and all that. It's why they think the way they do. They operate outside of the social contract because they think that makes them better or smarter or faster.

"Well, two can play it that game. And so far I've been raking it in. So yeah, it feels good. One less fucking snake stalking the garden, right?"

Jericho opened his eyes; he stared not at the points of burning light but at the void between them.

"Not all of it's so clean though. I've been in a lot of 'me or you' kind of situations that I would have preferred the two of us walk away from. Those don't feel too good. I wish that . . . but what are wishes anyway, right? End of the day, I'm just doing the best I can. Sooner or later someone's going to do better than me. Hopefully they'll be on my side instead of across from me but, never know.

"How about you?"

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As the two undercovers slowed in their offshoot from the nightlife, Sevens propped his back against a brick wall across from Ogden in the alleyway. He was within the pale blue of the sun reflecting off the moon, Ogden within the stark black shade that slanted across Seven’s shins. Seven’s intentions had been to loosen Ogden up and perhaps understand the Jericho beneath, and for an honestly good purpose; but one of them betrayed the propensity to toss back maybe a couple too many reflected as conversation deepened into the subject of life and death.

“One less fucking snake stalking the garden, right?"

Although he couldn’t help but relish the thought of living a life like Jericho in his younger days— Michael was in present days consciously fighting to favor peace over death. He was looking for things to let somebody live for, not waiting for any reason to kill them. What he had seen in Jericho, whether true or born of suspicious impetus, was a preference to dispose of annoyances before dealing with them. At least, something on the other side of a certain line from where he stood.

When Jericho opened his eyes, it wasn’t in the beam of the drunken compadre’s eyes; it wasn’t the mysterious follower that Matte had been either; for an instant, Jericho might see in his gaze’s venture to the stars a peripheral journey to hell. A peripheral journey  into the boundless eyes of Terran Peacekeeper No. 5. But in the same instant, Michael blinked to Matte and then Matte blinked to Sevens.

"How about you?"

There was a pause as, for maybe that nstant the guise recomposed. Opportune or not, right there in that moderately secluded nighttime alleyway, a discrete but major exposure had just wrought itself upon the agents. Luckily, Tori could confirm for the moment that they had no intruders. Beneath Ogden and Sevens, and abruptly for Jericho beneath even himself and Matte, there might manifest a layer in Matte’s eyes that needed peeling way. Perhaps a bold claim that need be made. Jericho, Matte thought, was suitable enough to know of his broader mission; but just exactly as much as he must for now.

“I wish to save those who are willing to be saved,” he responded. There was only the briefest of pauses afterward to indicate that this meant anything different than Jericho had meant before Matte cut to the chase. “I know about the gauntlets. I’ve been looking for one of the owners for some time.”

Even in his slight inebriation, Michael anticipated the friction this revelation might carry. It came with spread hands and a quick follow-up.

“I knew right away that it wasn’t you,” he said, “but the owner of the other one killed my fiance in Casper.”

He said this last part with real-seeming zeal, summoning some of his own real, historic pain for a visual picture of sadness that materialized the imaginary death of Matte’s family. Matte’s pain shone in his eyes as a reflection of some genuine discontent Michael carried, always ready like a catch-all actors uses when they needed to cry on cue.

“I need to find the other one,” he said, clenching his fist and looking up with the stone face of a widowed lover.

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" . . . those who are willing to be saved."

Jericho laughed, clear and without poison. For a moment they spoke over one another.

"Yeah well I ain't talking about art thieves and crimes of passion. I ain't talking about people that don't hurt other people or that do, and then figure out a way to make it right. I'm talking about – "

" . . . for some time."

Jericho cut himself off, seeing no need to beat a dead horse; or a dead slaver, in this case. Velleh's empire, built on the backs of the enslaved and the dead, was a testament unto itself. Jericho knew that he and Matte were more on the same page than off, otherwise he wouldn't have found himself inside of the splinter cell responsible for taking a man's life, but in the aftermath of an irrevocable action taken, by the light of the new day, things could look different than they did the night before.  

But that didn't appear to be the meat of what Matte wanted to discuss. Maybe he had come for his own kind of vengeance, a two-birds-one-stone kind of deal; Jericho turned his gaze away from the sky and towards Matte, his breathing steady and uninterrupted, his body ready but relaxed.

" . . . my fiancé in Casper."

Matte bore his heart; a beat-up, scarred little thing missing some of its most important pieces. This was about a different vengeance, but Jericho wasn't the one in the crosshairs.

"I'm sorry to hear that. I hope you can get a little justice for her one day, whatever that may look like."

". . . find the other one."

With a grunt of effort that seemed more like comforting illusion than any real indication of his fitness, Jericho sat up and leapt to his feet. He held a hand out to Matte; a corona from a distant lamp, a spread of a starry sky, and the light of a partial moon served to both color and shadow him.

"You're a sneaky fucker. It 'just so happens'," He put quotes around his words without the use of his hands. "That I organized someone to drop off a packet of telemetric information using the gauntlet we have to find the gauntlet we don't, and sent it off to the military. Maybe you can ask them for a hand, or . . . ?"  

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