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“I win,” Ryan said, resting on the flower garden in the outer wall’s shadow.

“Again?” Geist complained, the ghost overseeing the game with a doubtful expression. Apparently, his phantom skull of a face could squint. “It’s impossible. How can I keep losing?”

Well, it was hard to catch someone capable of stopping time.

In the end, the trip to Bliss island had been a disappointment. Every time Ryan tried to ‘visit’ a restricted area beyond the walls and the gardens, armored guards or Geist kindly asked him to turn back. Though he memorized the patrols and turrets’ locations, the courier didn’t see any way to get inside the facility without starting a fight and ending the current run.

Eventually, he just settled into playing games with Geist in the plant garden outside the fortress, waiting for Vulcan and the others to finish their business. The ghost had happily played along, though he wasn’t very good. Ryan had the feeling the suicidal specter appreciated having some company.

“I really need a job as a drug cook,” Ryan told Geist. “Can’t you haunt Cardinal Creep until he gives in?”

“There’s only one cook, and it’s Ceres,” Geist shrugged. “The rest of the facility supports her work, and nothing else.”

Ryan figured as much. Narcinia’s power made it easy for her to create new plants to harvest as raw material. Even this entire garden, capable of thriving in a toxic island, was probably her work. “So if she retires, no more Bliss?”

“Sort of,” Geist replied. “Father Torque has enough flower strains to continue the work even if she’s gone, though the quality will take a hit.”

“You shouldn’t say that out loud.” Ryan didn’t even move an inch, as Mortimer leaned over his shoulder, having phased out of the ground. “Walls have ears.”

“Do you want to play?” the courier casually asked the bodyguard. “It’s funnier when there are three players, and the guards are humorless killjoys.”

“You are no fun, no fun at all,” the hitman said, disappointed that he couldn’t startle Ryan no matter how hard he tried.

“Shouldn’t you be inside?” Geist asked, telekinetically crafting a chair out of nearby stones and dirt.

“Sparrow asked me to check on him,” Mortimer said, glancing at Ryan while sitting on the makeshift chair. “She was worried he might start a forest fire or something.”

“That’s demeaning,” Ryan said. “Sometimes I settle for nuclear winters.”

“They make me want to glow in the dark,” the hitman replied, looking at the game. “What are you playing?”

Ryan showed Mortimer bird talus bones. The hitman glanced at the bones, then at Casper the Ghost. “Knucklebones, really?”

“It’s to stick with the ghost theme,” the courier replied. “Want to play? It’s an old variant, a pure game of luck.”

Mortimer shrugged and grabbed some of the bones. “We should play cards next,” he said.

“Or use a Ouija board,” Ryan suggested, glancing at Casper. “Should be easy.”

“How does it even work?” Mortimer asked Geist, as he threw the bones with the force of his mind. “You need to settle some unfinished business before moving on?”

“Bite me,” Casper the Ghost explained. “I drank a Yellow Elixir on Last Easter, but it didn’t come with a manual. Hell, I thought I didn’t get any power until Mechron’s nanoplague turned my body to dust. I got the briefest glimpse of an afterlife, and then I was yanked back to that dumpster and bound to my mortal remains.”

“And you can’t leave the island?” Mortimer asked, throwing his bones on the ground. “Mortimer likes haunted houses. I could bury you in my garden.”

“I can’t go far, no,” Geist lamented. “My remains are all over the place now, so good luck putting it back together. Even Cancel only goes as far as preventing me from manifesting, and Pluto's power needs someone to be alive in the first place.”

If you asked Ryan, besides that geographic limitation, Casper had hit the jackpot as far as Yellow Elixirs went. Unlimited ectoplasmic powers plus immortality? That was a life to die for! Ryan laughed at his own mental joke, much to the others’ confusion.

“Frankly, I’m just a groundskeeper cleaning up the place, waiting for the end,” Geist said before throwing more bones on the ground. It would explain his casual attitude about the crime family’s secrets, especially if they couldn’t kill him permanently. “Father Torque says he’s close to achieving Heaven though.”

“Poor Mortimer sent many people there,” the hitman said. “And to the place below too.”

“I haven’t reached any of those places, and I tried a lot,” Ryan said, winning another Knucklebones round, and fairly this time.

“Father Torque saw God when he took his Elixir,” Geist said, and he sounded like he believed it too. “He thinks a powerful psychotropic like Bliss could replicate the effect and allow him to receive a divine revelation. Not sure if it will work, but a ghost can always hope.”

“I hope Ceres can solve all the long-term health problems before he overdoses on Bliss though,” Ryan said. “Especially the sterility thing. Though I guess it won’t matter much to a priest.”

“Sterility?” Geist asked, a bit surprised.

“I know health safety isn’t high among your priorities, but trust me, don’t get high on your own product.” Ryan had studied all drugs in-depth... for research purposes only. “Among other side-effects, Bliss acts as a long-term endocrine disruptor, working on a genetic level. Genomes aren’t affected much due to their enhanced metabolism, but everyone else more or less becomes sterile after one year.”

“Oh, that?” Mortimer shrugged. “I heard the rumor, but if you ask Poor Ol’ Mortimer, it’s just Dynamis propaganda. They can’t make a better product so they denigrate ours.”

Ryan looked at the hitman, squinted, and then stopped time.

When it resumed, the courier had grabbed Mortimer’s mask and looked beneath.

His true face looked a lot like Laurence Fishburne's. Same receding hairline, same soft features, same Morpheus glare.

“Hey, my secret identity!” Mortimer complained while grabbing back his skull mask.

“You aren’t even old!” Ryan complained, extremely disappointed. He must have been in his early forties at worst! “You’re thirty years early to be such a downer!”

“Poor Mortimer is old inside,” the hitman replied, putting back the mask. “He’s an old soul!”

More like an emo teen's soul in an adult’s body.

Before Ryan could mock the hitman further, his phone rang inside his coat. The courier grabbed it but didn’t recognize the number. “Quicksave Deliveries, what can I do for you?” he asked while taking the call.

“Riri?”

“Shortie?” Wait, Len had a phone?

“Is that your goomah?” Mortimer asked mockingly, still sore about the mask part. “Vulcan won’t be happy about that.”

Ryan threw the bones at Mortimer’s face while walking away, and they bounced off the cackling hitman’s mask. Maybe his intangibility only worked through inorganic matter.

“I couldn’t contact you on the Chronoradio,” Len said. Her voice was tense, alarmed, and Ryan could hear the children talking in the background. “You are on Ischia Island?”

“The only habitable part of it,” he replied, leaning against the outer wall. “You know Vulcan can probably record our conversations? Everything you say will be held against you before in a court of law.”

“I couldn’t wait,” she said, clearly in no mood for jokes, “My radars picked tremors coming from Rust Town, and multiple flying objects moving towards Ischia Island.”

Oh? Were the Meta climbing out of their hole? Ryan wasn’t sure if this was good or bad news.

Before he could ask for details, someone else called him; once again, the courier didn’t recognize the number.

“Excuse me, Shortie, I will be back in a minute,” Ryan said, before switching calls. “Quicksave Deliveries, what can I do for you? Pay for four explosions, and the fifth one is free!”

“You owe me a suit, Romano.”

Blackthorn.

“I hope you appreciate, that everything-”

“-everything that happens now, will be on your head,” Ryan said at the same time as his caller.

“You think this is-”

“-a game?” Ryan said at the same time, their words matching with perfect synchronicity. Enrique Manada fell silent on the other side of the line; the courier briefly wondered if he had been vexed. “I’m sorry, but after a while, you’ve heard them all. You should stick to gardening, Poison Rosy.”

“I see this isn’t your first rodeo, Romano, but this will be your last.”

“I’m not sure if you use a marketing department for your speeches, but I would fire them if I were you.” Though Ryan was flattered to have earned himself an archenemy. “Have you called to exchange threats? Perhaps challenge me to a duel to restore your lost honor?”

“Nothing so old-fashioned,” the corporate mastermind replied, considering his next words. “In truth, I wanted to thank you. You succeeded where I failed for years.”

That was a new one. “Looking fabulous?”

“You people mistake pragmatism for weakness,” Enrique said, ignoring Ryan’s jab. “You think that because we let you be for so long, that we are prey. You’re wrong. We simply know that war is bad for business. War has no winners, only different shades of losers.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“My father is a pragmatic man,” Enrique explained. “He believes we can have a ‘detente’ with your boss, but my brother and I know better. You Augusti aren’t a state or corporation we can coexist with. You are feudal warlords who only understand strength. And after you dared to attack our HQ, Don Hector finally decided to speak your language. Consider what’s about to follow… a friendly reminder not to overstep again.”

Well, that was ominous. “Is this about the suit? Or revenge for the public humiliation?”

“No, Romano, this goes beyond that.” Blackthorn’s composure broke slightly, and his true feelings poured through the corporate mask. “We have struggled for years to rebuild a functioning society. Now we are at a crossroads, with two visions facing off. The one that prevails will dictate what new world emerges from the Earth’s ashes... and I cannot, in good conscience, let Augustus become humanity’s future.”

To be honest, he had a point... at least in theory. “Take a look at Rust Town,” Ryan replied, completely unimpressed. “See where your high-minded words meet reality.”

“We don’t always succeed at improving things, I will concede it, but the difference between my organization and yours is that at least we try.” Another short pause. “Have you heard of Giorgio Rosa, Romano?”

Giorgio Rosa, Giorgio Rosa… the Republic of Rose Island? “That crazy guy who built an oil platform in the middle sea and called it an independent nation?”

“You are a man of culture,” Enrique said, his tone switching from icy to extremely pleased. “I assume you also remember what happened to his rogue island?”

Ryan frowned, before looking at the sea. Black spots appeared in the skies, flying under the sun towards the island. “It was sunk by the Italian government?”

Blackthorn hung up on him.

Ryan switched back to Len. “Riri? What’s happening?”

“Say whatever you want about Dynamis,” Ryan said, a strident alarm echoing across Ischia Island as the spots started taking shape. “They aren’t all bark.”

Thirty war helicopters were making their way towards the Bliss production facility, moving in three groups of ten. Ryan recognized the model as customized NH90s, optimized for troop transports and naval warfare. They probably transported three hundred soldiers, perhaps more.

“That’s a lot of mooks,” Ryan observed. It reminded him of the Rust Town raid, except he was on the receiving end this time.

“I’m coming,” Len said, before abruptly ending the call.

Ryan slowly put the cellphone back in its pocket, while Geist looked up at the skies. Besides the helicopters, a few Genomes followed the assault team by flight. Besides the usual suspect Wyvern, who hadn’t transformed yet, Ryan noticed a man wearing a fabulous hawk-like costume made of crimson and green feathers; the very winds seemed to carry him above the ground, with a small tornado forming around his waist. A red-skinned, muscled amazon followed, unleashing streams of flames from her feet to propel herself up. A devilish tail grew out of her pants, and two curved horns from her long black hair. Her skin-tight, suggestive leather suit reminded Ryan of a biker advertisement.

“Well, well,” Mortimer said, rising from his chair, bringing out a rifle hidden beneath his cloak, “that ain’t good at all. And Windsweep’s back in town!”

“Devilry too,” Casper said, looking at the red-skinned woman. Windsweep was the template of the Tempest Knockoff Elixirs, and Devilry had inspired the pyrokinetic Firebrand type. Dynamis had summoned Il Migliore’s elite team.

Maybe they brought Felix the Cat too?

The guards protecting the island’s walls had immediately raised their weapons, while the turrets around the fortress turned towards the helicopters. Instead of powering through and starting a fight immediately, Dynamis’ troops stopped at a respectable distance, waiting for a signal before opening fire.

Wyvern moved at the army’s vanguard, carrying a megaphone; out of everyone present, she looked the happiest. Knowing the heroine, she must have been waiting for a pretext to attack the island for a long time.

“Quicksave!” Wyvern spoke through the megaphone, her voice echoing across the skies. “Jasmine! You are under arrest for staging a terrorist attack against Dynamis’ labs! Both of you, step outside, hands behind the head!”

So what, they could let Vulcan trying to murder Ryan in a past loop slide, but not the theft of a suit? Then again, it was cashmere.

Most probably, it was the public nature of the heist that pissed off Dynamis. An attempted murder off-cameras could be swept under the rug, but a public affront had to be met with a harsh response to save face.

“Fuck off, Laura!” Vulcan’s furious voice echoed from the fortress, carried by loudspeakers. She must have noticed the incoming army on her radars long before it showed up. “I’m barely keeping my thumb from the trigger right now!”

“If you both come without resisting, you shall remain unharmed and we will leave this island peacefully,” Wyvern said, her gaze focusing on Ryan. “Otherwise...”

She left the sentence hanging, all the defensive turrets pointed at her.

“Can I pay you to look the other way?” Ryan asked, raising euro bills like a white flag.

“You are fighting for the wrong side, Quicksave,” Wyvern replied, completely unfazed by his taunts. “But suit yourself. I’ve daydreamed about wrecking that death factory for over two years.”

“I would like to see you yuppies try,” Mortimer added, the walls trembling while Geist’s skull face transformed into a ghastly vision of hell. “Mortimer has been itching for blood lately, and he wonders if you bleed red or green.”

“I will say it again, Laura,” Vulcan’s voice echoed through the loudspeakers, a turret firing a warning shot into the sea. “Fuck. Off!”

“I’m sorry,” Ryan said regretfully, straightening his coat. “But giving you back that suit would be a legit war crime.”

“I will take this as a no,” Wyvern said, more pleased than anything. “Good. I no longer have to hold back.”

The heroine quickly tossed the megaphone into the sea and started changing shape, growing into an enormous dragon.

“To be honest,” the mighty beast roared, her powerful voice carrying across the island. “I have never done a drug bust this big before!”

As both the turrets and helicopters opened fire at each other, Ryan stopped time, moved back to Mortimer’s chair, and turned it to face the sea. The courier sat, put his hands behind his hair, and let time resume to watch the fireworks.

Shroud had wanted this island wrecked.

And Ryan always delivered.

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Void Herald

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending all his time writing tales and forbidden scrolls.

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