Chapter 1Mature

The Element War was a five year war that decimated cities and burnt digital technology. It started when Rifts opened up, seeping strange energy simply called Magic. In Brisbane, Jarred is the leader of a quasi-mercenary group with super powers, looking for their next job.

Tonight it would rain bullets.

Leaning against the railing of the third-floor hotel room, Jarred looked at the storm clouds building on the horizon, over a Brisbane turned to a war zone, and wondered if his group of problem solvers could get a job in before the storm hit. The day was still muggy, the humid before the summer storm, so it was possible. He felt electricity swell in his veins. Hopefully David had something easy for them.

His dark green eyes looked up to the filthy balcony above him, then down to a broom in the corner. This was the first bit of free time in a week. He really, really didn’t feel like cleaning.

In the living room, plaster was falling off the walls and the coffee table was missing a leg and had to be propped up with paint tins. Tiles above the kitchen bench were cracked or missing. Dishes stood in piles. They were out of dishwashing liquid. The bathroom was much the same story. The bed sheets had holes. The pantry situation was non-negotiable. Tesla Squad also had to eat this month.

And, they were out of booze.

Jarred sighed. Money would help a lot of things.

He stepped inside the apartment and slid the glass door closed behind him. In the lounge room, Jess had her sniper rifle spread out on the coffee table, parts laid out in order on top of a drop sheet. Strands of her black hair fell over her cobalt eyes. When she finished cleaning she paused, pushed the hair back, then began reassembling the rifle. At the dining table, David played with his knife, as well as strands of his loose, rockstar-like black hair.

There was a knock at the door and Jarred rushed over to answer it, first peering through the eye-hole—courtesy of Jess’ sidearm—to see Kale there with a manila folder. A job! Jarred opened the door and let the guest—and also his superior—into the apartment.

“Okay, I’ve got you something,” Kale said as he moved to the dining table. Jess got up from the couch and came over. “A little bit of pest control. In the mall. Well, not in it, so much as sticking out from it.”

Jarred raised an eyebrow. Kale placed the folder down and opened it to the first of several photos, pointed at a bar-and-grill underneath a large, curved corner-sign for the cinema at the top of the Myer Centre mall on Queen Street. Goblins were moving about there, setting something up. It was hard to tell exactly what, though.

“Recon?” Jarred asked.

“Exactly. These were taken a bit over an hour ago by Kevin. Your job is to see what’s going on now, and ascertain whether it’s a problem for us. Pay will be a grand, hard. Well, good hunting.” With that, Kale exited and Jarred went over the mission brief again.

“Right,” Jarred said. “The three of us are going. I’ve got a feeling we’ll need Sarah. So split four ways, that’s two-n-fifty apiece for a response job. It’s not much, but I hear goblin ears are up ten percent on last month. They give us trouble, we get a bonus. God I hope they give us trouble—I haven’t had a proper meal in weeks.”

The trio locked up the apartment’s windows and doors and headed to the lifts. At the bottom floor they detoured from the lobby and into the staff-only portion of the floor, to the first aid room where Sarah stayed during her shift.

Jarred knocked softly. Sarah startled, looking up from her work on an injured man’s leg—Kevin. Jarred and Kevin waved to each other.

“That should do you for the day,” Sarah said to Kevin. “Still, you should stay here for the day to fully recover—I can only do so much at a time.”

“Got it,” Kevin said.

“So,” Sarah said to Jarred and his group. “What are you hunting?”

“Goblins,” Jarred said. “Mall.”

“You stopping by to say you love me?”

“Stopping to ask if you’re with us,” Jarred said. He felt a pinch in his back. “Ow! And, we love you.”

“I’ll get my stuff,” Sarah said with a smile. She rose, pendants around her neck jangling, and turned to her bookshelf, on top of which were a sporting bow and a rapier.

“Rapier, bow… rapier, bow…” she muttered. In the end she took both. She tied some loose bits of her golden hair back and the four collectively moved to staff locker room, where Tesla Squad kept their armour. They fastened their armour about themselves and were out the door onto the war zone that was Brisbane city. 

The walk would have been short, barely three blocks in a straight line to the Myer Centre part of the mall, if not for the obstacles in the way. They instead picked their way around fallen trees, patches of debris and rubble. They skirted potholes, avoided impact craters with filthy stagnant water, stayed away from corpses and their rotten flesh. They went up one building’s stairs, jumped across the gap to the next and then down that building’s. They wove between cars and trucks frozen in peak-hour congestion, none of them ever to see their destinations again.

Tesla Squad continued until they came to the intersection of Queen and Albert Streets, and the entrance to the Myer Centre. Dead escalators, positioned diagonally underneath a bar-and-grill, led up into the shopping centre. A large section of floor, which supported some of the glass panels, had fallen down so that the line of sight to the escalators was much less obscured.

In the middle of the street was a five-car crash, which Tesla Squad used as cover; Jess and David on the right, Jarred and Sarah on the left. Squeals rose up from the dining area and there—bound, gagged and strung up from the roof—was a teenage girl. Around her, ten crooked-featured goblins dressed in leather and spikes were engaged in placing red candles on the ground in a semicircle around her and a bowl underneath her.

The four took cover behind the cars, pressed up against weather-beaten metal bodies.

“Let’s see what we’ve got,” Jarred whispered, and rose up slowly to peek over the top of the car.

One of the goblins, an old-looking one with a crystal-studded tree branch in his hands, touched the tip of the branch to the first of the candles and a flame sprang to life. One by one the other goblins began to take up a chant.

“Oh crap,” David said. “Is that the chanting they do before the ritual sacrifice?”

Jarred put his assault rifle up to his shoulder. “Not if I have anything to say about it.” He steadied himself, took aim down the sights at the old goblin, and fired. The shot rang out, silencing the goblins as the target suddenly seized up, a green hole in the middle of its forehead, before slumping to the ground. The staff clattered to the ground. For a stunned moment the goblins stared at their fallen comrade, his green blood pooling on the floor.

Then they all started screaming at once. Several tipped tables over, creating makeshift cover behind the clear glass wall on the street side, some of which was cracked or gone entirely from bullet fire. From there they began flinging cutlery and other improvised weapons at Tesla Squad.

Jarred leapt down from the car bonnet as the goblins returned fire.

“I think you pissed them off!” David shouted, before returning fire.

“No shit!” Jarred said. More cutlery whistled past their ears. Jarred opened fire, a few bursts of semi-automatic fire, before ducking for cover again. He killed one goblin; two down, eight to go. Jess shot a goblin and scored a headshot. She reset and fired again, making sure not to hit the girl. This time she hit a goblin in the shoulder, and the monster twisted around before falling over.

Two goblins were crouched behind the glass panels.

“The glass!” Jarred said to David. David’s shotgun sprayed lead into the glass panels, which distracted the goblins and made them jump back in surprise. Jarred and Jessica shot the two goblins as they moved, and those went down too. The rest of the goblins hurled some cutlery at Tesla Squad and ran.

Jarred took deep, steadying breaths to calm his nerves. He was about to say something sharp as he reloaded, when a ringing bell signalled the arrival of a troll riding a little pink bicycle, with a pair of Uzis at his side and a pair of black metal handles protruding from behind his shoulders. Jarred’s eyes widened in surprise.

“I Modok, ruler of Rocksmasher clan!” the troll roared. “I eat you now!”

The troll—it looked half-man—kicked the escalator. Nothing happened. He kicked it again. Still nothing. Frustrated, he picked up the bike and then hurled it down the escalators at Tesla Squad, who ducked despite it only hitting the opposite side of the cars and coming to a crashing, ringing stop.

Then the half-troll took out both Uzis and opened fire, the bullets thumping into the car bodies.

“MOVE!” Jarred roared, and threw himself flat against the ground as metal chewed up metal and glass and pounded into the seats of the cars. The others spread out, Sarah going behind cover of a pillar holding up the building on the left, currently frozen in-between businesses. She leaned out the other side of the pillar and fired two arrowsbefore ducking back behind cover. If she hit or if the shots affected the troll, Jarred couldn’t tell.

David and Jess ran into the newsagent on the other side of the street, below a fancy hotel and restaurant. Modok rained fire into the newsagent after the two. The bullets deflected off a blue shimmer of energy, but that only enraged Modok, as he concentrated all his firepower on taking down the shield.

Which gave Jarred ample opportunity to attack. He unloaded the rest of the rifle’s mag at the troll, the bullets thumping into flesh and spitting bloody dark sprays from the monster’s chest.

Modok’s guns clicked empty. He threw them down and drew a pair of curved black swords, like you’d fight zombies with, from his back. With a roar he raced down the escalator.

Sarah fired four more shots, and all four of them didn’t slow the troll in the slightest. David and Jessica fired into him as well, and only Jess’ large-calibre rounds made any difference. Still he advanced.

Bullets weren’t working. Jarred figured it was time to try Plan B. Electricity tingled in his veins. He dropped his empty gun and leaped up onto the bonnet of the car. “Oi, troll-face!” he yelled. “Eat lightning!”

Jarred thrust both hands towards the troll and both of them spat electricity with a loud sizzle and a kick. Lightning bolts arced out at the troll and connected, sending him flying backwards trailing little red bits. The troll thumped against the escalator, wheezed, and coughed up blood.

Jarred leapt down from the car and picked up his assault rifle. His head felt a bit woozy; he’d used more power than he meant to, and it cost him.

The troll appeared to be dead. It wasn’t moving, at any rate. The others came over to investigate.

“Think he’s dead?” David asked.

Jess poked at the body with the arrow-like end of her sniper rifle. “Yeah, pretty dead.”

Jarred turned to the girl and produced a knife. Understandably, her eyes widened, she made sounds around the gag, and struggled.

“Hey!” Jarred said. He realised he was holding a knife towards a girl tied up and defenceless, and lowered it. “Hey, please calm down for a bit. I need you to remain still while I cut you down. Can you do that?” The girl, eyes wide and fearful, nodded. Jarred moved closer and took one of the ropes in his left hand, and with his knife-hand carved through the bonds in a few deft slices. The girl’s arm fell to her side and he did the same to the other arm. He caught her, but had to let go when she struggled against him.

The girl spun around and found somewhere to go throw up. Jarred took a seat. The girl turned back to him, wiping sick off her mouth.

“Not that I’m ungrateful or anything,” she said, voice hoarse, “but why’d you save me?”

Jarred opened his mouth. Then closed it. He figured he should pick his words carefully. “Well,” he said, “I guess because I’m just a nice guy who can’t stand seeing a girl in trouble or resist the need to rescue her.”

“That’s it?” she asked, doubt clear in her eyes. “No other reason?”

“No other reason,” Jarred said. “You’re free to go do as you please.”

Suspicion written on her face, the girl hunted around for something. She found it—a black Sanctum travel bag, the letters in red capitals and the ‘A’ a circle inside a triangle, the symbol of a round door in a mountain—and made to leave. Something stopped her. She turned back to Jarred and the rest, who were busy easing the goblins’ passing with their knives and collecting their ears.

“You saved my life, so I feel I owe you. But…”

“…But…?” Jarred echoed.

“Well, actually… I don’t have anywhere to go. So… um… could I maybe tag along with you guys for a bit?”

“Huh,” Jarred said. “Well, alright I guess. But you gotta earn your way. We don’t take in freeloaders.”

“You got it.” She stuck out her hand, coated in a fingerless glove. “Name’s Rachel.”

“Jarred.” Jarred pointed to Sarah, David and Jess and introduced each in turn. “They call us Tesla Squad. Welcome to Neo-Brisbane.”

The End

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