The full moon allowed a clearer picture of what had transpired. Bodies lay around the area, along with a whole lot of spent bullet casings, but there was no sign of the half-troll anywhere. There were grunts, animalistic and guttural, coming from the train station. The warm summer’s night air tickled their skin even as it carried with it the carrion stench of death.
“So, question is,” Jarred started, “where did the raiders take Modok?”
The group were silent for a contemplative moment.
“Hey Dave,” Jessica asked, “You control the ground. Can't you get it to tell you where they went?”
“I've never done it before, but I could give it a try.” He immediately began to meditate. Nothing happened at first. After a few impatient moments, his eyelids twitched and when he opened his eyes, for a second they were completely russet: whites, irises and pupils. They faded back to normal and he staggered. Jarred and Jess were there to catch him, but the disorientation passed after a few moments.
“They went to the park,” David said.
“Yeah, Roma Street. That's the one. Rachel went there before coming to us, didn't she?”
“Yeah. But it’s got raiders. And monsters.”
“Like Goblins?” David asked. “Flesh-eating plants? Elementals?”
“Yep, all sorts of lovely little face-eating things.”
“Perfectly healthy to fear stuff,” David said. “As long as it's rational.”
“And not stuff like the government listening in on your thoughts,” Jarred said with a cheeky grin.
“Hey, Lizardmen are real,” Jess cut in. “And they prefer Lizardfolk.”
“What, did your conspiracy-theorist uncle tell you that?” Jarred asked, sarcastically.
“Yes, he did. Said he saw one come out of the river that runs through his back yard. Was looking to steal his moonshine.”
“Yeah,” Jarred drawled. “I believe that.”
David had recovered by that point, but appreciated a hand getting up. The trio walked toward the park in silence until they reached the park’s peninsula-like Spring Hill corner. To the left, roughly west and down the hill, was the tour guide centre and café, the most likely place to hold a creature that would turn to stone during the day. Or at least they assumed Modok would, come sunrise. Then again, Modok was only half-troll, so he might not petrify at all. If that was so, he could be held anywhere. And the parkland was big.
Before the war, it was beautiful. A café, the roof reminiscent of Scandinavian epic verse about warriors and mead halls, overlooked an oval with a waterfall. Behind the waterfall was a maze-like garden with steps to the upper parkland, where there was an amphitheatre. Cutting through the middle of the lower gardens was an artificial lake.
Now it was home to raiders and their dirt racing tracks.
They could hear hooning. That element hadn’t changed with the end of the prior society. If anything it had grown in the years since the ruin. They crept close enough to see the lawn down the hill and past the wooden stairs.
Guys who thought themselves pretty sick hooned around on dirt bikes or in death-match fitted HoldensNissans. Dust choked the air above what was once a lush lawn in front of a waterfall, now a dirt track for raiders. The roar of engines mixed with alcohol-fuelled cheering. Bonfires lit the area up in splashes against the night. Drum and bass roared out over the whole scene, repeating almost no variation on the typical messages of rampant sex and bling-display that were popular just before the war.
“Nothing beats the classical era,” Jarred said with venomous sarcasm.
“What’s the plan, then?” Jessica asked.
“You’re going to sneak in and get the troll out.”
Jessica shot Jarred a contemptuous look. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“I figured you were the best stealth expert,” Jarred said. “You know more than me about all that sneaky sniper stuff. So you’re the best choice. But in case things go pear-shaped I have a surprise for you.”
Jarred fished inside one of his numerous pockets and produced a plain, silver ring. He showed it to Jessica.
“Oh dahling, you make me the happiest girl in the world!” she said, clasping her hands to her chest. “But seriously: what’s this?”
“Put it on and you’ll see. Or rather, you’ll see, but we won’t.”
“It’s an invisibility ring,” Jarred said.
“Looks pretty visible to me.”
“It’s voice-activated. Say ‘orior’ to become visible, ‘econtra orior’ to do the opposite—to go invisible.”
She looked puzzled, but put it on and said “Econtra orior”. And vanished.
“I just felt a chill go through me!” her disembodied voice declared.
“You know it works because of the chill. We know it works because we can’t see you at all.”
“So I’m completely invisible,” Jessica mused. “I can do whatever I want!”
“Not exactly. You still make noise, and people can still work out that you’re there from signs of your passage. But otherwise, you’re completely invisible to the naked eye.”
“Can cameras see me?”
“Standard ones can’t. It also masks your body’s heat signature, so infrared cameras can’t either. I don’t know about other sorts. And the longer you wear it, the colder you get.”
“I could still get up to a lot of fun with this,” Jessica’s voice said.
“It’s a loan,” Jarred replied. “Don’t do anything stupid with it.”
Jarred couldn’t see it, but he was one-hundred percent certain Jess was pouting at all the mischief she wasn’t allowed to do—and wouldn’t, so long as she obeyed his orders.
“Rendezvous here in half an hour,” Jarred said. “Now go rescue that troll.”
The cafe was an open-air design, reminiscent of Scandinavian architecture with white pillars, mahogany beams, and triangular shapes in the roof, with fold-away doors on three sides. The northern face overlooked the oval and waterfall, while the west looked at the road which cut between the oval and the apartment buildings—buildings than any number of snipers might be positioned in. Jessica however was interested in the eastern side facing the min-cliff, above which was the Spring Hill corner. It was the stairs down from there that she carefully moved down.
Jessica froze when she saw the guards. Even though they couldn’t see her—the ring was still making her feel cold all over—she froze anyway. It was just instinctual, her sniper’s awareness of line-of-sight and concealment coming as naturally as breathing.
Guards could be problematic. Even invisible, she had to be careful not to give away any sign of her passage. She had to be a ghost. That was why she only placed her feet on ground that wouldn’t leave footprints. Not a mark. She also couldn’t make a sound, though the raider party was probably loud enough to mask any she made. It took longer, but it meant she could sneak right past the guard watching the area on the eastern side of the cafe. She noted that he was facing out, watching for threats from outside. There was nobody watching the troll himself, however.
Modok lay on a couple of restaurant tables pushed together, heavy chains around each wrist. His chest rose and fell with each breath, the snorting sound of a troll loud in the night—though the sounds of the raiders revelling took centre stage of the soundscape.
“Don’t move,” Jessica whispered in Modok’s ear. He started, snorted, but it didn’t draw the guard’s attention. “I’m here to free you.” Modok to his credit said nothing. Jessica moved away, ghosted up behind the right-side raider guard and silently slit his throat with her combat knife. She then repeated the process on the raider guarding the western side.
The remaining raider on the northern side turned around. Before he could do anything more than turn, her knife flew into his face. She darted up to him, ripped it free and slashed his throat. Heart racing, Jessica gave herself a moment to calm her nerves, and get back to the job.
She went to work on the ropes with all of the stealth she’d been trained with. There was only the faintest hint of a clink as the ropes finally fell free, and Jessica gently lowered them to hang from the pillars. Within ten minutes Modok was free and rubbing at sore wrists.
“Who-” Modok started to say, until a finger pressed against the half-troll’s lips.
“Don’t speak. Walk as quietly as you can. I’ll guide you.”
She grabbed his arm and he turned invisible. Together they snuck out of the cafe to their waiting comrades.
Jarred and David had found a spot to hide in the body-height shrubbery above the small cliff. They had been still and silent for the last fifteen minutes. Jarred was no stranger to being patient, though this was testing it, and time spent waiting was time he wasn’t getting back. David, on the other hand, was fidgeting.
“It’s taking a while,” David whispered.
“She’s gotta be stealthy,” Jarred replied. “You can’t rush stealth.”
“I’m getting worried.”
At that moment Modok appeared, and the three of them instantly looked more alive. But they didn’t see Jessica with him.
“Tesla Squad rescue Modok,” the half-troll ascertained. “Much thanks. Modok not like stupid raiders.”
“You’re welcome,” David said.
“Jess?” Jarred ventured.
“Oh, right,” Jessica’s voice exclaimed, right before she appeared beside Modok. “That feels better.”
“Shooty girl rescue Modok,” Modok said. “Modok in shooty girl’s debt.”
“It was nothing,” Jessica said. “Just another everyday mission to rescue a troll from some raiders. And the best part is they probably don’t even know you’re gone!”
That was when the sound of footsteps came pouring up the steps, voices shouting in the night. Jarred led the group to the entrance.
Where twenty more raiders had it covered, guns at the ready.
They were surrounded.
“Shit,” Jarred said.