Chapter 117:

Chapter 117 - Bureaucratic Barrier


Per CJ’s instructions, Morgan brought their busted-up automobile to a stop some distance from the enclave’s gates. Roulette stepped out first, pausing to stretch and catch a glimpse of their surroundings before slamming the car door behind her. There wasn’t much to look at beyond the smoggy city’s rusty walls: a few patches of desert scrub; a handful of derelict homesteads; an old, run-down train station that looked to predate the enclave itself. Just like everywhere else they’d been on the range, all the action happened on the inside–the wastes beyond were for farmers, ranchers, and those too stubborn or stupid to embrace progress.

The girl came to stand with her hands on her hips, glaring up at the halo of soot and ash that wreathed the enclave’s upper reaches. If this is what ‘progress’ looks like, she mused, no wonder those salt-of-the-earth types want no part of it. Her mind drifted, as it always did, to thoughts of her father. He had tried, years ago, to head it all off before it consumed Wesson whole… And Gunn had rewarded him for it with a hail of lead.

Now, at long last, it was time to finish what he’d started.

“Why’d you want us to park so far away, CJ?” Morgan asked, rising from the driver’s seat to execute a languid stretch of his own. “They got snipers posted up on the walls or somethin’?”

It was several seconds before CJ could reply, preoccupied as she was with settling into Marka’s waiting arms. Stoic and reliable as ever, he scooped her up from her place in the backseat without complaint, careful to avoid exacerbating the sorry state of her lower body as he did so. The fact that Roulette couldn’t hear her mother critiquing his form or cussing him out suggested to her that, over the course of the last twenty-four hours, they had probably reached some kind of understanding.

Good, she thought, a secretive smile playing at her lips. After all he's done for her, it’s about time she shows him some gratitude!

“No snipers,” the older woman replied, bowing her head to avoid bumping it as Marka extracted her from the car. “That ain’t Gunn’s style. If he had us killed on the way in, he wouldn’t get to do any grandstandin’.”

Morgan nodded and shrugged, content to let the topic lie. They made for Ballistona Enclave’s maw-like front gate without another word, leaving Roulette to wonder why exactly they had parked so far out. Was it simple caution? A bid to preserve their only mode of transportation in case they needed to make a speedy getaway?

…Or was it simply that her mother was as anxious as the rest of them, and needed a few minutes of meandering to clear her head before the main event?

Whatever the case, Roulette was happy to spend a little extra time basking in the Ballistona sun. The closer they got, though, the gloomier it became; clear blue skies gave way to roiling black clouds, and before long they crossed some imperceptible threshold–an ever-shifting border between the county and its shadowy, festering heart. A sudden chill came over her as they strode toward the gates, but the girl refused to acknowledge it. The time for hesitation and second-guessing was over; there was nothing for it now but to stare staunchly into the void.

The void, it turned out, was home to a large desk piled high with various documents. It extended from one side of the gate and ran almost all the way to the opposite wall, where a small gap, complete with a worn metal turnstile, waited to admit travelers… Though something about the stern-looking, bespectacled gatekeepers lining the far side of the desk told her that the possibility of an unharried entry was probably remote.

She forged ahead anyway, making a beeline directly for the most officious-looking clerk of the bunch: a thin, middle-aged woman with olive skin and jet black hair done up in a neat bun. Behind her half-rim glasses, Roulette could see that she was strikingly pretty, but she gave off an aura of cruel severity powerful enough to give her pause. Dressed head-to-toe in ashen officewear, the woman’s most unusual characteristic was the pair of tinted goggles perched atop her head. A tinkerer in her spare time, perhaps? Or maybe an enthusiastic motorist?

Ultimately, Roulette didn’t care. She just wanted in. “We’re here to see Gunn!” she exclaimed, pounding on the woman’s stretch of desk for emphasis. That little gesture earned her a withering stare–the woman looked up from her paperwork with a dangerous glint in her eye, her gaze flicking to each member of their posse in turn.

“Ah. Petunia Wassinger, I believe?” she replied coolly. “Czar Gunn has been expecting you. I am his administrative assistant, Patricia, and I will be assisting you today. Now, what is the nature of your business in Ballistona Enclave at this early hour?”

“We’re here to kill your boss,” Morgan announced, prompting a thin and skeptical smile from Patricia.

“Mr. Sarada. Welcome back,” she answered. “You’ll be pleased to know that Czar Gunn has already agreed to accept your challenge. Once we have addressed a few… Lingering technicalities, it would be my pleasure to grant you all entry.”

“Oh, cut the horseshit Patricia!” CJ barked, squirming angrily in Marka’s grip. “Either let us in or draw! I’ve got less than a thimbleful of patience for yer nonsense today!”

At that, the buttoned-up professional before them underwent a strange transformation. She lowered her elbows to the desktop and laced her fingers beneath her chin, regarding CJ with the most venomous smirk Roulette had ever seen. “Joan. What a surprise,” she purred. “Such a shame to see a woman of your stature relying on others like this. I really used to respect you, you know?”

Before CJ could reply, Marka spoke up, his brow knitted in bewilderment. “What shame is there in relying on others?”

Patricia stifled a giggle, tears springing to her hooded eyes. “And you let them speak for you, too! Wizards, how the mighty have fallen!”

CJ audibly gritted her teeth, then went for her gun. “That’s it. You had your chance–”

With stunning alacrity, the clerk broke posture, tugged her goggles down over her eyes, and whipped a fucking cannon out from under her desk. Its muzzle bore no hole, but a powerful bulb nestled behind a pane of protective glass. Before Roulette could ascertain any more, the bulb emitted a brilliant flash, plunging her into a state of near-blindness! She fell backward, arms wheeling, and collapsed to the ground, fearing for her life… Until, gradually, her vision returned. The girl felt frantically at her arms and torso, trying to figure out exactly what the weapon had done to her, but she came up empty; near as she could tell, the flash had done nothing at all.

…Or so she thought, until:


Roulette whipped her head around to find Morgan struggling to hold a mass of liquid metal between his cupped hands. Naturally, he was destined to fail in the attempt–the fluid filtered between his fingers and dribbled to the ground, forming a gleaming, silvery puddle. And he wasn’t the only one; Marka’s twin shotguns dissolved just the same, running down his back like molasses, and her mother’s melted from her hand like the head of an ice cream cone in midsummer.

The girl paled, almost afraid to look behind her. But, if the sensation of something syrupy running down the small of her back was any indication, Lady Luck had failed to escape the cannon’s effects. She pulled the gunstrap from her shoulders to find it empty and flecked with silver. Her eyes went wide at the sight, heart pounding in her chest as she came to the only conclusion she could make:

Somehow, Gunn’s lackey had turned their guns to goo!

With a triumphant grin, Patricia tugged off her goggles and tossed her cannon aside. She lowered herself back into her chair and kicked her feet up on the desk, waggling the toe of one high-heeled shoe as she peered at them over the rim of her glasses. “Allow me to introduce myself properly,” she drawled. “I am Patricia Cromwell, bearer of the flashcannon Trivium and chief among the Nine.”

As she spoke, the atmosphere of the workspace behind her changed entirely. Bustling office drones stepped aside to reveal armed guards waiting in the wings, who emerged from the shadows one by one to stand behind her. They kept their weapons angled toward the ground, leading Roulette to believe that they were only there as insurance in case she or her companions decided to try and rush the gate.

“Fortunately for you, my power is a merciful one,” the clerk continued. “You may think your weapons ruined, but they have only been transformed. And all you need to do to get them back the way they were is succeed in my little… Aptitude test.”

At Patricia’s words, Roulette dared to look down at the resting place of her gun-puddle. Sure enough, the silvery substance had already begun to rearrange itself, rising from the earth to form a distinctly un-gunlike shape:

The shape of a deck of playing cards.

Patreon iconPatreon icon