Tiff spent most of the next day to herself.
Oh certainly, she still went along with her usual routine. She did her deliveries nice and early in the morning, hopped on the Crawler that went between the Fractured District and the Knightly District, made light chit-chat with Goose, the city’s Guardsman, reported in to Sir Daring’s household, polished his armour, shoed his horse and generally did everything expected of a sidekick, but all throughout the day, her thoughts were on Lash and his sinister deal.
Fortunately, Daring didn’t know her as well as he thought and likely assumed she was just being humbled after yesterday’s scolding. Goose, she suspected, had some inkling that something wasn’t right, but more than likely dismissed it at her just being upset about money troubles. She did deliberately avoid Dane and Jormun for the rest of the day, however. She wasn’t entirely certain she could keep something that big secret from them.
And so it was that, at the end of the day, she left the Knightly District on foot and headed home. She had originally planned on working that night, but Lash’s ‘advance payment’ meant she could afford to take the night off. Which was good too, because she really needed time to think things over.
Besides which, tonight was Training Night. And she loved Training Night.
See, Tiff usually took the aforementioned Crawler between the Knightly District and the Fractured District whenever she needed to travel (since it was convenient and sidekicks got a significant discount). But when she was short enough on cash, wanted to travel with friends or just simply felt like walking home, she always took a particular footpath, unique to her.
Mainly unique because it required phasing through several walls. And was also possibly a little bit ‘trespass-y’.
But Tiff liked this particular path anyway because it led to one particular small hill, perched just outside the junkyard. And, from this one particular hill, she got a prime view of the Free Knights Training Ground.
She could already tell she was running late when she arrived, as the dusty grounds were already filled with nearly three dozen men and women, all lined up with military precision and arraigned in a variety of combat poses. Around them, two instructors circled like hawks, barking out order and pointing out flaws in stance with ruthless efficiency.
The Free Knights Training Ground was more or less what the name said. A training ground exclusively for Free Knights and Free Knights Trainees who were unwilling to earn their titles via sidekicking or squiring. It was also close to the junkyards and far away enough from actual society that any particularly ‘explosive’ use of Gifts wouldn’t cause too much damage to anything important.
Tiff enjoyed watching the training. For one, it was very very funny. Watching boys and men older than her get chewed out for the silliest of mistakes was always hilarious. Especially since one of the instructors was a young woman barely half their size. And almost every group of new recruits had at least one gutsy moron who ‘thought he could take her’.
Turned out ‘Little Miss’ (not an insult, that was her actual chosen title) had particularly potent super-strength and no in fact they could not take her, as she would often demonstrate. Violently. To the despair of the recruits. And to Tiff’s great amusement, but she tried to keep that quiet.
(Most of the time).
Still, it wasn’t just fun Tiff derived from watching the trainees. She also learned a fair bit as well. Sure, it was difficult to decipher exactly what the instructors were saying from such a distance, but Tiff was often able to get the gist of a lot of the stances and moves. Admittedly, for a lot of said moves, she didn’t really have the kind of muscle to get any real use of them and most of the time, they just ended up being a bit of a liability for her in the middle of a real fight. However, the few that did work helped give her a pretty big edge over other people her age (and some older) and she learned a lot of useful things about footwork and movement in the process.
Tiff had been watching the display for nearly an hour when, suddenly, a large hand clamped down on top of her head. Tiff let out a startled yelp, hands flailing to break the grip on her head, before rolling backwards away from the unexpected sneak visitor. She managed to quickly regain her balance and jumped onto her feet, fists raised and ready.
“Whoa-ho!” Her ‘attacker’ held up her hands in surrender. “And here I thought you’d be happy to see me.”
Tiff blinked, squinted at the woman in the low evening light. Suddenly, her eyes widened in realisation and the first genuine smile of the day appeared on her face. “Aunt Titania!”
“Heya, little coy-oof!” Aunt Titania gasped as Tiff charged into her with a full-body hug. “Cripes, you’ve grown.”
“When did you get back?” Tiff asked excitedly. “Are you staying long? Did you visit anywhere awesome? Do you have some cool stories?”
“Ha. One question at a time, little coyote.” Titania smiled back at her. “Or should that be medium-sized coyote? You’re getting pretty big after all.”
“I am, aren’t I?” Tiff said proudly. “Dane can stuff it.”
Titania raised her eyebrow in curiosity, but didn’t press the unspoken question. Which was exactly what Tiff always liked about her.
Aunt Titania wasn’t actually technically Tiff’s blood aunt (which always struck Tiff as weird because she shared a lot of physical similarities with her mother), but a very close friend of Tiff’s mother who helped the two of them move to Haven when Tiff was only a babe. She worked as a traveling bodyguard for merchant convoys, escorting goods all around the continent, so she wasn’t in Haven as much as any of them would like. Often, she was away for months at a time, sometimes even being gone for nearly a year or two.
But every time Aunt Titania did manage to stop off in Haven, she always took the time to visit Tiff and her mother. Which was great for Tiff, because she was just the best. She knew how to fight, was energetic as Tiff and always knew the right gifts to bring home. When she was younger, Tiff had even considered making her squire name ‘Coyote’ after Titania’s personal nickname for her. And she didn’t even know what a coyote was!
(Best she could tell, it was an animal with a fierce bark and fierce bite. Just like her!)
(She also didn’t know why Dane started snickering every time she brought it up.)
“I only got back tonight, actually.” Titania said, taking a seat at the tip of the hill. “And I’m setting off tomorrow morning. Originally, I was planning on going straight from Cold Harbour to Whitewing. But there was one ship going the same way that also happened to be stopping off at Haven for the night, so I figured ‘What’s one more day?’ compared to getting to see my favourite girl.” A mischievous grin crossed her face and she reached out to tousle Tiff’s hair. “And her bratty little daughter too, I suppose.”
Tiff pouted and slapped the hand away, but there was no real heat in it. “Who youse calling bratty?!”
“My apologies.” Titania still amused. “Will ‘bold’ do better?”
“Much better.” Tiff puffed her chest out. However, it quickly deflated. “Must you go so soon?”
“Sorry, little coyote.” The sadness in Titania’s voice was genuine. “But thems the breaks. I’ve got important business that needs doing.” Seeing Tiff’s downcast expression, she gently turned the girl’s chin towards her. “But you know what that means?”
Tiff frowned. “What?”
“It means we’re going to have to make every last minute count.” The mischievous grin returned. “Now, I believe you were interested in some ‘cool stories?’”
Once again, Tiff didn’t even need to try and fake her grin.
And so it was that the two spent the next few hours talking together, with Titania telling some spirited retellings of her adventures, some of which were so absurd and incredible that Tiff was certain she had to be exaggerating, but didn’t mind anyway because they were just that awesome.
These stories were interspersed with the occasional heckling of the Free Knights trainees (some of whom began to heckle back, much to Tiff’s shock and slight worry and Titania’s fierce amusement), Titania demonstrating some cool fighting techniques she’d picked up from the Black Tower, before helping Tiff into doing them herself and, of course, the obligatory handing over of gifts. This particular time, Titania had brought Tiff a tiny carved sculpture from the Ashy Mountains, decorated with bold red and yellow paints.
“It’s so cool!” Tiff exclaimed, holding it in her hands. “What’s it a sculpture of?”
“I have no idea.” Titania said with an identical grin. “Could be anything.”
“That’s even better!”
Still, the day got later, the sun went further and further down and soon even the Free Knight trainees had left, leaving only Tiff and Titania alone on the hill. Tiff could feel herself slowly getting more and more tired and, as she did, her old worries began to return on her mind. However, Titania had obviously sensed something was off and muted her mood to match, plomping herself down next to the much smaller Tiff.
“So.” Titania said slowly. “Your ma tells me you’ve been a bit down lately.”
Tiff didn’t speak. She raised her legs and pressed her face into them.
“Is it the money troubles?” Titania asked. “I can call in some favours in town if you need them and-” She frowned as Tiff drew in on herself slightly. “No… No, that’s not it at all, is it? It’s something else.”
Tiff shook her head. Because it really wasn’t. The money troubles were an obstacle, but they were ultimately something she could deal with. Even Lash’s offer and the stress that it brought weren’t the real problem.
The real problem was him. The real problem was always him.
Titania placed a hand on her back. “Want to talk about it?”
Tiff didn’t. She honestly really didn’t. But this was the only chance she had where she could talk about it. Her friends didn’t know, Sir Daring didn’t know, Goose didn’t know (even if he might’ve suspected) and she could never talk about it with her mother, whether her theories were correct or not.
“You knew my father, didn’t you?” Tiff said.
Titania stiffened. It was like a rod of black iron had been jammed straight down her spine.
“I did know your father.” She said, her face dark and grim. “He was…”
“Stop.” Tiff said. “I don’t want to know his name. I don’t want to know anything more about him. I know how my mother acts when I bring him up and that’s more than enough to tell me what he was.” Her fists began to shake. “And I know I wasn’t born… naturally to her.”
“Oh, Tiff.” The dark look in Titania’s eyes faded away to pity. “Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your-”
“Am I like him?” The question blurted out before Tiff could even consider it.
Titania blinked, rearing back slightly. “What?”
“Am I like him?” Tiff couldn’t keep the pain from her face any longer. “I keeping getting so… angry, Aunt Titania. Angry at people who insult my mother or my friends. And when that anger boils over, I can’t help but lash out. I don’t want to, but it’s like a big pool of rage in me that I can’t control. And every time it happens, I can’t help but worry ‘Is this what he was like?’ Is this what made him do what he did? Am I turning into him?” Her shuddering died down and she curled up tighter into a ball. “I’ve got his blood after all.”
At first, there was nothing but silence from Tiff’s Aunt. Then, slowly, Tiff began to hear an odd coughing sound. It took her a little longer to figure out exactly what it was. It was laughter. Aunt Titania was openly laughing at her, her chest heaving up and down and her sandy hair swinging merrily near her face.
“Wha-What’s so funny?” Tiff exclaimed angrily, with just a little bit of hurt in her voice.
“Heheh, I’m sorry, Tiff.” Titania wiped a small tear away from her face. “I know this is really serious to you and I get why you’d be upset. But if you knew what I knew…” She couldn’t help herself as another current of laughter gushed out of her mouth.
“It’s not funny!” Tiff shouted. “Where else would this anger be coming from if it isn’t from my blood?!”
“But that’s exactly what’s so funny.” Titania grinned, “I know the sort of anger you’re talking about and I know that it’s definitely part of your blood.” Before Tiff could snap at her, Titania raised a fist and tapped it to Tiff’s forehead. “Your mother’s blood, that is.”
“Wha-huh?” Tiff blinked, her anger instantly deflated and replaced with genuine puzzlement.
“You didn’t know your mother was a little hellion when she was younger, did you?” Titania said with a mischievous grin. “The way she went around, punching out every little snot-nosed brat who made fun of her dress. I can’t even count the number of times she got a strapping from her father.” There was a wistful look on her face as she spoke, mixed with just a tinge of sadness.
“So… it’s not from my father?” Tiff said, still reeling from this information.
“No.” Titania reached out and gently stroked Tiff’s hair. “Your father was a sadistic bastard, you’re right to think so. But his anger was cold and cruel and he never cared about anyone other than himself. If you were becoming like him, you wouldn’t even bother to care about it, let alone be as torn up about it as you are.” Titania’s smile grew gentle. “You’re not your father, Tiff. Not as long as you choose not to be.”
Tiff felt a warmth grow in her heart. She raised her arm and quickly wiped away the snot and tears from her face. “Thanks, Aunt Titania.”
“No problem, coyote.” Titania said. “Now, did you have any other problems you needed to talk to me about?”
Tiff shook her head. “No. Not any more.”
And that was perfectly accurate too. Because now she knew exactly what she was going to do about Lash and his goons.
And they certainly wouldn’t see it coming…
Two sleeps later, and the day of the exchange came. Tiff made sure to get up bright and early, even earlier than usual for her. The sun had barely peaked over the horizon and much of the city had yet to properly awaken. Which was good for Tiff since she didn’t particularly want to be disturbed that day.
After checking downstairs to make certain her mother was still asleep, Tiff went to her workshop and got ready for the day’s confrontation. She was going to need almost every item of craftwork she’d ever created to pull this off. Her phasing belt, her floaty boots, her clear-thinking headband, both of her punchy gauntlets, the latter of which were both neatly tucked away in a compress bracelet she’d bought off the Crafter’s market. The only creations she didn’t bring were here her mysterious semi-completed ‘stealth’ necklace and her incredibly dangerous ‘do not use’ heart-stop locket, neither of which were really fit for battle.
And, finally, to add the finishing touches on her battle suit, she put on her oversized war helmet, decorated with two sharp horns on the front and filled with soft stuffing to help it fit Tiff’s comparatively small head. The helmet itself wasn’t actually craftwork, as far as Tiff knew. She just liked it because it looked awesome on her. And, as mentioned, it had horns.
Taking a moment to double check her equipment and clothing, making certain everything was laced and attached properly, all like Sir Daring had taught her, Tiff decided it was time to leave. Before she went, she made certain to grab the small brown pouch that she had left hidden in a secluded corner of her room. The contents of said pouch had been surprisingly difficult to ultimately procure, but Tiff had managed it eventually.
Now it was time for the show.
“My my, you’re early, child.” Lash said smoothly as Tiff rounded the corner. He looked her up and down cautiously. “And you’ve come in… quite a get-up.”
Like Tiff had suspected, Lash had his three cronies with him, standing spread out in the middle of the empty street. She still didn’t really know their names, but she’d decided on labeling them Crapbeard, Eyebrows and Stalker, respectively. She glanced at each of them in turn. As always, there was an odd lifeless tinge to their eyes, but nevertheless, they seemed to be fully on guard for some kind of treachery.
But the fact remained, it was Lash who was the dangerous one here. He’d changed into a different suit, this one more a light-cream, but it couldn’t disguise that hint of sadism in his eyes. He was clearly a little suspicious of Tiff’s horned helmet (and Tiff liked to think ‘intimidated’ as well), but he did his utmost to present an appearance of control.
“I don’t like meeting with suspicious people without being fully prepared.” Tiff answered to Lash. “Especially since you tried to strangle me last time.”
“Well, you did force my hand.” Lash said casually. “But that’s unimportant. What’s important is whether or not you have what I requested.”
Tiff hesitated. It was now or never. She carefully unclipped the pouch from her belt.
“Yeah, I got something for ya.”
“Excellent.” Lash’s face twisted into a smile. “Throw it over.”
Tiff didn’t move. “Where’s the money you promised?”
Lash nodded to Eyebrows. The big bulky man stepped forward, reaching for a pouch of his own. He opened it up and turned it so that Tiff could see the glimmer of gold inside. Lash snapped his fingers and immediately Eyebrows shut the purse, before re-attaching it to his belt.
“Now, you can have it when you give me that pouch.” Lash said, nodding to Tiff. “Throw it over. Gently.”
Tiff shrugged. “Fair enough.”
Carefully, she tossed it to him with an underarmed throw, silently praying that the cords hadn’t come undone. It landed with a flop at Lash’s feet.
“Excellent job, Scrapper.” Lash smiled, leaning down and picking the pouch off the ground. He undid the cords and reached his hand inside to retrieve his prize. “With a level of success like this, we’d be happy to-” squelch– “hire you for more…”
Lash trailed off. He stared down at his hand, which was now dripping with a stinking black gunk. One that was clinging tightly to his fingers. “What the fuck is this?!”
“That would be a bag stuffed with my Ma’s homemade stickin’ fluid.” Tiff said cheerfully. “It sticks to stuff it doesn’t like, like your hands.” Her grin turned savage. “Be interested to see how you use your finger whips now.”
Lash’s face had turned an interesting shade of red. His nose was twitching at the foul smell of the liquid now irrevocably stuck to his fingers. “You dare…”
“Oh,” Tiff clapped her hands, “I also put a dog turd in there. Just to add a bit of flavour. Hope you enjoy it, it took me ages to find.”
“You realise what you’ve done here, child?” Lash snarled. “You’ve thrown away your chance to save your home. You’ve thrown away your chance to be something greater. And you’ve thrown away your life and that of your mother’s.”
“Naaah.” Tiff said, with a grin. “I’ve just decided to take a different approach to this whole thing.”
Lash’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“See, you keep calling me child and insisting I’ve only got so few options.” Tiff said casually. “Either I help you steal that seed, get my money and become a traitor to my city or I rat you out, you kill me and my ma and I don’t get my money anyway. But I’ve thought of a great way I can do this where I get both my money, my home and my life and I won’t have to constantly look over my shoulder worrying about you shitstains.”
Lash frowned. “And that method is…?”
“Simple.” Tiff said, stepping back.
Tiff tapped the ends of her bracelets with her fingers. There was a low whirring sound and the bracelets suddenly split apart, transforming into two enormous grey-steel gauntlets, each nearly the size of Tiff’s head, that clung to her arms like weights.
Stumbling a bit from the weight, Tiff clashed the two gauntlets together in a sound of challenge before hefting her arms up into a fighting pose.
“I don’t give you anything, I beat the shit out of you and your little goons and I hand you into the Free Knights for a very handsome reward.” Tiff grinned. “That’s my answer. How do you like it?”
Lash’s teeth were set so hard they could crack diamond. “Foolish.”
He turned to his associates and raised a hand to snap his fingers. Then he realised that the hand he had raised still had sticking fluid on it and thus was rather useless in the grand scheme of things. Rolling his eyes, he snarled. “Kill the girl.”
Immediately, the three goons sprung to life, like puppets given new will. However, they didn’t immediately charge. Instead, they began to bulk up, steam rising from their bodies as their torsos and arms expanded into monstrous forms.
Hair emerged all along Crapbeard’s body as his back arched and enormous bear-like claws sprung from his increasingly muscular arms. Eyebrow’s face seemed to stretch out of his head as his teeth sharpened of their own accord into wolf-like fangs. Stalker wasn’t the only who didn’t grow to a disproportionate size, as his body seemed to grow sleeker and lithe-er with short black fur coating his body and a pair of wicked sharp fingernails at the end of his hand.
Within less than a minute, Tiff found herself being faced down by three enormous monstrous creatures, more beast-like than they were human and with rage and bloodlust on their minds. It would be a terrifying sight for almost any young child to face.
Tiff, on the other hand, let out a breath of relief. This was great news for her!
When she’d been planning her whole ‘Turning the tables on that smug whip-handed bastard’ plan, her one worry had been whether Lash’s three thugs were secretly Gifted. If they were, that would mean three unknown Gifts she’d have to deal with of various danger-levels. And even if none of them were quite as powerful as Lash’s whiphands, they could still throw a giant wrench into her battle plans.
But this? This was just a few basic-looking Beast-type Gift transformations, designed to boost speed, strength and endurance.
Tiff’s grin widened and she clashed her gauntlets again in challenge.
She could deal with this.
“Get her!” Lash’s shout was the signal the three beastmen needed to launch their attacks. Letting out a series of bloodchilling howls, all three charged straight towards her, claws and fangs bared. Crapbeard led the way, his enormous-bear like form, rumbling forward like an unstoppable avalanche. The other two spread out carefully behind him, prepared to intercept should Tiff attempt to dodge around the clearly stronger beast.
However, rather than attempt to avoid the attack, Tiff instead let out a war cry and met the assault with a charge of her own. If Crapbeard was surprised, he certainly didn’t show it, instead raising both of his arms into the air in an attempt to crush Tiff beneath his superior strength. Tiff, on the other hand, made a running jump straight towards the center of his torso, fist raised for a direct blow.
Then she held her breath.
The Phasing Belt was one of the first items Tiff had ever completed and, even now, was still probably one of the most useful. The premise behind it was very simple. As long as Tiff held her breath, she could phase cleanly through any object she wanted, as long as she wasn’t touching it at the time. (That last rule mainly existed so she didn’t accidentally phase out of her clothing.)
In this case, for example, Tiff phased straight through Crapbeard’s fist, straight through his torso and ended up delivering a powerful punch directly into the face of the Beast-Gifted directly behind him. Eyebrows certainly didn’t see it coming, as Tiff’s gauntlet struck him cleanly across the jaw, causing him to stagger back.
Tiff didn’t have long to celebrate mind, as Stalker was quickly upon her, swiping and slashing with his razor-sharp claws. Tiff ducked, swerved and dodged, narrowly avoiding each of the blows and deflecting a couple on the hardened steel of her gauntlets. It was fast and frantic combat, where even the slightest mistake would mean death, but somehow she was keeping up with him blow to blow and pace to pace.
In fact, if you’d been watching carefully, you might have noticed her smooth footwork was far unlike that you’d expect of a normal 11yo. It was precise, steady and more like the gait of someone who had practiced for years in a variety of different forms. Even Tiff herself hadn’t realised just how much she’d learned from all those years spying on the Free Knights or practicing with Aunt Titania.
Suddenly, Tiff saw her chance to break away. Deflecting a claw that would’ve left a nasty gash on her torso, Tiff took two careful steps backwards before leaping away with a height and grace that no normal person should’ve been capable of reaching. She moved surprisingly slow through the air, almost floating on the breeze, a fact that Stalker was quick to take advantage of. Letting out a snarl, the panther-like beastman leaped into the air, heading directly towards the slowly floating Tiff.
Which was exactly what she’d been waiting for.
The second item on her person was also something she’d had for a long while, but had only really become useful after years and years of practise. The Floaty Boots were designed to increase Tiff’s speed, reflexes and jumping capabilities when activated. However, their one cost, as the name might suggest, was that they also made her body unbearably light, which made her movements somewhat hard to control, while also taking a notable toll on the strength of her punches. Tiff had had to practice for months with them to avoid tripping or stumbling or generally falling all over the place. In this regard, watching the footwork of the Free Knights had notably helped and soon she was capable of using them quite elegantly in battle.
However, in this case, the main advantage to them was that they, and by extension the floatyness, could be quickly turned off. As Tiff did now.
Tiff immediately dropped downwards like a stone, allowing her to neatly dodge Stalker’s jumping leap. The smaller beastman, unable to control his momentum in the air, flew straight past her and directly into a glass wall which he impacted face-first with a sickening crack.
Tiff, meanwhile, reactivated her Floaty boots just in time to land gracefully on the cobblestones below. However, movement in the corner of both her eyes told her that Crapbeard and Eyebrows had recovered from her earlier misdirections and were moving to box her in.
Tiff grinned. Bring it on.
She waited until the two were close enough, making sure that she was directly between them, before charging forwards, heading directly for the slightly startled Eyebrows. However, Eyebrows wasn’t entirely dumb and clearly remembered her phasing trick from last time. She could see him pivot his feet, preparing to swivel around and attack from behind.
So imagine his surprise when Tiff leaped forward, feet-first, and used his chest as a springboard to bounce straight in the opposite direction and right onto Crapbeard’s shoulders, reaching out with her gauntlets to grab onto his head.
Crapbeard let out a bestial roar, bucking and slashing wildly in an attempt to throw her from his back. However, in this case, his shitty beard worked against him since it gave the perfect thing for Tiff to cling onto. And with his eyes blinded by the enormous gauntlets in his face and Tiff being light and agile enough to avoid his easily telegraphed swipes, she was able to hold on quite easily.
Snarling at his teammate’s discomfort, Eyebrows leaped forward, intending to swat Tiff off Crapbeard’s head himself, but Tiff was able to shift her bodyweight at just the right moment to tip Crapbeard off balance and direct one of his wild swipes directly into Eyebrows’s face.
Eyebrows stumbled backwards with a whimper, blood and teeth streaming from his mouth. However, this sneaky maneuver had cost Tiff her footing and she was forced to abandon her perch on Crapbeard’s face, landing with a graceful roll on the pavement below.
Crapbeard, now well and truly ticked off, let out an earth-shattering bellow and swiped an enormous paw towards Tiff. Unfortunately, his blinding rage had also clearly affected his memory, because all that did was give Tiff an opportunity to phase straight through it and his torso again. This time, however, upon emerging on the other side of the enormous beast-man, she grabbed hold of a large clump of his back hair and dragged it with her, effectively dangling from the bear-like Gifted’s back and forcing him to stumble backwards, as he tried unsuccessfully to scratch off this infuriating itch.
“What the fuck are you idiots doing?” Lash shouted from where he was still stuck. “She’s only a little girl!”
Little girl she may have been, but Tiff was not making it easy for any of the other Gifted to swat her. Somehow, in the process of this impromptu game of buckaroo, Crapbeard ended up turning in the opposite direction, leaving Tiff face to face with the slightly beaten-up Eyebrows. Surprised, the two’s eyes met for a moment in the carnage of the brawl.
He bared his teeth. She stuck her tongue out.
With a rage-filled howled, Eyebrows leaped forward with his claws extended. Which was exactly the time when Tiff decided to let go of Crapbeard’s fur, allowing her to drop to the ground and leaving Eyebrows to unintentionally slash his razor-sharp claws across Crapbeard’s back, leaving a streak of red behind them.
Crapbeard let out a surprised yell and instinctively lashed out backwards at whatever he thought had just attacked him. Naturally, all this meant was that, before either of them could figure out what was happening, Eyebrows took yet another face-full of angry bear claw. Tiff, meanwhile, took this opportunity to roll backwards through Crapbeard’s legs, avoiding his clumsy footsteps, before jumping up, phasing through Crapbeard’s torso again and delivering a flying kick straight into the already wounded face of Eyebrows.
The wolf-like beastman quickly stumbled back even further, his face now a mess of bruises and torn flesh, leaving Tiff to face Crapbeard alone, while- Crap! When did Stalker get there?!
It took an impressive mid-air maneuver, but Tiff was barely able to avoid Stalker’s surprise attack, the black-furred beastman leaping towards her from the side, like a panther about to strike. Of course, this left her wide-open to a surprise attack from Crapbeard, who swung his enormous paw towards her free-floating form like an executioner’s axe about to strike. Tiff was barely able to suck in a breath just in time to phase through it, before using Crapbeard’s chest as a springboard to leap away from him, landing with a slightly painful roll some paces away.
Fortunately, the beastmen seemed content to metaphorically lick their wounds and regroup rather than chase her immediately and Tiff was able to get a good distance away from them to catch her much-needed breath and strategize.
These guys were a lot hardier than she thought. She knew that as a fairly small 11yo girl, her punches and kicks didn’t exactly have much weight behind them, but she was barely fazing them. The best she’d been able to do was trick them into hitting each other and that would only last until they wised up and started attacking one at a time. A scenario that would quickly start draining her stamina, which would affect her speed and reflexes, which was more or less the sole advantage that had kept her alive thus far.
Plus, there was Lash to consider. The besuited Gifted had been seemingly content to sit on the sidelines thus far, spending more time trying to remove the gunk from his hand that actually join in the fighting. But that wouldn’t necessarily last forever. If he managed to remove the sticking fluid or just decided to fight with his non-gunked hand, he could likely pressure Tiff quite badly.
Yet in spite of all these troubles, Tiff couldn’t keep the grin from her face. Forget scrapping with two-bit thugs and brats in the corners of the Fractured District. Forget highly supervised sparring matches against squires, sidekicks and supervisors. Forget wrestling with Dane and Jormun.
This was a fight. A real fight. And whether it was her mothers blood, like Titania claimed, or her father’s, like she’d always feared, every inch of her was singing with delight.
Meanwhile, across the street, the three beastmen seemed to have sufficiently recovered. All three of them had taken notable wounds, with Eyebrow’s face practically a mangled wreck and Stalker not looking too hot either after his close encounter with that wall. Crapbeard was the better off of the three, but judging from the twinge in his back, he was still suffering from Eyebrow’s claws.
All three of them began stalking forwards, their gaze fixed firmly on the small girl before them, eyes brimming with hatred.
Tiff’s gauntleted fists clenched and the corner of her lips twitched upwards. Guess it was time to stop holding back.
And she had one big card left to play…
You could be forgiven for wondering if the three beastmen had learned anything from their initial clash with Tiff. After all, they were charging at her in the exact same formation that they had at the start of the fight. Crapbeard was in front once more, with Eyebrows and Stalker taking careful position behind him, prepared to snatch at Tiff if she made any attempt at dodging to the side. However, there were distinct minor differences scattered here and there, showing that the three had indeed learned some lessons from how skillfully Tiff had been dancing around them before.
For one, they’d deliberately spaced themselves out somewhat compared to last time. Apparently, they’d figured out that most of the damage Tiff had done had been inflicted by themselves and were eager not to make the same mistake. Eyebrows and Stalker had also deliberately positioned themselves to watch Crapbeard’s back this time, clearly fully prepared for Tiff’s phasing ability.
And so it was that they were all somewhat surprised to see Tiff seemingly do absolutely nothing in response to their charge.
Or, well, almost nothing. She had grounded her feet and drew her gauntleted fist back as if winding up for a punch. But that was insane, wasn’t it? She was tiny and fragile compared to the bear-like beastman and couldn’t possibly hope to outmatch him in a contest of strength. It had to be a trap of some sort.
Clearly, that was the same conclusion the three beastmen had come to, as they shared cautious glares. Crapbeard slowed his pace just enough that he wouldn’t go flying past should Tiff decide to phase through his punch and the other two beastmen tripled their guard for anything abnormal.
But still, Tiff didn’t do anything. She merely lowered her stance and then thrust out her gauntleted fist to meet Crapbeard’s punch with a punch of her own.
There was a burst of air as the two fists met. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, it was Crapbeard that was worse off from the exchange. His enormous bulk was sent flying backwards, crashing and clattering across the street, nearly clipping Stalker in the process. When he finally came to a sluggish stop, he’d been sent flying nearly halfway across the street. His arm was practically shattered, bent and mangled in a dozen unnatural places.
Tiff, meanwhile, was exactly where she’d been standing before, her fist still extended outwards. She hadn’t moved an inch and that infuriating grin was still on her face.
“Come on then.” She said, clashing her gauntlets together. “Which one of youse is next?”
The Punchy Punchy Gauntlets. They were bulky, heavy, awkward to use, too big for Tiff to wield naturally, had a terrible grip and weren’t fantastic to look at either. That said, they were still probably one of Tiff’s best, most favouritest creations ever.
Because that name wasn’t just for show. They really did pack quite a punch.
Eyebrows and Stalker watched the prone form of their comrade halfway across the street with something resembling a jaw drop. When their gaze returned to Tiff, it was with something almost resembling fear. Still, their determination or loyalty won out and they both charged, approaching from different directions in an attempt to pincer her.
Tiff reacted to this by going for the easier target. Eyebrows had already suffered a lot of damage to the face in this conflict and, as such, had the significantly worse vision. So when Tiff charged towards him, sliding cleanly between/through his legs, he hesitated just long enough for Tiff to deliver a unpowered (but still painful) hammer blow directly to his groin. And while he was naturally reeling from that, she followed up with a super-powered punch directly into his back, sending him flying across the street just like his bulkier cousin. And directly towards the much smaller Stalker.
To his credit, the smaller beast-man reacted quickly, dropping to all fours and pressing himself tightly to the ground, leaving the body of his larger comrade to soar helpless over him. Then he quickly pounced, crossing the distance between him and the younger Tiff in a matter of seconds.
From there, he began a desperate onslaught of slices and slashes, his claws making tears in the flagstones below. However, he’d done this dance with Tiff before and, once again, she was able to match him beat for beat, relying on her superior footwork and speed to dodge and deflect as necessary, waiting for the perfect opening to counter.
Moments later, her opportunity came. Stalker had leaned in just a little too forward for an attack and left his flank wide open. Tiff stepped forward, preparing her gauntlets for a super-powered punch and…
“Piss and Shit!” Tiff swore as her fist met empty air, leaving her to stumble forwards helplessly.
This was the one real downside of the Punchy Punchy Gauntlets. While they did indeed give Tiff a tremendous boost in strength, they also subtracted from her fighting skills by taking away much of her accuracy, which also messed with her balance something fierce.
How bad was it? She once literally missed the broad side of a barn with a punch.
(And Dane would never ever let her forget it.)
Fortunately, the unbalance only lasted as long as the strength boost and she could switch it on and off in a snap. But it also meant that she had to time her punches very carefully, lest she end up missing and leaving herself wide open in combat.
Like now, for example.
From the look on his bestial face, Stalker was clearly confused as to exactly why Tiff had missed such a massive opening, but he clearly wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth. He immediately leaped at the unbalanced Tiff, claws splayed and teeth bared, ready to slice her two…
…only for him to immediately phase straight through her and collide face first with a wall.
“Man, am I surprised you fell for that twice.” Tiff said as she watched the beastman groan and clutch his paws to his face. She raised her fist. “Ah well. Time to finish up.”
The second blow did not miss. In fact, it punched Stalker cleanly through the glass wall, shattering a large chunk of it in the process. Which also caused the roof to cave in after him. And at least one of the other walls.
“Huh.” Tiff stared at the damage her final move had caused. “Think I maybe put a little bit too much into that one…” A thought suddenly occurred to her. “Oh, shit! Lash!”
She’d completely forgotten about the masked leader of the gang in all the excitement. After all, her goop had kept him out of the fight, hadn’t it? But it certainly hadn’t kept him from escaping once he’d realised his goons were getting beat and, judging from how empty the street looked, he’d done exactly that.
“Piss and shit, piss and shit,” Tiff swore as she dashed down the street, looking for any sign of him. This was really bad. If he got away… If he went after her mother, then- “Piss and- gaak!”
Tiff had just turned the corner leading towards Cocol Street when, suddenly, a whip-like tendril shot from the shadows and wrapped itself around her neck. Before Tiff could even react, she was hoisted up into the air by the tendril, like a makeshift gallows. She kicked and struggled and tried to claw the rope away, but it was too tight around her neck and she couldn’t phase through it.
She couldn’t breath. She couldn’t scream. She couldn’t do anything but kick desperately in the makeshift noose.
“I’ll admit, you put up much more a fight than I expected.” Lash said, slowly emerging from the shadows. His left hand was still covered in the gunk that Tiff had trapped it in, but his right hand was another matter. He’d extended one of the tendrils from that hand around the chimney of a nearby house and was using it as a makeshift pulley to lift her into the air. “I sincerely regret that you didn’t accept my offer. Working with someone of your capabilities might’ve been interesting.”
Tiff wanted to reply, but she couldn’t. All she could do was make choking sounds as the rope grew tighter and tighter.
“Unfortunately, you had to make me do this the hard way.” Lash snarled. “And while I don’t normal revel in killing a young girl in such a slow and painful way, in your case I’ll make an exception.”
“Ga… Ga…” Tiff felt herself grow dizzy and her eyes blurred slightly. Her experience with the phasing belt meant she was capable of holding her breath for a very long time, but she’d been caught off guard and was already somewhat exhausted from the fight, so that was of questionable use. She was already starting to go blue as the corners of her vision began to become tinged with darkness.
“But don’t you worry.” Lash’s face looked almost as bestial and animalistic as that of his transformed minions. “I’ll still fulfill my promise and visit myself upon your mother. Perhaps I’ll bring your corpse along with me. I’m sure I’ll get a kick out of showing it to her before I mutilate it and shove the pieces up her-”
That was when the world exploded around them.
It was a very sudden thing. One moment Tiff was fighting for consciousness, the next, the entire street seemed to erupt with power. The glass houses, abandoned but still sturdy, buckled as if as if a tremendous wave of force has smashed into them. They wobbled for a brief second before each and every house, including the one Tiff was currently dangling from, exploded into thousands of glass fragments.
Tiff was knocked down to the floor in the process, feeling the rope around her neck loosen and landing with a slightly painful jolt. However, somehow, almost every single razor-sharp shard of debris and destruction seemed to have missed her.
Coughing wildly, she drank in the fresh air the best she could, while reaching up to free her neck from the rope-like tendril wrapped around it. To her surprise, it came away easily, one end having been severed with a cut so clean Tiff could’ve sworn it was from a knife.
Tiff turned to see Lash a few paces away, clutching the severed tendril of his right hand in what appeared to be severe pain.
“Motherfucker!” He swore. He then realised he’d accidentally stuck his hands together with the sticking fluid. “Motherfucker!”
“Sorry, but I’m afraid you’re not my type.” A voice suddenly sounded.
Tiff turned to the direction of the wrecked house, becoming vaguely aware of a figure stepping though the small dustcloud that had resulted. A female figure, wearing a iron gauntlet that crackled and hummed with a sickly purple energy. A very familiar-looking female figure.
“Sorry I’m late, Tiff.” Mary Murdoch said with a kindly smile. “Took me a while to find all the pieces for this little thing.” She flexed the fingers of the Power Gauntlet within her hand and it obediently hummed with purple light.
“Bitch!” Lash snarled. Clearly having given up attempting to remove the sticking fluid, he instead faced the two down, his arms slowly extending into coils “Who the hell do you think you are, messing with me like this?”
“A dutiful mother.” Mary said sweetly. “And a very talented Crafter.”
She raised the Power Gauntlet and clenched her fist. Immediately, Lash was swatted into the ground by a tremendous invisible force, squashed so hard that the ground around him cracked. His eyes bugged out and he let out a pained gasp as nearly half the bones in his body shattered from the mere gesture. Tiff was faintly reminded of an insect being stomped on by a giant.
“Now then…” Mary said, stepping forward slowly. Tiff could recognise the look of hot fury in her eyes and, judging from the way Lash sank just a little further into the ground, he could too. “…what exactly did you say you were going to do to my daughter?!”
“You know, Scrapper,” Sir Daring said with a long-suffering sigh, “when I cut your pay in an attempt to teach you a lesson about the consequences of poorly thought-out violence… this was not how I expected you to respond.”
Tiff shrugged. “Worked though.”
“Mostly.” Daring kindly didn’t choose to comment on how raspy Tiff’s voice sounded. “I assume the malcontents were responsible for the mass property destruction?”
Tiff paused. “Maybe? I don’t know what malcontents means.”
“It means bad guys.”
“Oh.” Tiff paused for just a liiiittle too long. “Then yes. They were definitely responsible for all that.”
Once again, Sir Daring wisely chose not to comment.
It hadn’t taken long for the guards to appear after the conclusion of a fight. After all, even in a mostly empty and abandoned part of town, the sound of an entire street collapsing was somewhat difficult to miss. Fortunately, it had been the Guardsman first on the scene and he knew Tiff and Mary well enough not to jump to any conclusions about who exactly had started the fight.
(Which was a good thing too, because technically it was actually Tiff who started it.)
After that, it only took a few minutes for a few more of the Free Knights to show up, accompanied by construction experts, medics and Gifted Confinement specialists, all of whom were led by Sir Daring, by virtue of him having been in the Free Knight HQ at the time the call came in. Plus, y’know, it was his sidekick. So he could clean up the mess she made.
Fortunately, a quick explanation had been all he needed to get the gist of the situation. Lash and his compatriots had been quickly arrested and confined with Gift-blocking chains. Not that Crapbeard, Eyebrows and Stalker particularly needed them mind, by virtue of having respectively suffered a broken arm, a dislocated hip and whatever numerous injuries come from being punched through a wall and having a roof collapse on your head.
Honestly, Tiff was just impressed Stalker had survived. Apparently, that beast form was hardy as all hell.
“No no no!” Tiff’s head perked up as she heard her mother’s voice. “Idiot, I told you you need to activate the managing coil before you start channeling the Allforce energy.”
“I don’t know what any of those things are!”
“Then use your instincts! I swear, you’re worse than that idiot salesman.”
Tiff turned to see her mother in the midst of attempting to teach one of Daring’s men how to use the Power Gauntlet. Key word being ‘attempting’. Apparently, having heard the story of how Mary had ‘dealt’ with Lash, Sir Daring was interested in seeing the potential of the Power Gauntlet for himself and whether it could be replicated and given to the Free Knights. Naturally, the former had impressed him a fair bit. The latter… not so much.
Honestly, Tiff wasn’t too surprised. The main reason they’d been completely unable to sell the Power Gauntlet was because nobody except her mother had the slightest idea how it worked. And even on her best days, like today, her mother was completely unable to explain it without going into so much jargon that even the most attentive scholar would be lost.
As for her mother herself, it turned out that Aunt Titania had been the one responsible for her surprise appearance at the end of the fight. Apparently, Tiff had let just a little too much slip during her conversation and Titania had figured out she was in some kind of trouble. She’d also apparently called in some favours and had a few friends tail her that morning and report back to Mary when the fighting started. It was only pure good fortune that Mary happened to be on one of her ‘good’ days.
Honestly, Tiff was more impressed that she hadn’t noticed them. She’d been jumpy as hell on her way to the meeting place.
“By the way, about that money that those goons had with them…” Tiff began to ask.
“Confiscated as evidence.” Daring said bluntly.
Tiff’s head sank.
“Fortunately…” Daring continued, “there is a long-standing reward for anyone who can successfully bring in information on any group attempting to subvert the rule of Haven or otherwise cause trouble.” He nodded. “Combined with the ransom for bringing them in, I’d say it’s worth about… three weeks pay for a sidekick?”
Tiff made a slight face, torn between the good news and the bad.
Daring smiled. “I think I can bump it up to a full month’s pay though.”
Tiff immediately brightened. “Yes! Thank you, Sir Daring!” She caught herself mid-leap for a hug and immediately straightened herself up into something more fitting for a squire. “Ahem. I mean, I appreciate your discretion in this matter.”
Daring snorted. “That’s not what discretion means.”
Tiff blinked. “It’s not?”
“No.” Daring said. “But I appreciate the sentiment nonetheless.”
At the same time, Mary had obviously grown tired of attempting to explain things to Daring’s man and instead walked over to join her daughter and her mentor.
“I’m sure your man’ll pick it up.” She said confidently to Daring, taking a seat.
Daring raised an eyebrow. “Really?” For some reason he sounded skeptical.
“Yup.” Mary glanced back at the man trying and failing to activate the iron gauntlet. “Or someone will. Probably.”
Daring’s eyes turned lazily from his man back to her. “…I’m sure.”
“By the way,” Mary said. “Do you mind if I have a quick word with my daughter alone?”
Daring paused. Then he shrugged. “I don’t see any problem with that. Just don’t go anywhere. We’ll probably need to take your testimony at the HQ.” With that, he turned to leave.
“Oh!” A thought struck Tiff like a thunderbolt. “That reminds me! The smug masked guy, Lash, he said that he had someone working for him among the Free Knights! Someone who’d inform him if I tattled.”
Daring hesitated mid-step. However, he didn’t turn back. “The man was probably lying. A trick to make certain you didn’t spoil his plan to us.”
“I don’t know…” Tiff said. “He really sounded like he meant it.”
Daring was silent for a moment. Then he continued walking on. “I will take steps to investigate.”
Tiff nodded, relieved. That was about as much as she could ask for.
“Now, Ma,” she said, turning back to her mother. “What was it you wanted to talk abo-”
“Ow!” Tiff clutched the top of her head in pain. However, her mother showed almost no mercy as she glared holes through the young girl.
“Perhaps you can explain to me what in the name of the Sun, the Moon and the Stars you were doing going off to confront men like that alone?!” Mary scolded. “You could’ve been killed, Tiff! You very nearly were!”
Tiff shrunk slightly under her mother’s fierce gaze. “…I didn’t want you to get hurt.”
“And what?” Mary questioned. “You think I would’ve been able to just… shrug off you dying alone on some foolish escapade?”
“Well, what else was I supposed to do?” Tiff said a little petulantly. “Lash said he had people in the Free Knights, so I couldn’t exactly report it to them. This was my only option-” Thwack. “Ow! Ma, stop it!”
“You could’ve told Goose.” Mary said, her voice angry and firm. “You could’ve told Daring and explained that you didn’t want the news spread around. You could’ve told your two friends and had them back you up in the fight. You could’ve told Aunt Titania, instead of letting her figure it out herself.” Her face softened. “Tiff, you could’ve told me.”
Tiff squirmed slightly, feeling more and more uncomfortable by the second. Mary sighed and lowered herself to her knees, so she could look her daughter eye to eye.
“Tiff… I know I haven’t exactly been the best mother.” Mary quickly raised a hand to silence Tiff’s protests. “No, it’s true. I know my… my condition has forced you to grow up far faster and take on more responsibilities than a girl your age should ever have to. And for that I’m sorry.”
Tiff felt her eyes brim up. “No, you don’t have anything to be sorry about. It’s not your fault, it’s my fault! It’s always my fault. I’m not-”
“-Not what?” Mary cut her off. “Not perfect? Not all-knowing or all powerful? Not incapable of making mistakes?” Before Tiff could protest, Mary swept forward and enveloped her in a hug. “Tiff, you’re only eleven. A child I know you feel you need to be better, to do everything right, to help people as best you can and believe me, I’m nothing but proud about that. But it’s okay not to be perfect and, more importantly, it’s okay to ask for help.”
Tiff hesitated. “You’re… You’re not disappointed with me?”
“Oh Tiff.” Mary said gently. “If there’s one thing that’s never changed, not once since the moment you were born, it’s that I’ve always been proud of you. And no matter what may come, no matter what stupid prideful decisions you make in the future, I will always love you. Got it?”
Tiff sniffed and nustled her face deeper into Mary’s shoulder. “Got it, Ma.”
“Good.” Mary paused. “With that said, I’m still banning you from Crafting for the next month.”
“Wha-?! But Ma!”
“No buts. It’s no pay cut, but maybe it’ll make you think a little bit more before you do something stupid like this again.”
“…Can we compromise and say two weeks?”
“Do not push me on this, Tiff.”
Being a sidekick was a hard life.