Nathaniel Roman examined the blade of his saber grimly and shook his head, "Well Sammy, ready to die?" Sammy grinned and with a bloodcurdling screech turned and kicked down the door of the darkened building. Immediately they were bathed in a sickly green glow as the spells of protection cast upon the door were banished by the pair's counter-curse. Ignoring the swirling clouds of dispelled magic they rushed into the room, each immediately hitting the floor and rolling in opposite directions. Bolts of green lightning seared the air where they had been only seconds before, digging jagged smoking holes in the walls behind them.
"Up the stairs! On the landing..." Sammy called out, and Nathaniel stopped moving long enough to point the device in his hand at the flicker of movement on the landing midway to the top of the grand staircase that dominated the entire room. Yellow light erupted from the device and Nathaniel was up and running for cover as the landing disintegrated with a deafening explosion. Sammy followed up with a shot from his own caster that destroyed what was left of the support structure for the staircase. Bolts of green lightning continued to streak across the room at the two hunters as the staircase collapsed entirely. Coughing through the dust and smoke, they grimly pressed their attack.
Pausing for a moment behind a marble column, Nathaniel tried to locate their target by watching for the source of the green lightning attacks. He groaned inwardly at the realization that the spells were being cast from several different locations, and that he and Sammy were about to be cut off from retreat.
"Sammy! It's not just one... We've got a coven! Let's get out of here!" He pulled a grenade from his belt and threw it in an arch up and over the railing on to the balcony where he thought several of the witches were located.
"Grenade!" He screamed at the top of his lungs and turning, ran towards the door, firing his caster wildly behind him. The whump of the explosion pushed him the last few feet through the door and across the broad porch. He attempted to leap to his feet, but still fuzzy from the explosion, he fell down the stairs, cursing each time he hit the stairs. When his face finally plowed into the gravel driveway at the bottom of the stairs, he quickly regained his footing and looked around.
"Sammy! Where are you?" he yelled, watching with dismay the smoke pouring out of the doorway. Sammy had not made it out before the grenade went off!
Abandoning all caution out of concern for his partner, Nathaniel ran up the steps and through the door. The blast had blown a hole through the high arched ceiling, and the late afternoon sun was now streaming into the grand foyer of the decrepit old mansion.
"Sammy! If you're dead I'm gonna kill you!" Nathaniel yelled, frantically kicking aside the rubble as he searched for his companion. Then, a voice from overhead startled him, and he very nearly triggered a blast from his caster before he recognized the voice.
"Hey! A little more warning next time, Tater-head!" Sammy was trying hard to be angry, but Nathaniel could tell he was just yanking his chain. He looked up to the balcony, and saw Sammy standing there with his sword dripping blood. In his other hand, he held three severed heads, the green skin and wart-covered noses evidence enough of their crimes.
"How did you get up there?" Nathaniel yelled, relief washing over him. Sammy gestured with the severed heads, "I slipped through the kitchen and took the back stairs. Got to the top just in time for your little fireworks show. Next time, why don't you warn me BEFORE you throw the grenade?" Nathaniel grinned for an instant, his relief at seeing Sammy alive momentarily making him forget why they were there. Then just as suddenly he remembered.
"Where are the witches now? Are we clear? What if there are more? You only have three! There's gotta be ten more..." Sammy interrupted. "We got all thirteen Nate, I just haven't got 'em all headed just yet. Get on up here and help." Sammy looked at the heads in his hand with disgust for a second. "You know how I hate this part." Nathaniel nodded and ran quickly to help.
As they drove back towards town, Sammy kept up a running dialogue that Nathaniel mostly ignored. Instead he fiddled with the dial on the radio, looking for some music to listen to. Unfortunately, as was the case since the United Nations took control of the world's governments, there was nothing more than propaganda thinly veiled as news. It took a lot of reminding to keep the people from forgetting how much better things were now. Finally he punched the power button a bit harder than was actually necessary to turn it off and turned to Sammy. He tried for a few minutes to capture the thread of his conversation, but quickly gave it up as a bad enterprise. Sammy's running monologues rambled far and wide, and rarely followed any logical train of thought. Nathaniel decided to try and turn the conversation somewhere that he could follow.
"Why do you figure that Command told us that there was a lone witch, and we run into a complete coven?" His question caught Sammy by surprise, and he halted his rambling diatribe to consider the question before answering.
"You know Nate, it ain't healthy to be questioning the folks at Command. I'm sure they just got their wires crossed somewheres. Mebbe the witch found out somehow and called in some backup. That's all. You think too much Nater-Potater..." Sammy said, his broad grin covering for his nervousness. Nathaniel pondered this for a while, and Sammy actually remained silent for once.
"But see, I would be able to dismiss it easier if it was an isolated incident. But remember last week? We get sent out just to arrest a suspected sympathizer, not even a real witch mind you! Next thing we know, we find ourselves in between two third-degree priestesses! It was a lucky thing that I was expecting the worst that day! Where would we have been if we had followed protocol for a non-magic arrest and left our casters back?" Sammy's grin was thinning, and Nathaniel started to think he was getting his point across. He pressed on, "And then we get paired up with them chuckle-heads last week that just up and left us in the lurch. I know they said that Command called them back at the last minute, but why didn't they let us know they were pulling our backup, 'stead of just leaving us on our own?" Sammy's grin was gone now, and in its place a scowl of suspicion. "So, what, Nate -- you going to go rebel on me now? Gonna ditch this sweet gig and go underground with the witches and insist that freedom is better than security? Maybe even join a coven and become a witch yourself?"
Nathaniel recoiled from the sudden hatred in his friend's voice, "What's the matter Sammy? I didn't say none of that. I was just wonderin' why Intel is so bad lately, and why Command seems to be settin' us up every time! Sheesh! There ain't no call to go..."
"Then drop it! Hear?" Sammy snapped, his eyes focused on the road and his fists clenched tightly around the wheel. Nathaniel just stared for a few seconds, his mind working methodically through possible responses. He had not yet selected one when the radio on the dash squawked and came to life.
"Para12, this is Command. Respond." Sammy grabbed the mike with one hand and answered sharply, "Command, this is Para12, go ahead." He looked sideways at Nathaniel as he spoke, the unexplained anger still plain on his face. "Para12, this is Command. Proceed to the coordinates on your nav immediately for a code 249." The color drained from Sammy's face and he turned to Nathaniel, all traces of anger gone. "Roger, Command, two-four-niner." Then, looking sideways at Nathaniel he keyed the mike again, "Command, do you have any intel on the situation?" The silence as they both waited for a response was strained; finally the radio came back to life. "No intel at this time. Just terminate all illegals with prejudice. Command out."
There was silence in the van for a full minute as both men mentally digested this development. Nathaniel was the first to speak.
"See, Sammy? How are they gonna send us in on a two-four-niner without any intel huh? You can't tell me that's just a snafu. Someone at command's got it in for us!" Nathaniel could feel a sense of indignation rising in his gut as he pondered the ramifications.
"Shut up Nate! Just shut up and get your head in the game, before you get us both kilt!" Sammy yelled, gripping the wheel even harder and staring straight ahead at the road. "How do you know they don't already have a platoon heading that way right now? They ain't gonna ... I mean we can handle ..." his voice faded off as he lost the words to express his thoughts. A Code 249 was the designation for an operation against an organized uprising by one or more full covens working together. Not the normal kick-down the door and decapitate the witches kind of mission; Code 249 meant that the witches were already on the offensive and organized. And already fighting.
"Ain't gonna what Sammy? Ain't gonna send us into a situation where odds say we can't win? How much longer can we keep on defying those odds, Sammy?" Nathaniel was livid now, not understanding why Sammy refused to see his point.
Suddenly, Sammy slammed the brakes to the floor, and the old van screeched to a halt, the loose witch heads in the back rolling around like soft, wet bowling balls. Throwing the gearshift into neutral he rounded on Nathaniel, his face white and quivering as he shook his finger in Nathaniel's face.
"You listen here, you paranoid retard. It ain't nothing but a bad run of luck. Times are tough all over, and the witches are getting pretty tired of being hunted like animals. All of the Paranormal Assault teams are complaining that the work is getting harder and support is getting lighter. I say just deal with it! They don't pay us to do this 'cause it's easy. I am sick of listening to their whiny, pansy rants, and I ain't gonna sit here and let my own partner start whining like a pissy girl, too. Now shut your piehole, recharge your caster, and loosen the grenades in your belt, cause when the spells start flying I want to know that you are behind me one hundred percent, not just standing around pissing your pants cause someone didn't tell you exactly what to expect."
Nathaniel sat back, amazed at the depth of emotion his longtime partner was revealing. In all their years of chasing the rebellious witches he had never expressed anything but unwavering enthusiasm for the job, and an endless litany of stories that Nathaniel knew were ninety percent lies. No matter how crappy the work got, Sammy always faced it with a grin and a smart-aleck comment.
"Alright, Sammy, alright! Calm down, don't blow a gasket or anything. I was just wonderin' aloud ya know? It just seems weirder than normal to me is all. Don't know why you have to get so worked up over it!" Nathaniel was frightened and on the verge of panic. Sammy's face was inches from his, and Nathaniel could smell the garlic on his breath as he tried to push himself backwards into the passenger door. He scrabbled behind him for the door handle, suddenly wishing to be anywhere but where he was.
But just as suddenly as it had started, it was gone. Sammy's face cracked into the familiar grin, and he sat back into the driver's seat and threw the van in gear. The tires spun on the gravel road as he floored the accelerator and the van fishtailed up to speed.
"Had you goin' for a minute there didn't I, Nato?" Sammy said, looking sideways at Nathaniel as he power slid the van into a turn. Nathaniel didn't move, he was still pressed up against his door with one hand on the door handle and his brain struggling to process what had just happened.
The nav box on the dash directed them to turn left at the next intersection, and Sammy yelled back at it joyfully, "You got it, Miss Direction! Left turn on Merryweather Lane in one - point - five - miles. Can I have your number Miss Direction? You got the sexiest voice I ever heard coming from a pile of electronics..." It was an old joke, one which Nathaniel had listened to Sammy yelling at the box for years. Now for some reason, it sounded ominously insane to him and he wondered for a minutes whether or not his partner's sanity had finally slipped.
The van reached the intersection, and without touching the brake Sammy threw the old van into another power slide which very nearly turned into a rollover when they skidded from the gravel road back onto pavement. The tires skipped across the cracked hardtop a couple of times, the van leaning sickeningly to the right until it finally righted itself and with a last quick fishtail straightened out. Nathaniel was suddenly very aware that he wasn't wearing a seat belt. This thought finally overrode the paralyzing fear and he quickly sat back in his seat and buckled up as Sammy continued at top speed down the road.
"Hey Nato-Potato... I think I have a can of Red-Bull in the glove box, can you check and see for me?" Sammy asked, his voice so matter-of-fact and normal that Nathaniel began to wonder if the tantrum he had just witnessed was simply a figment of his imagination.
"Uhh ... Sure Sammy... just a sec." Nathaniel said, his voice tight and apprehensive. He opened the glove box and sure enough, an energy drink can rolled out and landed on the floor. He managed to snag it just before it rolled under the seat, and he held it out towards Sammy.
"Thanks Dude! I sure could use a pick-me-up just about now." Sammy reached for the can, but at the last second Nathaniel yanked it back.
"Maybe you've had enough already, Sammy. What's gotten into you all of a sudden?" Nathaniel asked, sure he would see the angry Sammy again. Instead, Sammy grinned even wider, and he looked over at Nathaniel long enough to wink. "Yeah, maybe you're right. You should drink it instead. You look like someone just took a dump on your grave! Go ahead, slam it!" Just then, the nav box signaled an upcoming right turn, and Sammy forgot all about the drink and returned to propositioning the lady in the box.
Nathaniel watched his partner and listened for a minute before returning the can to the glove box. Sammy was still driving like a maniac, and was now giving the lady in the nav box a detailed (and mostly untrue) list of his more desirable physical traits. Nathaniel shook his head and pulled out his caster and started checking its charge. But he continued to watch Sammy out of the corner of one eye.
To be continued ...