// Face Danger
+2 (wits; to perceive if this is a delusion or not) => 6 vs 8, 10. Miss.
This is actually a favorable result, because I want this next part to happen.
You'll see the price.
I don't know why I hadn't realized it earlier. Or, better yet, why I hadn't accepted the truth earlier. Maybe I was too hopeful. The tree – the mysterious growth that should not exist – was a clear sign of what to expect here: more delusions. A giant tree didn't just sprout in the desert, no matter how real it looked. If the man before me was real, then maybe that would explain the flora. But Ira, on New Bohemia?
Ira's eyes widened as my fist closed in on him. "LOCKE! LOCKE STOP!"
// Face Danger
+3 (Iron) + 2 (Lightning) = +5 => 6 vs 3,10. Weak hit.
-1 Lightning 
And, ya know what? Let's lose some Health. -1 
Endure Harm -1
+3 (Iron) => 9 vs 8,9. Weak hit. Press on.
My fist collided with the abandoned home, leaving a scorch mark from the high voltage and scarring the building's exterior. The delusion had only barely escaped. Blood trailed down my fist. I felt my temperature rise as adrenaline and anger filled me. This desert had opened up every box I had carefully hidden in my mind's attic and tossed its contents on the floor, waiting for me to trip all over it.
"I'm so sick and tired of talking to everyone I've wronged or let down. Akim and Amari... Karim and Michael... You." Spittle flew in his direction, my breathing becoming laborious in the heat. "Please, I just want some fucking peace! I'm so tired of suffering."
This torture was unbearable. I blamed myself for both Akim and Amari's deaths, but I had managed to mostly push past that. I had always thought that Karim was disappointed in me – unapproving of how I had not lived up to his expectations – and his delusion helped me put words to the feelings that I had been trying my best to keep locked away. And Michael... I still felt guilty for stopping my search, for not finding him, for doing my best to forget him. But he had to have known that I did try; losing my brother had just hurt too much.
But there was no coming back from this. No amount of talking to myself would grant atonement for how I treated him.
Ira – the love of my life, the one I'd left on Avam – stood before me, hands held in the air. The attic was closed, and as a result, a thousand emotions rushed over me: love and guilt and fear and hope and despair and uncertainty and chaos. It broke me. I began to fidget, unable to keep all of my emotions in. Electricity crackled all over my exposed skin. I didn't want to have the same talk with Ira that I had with the others. I didn't deserve to work through my issues with him just yet.
My expression hardened despite the tears I could feel dripping down my face. I trained my gaze on the impossible man before me and took slow steps toward him. I knew this was what we – the Branded – looked like to everyone who feared us: malicious, cruel beings of chaos and destruction. But right now, no one was around to see it but me, so I let it go. I heard a faint beeping sound, but I ignored it.
"Locke, I'm real!"
"SHUT. UP!" I cocked my fist back, letting the electricity flow through it once more. I didn't want to deal with my pain. I just wanted to lash out. I was done letting my delusions control me – heal me. I charged him, the beeping louder and louder now. I cut my focus to the right and saw Watt flashing–
// Face Danger
+2 (wits; to see if he can tell if this is an illusion or not): 6 vs 1,10. Weak hit.
-1 Momentum 
On a root. A root that wasn't there before.
The seeds I had in my pocket burst, a sound like popcorn popping filling the air. They grew and expanded rapidly. Vines rushed forth, wrapping around my hands and legs. The root below me thrust itself upwards and around, entangling my shirtless body in a tight grip, and slammed me onto the ground.
Another illusion. Making me deal with the mess I made, I thought.
It'd felt so real, though. He looked so real.
As much as I wanted to believe that I could touch him again, I couldn't sit through him making me feel bad, too. I began to ramble, trying to say whatever I needed to deal with the issue quickly so I could shove it back into a box for later.
"I'm sorry I left you behind! I'm sorry I didn't come to find you! I'm sorry I felt like I didn't deserve you and treated you horribly because of it! I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm–"
Ira kissed me.
+1 (Heart): 6 vs... 3, 3! STRONG HIT AND A MATCH! The gods have FINALLY smiled upon me.
No longer shaken! And +1 Spirit 
Also, apparently, this is a thing now. Ira gets broken and a kiss brings him back. I can dig it.
"I– Ira...?" No. Impossible. I had to be dreaming. Why would my mind do this to me? I broke down even more. I had to assume I was still dreaming, dying in the desert heat somewhere.
"It's me, dumbdumb." He waved a hand, the plants retracting and releasing me.
I had to be losing it. I could feel the vines as they carefully snaked their way off of me, I could smell the sweet perfume of the area, and... His lips had felt so real.
"You taught me a quote about impossibility once," Ira said, hands still raised. "What was it?"
"'Once...'" I could barely speak through the tears. "'Once you eliminate the impossible... whatever remains...'"
"'However improbable,'" Ira said.
"Must be the truth."
// Original Face Danger Result
Ira is not a delusion, so... he actually attacked him.
I was on my feet before I knew it, arms wrapped around him. I could really feel him. I could smell him.
I wept uncontrolably.
// Make a Connection
+1 (Heart) => 4 vs 2,7. Weak hit.
That match from the Hearten? I'm going to say that the previous altercation was "demand" enough. They've crossed that bridge already, lol.
WELCOME TO THE TEAM, IRA!
+2 (Heart+Ira): 6 vs... 9, 9.
Looks like the gods giveth and they taketh away. Luckily, Sojourn is the one move where a Miss can be a good thing. But this Match??
So, first, what do we get for this move?
+3 Health 
+3 Spirit 
And, of course, Ira must ask something from him. Something tells me he's like a freedom fighter now... OH. Maybe he works with Legacy??
Also, this match. Because the circumstances are odd – it's a miss with a match, but turned into a strong hit – and I forgot to handle it, I know how this match comes into play in hindsight: There is a specific question that Locke doesn't ask Ira that I realize he should have. This match will encompass him not asking that.
But I'll tell you all: Ira definitely knows about one of the questions Locke has. Make sure you read "Thorns" for a hint towards what the question is.
The abandoned home was, to my surprise, not abandoned at all. New paneling, extensive repairs, and central AC. One floor, two bedrooms, a nice-sized bathroom, living space. Plants consumed practically every inch of the home, some hanging, some in pots raised or on the ground, vines stretching from one wall to the next. The air inside the home was fresh and clean and subtly fragrant. Greens and reds and blues and yellows blossomed all over.
There was no question that Ira lived here.
Ira led me to a bedroom and drew the shades. He motioned for me to rest on the bed as he went to retrieve a cold rag, water, and more pillows. The sheets felt cool on my skin. I laid down and realized, almost immediately, that this was his bed, not a guest room – it smelled just like him. Just like I remembered.
I still thought I was dreaming.
"H-how long have you been here?" I took a sip of water upon his return, unable to let him leave my sight now. He had also set down a small tray of food – vegetables, crackers, a few pieces of dried meat. My stomach growled loudly and I looked to him, embarrassed. He smiled.
"Been here for a year or so." Ira sat down next to me, his hand uncomfortably-comfortably close. I still had on pants – they did their job of hiding my true emotions well.
I reached for a cracker and – hesitant – tasted it. It wasn't dirt. Or, I was having an incredibly lucid dream. It made my emotions flip. I had attacked him. But what if this was all still a dream? I wanted to believe so badly that this was him, that my mind wouldn't play this kind of a trick on me.
Before I could get a chance to reshape my thoughts, I blurted out: "What the hell are you doing here?"
It was his turn to look embarrassed. "I..." He avoided my gaze. I could tell that, unlike myself, he was using this time to shape his sentence properly. When he did look at me again, he said, "I came here because this is where you said you grew up."
My heart thumped loudly, painfully. I had forgotten I told him that.
"You came here... because of me?"
The waterworks were back. He had come all the way here – to New Bohemia, of all places – to see me? How long had he been waiting? I felt so guilty now, remembering my conversation with Karim's delusion. I hadn't gone to his home looking for him. Instead, I'd shoved him in a box in my mind and tried to forget about him. I had always told myself I wouldn't even know where to begin looking for the Ironlands.
Ira climbed into bed and held me. "I've been doing my best to make sure people here get fed. You probably know better than me: Port Wreck doesn't have access to the best food. So, I use my Branding out here, away from prying eyes – hence the large ass tree and crops in the back. I had a Quakebranded help me get the soil in a useable state. I grow enough food, sell it for cheap. Took on a small debt with Diogenes, too, to get this land and I'm paying it off while I work for Legacy."
"Legacy? That's amazing. I know they – you – do good work."
I couldn't take my eyes off of him, afraid that if I did, I'd miss more moments with him. Even in his arms – his touch against my bare chest soothing yet invigorating – I was unsure of whether or not he was a delusion. I let that thought linger for a moment more before I decided that I no longer cared if he was real or not. I decided to embrace him, fully. Figuratively and literally. If he turned out to be fake, then maybe it was my mind's way of giving me something I had desperately been wanting and needing. Maybe it would give me a kick in the right direction to actually find him, find my brother, and become someone Karim would be proud of.
For now, I let the improbable become truth.
I wrapped my arms around him and kissed him deeply. It dawned on me that I probably smelled horrific at this point, and I was getting all kinds of dirt on his clean sheets, so I tried to pull away. He simply pulled me back in. It felt like we both needed this. Who was I to deny either of us?
"I missed that," he said, finally letting me go.
"I'm sorry I attacked you earlier. I saw some... things on my trip here. I was losing my mind."
"In the Valley of Fear? I believe you." I hadn't heard this area called that before, but things change when you're gone for so long. "The locals have been talking about it lately. Speaking of..." He cleared his throat. "They've also been talking about all the Branded that've been rounded up. Legacy wants to help free them. Not sure what I did to deserve a stritma, but we could use your help if you're up for it."
"Anything." I did not hesitate. I would do anything for him. I sat back and fished through my pants for my black iron coin.
Ira gasped softly. "Y-you still have that?"
I met his gaze. Seeing him shocked made me smile. As much as I like to give myself credit for putting all of my emotions for him in a box, there was only so much I could actually fit in one. Ira had given me the coin back on Avam. He had explained what an Ironsworn was and, captivated by everything Ira said or did, I had soaked in every word. I brushed my thumb over the rose and thorns. "It meant– means a lot to me."
I sat up straight and cleared my throat, my eyes locked on his. I wanted to impress him. "I swear to help you free the Branded."
// Swear an Iron Vow
+1 (Heart) + 1 (Ira) = +2 => 8 vs 3,7. Strong hit!
Of course. -hair flip-
+2 momentum 
// Develop with Ira
We've sworn a vow to help Ira! +1 progress on this connection [1/10]
I sensed a hint of another emotion from Ira. From what I remembered, he had been raised Ironsworn but he shunned those beliefs... until meeting me. Maybe I should dial it back a bit, I thought. I wasn't sure if I was making him uncomfortable. That was the last thing I wanted.
"Helps that I know exactly where they're being held," I said, hoping to focus on something else for just a moment. "If they haven't updated their M.O., it's where I was taken, too." I slowly climbed out of bed and realized my pants were not hiding anything anymore. I turned to the side as if inspecting the room. "When is this going down?"
I'm rolling these next four things into this one toggle, as there's no actual fiction around it. We're montaging!
+4 (spirit) => 9 vs 6, 10. Weak hit.
+2 Lightning 
+2 (Wits; closest thing I could think of, as he's asking Ira for help in getting prepared) + 1 (Ira) = +3 => 5 vs 1,6. Weak hit.
+2 Supply 
+2 (Wits) => 6 vs 3,7. Weak hit.
That's only 1 Repair point since I think this counts as in the field. Soooo.. -2 Supply  to heal Watt a total of +3 Health 
Secure an Advantage
+2 (Wits) + 1 (Ira) = +3 => . . .
I took a well-deserved – and needed – shower. For an hour, I let the water wash away everything I'd been through in the desert. Though, part of me – a particular part – hoped that Ira would join me. He did not, however. When I was done, Ira helped me get ready for the mission. Under most other circumstances, for a mission like this, I would have taken my time, done a bit more recon, and planned things with a bit more detail. However, this was not most circumstances – Ira had asked me for help, and I was willing to drop everything to help him.
Besides, it wasn't as if all of my well-laid plans had worked out flawlessly so far.
I got a bit more of a charge from the solar panels before the sun set, and Ira gave me some supplies to help me repair and charge Watt. Then we set into planning. Watt pulled up a map of New Bohemia for us and zoomed in on the Salvi Sigil. I rotated the map to show the Salvi Sigil from the side as if looking from Port Wreck and pointed to the ground beneath the city. I let him know where they were probably being held: a facility beneath the city. New Bohemia was practically all uneven, plateaus and spires all around, with the Salvi Sigil stationed at the top of the highest plateau. Because of that, there was plenty of space beneath the city for a top-secret underground facility.
"I thought that was just a rumor," Ira said.
"I wish. Outside of being Hivebranded or Quakebranded, being underground is the worst place for all of us. I think we can get in through the sewers, here."
"Good thing they're down a Salvi."
I looked to him, suddenly remembering what brought me to New Bohemia in the first place. "Now that you mention it, have you heard of a group called the Benevolent?"
Does he? This will be 50/50. Working with Legacy, he might have run across them before.
Ira shook his head. "No. Who are they?"
"Four – three, now that Akim's dead – Mimics trying to make it hard for people like us. Akim Salvi took his brother’s gear and tried to frame a pro-Branded illustrator on Saffron. I... Um... I’m the reason he’s dead.”
"It was an accident, really."
I told him what happened on the derelict, and about John. After we had come up with a suitable plan of action, we grabbed what we needed. Ira let me borrow some of his "Shadow clothing," as he called it, and we made our way into town. Luckily, Ira had his own form of transportation. In fact, he traveled into Port Wreck via a route I'd never seen or taken before – if I had known about it, it would have saved me a hazardous trip through the desert.
Ira parked the vehicle about a half-mile outside of Port Wreck and used his Branding to hide it within some foliage. Civilian clothing thrown over our Shadow attire, we entered Port Wreck and headed towards the market under the cover of moonlight. Watt floated ahead and above us to keep watch.
// Secure an Advantage Result
+2 (wits) + 1 (Ira) = +3 => 9 vs 10, 10.
Miss and a match.
What happens? PtP and Story Complication: 21, 82:
- A surprising development complicates your quest.
- Unexpected enemies appear.
Oooh. The enemies. Are they led by a Benevolent, or someone else? Benevolent is Unlikely, 25-: 59, no. Okay, so just a bunch of SPD officers.
What is this surprising development? Descriptor + Focus, 27 95: Dead Vehicle.
"Something feels off," Ira said suddenly. We had just approached our vehicle for city traveling. I looked around, unsure of what he was sensing. I gripped the vehicle's handle and held out a hand for the keys. Ira dropped them into my palm, attention still elsewhere.
I put the keys into the ignition and started the car.
Well, I tried to. It cranked a few times but despite my best efforts, I couldn't get it to start. I reached a hand out to grip the vehicle to jumpstart it myself.
I finally sensed what Ira had. The air had shifted and the electrical current in the air made the hairs on my arm stand on end. Something felt very wrong.
I looked up to the sky.
A large helicopter soared overhead, a voice booming over a loudspeaker. A spotlight shined down on us and the vehicle. Both of us cursed loudly and I scrambled out of the car. Civilians scattered, unsure of what was going on. No words, the two of us ran in the same direction, as the sound of marching footsteps could be heard in the distance. We ditched the civilian disguise and tossed them to the side, our pitch-black clothing helping to mask us in the darkness of the night. Ira also aided our escape, using the trees and greenery in the city to help cover our movement. The trees swayed, branches moved out of our way, and leaves fell to hide our tracks.
// Face Danger
+2 (Shadow) + 1 (Ira; using his Thornbranding) = +3 => 8 vs 4, 9. Weak hit.
We'll take -1 Stress 
Endure Stress, -1
+3 => 4 vs 1, 5. Weak hit. Just going to press on.
Ira grabbed my arm and pulled me deep into the recesses of a shadow. He cursed silently. "Fucking M&M, I bet you. Of course they would be here. They always know."
His exclamations had always struck me as odd, though it was to be expected considering we grew up in totally different settlements. I couldn't remember what M&M meant, but I knew he would not consider this a Strit. We were in a bad spot but we were lucky to have escaped – for now.
Ira locked eyes with me, words on the tip of his tongue yet he remained silent. When he finally spoke, it was as if he was forcing the words out before he could stop himself. "I need you to go. I need to tell Legacy and get backup. But the Branded won't make it through the night." He gripped my hand tighter. "You have to free them yourself."
The chaos of the moment faded away until it was dull. I had literally just gotten him back. How did he expect me to leave him behind now?
. . .
We seemed to pull each other in, the same thought passing between the both of us. We embraced and kissed as if we would never see each other again. I knew that we would though. We had to.
I took one last look at him and – with an effort and strength that could rival a god – I ran off.
I shoved my worries, my hesitations, my fears into a little box in my mind. I had plenty of mental boxes to spare. I was a pro at this by now.
However, instead of setting it aside to wrestle with later – as I often did – I tossed it out of the window. I was no longer dealing with those feelings. They did not serve me. I purged box after box of useless feelings from my mind's attic.
However improbable, I was going to make it back to him. That was my truth – that was the truth.
I had someone to fight for now. And I wasn't going to let him down.
// Author's Note
I'm SO FRIGGIN HAPPY to finally introduce Ira! He is the love interest of our hero, and I can't wait to see how their story unfolds.
If you're a member, make sure you check out Thorns, as it covers Ira's backstory and dives into more of what the Ironsworn look like in this universe.
If you're not a member, why not join us? It's free, you get THUNDERFANG a day early, a weekly newsletter with some behind-the-scenes stuff, and, now, exclusive stories!
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