::Phoenix Mountains, Tzen Region::
“Great,” Terry said, gripping his baton and deploying the Vanguard shield. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.”
“Now c’mon, Shield,” Manta said, leering down on the pair of interlopers. “Y’ain’t stupid, kid. I know you don’t think you’n fight yer way outta this one.”
Terry was ready to spit some bravado right back into Manta’s face, when he felt Osprey’s hand on his armored shoulder.
“Oh, right,” Terry said, “I forgot, only one of us is decked out in seraphim armor…”
“Well, yes, there is that,” Osprey said. “But, Shield, have you forgotten why we’re here?”
“To fix Shiru,” Terry said.
“And look where our path has brought us,” Osprey said.
Terry glanced up at Manta. He recalled then something Ammit had said, off-handedly, easily missed, but it returned unbidden to Terry’s mind as he stood there, surrounded by mutant cockroaches and the Web’s premiere omnicidal covert operative. “Breaker and mender both,” Ammit had said.
“… You’ve got to be kidding me…” the Shield said, sighing and hanging his head.
“Why don’t you let me do the talking?” Osprey said. “I think Manta will be better disposed to dealing with me. Seeing as how, of the two of us, I’ve never killed Manta before.”
“There were mitigating circumstances there,” Terry replied, as Osprey stepped forward.
“Manta,” Osprey called up, as the cockroach-soldiers leveled their weapons in the avian Mystic’s direction.
“Os,” Manta said, inclining his head. “Don’t suppose one of you’s gonna explain to me why we’re all here, now. And why my fuckin’ door’s broke.”
“Well, I can try,” Osprey said. “But first I think you should… ah… have your friends here lower their weapons. Nobody’s here to hurt anybody, I don’t think.”
“Well 'at’s where you’re wrong, Os,” Manta said, leaning casually on the catwalk railing. “See, these guys here, they’re exactly fuckin’ here to hurt somebody. If I tell 'em to. I ain’t decided if I gotta go ahead and do that yet, though. But out of an abundance of caution, they’re good ta go the microsecond I decide ta say the word.”
“I see,” Osprey said. “So they’re, what… your bouncers?”
“Somethin’ like that,” Manta said. “Truthfully, it’s just yer dumb luck you caught us here. We were just makin’ a stop here at the Cave on our way out from Tunlan, stockin’ up and preparin’ ta ship out to the Fringe. Got us a contract to fulfill.”
“Didn’t know you were rolling with an entourage these days.”
“Well, you know. Sometimes it’s good to be the El Presidente for Life of a small independent dictatorship.”
“Hey, that’s right, you’re a head of state…” Osprey said, thinking. “Would you mind if I left you my resume –?”
“Osprey!” Terry snapped.
“Sorry, sorry,” Osprey said, laughing nervously. “Right, so, why we’re here. You see, we were in Albrook, and we had a meeting at the Judge’s Scales –”
“Hah!” Manta chortled. “Good times. Say how is ol’ gator-face, anyhow?”
“Well, just fine, I guess,” Osprey said.
“Y’know that guy can’t stand me?” Manta offered.
“Can’t imagine why…” Terry muttered.
Manta ignored him. “That weirdo Ted still workin’ for 'im?”
“Yes,” Osprey replied quickly, veering right back around to his main point: “Anyway, Ammit said we had to climb the Phoenix mountains, in search of destiny and whatnot, and we ended up in here following Ammit’s directions. So, here we are. Now, two things… first, I don’t suppose you’d be interested in helping us in our quest to repair the Shield’s shield? And second, what sort of benefits do these hired cockroach-goons of yours enjoy?”
“Repair it!?” Manta laughed. “You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me. I went to an unbelievable amount of trouble to break that fuckin’ thing in the first place.”
“The irony isn’t lost on me, really,” Terry said.
“Hey, fuck you cuntnugget,” Manta said, “I’m the one that fucking died that night. By all rights I should be havin’ my roach-boys mow you down right fucking now, 'cept I don’t want 'em wastin any of their ammo before we get to where we gotta be. That shit’s expensive, man.”
“Well, good,” Osprey said, “I’m glad we resolved the is-anybody-going-to-get-shot-to-death question. Now, about the shield…”
“I believe my answer to that question was ‘fuck you, cuntrag,’” Manta said.
“Cuntnugget,” Terry corrected. “I believe it was ‘cuntnugget,’ not ‘cuntrag.’”
“Yeah, keep talkin’, asshole,” Manta said, as he drew his pistol and levelled it at the Shield. “I’m guessin’ it’s gonna take me a hell of a lot less effort to break your replacement toys and finish what I started the last time we danced.”
“… Please?” Osprey said.
Manta chuckled, not taking his eyes off of the Shield. With his free hand, he clutched the catwalk railing and vaulted himself over, landing next to Osprey.
“Look,” Manta said, “As much as I appreciate you two comin’ over and breakin’ into my volcanic cavern hideout, I got two very compelling reasons not to help you guys. First, I’m sorta on a pretty strict timetable here. I should’ve been underway an hour ago, but I wasted three hours when I got here tryin ta figure out what the shit happened to my power generators since the last time I used this place. Second, I don’t wanna, and also, your pal the Shield’s a fuckin’ idiot douchenozzle shitstain bitch.” Manta paused, and counted on his fingers. “Three, three reasons not to help you guys. Also fuck you. Four reasons.”
“Okay, but the Shield’s… doucheness aside, surely there must be some way we can work out a compromise,” Osprey said.
Terry sighed, but decided it might be best if he said nothing.
“I don’t see how, Os,” Manta said. “You got money?”
Osprey paused. “Well. I’m actually between jobs at the moment.”
“Okay, so there goes that,” Manta said. “I gotta be honest, money was pretty much your only in with me. Without copious wads of coin ta balance everything out, I can’t see what possible interest I could have in making this ex-super bag-of-dicks super again. Shieldy and I ain’t got the best of histories together, I’ll have you know. Dunno if you heard, Os… but your boy in the seraphim suit killed me this one time. That ain’t something you get over easy-like.”
“Oh come on, you got invincible voodoo zombie powers out of that!” Terry balked. “You can’t possibly be upset over my killing you!! You made out like a bandit, you godsdamned psychopath.”
Manta opened his mouth, but then stopped. He nodded his head thoughtfully. “You know, you’re probably right. But still, man, you fucking threw me off a building and impaled me on my own knife. That’s fuckin’ weak. Bitch.”
“Now now,” Osprey said, “In fairness, you tried to kill him first.”
“That’s different,” Manta said, “Some guy gave me money. And don’t fucking take his side, Os.”
“Look,” Osprey said, “I think we can actually work something out here. If you’re both willing to be fair… Shield? Manta?”
Osprey looked at both men in turn. Manta scowled. He debated snapping out his hand and yanking off a fistful of Osprey’s head feathers.
“Now Manta, you’re the one who broke the shield, first of all,” Osprey continued. “Second of all, the Shield’s sort of responsible for you ending up with voodoo invincibility, and all of that. So, from a certain standpoint, you could say you actually owe it to the Shield to fix what’s broken. Right?”
Manta cleared his throat. “A little thin, but I’ll let it stand till I see where you’re goin with this.”
“Shield,” Osprey said, turning to face the Shield. “Surely you can see how Manta wouldn’t want to do this for you. I mean, it’s really not in his best interests. He’s probably afraid that you’d beat him up once you got all supered-out again.”
“Hey, fuck you drumstick!” Manta said, pushing Osprey from behind. Osprey stumbled forward and spun around to face the Priman. “I ain’t afraid of this tights-wearin’ bitch-ass loser!”
“I dunno, you sound awful defensive,” Terry said, smirking.
“Yeah, take off that robo-cop piece of shit and say that to my face, limpdick,” Manta said.
“Well, I really wouldn’t blame you if you were afraid of the Shield’s return,” Osprey said. “I mean, at the height of his power, the Shield was able to intercept weapons of mass destruction with his body.”
“Twice,” Terry said.
Osprey nodded. “Two times.”
“That don’t mean shit,” Manta said. “Bitch, I am a weapon of mass destruction!!”
“Look,” Terry said, “We tried, Osprey. You’re right: Manta’s just afraid of what could happen. We’ll just have to find another way.”
Manta sighed. Then, a smile. A chuckle. A hideous, psychotic, villainous guffaw that echoed through the caverns all around them. The Priman folded his arms. “Don’t get all proud of yourselves and think this reverse psychology bullshit’s workin’. Cuz it ain’t. Well, sort of. But fuck you anyway… I tell you what, bitches. I’ll do you this thing you beat down my fuckin’ door over… but on one condition, and it’s non-negotiable.”
“Okay, great!” Osprey said. “Now we’re getting somewhere. I think we’ve made some real progress here –”
Manta pushed Osprey aside, and stood face-to-face with the Shield.
“You owe me one favor,” Manta said. “Which I will name, at a time and place of my choosing, and which you must comply with. Or I get to smack you. In the dick.”
“Let’s define ‘favor,’ before I say yes,” Terry said.
“… also, why in the dick?..” Osprey asked.
“Nuh uh, bitch!” Manta said. “Yes or no, here and now, or there is NO deal.”
“Okay then,” Terry said, “As long as this ‘favor’ is nothing vulgar, humiliating, illegal or debasing –”
“Bitch, shut the fuck up!! You say ‘yes’ or you take a walk, monkeyscrotum. Now what’s it gonna be!?”
Terry sighed. “Yes?” he said.
Manta grinned. “Now say it again,” he said, “But this time… hold out the busted shield in your hands.”
Terry paused. He and Osprey exchanged glances. Shrugging, he opened up his backpack and pulled out the broken fragments of Shiru.
“… Yes?” Terry said.
“Yes what?” Manta said.
“… Yes, I’ll owe you a favor.”
As Terry spoke the words, the bits of slag glowed faintly. Osprey’s eyes widened.
Manta cracked a grin.
“Well, the good news is, it looks like this won’t be a complete waste of everybody’s time,” Manta said. “The bad news is… not that I didn’t trust ya before… but your magic shield’s gonna hold ya to our bargain.”
Terry was confused. Osprey shook his head.
“You… sorta just cast a spell,” Osprey said. “Or, I guess you and Manta did together. It’s as binding as any shady legal agreement. But, silver lining? It looks like Shiru’s still kicking in there. This could actually work.”
Manta clapped his hands and did a chicken dance. “This is why voodoo zombie powers kick the shit out of magic shield invincibility, bitch!! Boo-ya!!”
“There’s one more thing, Manta,” Osprey said. He looked at Terry.
“Right,” Terry said, setting the broken shield down on the ground. “Well, Ammit said you’d have to… add a little bit to the shield. Aside from the broken pieces.”
“Oh yeah?” Manta said. “So this’s also an upgrade, is it? Fine, fine. So what is it then?”
Terry reached up and took off his helmet. He tossed it down next to the shield.
“The armor,” he said, as he began taking off the rest.
Manta blinked. “That’s what you look like under that shit?” he quipped. “Here I was thinkin’ you wore masks to protect your loved ones, but you just hidin’ ugly under there, ain’t ya ass-face?”