THE RANGERA forest where the trees are so thick one can't walk any way but turned to the side is typically a poor place to wear a long trench coat with a tall collar and a wide-brimmed hat. That didn't stop Gerlicky from wearing them though. Both were made from a synthesized material he engineered himself. Though it looked much like leather, it was tougher, non-flammable, and able to resist a cut from the sharpest blade, but still able to pass through even the gnarliest branches and twigs without a snag. Both pieces of apparel were black in color with intricate designs stitched along the edges with teal thread.Gerlicky's boots, ammo pouch, and the glove on his right hand were made of the same durable material, but were much more generic in appearance. They were a natural leather color, save for wear, and had minimal aesthetic alterations. Everything Gerlicky wore had been made by design to be comfortable and always served their purpose.The dog tags were threatening to become a problem though. Gerlicky glanced down at the slivers of metal, slightly disturbed by the deep purple shimmer that never stopped dancing across the surface. I was almost as though the color were some sentient creature trying constantly to escape its gunmetal prison. And no matter how many times Gerlicky tried to tuck the tags under a fold of cloth somewhere, they always worked their way out into the open.As Gerlicky made his way through the trees he kept a tight grip on his firearm, Silence. Its design looked deceptively old-fashioned, but in truth it was a modern marvel. It was bolt-action sniper rifle most of the time, but Gerlicky had built it to be far more versatile. When required, two limbs sprung out to the sides of the barrel, making for a deadly accurate crossbow.With a lethal weapon and even more lethal aim, not a soul in the universe could rival Gerlicky for long-range assassination. Extremely useful qualities for a man who made his way as a bounty hunter.Gerlicky paused a moment as he walked into a small clearing in the trees. Standing in the middle, Gerlicky judged it was only about twenty feet in diameter. After propping Silence up against a nearby tree, he took a knee and ran the fingers of his left hand gingerly across the ground as he analyzed it. There were small patches where the vegetation had been corroded away by some form of toxin. Gerlicky allowed himself a slight, sinister grin. "Looks like I'm on the right track.""As are we."Gerlicky stood up quickly and, with lightning fast reflexes, retrieved a six-shooter from its holster and trained it on the new arrivals."My, aren't we a little jumpy today?"Standing before Gerlicky were three individuals, clearly mercenaries despite their generic-looking hunting outfits. They all wore vests and were toting machetes. One was bald, heavily built, and had a bushy moustache. The man to his left was lanky and had long brown hair. On the right, a man who was overweight, wore glasses and a hat, and clearly didn't know how to properly use a large knife.Gerlicky was about to ask how they managed to hack their way through the trees and approach without making a sound, but he saw the answer first. The long-haired man was carrying a device strapped to his back. Known by most as a "sonic vacuum", it was capable of dampening any and all sound in the immediate vicinity when activated.Regardless of who they were or how they approached unnoticed mattered little. Their body language alone was enough to tell they had malicious intent and Gerlicky wasn't one to mince words; people who did often wound up "minced" themselves in his experience. Without a word Gerlicky fired off three rounds from his revolver, each bullet placed between the eyes of his aggressors. Confusion danced across Gerlicky's face when the bullets disappeared without hitting home."Please," said one of the men with a chuckle. He shook his head in disappointment. "You'll have to do better than that, mate."Gerlicky was more than happy to oblige. He fired off another three rounds, twice as quickly as the previous attempt, but at such a pace it was impossible to see a difference. This time, Gerlicky noticed the shimmer."High-Velocity Projectile Disintegration Field Emitters," the man said with a grin as he tapped the device on his belt. "Most of me boys can't stand the big words though, so we just call them those shield thingies. Quite a shame that you wasted all your shots on them so carelessly."Gerlicky remained stiff as a statue, never taking the gun's sights off the man. "What do you want?""It's quite simple really. We've been tracking you for weeks. Would've taken a lot longer if you hadn't stopped to talk to tall, dark, and gruesome a couple days ago. You sure have some ugly friends.""I'd never met him before," Gerlicky retorted. "Now I'm only going to ask one more time. What do you want with me?""Oh it's not what I want with you. It's what our employer wants with you which, quite frankly, I don't know nor care." A couple moments of silence passed before he continued, "Now you have two options. Option one: come quietly and we won't have to chop you up into mince meat. Option two: you make the slightest move for that ammo pouch of yours and--""I'm all out of ammo," Gerlicky said."Well, now isn't that just too bad? I guess you'll--""I don't need any."Gerlicky pulled the trigger more times in the following second than is humanly possible. A torrent of shadowy ammunition spewed from the revolver's barrel striking the bearded man right between the eyes. The bullets broke on impact and shadows smothered his face completely before reaching out and spreading to the other two men as well, all happening in a matter of seconds. The three would-be attackers tried to claw the darkness from their faces, but their attempts were futile. The shadows clung tight until all three had been suffocated into unconsciousness before falling to the forest floor."Amateurs," Gerlicky grumbled. He walked over to where the limp bodies lay and retrieved their machetes. Holding them in both hands, he broke them all over his knee and tossed the wooden handles away. He held his left hand over them a moment and watched as it began to glow. After a few moments, his hand had become a white-hot mass of plasma. He cupped his hand around the underside of the blades and slowly moved down their length. Before long, he had a large handful of soft, glowing metal to work with. He moved it about in his hand, slag dripping between his fingers as they made slow, precise rolls and pinches. After about a minute of this, Gerlicky's hand stopped glowing and returned to flesh and blood. He opened his fist to reveal a handful of brand new revolver ammunition, still glowing red with heat. Gerlicky reloaded his sidearm and placed the rest in his ammo pouch."Time to go." Gerlicky picked up Silence and resumed his journey through the trees.
***At long last Gerlicky reached the forest's edge and spied his goal. Just a little way beyond the forest was a rise upon which the ruins of a relatively small castle was perched. It was here that the so-called Venom Shrikes had been hiding for the past few weeks.Gerlicky wasn't the only one to have finally found them.About a half-dozen more of those mercenaries were standing out front of the castle shooting wildly into the air at three creatures with wings of pure shadow. No matter how well-placed their aim was, not a single merc could land a shot. The Venom Shrikes were swooping and diving like mad and spitting daggers of caustic venom at their foes to keep them off their feet.If the Venom Shrikes weren't human anymore, they at least were at some point, Gerlicky decided. Aside from the glowing spit and shadowy wings, each shrike was covered in large, craggy, tough scales, almost like feathers made of rock. Their eyes all glowed colors that seemed to change as the acted. Most notably, every time one of the shrikes went into a power dive their eyes glowed a vicious red color. Aside from that, they were mostly humanoid in appearance.Gerlicky lay prone on the ground and watched the skirmish through Silence's scope for while. He took mental notes of how the Venom Shrikes reacted to every attack made against them. This would be easy, Gerlicky noted.Too easy.There was no wind, not enough distance for significant fall-off, and the shrikes moved predictably. Gerlicky much preferred something that at least resembled a challenge. He could snipe the white hair of his choosing off an old man's beard during a blizzard if he so chose. This was going to be like shooting fish in a barrel full of gunpowder.Ordinarily Gerlicky wouldn't have thought twice about blowing every merc's head clean off. Something stirred inside him though and made him hesitate. He couldn't explain why, but he didn't want to kill them. Was he losing his nerve? Gerlicky shook his head, trying to clear it. He'd figure it out later.Gerlicky silently loaded several concussion rounds into his rifle. He fired and when they struck home they exploded with just enough force to knock the mercenaries off their feet and render them unconscious. Gerlicky flicked a switch on Silence for crossbow mode. Before the Venom Shrikes even had a chance to determine what happened to the mercs, they found themselves each struck by a paralyzing arrow. Gerlicky watched with satisfaction as all three struck the ground.Paleo watched as a cloaked figure holding a nasty-looking rifle strode up the rise straight for him. The toxin that had paralyzed himself and his comrades hadn't been too strong, so he was at least capable of speaking. "Wolveon," he whispered. "Can you hit this guy with a vertigo shot?""Hit him? I can't even see him," Wolveon whispered back. He tried to turn his head, but to no avail."Whispering is pointless," Gerlicky said. "I could hear you fifty yards away even if you didn't say a word.""Then perhaps we should just skip the introductions," the third shrike snarled. A quick shot of purple-colored venom followed a scream from his mouth and struck Gerlicky square in the throat.Gerlicky opened his mouth as though to say something, but no words issued forth. My, aren't you clever now . . . Grimoire is it?Grimoire frowned. "He's a telepath."Close enough. Either way, I wasn't lying before when I said I could hear you even when you're silent. Gerlicky walked over to Paleo and gave him a kick for good measure. And you'd be wise to keep that mouth of yours shut, shrike. Temporarily blind or not, I could still put a bullet between your eyes so fast it would leave you reeling if only you weren't so dead.Paleo wiggled his fingers as he felt the paralyzation beginning wearing off. "Tell us what you want with us already. Else I'm liable to get a bit upset."Gerlicky cleared his throat. Apparently the venom that had disabled his vocal cords wore off sooner than it was intended to judging by Grimoire's thoughts. "I care not what happens to you, only that I get paid.""By who?" Wolveon demanded.As if in response, a large creature soared into view from behind the cover of the tree tops. It looked like something from one of Gerlicky's nightmares. But then, nobody currently present was exactly an image of beauty anyways. It looked like an oversized grizzly bear with giant bat wings, a head covered in spikes, scaly tentacles sprouting everywhere from its midsection, and it was black all over with glowing red eyes.When the creature landed, Gerlicky spied somebody mounted atop the creature. He was incredibly heavily armored, so much so that even sitting up straight should have been near impossible. Twisted metal thorns covered the shoulder pads and armor on his back. His eyes also shared the same red glow as the creature he rode. A large glaive was nested amidst the thorns on his back. It didn't look incredibly out of the ordinary, save for the inky black liquid perpetually dripping from the blade that seemed to emanate from nowhere at all. Gerlicky turned his head back toward the immobilized shrikes still lying on the ground. "He's the one you have to worry about."The new arrival dismounted. As he did, the glow disappeared from both his eyes and the creature's. Gerlicky watched as the monster bolted off for the forest. As it did, shadows seemed to melt away. The creature began to shrink down and the more grotesque feature disappeared. Just before it disappeared beyond the edge of the forest, it had fully separated into a bear, swarm of bats, and maybe a few other animals as well.If Gerlicky had any questions, he chose to keep them to himself. "You are surprisingly punctual.""When my master said I'd be here as soon as the shrikes were ready for collection he meant it."Gerlicky crossed his arms. "Just who are you anyways?""I am the general of my master's army."Gerlicky didn't like to be played with. He decided he'd just pluck "The General's" name from his mind. Or at least, he tried."Please, it isn't that easy, ranger," the general said. You don't honestly believe that you're the only telepath in the world, do you?Gerlicky quickly shielded his mind, but it was too late. The General had gotten what he wanted."Careful, Gerlicky. Somebody might find out something you don't want them to someday."Gerlicky snarled. "Yeah, well you left a little something behind while you went poking around, Sumiki.""Believe me, ranger. You can't learn anything from me that I don't let you.""I have a wonderful idea," Paleo interrupted. "How about you two just choke on your egos and die already?""They'll be able to move again in about five seconds," Gerlicky warned. "If you intend to contain them somehow for transport, you might want to do it now.""Oh, I've got that well covered," Sumiki said, waving a gauntlet toward the shrikes.Gerlicky watched as all three Venom Shrikes rose to their feet and, clearly against their will, walked towards Sumiki. Gerlicky felt no mental energies coming from Sumiki, so it clearly wasn't mind control. The General was using a different power entirely to control their bodies, rendering anyone's mental shielding or will a useless defense against it."Now then," Sumiki said, "Let's see what twisted creation we can make of you." He moved his hands in and out, up and down, around in circles, and as he did the Venom Shrikes pulled together. Thick shadows covered them and their bodies began to merge and grow. The sight of it was so disgusting as to be almost beautiful. When Sumiki finished, a gargantuan creature that could only best be described as an obsidian dragon stood before him. "Thanks again," Sumiki said to Gerlicky as he climbed on the dragon's back."Hold on just one moment!" Gerlicky shouted angrily. "I was told you were to deliver my pay!""I have not forgotten your reward," Sumiki replied calmly. "You are being extended an invitation to join my master's forces.""Forget it! I work alone.""Your being tasked to bring down the Venom Shrikes was not a job," Sumiki said. "It was a test to make sure you had what it takes. I could have easily brought them down myself. You weren't needed for that.""Then you can just continue not needing me." Gerlicky turned and began to walk away."Not so fast!"Gerlicky's limbs froze. Try as he could, he was unable to move. Then, despite his efforts otherwise, he turned around and began to walk back towards Sumiki. "Let go of me! Or so help me I'll--""You'll what?" Sumiki asked. "Shoot me? Not a chance. If I so chose..."With one sweep quick sweep of his arm Gerlicky was pointing his revolver at his own forehead."...I could have you shoot yourself right now. Or perhaps..."Gerlicky's arm swung downwards."...you could fire a few rounds into your own leg? Maybe a little suffering would convince you."Gerlicky hissed through his teeth. "You ugly, sick-minded--""Now now, we can't have you behaving so poorly when we arrive," Sumiki said. "You'd be wise to watch your mouth." He then forced Gerlicky to climb aboard the dragon and take a seat."You'd be wise to watch your back..."Monster and riders rose into the sky, the last glimpse of sunlight fading behind them. Where they were headed, not even Sumiki knew. He navigated by gut feeling alone and, somehow, that always brought him back to his master.Lord Takuma.---Is this one perhaps the longest now? I don't really know. I don't have time to check either, I gotta post this and then bolt off to work.I have one more short story in mind, but it'll have to wait. "Steak Boy Goes to Brickfair" is now my top priority. :DCriticism is appreciated, as per usual. I do my best to respond to each and every post I get.You can find out more about this series here. (Now there seems to be TWO completely unrelated items there...)