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I leaned heavily against the seat in the limousine, breathing hard.  I could hardly move my shoulder, which was in agony.  I gritted my teeth.  I felt sore all over.

            “You look like hell.” Lil grinned.  I didn’t see what was so funny.  “You cut your hair.  I like you without the beard.”

            I let out an unintelligible groan, and gripped my arm tightly.  I closed my eyes for a moment and searched for a coherent thought.

            “What are you doing here?” I finally spat out through a clenched jaw.

            “Our mutual friends gave me a call.  I figured maybe you needed to make a quick exit.”  She smiled.  I finally looked at her.

            She was wearing a charcoal skirt with dark hosiery, and black heels.  Her purse was beside her on the seat.  Lil had a white blouse under a lady’s suit jacket; the top two buttons of the shirt were open.  She looked good.  Not that I cared.  Much.

            “Thanks.” I grunted.

            “It’s been, what, six months and that’s all you have to say?” She smiled, though her words weren’t friendly.  “I just saved your life.  You owe me.”

            She giggled at this.  I just groaned to myself quietly.

            “Poor baby.  You’re hurt.”  Lil said softly.  “We’ll get you home and take a look.”

            The driver let us off at the front door of her building.  I looked up.

            “This isn’t where I live.”

            “No, silly, it’s my place.  No offence, but if people are trying to blow you up, it’s a good chance that they know where you live.”  She led me inside, and we took the elevator up.  I very carefully ignored her the whole way.  Not that I was ungrateful.  I was in pain.

            We entered her apartment.  Lil casually put her purse down on a table near the door, and started peeling off her jacket as she strode down the hallway towards what I assumed was her bedroom.  I stood idly by the door, feeling completely at sea.  She was acting like it was no big deal for me to be there.  I was bleeding from innumerable small cuts and scrapes I picked up jumping through the glass window, and had only just now become aware of.  My shoulder and my leg were screaming at me to do something, and this girl just starts undressing?

            She called out to me from her room, peeking past the doorframe.

            “Are you coming?  You need some antiseptic for those cuts.”

            Not knowing what else to do, I stumbled down the hall towards her room.  I got there in time to see her on the bed, taking off her shoes in one of those indescribably graceful, feminine movements.  Lil looked up at me as she wiggled free, and smiled.  She stood and headed towards the en suite bathroom, pulling off her shirt as she went.  I blushed and turned to stare at the wall in the hallway, trying to block out the glimpse of her bra that kept rising in my mind’s eye.  I didn’t want to be here, and I had to keep reminding myself of that fact.

            Once she was definitely in the bathroom, based on timing how long it should have taken her to walk there, I stepped into her room.  I stood awkwardly, tapping my legs with my hands, trying to figure out what to do next.   Lil came out of the bathroom a moment later, wearing a tight silky robe in a vaguely Japanese pattern, brushing her hair.  I gulped.

            “You’re so cute when you’re flustered.” She smiled and tried to caress my cheek.  I took an awkward step backwards.  “I don’t bite.”

            “I’m not supposed to be here.”

            “Is anyone else volunteering to help you?”  Lil stared at me for a moment.  I shrugged.  She turned and walked back to the bathroom, and then returned, sans brush, but carrying a bottle of antiseptic and some cotton swabs.

            She directed me to sit on the edge of the bed, while she dabbed at the cuts on my hands and face.  I flinched, but tried not to voice my discomfort.  More than a dozen times, anyway.

            “You’re such a baby!”  Lil teased, putting the bottle on the nightstand and the cotton in a garbage can in the bathroom.  She sat down on the bed behind me.  “So, are you going to tell me why you’re fleeing from exploding buildings in the middle of the night?”

            “Didn’t our ‘mutual friends’ tell you?” I said.

            “You don’t need to be snarky.  Just because we broke up doesn’t mean that we can’t be cordial.  Besides, I still think you’re cute, and I know you still have feelings for me.”

            I tried to snort with derision.  I’d never tried that before, so it didn’t go well.

            “Get over yourself!” She giggled, tossing a pillow at my back.  This caused me to turn around and look at her, trying not to laugh.  I did my best to look stern and unimpressed.  She gave me a sultry look, her eyes half-lidded, and her lips pressing together as if trying to say “you really, really want to kiss us.”  I tried to ignore that, but then I was staring at her bare legs, gliding together, barely covered at all by the robe.  I blushed and stared at the bed sheets.

            “You know, Ethan, I could be of great help to you.  All you have to do is ask.”  She smiled winningly.  I could tell from her voice, but I also kept stealing glances.

            “I don’t want your help.” I insisted.  She threw another pillow at my head and left the room.  I groaned and followed.

            She was standing out on the balcony, with the doors open.  Lil had a wonderful view of the city.  Wind pulled at her long hair, it was getting chillier.  I stood just outside the door.

            “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the attempt.  But I can’t really involve anyone in this.  It’s dangerous, and I’m not going to let anyone else try to shoulder the responsibility.”

            “Why should anyone shoulder it?  The noble hero bit is getting tired.  Who said you have to be honourable, all the fucking time?” Lil snapped, staring into the night.

            “It’s what I choose.  It’s who I am.  Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you, but I wouldn’t be me any other way.”

            “Is that your final word?” She looked over her shoulder at me.

            “I’m afraid so.”

            “Okay.” She sighed.  Then, she looked past me, towards the kitchen area.  “Kill him.”

            I turned and saw a familiar face.  My burnt demon from the factory stood in the doorframe, holding a very imposing sword.  One eye was completely shut by a scar, but the other looked undamaged.  I had apparently missed.  He blinked, and I saw the faint outline of the knife cut across the lid.  Apparently, it was a near miss.

            He rushed me quickly, before I could draw a gun.  I had to move fast to dodge his sword slashes.  He splintered a chair to pieces, and then decapitated a houseplant.  Despite the size of his sword, he was fast.  I kept moving around the room as he came at me, trying to buy time to get at my own blade, hidden under my coat thus far.  To that end, I rolled over the dining room table, and in his zeal he sent his sword right through the thick wood.  In the momentary chaos of splintered lumber and his lack of balance, I wiggled out of my coat and threw it at his head while drawing my short sword.

            His was bigger, and he had a longer reach.  I was also hobbled by a bad knee, and the fact that my right arm wasn’t working properly meant I was probably in real trouble.  I was up against the dining room wall and had nowhere to go but right through him.

            I ducked his next big swing, rolling at his legs.  I spilled us both to the ground and scrambled away from him, throwing a vase at his head.  He roared as he got to his feet, and I tossed a chair in his direction.  He sliced at me with his blade, and I barely deflected it with a firm two-handed grip on my sword.  I fell off-balance, because of my leg, and he used the momentary distraction to deliver a hearty kick to my chest.  I went through the glass doors of the balcony, thudding against the metal railing.  I hadn’t noticed Lil exit, but she was gone by now.

            I lay my head back against the balcony, and saw my assailant come at me.  I groaned, clenching my jaw, and tried to get up awkwardly.  He came at me fast, holding his sword kind of like a lance, pointed directly at me for his charge.  There was no time to get out of the way.

            So I swiftly drew my pistol and tossed it under his foot.  He slipped, tumbling forward.  I slashed upwards with my sword, removing his hands as I lay on my back to get away from his blade, and then I kicked upwards with my legs.  He went up and over the balcony railing, yelling all the way down.  I didn’t think the impact would remove his head, or kill him, but he wasn’t going anywhere for a while.  I imagined the majority of his bones were jelly now.  And if his body died only for the demon itself to escape, I was too tired to care.

            I picked myself up out of the shattered glass and staggered back into the apartment.  I brushed bits of glass off myself, feeling very glad that was over with.

            “You dumb bastard,” Lil said angrily.  I turned and saw her standing by the door to the apartment, pointing a gun at me.  I blinked.  I wasn’t surprised, not after this little ambush.  I just hadn’t expected her to be willing to do her own dirty work.

            “What was all this?” I asked. “Flirting with me.  You could have killed me at any time.  Did you watch too much Goldfinger?  You should have listened to Scott Evil and just shot me when you had the chance.”

            “It was my job to tempt you, turn you from your path.  We tried everything to break you:  set fire to your church, made your friend a drug dealer, killed your uncle. When all that failed, they were supposed to kill you.  But you’re too fucking stubborn to change your mind, and apparently clever enough to survive.  So far.”

            I threw my sword at her, not caring about aiming properly.  I rolled on the ground, coming to a kneeling position with my pistol in my hands.  My sword slapped her in the face with the hilt, preventing her from firing.  I shot her in the heart.  It was fast, it was reflexive, and I forgot entirely about trying to take her head off.  I just wanted to be done.

            She stumbled back, hitting the door, and then falling to the ground.  I could actually see the demon spirit escaping her body through her mouth and nose as her human host died, a black smoky shape that had hazy, diaphanous wings and a tail.  It dissipated rapidly, but I knew what I had seen.  A slight whiff of brimstone was in the air, and then it was gone.

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I stood on the glass floor, not even bothering to look at the wreckage downstairs.  Instead, I walked intently around the room, hoping to see whoever had played the music.  The place seemed empty.  I strode towards the bar, the last hiding place.

            Instead of finding an enemy, I found a bomb.          

            I took a closer look and saw a timer attached to what looked like plastic explosives, at least the way it looked in movies.  I had about one minute to get clear.  It seemed like they were wiling to go to great lengths to kill me.  These drones had been mainly a distraction, which explained their overall lack of weaponry.  I didn’t dwell on it, however.  I ran.

            Going downstairs and out the door would take too long.  The hallway would take too long.  I went for the windows.  I didn’t see how I had much choice.  One of the demons had left the building this way; I could see the broken window he had leaped from.  I wasn’t close enough, but I could make my own hole.  I reached a big window and fired my ancient revolver to shatter the glass, leaping out and tumbling to the alley two stories below with a horrifying thud.  I popped my right shoulder and banged up my knee as I landed, the wind knocked from my lungs.

            I didn’t have time to worry about it, beyond being glad I hadn’t broken anything.  I pulled myself to my feet and lumbered down the ally as fast as I could.   I shuffled in an awkward limping run, and made it to the street.  By my best estimates, I had maybe twenty seconds.  I wasn’t going to escape the blast.

            I looked round the street, and was startled to see a familiar limo.  I stumbled forward as the door was kicked open, and Lil gestured at me.

            “Get in, get in, hurry!”

            Not having many alternatives, and still being dizzy from the fall, I got in.  Her driver gunned the engine and we pulled away rapidly.  I watched the explosion from the rear window, as a fireball consumed the club.

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 The three before me went down hard, but I didn’t get the chance to see if they were dead.  Their friend from down the alley came up fast behind me, grabbing at my gun arm.  I let him have the revolver.  After all, I came prepared.  He stumbled back when I let go of the gun as he tried to wrest it away.  I took the moment his confusion bought me to turn around, firing the second gun.  I had salvaged this handgun from the corpses of my enemies over the summer, and another just like it was still in one of the holsters under my coat.

            This gun was considerably more modern, and carried even more bullets than its predecessor.  Desert Eagle .50 was emblazoned along the side.  I had taught myself how to use these weapons quite proficiently in the woods over the summer, but never really understood much about what difference the calibre made.  After all, who was around to teach me the fine points of handguns?  All I knew was that it quite efficiently tore the demon’s head off.

            I picked up my revolver and replaced it in my coat.  Then I entered the darkened building from the side door my assailants had arrived from.  They had conveniently left it unlocked.  I crept down an empty hallway, lit with sporadic light bulbs on the ceiling.  Most of these had burned out.  My best guess was that they used these hallways on the edge of the building to walk between the storage rooms and offices and avoid the crowded dance floors on club nights.

            As I walked, I reflected on my experiences with these enemies, and tried to remember what Dorothy and Rebecca had told me months before.  I suspected that I was dealing with mainly low-level demons, the enforcers.  No matter how many I might clean out of this little enclave, I would have to keep my eyes open for clues as to the location of their superiors.  If there were any.

            As I walked down the shadowed hallway, stretching my hearing whenever I hit a patch with no light bulbs, I thought about all the action movies and comics I’d watched and read.  I remembered witty banter, and realized I wasn’t very good at it.  I don’t know how they made time during a fight.  I was too busy just moving, my instincts kicking in to help me survive.

            Case in point:  when a demon swiped at my head with a crowbar as I came through the door, I was fast enough to pull my head back.  I fired my gun through the door when he was stupid to grab the handle, pumping his stomach full of bullets.  He fell back on his knees, holding the wound, even though he wasn’t bleeding.  The impact was still felt. 

            This left him in a great position for a headshot as I kicked the door open, blowing his skull to smithereens.  I knew his friends were out there, in the vast open space, lurking.  I knew they wanted me to go out there, where I could be ambushed.

            So I waited in the hall, backing up several metres to watch the door.  I could feel my pulse pounding in my ears as sweat dripped down my temple, my breath coming fast.  Every cell of my body was flooded with adrenalin as I waited, coiled to spring, to fight.  I waited, fighting my own urge to get up and go out there guns blazing.  An action hero would.  But I suspected that was the stupidest thing to do.

            On an impulse, I drew the second gun from my coat.  A brief moment later, they opened the door and came through.  I fired at them, pumping off a barrage that tore into arms and legs, ribs and face.  It was eerie, as they screamed with rage but not pain.  I wondered why they were being so stupid to come through the door like lemmings.  Then I caught on.

            I turned suddenly and fired point blank at the demon behind me, the one smart enough to try to outflank me.  I took his head clean off with the impact of the blast, and then turned back to his friends.  They lay sprawled over the floor, trying to stand on broken legs.  I drew my sword from my back, hidden under the coat, and removed their heads with clean, efficient slices.  I dropped my two scavenged handguns, now empty of bullets.  I didn’t have any replacements, so I saw no point to keeping them.  This left me with only the Western pistol and the Eastern sword.

            I went through the door and into the club again, gun drawn, guessing that perhaps I would find more.  It seemed vacant, however.  I wandered past pillars and stacked chairs on tables, glancing up at the second floor.  It seemed I was alone. 

            Yeah, right.  Like it would ever be that easy.

            I kicked over a table and ducked behind it just as two demon gunmen popped up from behind the bar, opening up with automatic weapons.  Their bullets tore through the room, cracking through chairs and splintering tables.  I rolled from behind the overturned table to hide behind a pillar, breathing hard.  The roar of gunplay filled my ears along with the pounding of my own heart.

            I had often read that men with guns were overconfident, as if the metal death-bringers made them invincible.  I wondered if immortal demons were even more cocky, and if that would make them stupid.  I waited as they fired around the room, and heard the telltale click that signalled they were out of bullets.  They had both been dumb enough that neither one held any back in case I attacked.

            I turned from the pillar with a roar and jumped up on a table and leaped towards the bar, coming down on them as they frantically tried to reload their weapons.  I dropkicked one in the chest, slamming him into the shelves full of bottles behind the bar.  He crumpled through in a shower of wood and glass, while I turned towards his friend with a swift cut of my blade, removing his head before he could react.  His mouth still hung open in surprise as it rolled across the floor.

            His friend pulled himself up from the ground, stinking of the alcohol spilled on his clothes.  He swung a tall bottle of vodka like a club, trying to hit me.  I dodged backwards, then ducked under his next swipe.  He kept coming forward, snarling as he swung.  I back-pedaled and then rolled over the bar into the dance floor, amidst ruined furniture.  He jumped up and over the bar, coming down on the floor with a dramatic flair, growling.  I kicked a chair at him, and he went through it like it was made of paper, swinging and growling. 

            I dodged this way and that, evading his strikes with smooth precision.  It was almost like dancing.  Suddenly, the club lights came on, followed by the pounding beat of music.  I suppose someone hoped to distract me.  At that moment, I had spun behind my opponent, and we were almost standing back to back.  When the music hit with a sudden blare, I was too intent on my next move.  My opponent, however, hesitated for a split second, caught off guard.  I used that brief instant to spin the opposite direction with my sword extended, spinning so that I cut through his neck and removed his head.  I looked up to the balcony, where the DJ table was situated on the VIP floor.  A shadowed figure retreated into the dark.

            Before I could move to pursue, three demons entered the room from beyond the bar, presumably from the kitchen.  They carried kitchen knives as weapons, and ran towards me as a unit.  I figured I could stand my ground or run.  So I charged instead, running through the music with a roar of my own. 

            I slashed my sword through the air, forcing the trio to break apart.  One ducked under me, while the other two stepped to the sides.  At the same moment, I jumped into the air, kicking the one on the left in the face.  He spun into a pillar and bounced off as I came down hard on the one in the centre, slamming him into the floor.  I ducked under the slash from the one on the right, and put my sword through his stomach.  I drew it out and cut off his head as he held his guts in surprise.  I back-flipped off his friend and held my blade at the ready.

            Lights flickered through the air in different colours as the rhythm continued.   They came at me with their knives, and we danced a vicious ballet, sword and knives pirouetting, sashaying, cutting through the air with elegance and grace.  We dodged, we swayed, we rocked.  In the midst of these almost beautiful motions, I dropped to one knee in mid-beat, utterly still.  The flow that had possessed us, the rush of motion and beat, a rhythm of bodies, meant they each over-stepped when they found I was not standing to block their blows.  Off-balance, it was easy to slash my blade in a whirl as I stood, cutting through their wrists so hands and knives fell to the floor.  I whirled again and removed both heads in one efficient motion.

            Then, I went upstairs.

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 I walked down a quiet street that night, wearing my green corduroy jacket over my favourite hooded sweatshirt.  There were few people out, it being a Monday night, and none of them were likely to notice such an nondescript youth out for a walk.  It began to rain, the clouded sky opening up in a torrent.  Now there would be even fewer people out tonight.

            I reached the building I was looking for and I pulled up my hood to gain some measure of respite from the rain.  I looked up at it with a rueful smile.  I had returned to the nightclub where I had seen Dan doing a drug deal with the demon, so many months ago.  Things had come full circle.

            The club was closed tonight.  I turned into the alley between it and the next building, leaned against a wall and stared at the building before me.  I stood there and just stared.  Eventually, almost of its own accord, my hand reached into my coat and pulled out my cowboy’s revolver, and I stared at that instead.  I sank to a sitting position, leaning against the wall, contemplating my gun in the rain.

            Thus far, I had defended myself when attacked.  Tonight, I was contemplating bringing the fight to my enemies.  Somehow, that was a line in my mind.  It was easy to justify self-defence, but going looking for trouble bothered me.

            I reminded myself that they were demons.  Monsters posing as human beings.  The Holy Spirit would not allow me to hurt innocents.  I told myself everything I could think of to spur myself to action.  I had been chosen, after all.  I was supposed to be this great warrior.  I was a force for truth and justice.  But it would be so much easier if they’d just come after me, instead.

            “You’re in the wrong part of town, boy.” A voice said.  I looked through falling sheets of rain to see the obligatory dark figure in the cliché trench coat.

            “Do you guys all have the same fashion consultant?” I asked, doing my best Peter Parker impersonation.

            “What?” He asked.

            “Screw it.” I said.  I switched to silent mode and ran towards him.

            He fired his gun several times, at about chest level.  I was smarter than that, having ducked and rolled even as he drew the weapon.  I kicked a garbage can, sending it at his legs, forcing him to move.  Before he could get another blast off, I shot him through the hand.  He dropped his weapon, and turned to me.  No pained shout, no sign of discomfort.  I’d definitely come to the right place.

            I put a bullet in his head at close range, the loud explosion of the pistol echoing in the narrow alley.  His head exploded nicely in chunks of bone and flesh.  I didn’t enjoy seeing it, but I was glad the small cannon in my hand was so effective.  Though the sound bothered me:  I was announcing my presence rather conspicuously.  As a precaution, I drew a second gun from within my coat.

            I didn’t have time to worry about that long.  One of them crashed through a window just above me, landing nimbly in the alley and standing up.  Two more came out a side door of the building.  One appeared at the end of the alley nearest me, presumably coming from the front door.

            “You glow, little warrior.” One of them snarled.  “We hear you coming in the dark.”

            I answered with gunfire.

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 The alarm clock was about to announce that it was six in the morning with a jarring blare.  My hand swiftly pressed the button to silence it as the glowing numbers switched from 5:59 to 6:00.  I had been sitting awake on my dorm bed for a while, praying quietly.  Now it was time to get up.  I stretched, flexing my taut muscles, and then ran my fingers over my short-cropped hair, a layer of fuzz on my head.  I dressed efficiently and went jogging before class.

            A lot had changed in a year.  I had survived a few rare encounters with my dark foes over the summer, and had come to the conclusion that they did not like facing me on my home turf.  My hometown was too small for them to move in and conceal themselves, so they had to try the occasional ambush.  Here, in Toronto, I was on their hunting grounds.  I expected our little chess game to get a lot more intense now that I was back at university.

            I wasn’t wrong. 

            After my first week of classes, I stopped at my mailbox on the first floor of the residence building on a whim.  While I didn’t expect any real mail, there were often notices from the school or student clubs, and I preferred to clean them out before they built up.  I turned the key and opened the little capsule to see a fair-sized box in the slot.

            I pulled it out.  There was no return address on the cardboard box, just my name and room number.  I took it up to my room, and locked the door before opening the box.  A cellular phone fell out, and I caught it swiftly.

            It started to ring.

            “Hello?”

            “Are you ready?”  A familiar voice said.

            “How was your summer?  I found mine very productive,” I said, keeping my voice very conversational.  After all, cell phones weren’t known for being the most secure form of communication in the world.

            “It’s time to see how productive.  Remember the presents we gave you?”

            “How could I forget?  I collected a few more this summer, from visitors.”

            “Bring what you can on Monday.  Listen carefully…”

            I received cleverly coded directions from Dorothy, memorizing the details.  I thought again of chess, and realized, I was far from being the master of this game.  I wondered where I ranked:  was I a mere pawn, or a more important piece?

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 The whole crew was back together that summer.  Alex would invite me over to swim in his uncle’s pool, and I caught up with Neal and Jason.  I was attending church again, so I inevitably spent time with Evan and helped him organize the others into a worship band.  It was really interesting to see Dan volunteer his time, given his behaviour at school.  His “new leaf” was thus far staying turned over.

            But, as much as I spent time with them, I kept my secret to myself.  As my faith deepened, my friendships stayed casual, superficial.  I couldn’t risk them getting involved.  It was my way of protecting them.

            Because, as much as things seemed back to normal, I knew that the world wasn’t what it seemed.  I looked for danger in every shadow.

            I saw a lot of shadows, but no danger.  Working the midnight shift, I went in to work in the dark, and drove home before the sun came up.  My life became patterned, routine, and dull.  I should have been lulled.  But I was still busy training my body physically, sleeping in the morning and spending my afternoons jogging in the wooded hills, using a stick for a sword and decapitating dummies made of wood and buckets.  I smiled at these “games,” as they reminded me of my childhood.

            I found exultation in physical experience:  the sun on my skin, the wind in my ears, my body flexing, twisting, running.  Raw potential was forged into muscle, speed, dexterity.  I was making myself ready.

            In late April, on a dreary cloudy morning, I drove home in the rain.  The wipers sluiced rivulets of water off the glass, but I could barely see in front of me.  The storm clouds hid any light from the sky, and I would have missed the car on the side of the road if not for a sudden flash of lightning.  I pulled over to the muddy shoulder of this desolate country road, letting my headlights illuminate the back end of the car, a few feet away.

            I opened the door and got out, reaching into the backseat for a tire iron.  I wasn’t stupid.  Within seconds my jacket was soaked, water trickling down my hooded shirt collar to soak my skin.  It wasn’t just pouring, it was flooding.  I stepped through mud puddles that were ankle deep.  I could hear the steady beat of the rain in my ears, a constant hum.  I walked to the car cautiously.

            I held the tire iron in my left hand, down at my side, and knocked on the driver’s side window.  I peered within, cupping my face against the glass to keep rain out of my eyes.  The car was empty.

            “Hello?” I called, yelling into the rain. 

            Three of them came out of the trees at the sides of the road, a triangle around me.  Dressed in black, they all carried knives.

            “Are you kidding?” I asked, looking at each in turn.  They didn’t answer, and instead rushed at me.

            The first to reach me had come from the trees across the road.  I stepped aside deftly, slapping my tire iron across the window to spider-web it with cracks, and then I grabbed the back of his head and slammed him into the window.  His head went through with a crack, and I pushed down, using the sharp glass to tear through his neck until his head toppled bloodlessly into the car.

            I turned and saw the one on my left coming close.  He tried a slash with his long knife, but I slapped my tire iron down on his wrist.  He was strong enough that he didn’t drop it, but it left him off balance.  I grabbed his hair with my right hand and drove my knee into his face as I slammed his head downwards, breaking his jaw.  I dropped him in the mud at the feet of his friend stuck in the window.

            This left me near the hood of the car.  I expected the third to go around and come at me from the road, but instead he clambered up on top of the car.  He leapt at me, going for an airborne tackle.  He jumped high, seeming to hang for a moment in the air.  Time slowed, and I realized I could see every detail, down to the water droplets bouncing off his dark coat.

            I whirled quickly, rolling in the mud and coming to a crouch as he landed on the road.  Before he could turn, I flung my tire iron like a boomerang, catching him in the back of the head.  He fell over, and I picked his friend’s knife up out of a puddle.  I was on him before he could get to his feet, drawing the blade across his neck swiftly, its razor edge making short work of him.  His hair dangled from my hand, his head bobbing like an obscene plastic grocery bag.

            I turned and threw it at his friend, who had pulled himself up out of the mud.  He caught it, and stared at his dead companion’s empty face.  He looked up at me a second later.  Now a solitary assassin, he stood facing me as lightning and rain filled the sky.  There was a moment of silence, as if I was being measured.

            I stood in the rain, dripping wet, and pulled off my coat and hooded shirt, laying them across the hood of the car.  My t-shirt was just as waterlogged, so I pulled it off.  I felt the water on my skin, trickling down the newly defined curves of my muscles.  I was in the best shape of my life, and knew it.

            “That’s three and a half of your friends, so far, if you count the one I blinded.  The first one, I killed before I took working out seriously.  You’re supposed to be nearly immortal, yet I killed your two friends here in less than two minutes, when it was three against one.  I don’t know if you studied statistics, but I don’t like your odds.”  I said, waiting for him.

            He decided to try to change the odds.  He pulled a gun and I threw my knife.  It caught him in the shoulder, which forced his shot wild.  I was on him within seconds, slamming my knee into his face repeatedly, and then I had the gun.  I held it to his neck and pulled the trigger until I could rip his head free of his neck, his torso falling into the mud.  I roared with the thunder, a primal celebratory war cry, even as I wondered, in the back of my mind, if I would ever be the same.

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 If that was a surprise, so was reporting for work the next Sunday.  I found myself working with Alexander Rothrock, home from school and employed in a meat factory.

            “Ethan!”  He exclaimed, embracing me on sight before I could even speak.  I patted his shoulder awkwardly.  We stood in the locker room, where he had accosted me before I could even put on my rubber boots.

            “Hey, Alex.”

            “You’re still working here?  That’s awesome.  Really awesome.  I was hoping you did.  I mean, I haven’t seen you all year.  How was your freshman year?  I have so much to tell you…”

            He was enthusiastic, and it was hard not to be caught up in his exuberance.  We had been good friends in high school.  But I had struggled all year long.

            “You didn’t write.  Or call.  Or email, which has to be the easiest method of communication ever invented, at least for university students.”  I spoke quietly, but my voice was void of any warmth.  It stopped Alex in mid-sentence.  “I would email my friend Mihnea in the room beside mine in the residence just to see if he was there and wanted to go to the cafeteria.  I could have just knocked on his door, but everyone at school did things like that.”

            I looked up at him.  Alex was a little taller than me, but I held his eye like an equal.

            “So where do you get off acting like it’s okay to ignore me for a year, and then be my friend now?”

            His sunny demeanour fell into clouds.  His brow furrowed, and I could see remorse in his eyes.

            “E, I’m really sorry.  I screwed up…” He paused.  “I could make excuses about how busy school was, and life in general.  I got your emails.  I just didn’t make time to answer.  I’m sorry.”

            I looked at him for a moment.  His lack of self-justification was refreshing.

            “No excuses.  I like that.”  I told him.  “You’re my friend, and it shouldn’t matter how long you’ve been away.  But that doesn’t mean you can take me for granted.”

            “No excuses.  I’ll remember.”

            And then we went to work.

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