It doesn't hurt.

Quite the revelation.

It should hurt.

Shouldn't it? Now hold on a second—what is 'hurt'?

It's a lot worse than anything before...

I've been 'hurt' before, man, but nothing like this, right?

What is it gonna feel like...

You know, pain. Like before. Just... a lot of it.

The thoughts flew through his head as he stared at his hand. He knew what was coming. The pain. He had been up all night in anticipation. It'll start in his busted lip. Then more will come to his bruised rib. But then his hand...

He had been hurt before. That was true. All that was pretty much his own doing, though. Accidents and all that. Okay, maybe it wasn't always an accident. When you find out you've got something like this, you do a few tests to study different results. He never got it this bad, though.

This time it was others. Others intent on hurting him themselves. Guess they didn't like a kid trying to steal from 'em. Oh well, maybe he learned his lesson. Shouldn't mess with the guys in charge around there, as they aren't above punishing anyone doing wrong on their turf. Guild Boys will do that.

He watched the clock tick as he watched his hand. It was gonna hurt. They broke the fingers pretty bad. But that was yesterday. It didn't even hurt yet.

The clock was there. It was about this time it happened. Wait for it...

There it is. Damnit.

Damnit.

Damnit damnit DAMNIT.

He cried out in agony, clutching his hand to his chest. The twenty-four hours were up. He felt it now.

Huh. So this is what it's like.


Chapter One


Twenty years later.

"Damnit," he muttered as he chewed a bite of pork. Angus continued to chew after biting his tongue. It was sure to bother him tomorrow. Not now, though. Tomorrow. Pain wasn't something that came so soon to him. Even though none was felt now, he knew he bit it hard enough to send that sensory reaction down the whole twenty-four hours.

Angus Paragon sat at a small table in the dimly lit little room that was designated a dining room in his apartment. He supposed it was an appropriate thing to call it, but those words sounded much too fancy for what it was. It was far from any big ol' room with chandeliers and drapes and whatnot. No tablecloth here, no sir. Just a couple tables, a few chairs, and a window out into the evening sky. Of course, the building not two feet out that window kinda kept the sky from view.

He wasn't one to complain, though. It was the same old, same old. He was used to it. People like him didn't have those luxuries, but the little things were good enough. Though he did wonder what constitutes 'little things' for those with such luxuries. He was sure his boss did better than this. Probably has bigger little things just as he had bigger big things. It's what you get being the head of a successful guild.

In this city, that position was a good one. The guy ran things in this part of town and for that raked in quite the profit. People's rent gave some to him, the local business was sure to be taxed—there wasn't a gambler in town who hadn't owed him a point or two. Of course, he had people like Angus to help make sure things went that way. Angus did a good job of it, too. There was always need for some muscle in this city, and Angus' boss, a fellow by the name of Winslow, hit the jackpot with muscle like him, he supposed. People with the condition he's got were surely quite a prize.

You don't always get to meet a guy who doesn't feel pain. Well, that's not exactly accurate. Pain just had a hard time findin' him, is all. Took the planet to go once-round before his body seemed to know what hit him. Still, ain't nobody like him. Winslow liked that. Out of all his underlings—lots of people found work with the guild, some whether they liked it or not—Angus was considered the most valuable. Got him put with the best they had. People like the one who just walked in.

A short kid with a head of shaggy pale blond hair strode into the dining room, his loose red shirt tail catching up behind him. He fell back on a chair with a brief sigh before biting into a bright green apple in his left hand.

"Evening, Lefty," Angus said, his head laid back on his wooden chair.

Lefty nodded as he chewed. Lefty wasn't this kid's real name, though. Calling him Lefty was just the way things went here. Lyle Lufton's left hand being his dominant one kinda led to that. Though young, he was still one of the most valuable members of the guild. Their little crew of top workers had much to gain from him, as this kid Lefty was no dim flame.

"Evening to you, Angus. How's your toe?" he asked.

Angus was a little confused at first, but then his big toe gave him a firm reminder of what he meant. His leg jerked back as Angus grunted, reaching down to comfort his toe.

How he had forgotten he stubbed his toe yesterday was beyond him, but it didn't surprise him that Lefty remembered. He probably came in at this exact time just to remind him seconds before it hit. It was why he was in the guild, though. The kid's memory was as sharp as a tack.

"Toe's doing fine, I'd say... Now that you've reminded me," Angus said as he scratched his close-cut black hair. He tried to hide what must be a pained expression on his rough face.

Lefty gave a shrug as he leaned back the cushioned chair he sat in. There was not-so-obvious, yet obvious amusement similarly hidden on his pale face. He knew how Lefty felt about it, having his fun at the brief expense of Angus' toe. Not unlike a little brother.

As Lefty continued eating, and Angus finished off a cup of water, in walked a girl with her own plate of pork. Her long brown hair tied up, there was a grimace on her tanned face as she looked around the little room. "Of course I get a bad chair," she said, taking one of the last empty chairs which had no cushion.

"Early bird gets the worm, Tilly," said Lefty.

Tilda Morn—or Tilly—gave an exaggerated sigh as she set her plate down and crossed her long legs. "No manners toward the lady?" she said. If Lefty was the little brother of this family, Tilly was the middle sister. She grimaced some more, and then took a big bite of her meal.

The girl, like the others, was the best of her kind here in Crow City. She was fast. Along with long legs and high stamina it was a good ability for a Runner. One would probably think that of course fast running is what makes a runner, but for a guild, being a Runner is much more than it sounds. Taking care of deliveries and carrying messages over long distances in short time is all well and dandy, but in this city those things delivered aren't exactly unwanted by petty thieves and of course, rival guilds.

Crow was no pillar of lawful conduct. The people around here hold no great regard for the powers held by the mayor and his office, who don't care much for these parts anyways. It was the guilds who held the real power here. This little apartment was owned by Angus' very own Great Golem Guild. It wasn't much, but it was where a majority of the guild members lived. Believe it or not, their rooms right here were the best in the building. Yep, home sweet home.

Now, one might ask what a group like Angus' did for the Guild. Well, what would one need with a muscle-bound man with the ability to stave off pain for hours upon hours? Well, to that end he typically fights people. No-one better than that to make sure people pay their dues, and think twice about starting something with the guild.

Lefty finished nibbling on the last edges of his apple, and tossed it out the window. "So you guys ready for tonight's assignment?" he asked.

His chin propped up on his hands, Angus looked over under his scruffy brow. "Yeah, sure."

Tilly, who was in the middle of eating her pork, looked at Lefty with a dismayed expression, and spoke through her full mouth. "Mhwe're dohing somephin' tohnight?" came the muffled question.

Lefty looked at her like he was expecting her ignorance. "Oh, did I forget to tell you?" Of course he wouldn't have forgotten. Angus thought he found delight in her surprise.

Tilly gave a sour look and swallowed her food. "If I had known we were going out tonight, I would have eaten sooner! I can't exactly run on a full stomach!" she complained.

"Well, maybe if you hadn't been running off somewhere earlier, I could have told you." Lefty said, folding his arms. "Seriously, I spent a good amount of time looking for you around here."

Tilly sighed. "Now I'm gonna get a stitch in my side from running so soon. What's this assignment all about?"

"Nothing much. Just a pick-up from a cardhouse on the west side. There's a rumor about Blue Bomb activity there, though, so Winslow wants us to check that out, too," said Lefty. The Blue Bomb Guild had a claim on a few blocks a ways west of Golem territory, but Angus thought it would be pretty unlikely anything would be going down to encroach on their cardhouse claim.

Angus stood up and stretched his arms. He fastened a golden emblem band to his wrist, which bore the Guild's insignia of a mountain. "I'm all set. You?" he asked Tilly.

She huffed. "Could be better, but I'm good," she said as she stood.

Lefty stood as well. "I'll grab my gear and meet you outside."

Soon enough the three gathered in the street before their apartment. Lefty had his pack on, with what gear they had at the ready. There wasn't much, but their team did get the best of it. Lefty did more than remember things, when it came to assignments. He helped as a lookout and a backup presence if one was needed. With his pair of binoculars—something hard to find around Crow—he was a valuable asset.

There was brief talk of where to go, and they were off. In the dark of the night they made their way along the streets, taking shortcuts and detours when needed. You never know when you might be watched around here, so they took hidden routes at times. They knew every street and alley in Crow, so they were making good time to the cardhouse. The city was as dim and dirty as ever, and the moon was often the only light in the street.

With Tilly running ahead at times to scout the way, and eventually Lefty taking to rooftops—his favorite place—to keep watch from overhead, Angus caught up and they reached the cardhouse.

The building was at a well-lit block on the corner of a big open street through town. The colorfully painted sign labeled "Ric's Rich Rolls & Deals" was in full view. The late-night crowd was roaring inside as he walked to the back door with Tilly in tow.

There was a man there who seemed none too pleased to see them, but it goes without saying that guardsmen aren't known for their inviting disposition. Angus presented his golden wristband, to which the man begrudgingly turned around to knock on the door.

A man soon opened it, looking a bit worried at the visitors. His bald pate reflected the lights inside between his thin fringe of hair. "What do you want?" he snapped.

"Great Golem Guild business. First Unit. You owe fifty score," said Angus. He crossed his arms as he awaited the payment.

The man inside seemed to grind his teeth a bit. "I already paid," he said, sounding nervous, "I can't afford more."

Angus gave a stern look to the man. "Our Guildmaster has not yet received your tax this week. You gotta pay up to us to be done for now."

The man frowned. "No I do not. Good night." He then began to close the door, but Angus stopped it with his foot before pushing it the rest of the way open. He then received the attention of two more individuals in the room beyond.

A thin man and a larger man stood up from their seats to turn his way. The larger man backed up their boss at the door, standing beside him as an intimidating presence. He wasn't as large as Angus, but didn't seem phased by that fact. Of course, he didn't know who Angus was—or what he could do.

Angus stood his ground. "Fifty score. Then we'll be on our way for the week."

"I told you, I already paid for this week!" repeated the balding man.

The big man nodded. "He has paid. You are done here."

Angus glanced behind him, catching the confused expression on Tilly's face along with the silhouette of Lefty crouched on a roof against the night sky.

"Then who did you pay? Who already arrived?" he asked.

The balding man crept back a step. "Unit-"

"Squad five," interrupted the big man. The balding man suddenly glared at him.

Angus stared at the man a moment. A Squad? Great Golem sends Units, but the guild to the south, Flying Monkey Guild, sends 'Squads', to the best of Angus' knowledge. Now that didn't make sense.

The thin man in the back slowly made his way around to the side of the room behind the door. Angus glanced to the guard beside him who was watching the procession like a statue.

"You're lying," he said to the cardhouse's men. He tilted his head to the left in a slight gesture—a signal to Lefty to be ready in case anything went down. "I will tell you again: Fifty score, and you're good for the week."

The balding man nodded. "Very well," he said as he looked to the thin man, who approached with a hand on the door.

"Here you go," he said, reaching into a vest pocket and coming up to Angus. He then reached out and brought his hand up to Angus' face. Angus noticed a glint off his hand as he did so.

He held something, but it was not the money.

It was a flintlock. That didn't seem to make sense either.

Angus quickly leaned to the side, reaching up as the man fired the weapon. He grabbed the barrel as a bang erupted by his ear. The projectile flew between him and a wide-eyed Tilly just steps away. The metal of the barrel felt warm, but he knew it was hot. He would be feeling that tomorrow

Wrenching the weapon from the thin man's grip, he threw his other hand up to deliver a punch to the approaching guard on the right. The guard stumbled back, holding his nose as the big man took a step forward. He shoved his thinner companion out of the way before throwing a punch of his own. Angus ducked him, then lurched forward to throw his shoulder into the big man's gut.

Stumbling back with a cough, the big man knocked into the balding one. As he approached, Angus bashed the flintlock into the thin man's head, sending him to the floor just inside the door. He realized that such a touchy thing could go off in his hand, and quickly passed it to Tilly, who was standing by ready for anything despite her surprise and confusion.

Angus then had to throw a right hook to the guardsman, who dropped cold. The big man inside regained his composure, and charged Angus with all his might.

Angus stood his ground, but was forced a step back along the pavement. He drove his right fist into the man's ribs, and a hammering left to his back. Angus felt the man throw a blow of his own to his ribs, and attempt to shove him back some more. He threw a knee into the man's face, but was then pushed backward and released.

He fell on his back, and looked up to see Tilly with the gun. She seemed to be trying to fire it at the big man, but it did nothing. The things ran on ammunition, and this one was probably out.

She then resorted to coming forward to bash the gun into the attacker's head. Angus got to his feet, and as the big man was dazed and crouched over, delivered a swift and powerful kick to his face.

The men who attacked their Unit were all down on the ground, now. The balding man was struggling to his feet, a look of fear on his face.

Angus wiped his hands on his shirt. "Fifty score, please," he said, his displeasure towards the inconvenience evident. The balding man scrambled to a drawer nearby, and took a roll of paper bills out. He then tossed them to Angus, who quickly scanned the roll to confirm the amount.

With a nod, he kicked the waking body of the thin man out of the way to shut the door. He noticed Tilly examining the flintlock.

"This is amazing. A working gun?" she said. He passed her the score.

"Something else to bring back to the Guild. Winslow will be interested. Nobody's had something like that for ages," Angus told her.

As they departed, they met up with Lefty at the ground of the building he was recently atop. "What was that? What did they say?"

"Told me they already gave their payment to a 'Squad'. What Flying Monkey might have to do all the way up here is beyond me, but there's definitely something screwy with them."

Lefty looked just as perplexed as Angus felt. "I'm not sure about Flying Monkey, but I noticed an interesting copper band on those guys' wrists."

"Copper?"

He nodded. "Blue Bomb."

They exchanged looks, and then Tilly took off to get back to their base with the delivery, while Angus and Lefty began their walk home.


Angus watched as the tired-eyed Ernest Winslow stood at his big wood desk with the newly discovered flintlock, holding his quizzing glass before those eyes as he gave it a thorough inspection. The man's greased dark hair began to fall forward as he studied it in the lamplight. Addressing him by surname was his preference when dealing with guild members. The guy says only his family calls him Ernest—at least what's left of 'em.

Sitting across from Angus, Tilly winced with her hand on her side. "Damnit, Lyle..." she muttered, squirming in her seat.

Angus held his hand up and looked over the surely blistering olive skin. He wasn't looking forward to dealing with that tomorrow night, along with the bruises he's sure he retained on his ribs. Maybe he should wash it up and tend to the injury. He always forgets to do that until it's too late.

The focused Winslow muttered his own thoughts in his work. Something about craftsmanship and design. Angus couldn't quite tell, even if he cared to try. He found the man's tendency to murmur like that never really did make sense outside his own head.

Eventually his long-nosed pale face turned up, and he looked to the two guildmates in the room as he set down the little spectacles. "A rather crude work, if I do say so myself," he began in a dry voice. He straightened his back and turned the gun over in his hands, lifting it off the desk. "Though I'm no expert in firearms. This does seem to be built to work efficiently, but not sturdily. Still, it's a piece of engineering I don't think anyone's seen in a long, long time." His choice of fine words always seemed ill-fitting when put along with the man's haggard look.

Angus yawned. "So then, what do you think it's doing rearing its shiny head in Crow?" he asked.

Winslow looked toward his window bitterly. "Given that the Bombs do lots of work from the salt mines across town, I'd say there's a chance they've got even more work set up to get the sulfur from the hills just north beyond. The city has been keeping that place awfully exclusive, but it wouldn't surprise me if they're getting a good portion of what work they even do there anymore pilfered n' swindled out of their hands."

Tilly gave a curious look to the man. "'Sulfur'?" she asked.

Winslow nodded, nose wrinkling. "Pungent stuff. There was a time when it wasn't such a restricted resource, but when the city—and even the High Council, back when they were still something—decided it was too dangerous to let people go crazy with anything used in explosives and the like, they did their best to keep it out of common hands. The city still did a good job of it around here, but now..." He shrugged.

Angus scratched at his stubbled face. "I thought those guys just called themselves 'Bomb' because it had a ring to it. After all, we don't exactly work with Golems at the farms."

"And the jewelers down south don't fly, but I guess their workers aren't far from monkeys. Their profits do seem to soar, though," said Winslow, in a tone that seemed more natural for him. "So you say these gun-brandishing men told you of a Squad?"

Angus nodded. "Said that Collection Squad Five came and picked up their tax. Flying Monkey been taxing anyone in the middle of our turf?"

Winslow shook his head. "Not likely. I guess it hasn't been important enough for you to have heard, but Blue Bomb has Squads now. They've apparently taken after the Monkeys in that. Not surprising, given that their organization was founded by ex Flying Monkey guys." As he finished his sentence, the door to the office opened and in came Lefty.

"Lyle, just in time. I wanted to know what made you say that the men who had this were Blue Bomb men," Winslow said.

Lefty fiddled with the tail of his shirt that hung beside him as he nodded. "Copper. I saw copper bracelets—or wristbands—on the wrists of the men, beneath their sleeves. I didn't get a perfect look, but they definitely had designs that indicated a guild insignia," he said confidently.

Nobody would doubt that confidence. Unless they had reason to believe the kid would lie to them, his word was good as gold. He could recall details like that perfectly.

"Very good," the boss replied. "Though I'm sure a Squad could be either guild, Copper Bands have only been a recent Blue Bomb accessory. By now I'm sure the reports of their guys stepping around our streets are pretty much proven." Winslow turned to the window and held his hands behind his back. The pose, like the language, lost some credibility for the scruffy man somehow.

"I had been expecting news like this to turn up since I heard they were forming their 'Squads', but I may have underestimated their manpower. Now that it turns out they have at least one of these weapons—and on what seems to be a grunt, no less—we may need to do a better job keeping our people from paying any tax to other guilds." He turned to the three of them, and looked to Tilly. "I'll need you to do a delivery first thing in the morning," he said as he came around his desk.

Tilly sat up straighter. "What's the job?" she asked.

"Like I said, I'm no expert in firearms. Things like this haven't been around for ages, and there aren't many people I know who can tell us how this thing should work, and what we can expect from where it came from, such as how they might be improved. Yes, there aren't many. In fact, there's only one man I know like that, and I need you to bring this flintlock to him, young lady," Winslow explained.

"Yessir," replied Tilly. The girl stood up straight and stretched her arms above her. "Early bird gets the worm." She looked to Lefty, then. "I should get what rest I can, now." With that, she left.

Winslow went and carefully moved the flintlock to a drawer in his desk. "Angus, I want you and Lyle to visit the man I'm going to have inspect the weapon tomorrow afternoon. Give him time to learn what he can from it, and then bring it back. I'm sending Lyle along to hear all the details, so you're just gonna need to protect the boy, in case anything happens." He looked to Angus, who nodded as he stood.

"The guy lives over by the Noble River, but up in the hills northwest of here. It's near the edge of what could be considered the end of Golem reach, so friendly presence might be weak. Put simply, if Bombs are encroaching on our turf, they got the western foothills within their own reach. But I'm sure there's nothing you can't handle, my anomaly," he ended with a smirk. "Now I gotta get going. Need to take my kid in the morning."

Angus and Lefty both affirmed their understanding, and went on their way to end the day. Angus realized he had yet to tend to his hand, but figured there wasn't much to do about it now. Sleep sounded like quite the prize for a job well done, anyway. He simply washed up and went to bed. He knew what he was in for tomorrow.

There was something to be said about being an anomaly among the people, but it never seemed to matter beyond his own personal life. The only ones who knew about it were his closest guildmates. His Father knew, but the old man worked on one of Great Golem's farms off in the east and Angus never saw him anymore. His mother never knew. She didn't have time to know. Angus wasn't sure how many people Winslow would speak about it to. The guy did like to brag, sometimes.

In any case, it wasn't like it was something people would stop on the street and say 'Freak!' over. It was invisible. Among the fewest men he fought, it could be seen as abnormal indifference to pain during the fight, but he pretty much just came off as a tough son-of-a-bitch who can take a punch.

There were always legends of those who were different in extraordinary ways. Whether most of those stories were true or not might be an issue, but being so different himself always gave him an understanding of the possibility.

Even today you heard word of some fascinating feat performed by special individuals. Someone off in a distant city to the east apparently reads minds. A foreign land across the globe had a man who can taste music. Hell, even just up north in Crow's wealthier society they have a lady who is solving every mathematicians toughest equation without working ears. There were freaks and anomalies everywhere, and Angus was one of 'em.

The range of use his condition had wasn't very wide, though. Maybe better than licking a song. He supposed he had his work cut out for him in the near future. There will probably be more heads to kick in. Guess he'll have to wait and see.