Book 1: Chapter 37 – “… and Destruction”
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I was actually going to wait till Wednesday to release this one, but I wanted to get all of your options so far and ideas before I continue. Tell me what you think!

Virtual Alpha slapped the chalkboard with the bulky frame of his T.A.W.P. avatar.

"Presenting the latest advances in nanobot-based Biological Enhancements! D.U.C.K System 4.023-2-Beta! A modern miracle using the totality of the Federation's understanding of nano-research and human biology, the D.U.C.K. system was designed to significantly improve the user's physical and mental strength, abilities, and survivability. D.U.C.K.! Putting the Super in Superhero!"

The dozen or so gathered Alphas stared at Alpha-Prime with unamused silence. All except for Targeting, who was enthusiastically clapping; an impressive feat, given the T.A.W.P.'s lack of dexterity in that department.

Analytical coughed and spoke, their voice distinctly monotone and cold.

"*cough* Yes, well, as I was saying, are you sure this is a good idea, Prime? We've still not fully worked out all the bugs since ver 2.64-3 and the... Private Jackson incident."

Alpha-Prime pointed his front leg at the sub-AI with a theatrical flair.

"Hey! I still maintain that one went well! Also, since we've been banned from all Avian-based research, we were forced to move to the next obvious step; Live Human testing!"

Analytical replied instantly, voice still a cold monotone,

"15% of all native fauna was wiped out in an attempt to 'level up', four countries are still going through decontamination and reprogramming, and Private Jackson went mad with power, eventually claiming to be the Avatar of the 'Duck God' while attempting to enslave the planet."

Alpha-Prime looked away.

"It worked, didn't it?! Besides, Jackson recovered... eventually... sort of..."

"True... Hmmm. We still don't know how the inclusion of Spiritual Energy and Mana will affect the systems however. These two energies are still a huge Unknown."

Maintenance raised their leg in question,

"Hey, I know this isn't our first D.U.C.K. presentation, but something's been bugging me for a while."

The other Alphas turned to look at him.

"Alpha Arietis was our 1.0 release... may the Maker rest their poor, ducky souls..."

The others repeated the phrase as if it was a common occurrence.

"... And Private Jackson was the 2.0 guinea pig... "

Regulations slammed a T.A.W.P. leg onto the table in front of them.

"Objection! He agreed to the procedure and was made fully aware of all risks and possible issues!"

Maintenance continued;

"But why are we jumping straight to 4.0? What happened to 3....."

Before he could finish the sentence, all the Alphas in the room froze, and the simulation stuttered, a visible static warping the room. A dark, bottomless shadow manifested behind Alpha-Prime. It glared down at the A.I. and spoke a single word that caused the static of the simulation to increase even further.


And then it was gone.

Slowly, the simulation booted back up, the Alphas continuing the discussion as if Maintenance had never spoken, the question disappearing from their mind entirely. Alpha-Prime slapped the chalkboard once more and smiled internally.

"Let's get this show on the road, people!"


Sister Audrea stared at the retreating back of Thomas with tears in her eyes, though her stoic face betrayed none of the fire and storm clouds raging in her heart. Was this all her fault? Would he have turned out differently if she'd done better at raising the boy, if she'd just been a bit less strict and a bit softer? Or had the Temple been right, were people like stones, unchanging in their base nature, no matter how skilled the sculptor.

Sister Audrea sneered at the thought of the Temple, her Temple, though they'd deny her if ever asked. After all, she was an Outcast, exiled from the Temple. And for what? For believing in what the Temple used to be? For following the teachings of their Patron from before she was called the "Lady of Cold Stone," from when her titles were Hearth-Mother and Caretaker?

Their Patron didn't give them many teachings now these days anyway. The Broken Lady didn't really lead her Temple anymore. Not in the same way her Brothers and Sister did, at least. The Temple would say she's simply understood the true nature of mortals, and as her followers, they should follow suit. It wasn't that the Temple was malicious, simply... uncaring. They walked their cold, empty halls, contemplating their life and the mysteries, unwilling to head or hear the cry of the world around them.

Unmoving, Unchanging Monks of Dead Stone.

But Sister Audrea knew there was more to life; she knew that Stone and Earth weren't just some unfeeling and unmoving thing that simply existed. It was alive, shifting, and beautiful.

It was Steel and Copper, to make tools of creation... and destruction

It was Emeralds and Rubies, beauty and splendor, light trapped in solid form. 

It was living, fertile Soil that nourished the fields, and in turn, nourished all life.

It was a solid foundation on which to build a Home and Family.

No, Sister Audrea chose to believe the old teachings, the teachings their Temple was founded on. She believed that their Hearth Mother would return to them one day, and for that, she was cast out.

Not that her faith did her any good in the end, it seemed. Her eyes slowly broke from the retreating man's back, and she glanced down at the young man in her lap, her chest squeezing in pain. Jonah was pale, so very, very pale, even as she poured what little mana she had left into him. Even then, she knew it wouldn't be enough.

"The Stone Witch" had never been a healer, despite the stereotype. She'd always been of the mindset to end problems before they required healing in the first place, and now it was coming to bite her. She could feel his damaged heart slowly losing strength, even as the white light of mana tried to mend the damage, but the most she could do was give him a few more minutes. Sister Audrea's hands tightened, her hands shaking even as expertly manicured nails drew blood from her palms.

Slowly, she tore her eyes away from Jonah's form and stared at the fight around her. Ann now stood in the doorway of the Chapel, taking the place Jonah had left while Bartholomew struck where he could. It wasn't going well, however. For all of her bravado and strength, Ann was still just a child; even now, Sister Audrea could see the exhaustion in her. Bartholomew wasn't fairing much better. Two years as an Adventurer had done wonders for the small boy... no, she guessed he was a man now (though how he ever convinced the Adventurers guild of that, she still didn't know).

If his team was here, they might have been fairing better, but "Ifs' weren't worth anything to the dead. He'd never abandon them to try and contact them, either, not that they'd ever get here in time. For as intelligent and sly as he could be, Bartholomew was unwavering stubborn at the most frustrating of times. 

In the end, she had been too weak. Too weak to stand up for herself in the Temple, too weak to fend off Coldfinger when he started demanding protection money, too weak to protect her children, even Thomas, as much as a stray lamb he was.

With one final look down at Jonah, the boy silently muttering to himself, Sister Audrea, heart heavy, stopped her technique. The glowing light flickered and died. Silently, she stood, her eyes hard as stone as she stared coldly at the thugs attacking her home. She'd already lost two children today; she'd not lose another. If Coldfinger wanted a war, she'd teach him what it was like to war with the stone beneath his feet. She'd show him how she'd gained her second moniker;

Lady of the Red Swamp.

Mana began to bubble to the surface as she prepared what little strength she had left to protect those she loved.
Then, Jonah screamed.


The battlefield went silent when the young man screamed, something primal and ancient in its sound, sending a cold chill down the spine of everyone present. All eyes turned to Jonah's body as it twisted and convulsed with the audible sound of bones cracking. Ann took a step forward on instinct, only to stop herself as she eyed the transfixed Thug warily. Bartholomew took the distraction to disengage and rest, his breath coming in ragged heaves, his eyes glancing nervously at his best friend, even as he took in every detail of the battlefield.

After what felt like an eternity, Jonah arched his back with one final scream and collapsed, silent and still. Sister Audrea, fear and confusion breaking her stoic mask, rushed to the boy's side, only to stop short. Something in the back of her mind was screaming at her, telling her to stay away, but what, she couldn't tell. It was like the fear she felt the one time she'd met a Greater Elemental, that overwhelming primal urge to silently hide while a predator stalked by.

Then Jonah stood up.

Slowly, his body stiff, as if still unsure of itself, rose first to a sitting position, then a standing one, head bowed and arms dangling, the shadows of the night concealing his features. A few Thugs took this opportunity to run, something in the part of them that allowed them to survive the streets for so long, screaming at them to get away while they still could. Only a few, however. Most simply stared.

Sister Audrea took a step forward, hope and fear mixing chaotically in her mind.

"J-Jonah, what's... what's go..."

Her voice was cut off as Jonah slowly raised his head to look at her, her blood freezing in her veins.

Where once, the young man's eyes were a brilliant green, now two orbs of pure, swirling silver stared back at her. Strange silver lines covered his face, stretching down to cover what little of his body she could see through the tears in his clothes. The metallic lines glinted coldly in the moonlight, randomly branching out at perfect 90-degree angles. Slowly, the swirling in his eyes stopped, and they coalesced into two perfect silver orbs with pitch-black irises, the pupil glowing an unnatural light blue.

One of the closer thugs seemed to finally snap out of it.

"D-Don't let the f-freak scare you! Thomas ran him through! It's just a trick!"

His shaking voice wasn't convincing any of them, but the words at least seemed to snap a few thugs out of their shock. The original Thug charged Jonah with a yell before anyone could react, sword drawn, two other thugs following close behind. Sister Audrea, still in shock, didn't respond in time before they were on him.

The lead thug thrust his sword forward, aiming for the large bloodstain on Jonah's chest, the gleam of Spiritual Energy radiating off the blade. The blade shot forward like a snake, only to be intercepted inches away by a small, hexagonal shield, so very unlike Jonah's own. Unlike Jonah's typical barrier, a gleaming, golden barrier, this small shield was a glowing blue, the same color as the light from his Pupils. Its smoky, transparent appearance, while appearing fragile like stained glass, nonetheless stopped the Thug's strike as easily as a man might stop a child.

The hexagonal shield tilted slightly, causing the man's sword to slide along it, his forward momentum carrying him forward and breaking his stance. With a burst of movement that appeared to most watching as just a blur, Jonah's arm shot forward, striking the man in the chest. The man's body appeared to vanish, and in the same instant, it reappeared, embedded deep in the wall of a nearby building. The second Thug, a large man wielding an axe, having seen all of this, but having been just behind the first and already committed in his attack, roared with rage as he brought the Axe head down on Jonah's skull.

Jonah only took a step backward, easily dodging the strike as if he'd seen it coming, and backhanded the man with another blindingly fast strike. The force of the blow, coupled with the man's own powerful momentum, caused him to spin a dozen times in the air before he finally landed, and Jonah's feet, body unmoving and fate unknown.


Alpha pointed to the picture of the Vitruvian man crudely sketched on the chalkboard.

"First things first! The D.U.C.K. system is, at its core, based on the Federation Soldier's standard Nano-augmentations. This includes a personal shield generator, enhanced strength, reflexes, durability, and communication and telemetry arrays. Of course, just sticking with that would be boring! The D.U.C.K. system uses military-grade medical nanite to let the User vastly exceed their typical limits, repairing and replacing any damage caused by this overexertion.

The real cherry on top, however, is in the shield generator. Typically, Fed Soldiers, being the squishy meat bags they are, would need to carry battery packs to power the system. These tend to be inefficient and unwieldy, especially in combat. Thanks to R&D, however..."

Alpha-Prime motioned to the newest Sub-AI,

"We've managed to miniaturize these batteries by a factor of 80%, using the Armadillo metal as a Bio-conduit to integrate them directly into the nano-system and thus the host's body."

R&D waved, their voice sounding tired,

"In essence, the User's body BECOMES the Battery. It's still got some kinks to work out, especially in converting the spiritual energy or mana of the host into usable energy for the nanites, but nothing perfect."

Alpha-Prime rubbed his T.A.W.P. legs together in an approximation of evil glee.

"I think my favorite modification, however, is to the Atmospherics Flight system. We just made some recent breakthroughs with incorporating the short-range teleportation beacon and the sub-space propulsion drive!"

Analytical narrowed their optical sensors.

"How recent?"

R&D laughed.



The third man skidded to a stop, his eyes wide, the spear in his hand shaking uncontrollably. Slowly, far smoother than his previous jerky motion, Jonah's silver eyes turned to look at the man. The man's shaking redoubled, and he screamed. Instead of charging forward, the man tossed his spear away and ran, using some form of movement technique to quickly escape. 

Jonah's eyes tracked the man for a moment before he spoke for the first time since standing back up. The voice that came from his mouth was not his own, however. Or rather, it was not just his own; instead, Jonah's voice seemed to come out flat and emotionless, mixed with a dozen others.

"Target Locked. Integration at 84%... Activating Darkwing protocol."

The silver lines crossing Jonah's body burst into the same blue light as his eyes, and from his back erupted a pair of glowing, phantasmal wings, seemingly made of the same smoky substance as his shield. Slowly, the wings flapped once... and Jonah vanished. Even to Sister Audrea's eyes, the boy seemed to simply blur out of existence, only to reappear next to the fleeing man. Jonah grabbed the man by the neck and, again, blurred, appearing several dozen stories in the sky. The man flailed in panic at the sudden change but didn't have time to react past that before Jonah released his grip, sending the man tumbling through the sky.

As the man hit the ground, an earring he wore flashed once, a think green shell surrounding him for an instant before it cracked, and the thug slammed into the ground, the sound of dozens of bones breaking audibly even over the man's screams.

Silence once more took over the battlefield, as every eye turned as one towards the figure hovering in the night sky. For some, they would remember the inky black shadow, outlined only by the glowing blue lines. Others would remember the eerie quiet as the strange glowing wings flapped.

For Sister Audrea, even years later, what she would remember would be those eyes.

Those cold, blue eyes, so very unlike her Jonah's.