Chapter 22
The Fox Bites Back

Near the Eastern Border of Jiangteng County, Jiaodao Province

It was difficult to maintain a good pace while being stuck together under the invisible cloak, but it was better than getting spotted by the fliers and being left a scorchmark in the wastes. That night the two of them even slept together in the cloak. With the temperatures dropping around them, their heat signature would have been even easier to spot, Masako reasoned, and the cloak could reflect heat as needed to keep them warm, as their small pack of provisions lacked blankets or anything like that.
They started out sleeping back-to-back, but after a while, something came over Batista and he rolled over toward her, embracing her from behind and drawing her in close. He didn't know why, but in that moment he wanted her more than he had ever wanted any woman, save one. Two months they had been together and he'd never once been even slightly tempted, but now of all times he couldn't seem to control himself.
He thought of those wasted opportunities he had back in Mileyuan. He didn't even care, but now it was different. He could be out on a campaign for months and it was only something like an itch to be scratched. He didn't have to visit the cathouses, but he would go just to get it out of his system. Not like it was now, though. It was almost like he was a teenager again, fruitlessly yearning for the woman he couldn't have, but now was different. She was right there, in his arms, waiting.
He squeezed her more tightly, making her give a soft moan. She wanted it. She wanted it as much as he did. That was what he told himself as he started unbuttoning her shirt.
"Yamete," she whispered.
Batista didn't know what she was saying and didn't really care. He was about halfway down the buttons when she spoke up again.
"Batista-xiansheng, stop."
Batista's fingers froze and his muscles tightened all through his arms. Only then did he snap out of it. Frustrated, confused and embarrassed, Batista pulled his arms back and got out of the cloak. He needed a good long walk in the cold desert air to clear his head.

* * *

It was around midday. Batista didn't really know where they were, but it would probably take another day or two to reach Lingmu. If only his compañía hadn't gotten in the way, they were right at the border several days ago, but apparently Mileyuan was a ways further off. If their flier hadn't been intercepted, they would've been there yesterday and maybe he could've been spared last night's embarrassing episode.
They weren't sharing the cloak anymore. Batista claimed that even if the fliers came back around, they'd be looking for two heat signatures, not one. That was the excuse he gave Masako. Really, it was that he couldn't bear to be so close to her. He couldn't be sure that he wouldn't try something again. Now as much as he wanted her, he was desperate for them to part ways. If all he was going to do was be tempted by her, it would be better to put half a world between them. That was what he had to do the last time...
He let himself get so distracted by his bitter thoughts that he almost didn't notice the clouds rolling in until they were almost over his head. He almost never saw clouds so thick and dark.
"Storm's comin'," he said, the first thing he'd said to Masako in several hours. "We need ta find some shelter."
They had left the flatlands where they jumped out of the flier and were entering hill country. If they were lucky, they might find a cave or some outcropping that would get them out of the rain. Thunder started rumbling in the distance and the first drops began to fall when he found something even better, an old dugout with a weather-beaten tin roof carved into the side of one of the larger hills.
"Come on, this way," he said.
It really started coming down just before they reached the dugout. Masako was fine because she was wearing the cloak and not only was Batista's jacket fairly sturdy but even if the rain did soak through his clothes, he'd never feel it because of that strength-enhancing suit.
Once they were under the roof, Batista looked around--not that there was anything to see--and said, "Yeah, this oughta do."
Masako hadn't made any effort talk until now, but as she was taking off the cloak, she asked him, "What is this place?"
"Musta belonged to a prospector or somethin'," Batista replied, "rootin' 'round in these hills like there's somethin' ta find. Well, whoever dug this place must be long gone. No trace of 'im anyway."
Batista sat down and so did Masako, though she kept a good meter's distance between them. You could hardly even think with all the noise of the rain beating down on the roof. Maybe it was just his mind playing tricks on him, but it reminded Batista of machine gun fire. Not like you were manning the gun yourself or feeding it ammo, but like they were firing a hundred meters off or so. Then the thunder started rumbling some more and he started thinking of artillery. He almost wondered if being back on campaign with the compañía would be better.
There was a bright flash of lightning and a loud thunderclap. Batista felt something press against him. It was Masako.
"What're ya doin'?" he asked. "I thought ya didn't want this. Don't tell me you're scared."
"I am scared," Masako said. "We do not have storms in the Capital."
"Well, we don't get too many storms down here neither," Batista said. "I've only seen ones like this once every two or three years."
Another peal of the thunder prompted Masako to clutch at Batista's jacket. He looked down to see her little fists quaking and white-knuckled as she held on to him. After everything they'd been through, she was scared of a little thunder? Unbelievable.
"In the language of my people, we call thunder 'kaminari'," she said, apparently trying to distract herself from her fear, "the noise of the gods sounding their great and terrible drums in the Heavens."
Batista thought he might as well try to take her mind off things, too.
"Ya wanna know a trick?" he asked. "Guy I knew from Yuyuan tole me 'bout this. Don't know if it's true or not, but when ya see the flash a' lightnin', ya count off the seconds till ya hear the thunner. Thousan' one, thousan' two, thousan' three... Ever' three secon's is a klick, a k'lometer. C'mon, let's look for the lightnin'."
The storm obliged them with a flash of lightning and Batista started counting off.
"Thousan' one, thousan' two..."
Masako joined in.
"Thousand three, thousand four..."
They counted together. Five, six, seven...
And then they lost track.
Batista didn't know how or why it happened, but he started kissing Masako. Or maybe she started kissing him. Whoever started it, the feeling was mutual. Masako didn't tell him to stop or push away like she did the night before. Who could say what changed? Maybe it was just the rain.
There was no telling how far things might have gone when Batista was shaken by a sudden, instinctual alarm, like a rabbit unconsciously realizing there's a snake closeby just before it strikes. He pushed Masako down just in time to dodge a throwing knife that bounced off the rock wall behind them.
Batista looked up to see a lone figure standing there in the rain. A convenient flash of lightning made his appearance all the more theatrical.
"Leave it to the man who has given me so much trouble," he said.
"Who the hell're you!?" Batista demanded.
"Who I am is not important, Mr. Rodrigues," the man replied. "The only thing that matters is what I want. Even though you have made me chase you halfway across the world, I am willing to be generous. Give me the girl. Walk away and I will spare your life."
"Batista..."
This was the first time Masako said his name without the '-xiansheng' at the end. Batista looked at her and then back at the man. He stood up and put himself between the two of them.
"Foolish," the man said. "You Infernals and your foolish pride..."
Batista drew his sword.
"Do you think I am going to honor you with a fair fight, Mr. Rodrigues?" the man asked.
"Who said anythin' 'bout fightin' fair?"
Even though he wasn't practiced in how to use it, Batista figured the suit gave him an advantage the man didn't know about. He had to strike fast and hard, make his first stroke the last. He sprang forward and it felt like he was at least thirty kilos lighter. It threw off his balance a bit, but he was hoping to hit quick enough that it wouldn't matter. Only as he made a thrust at the man's heart, the man moved just as fast as Batista--no, faster--and took hold of his wrist, then hit him hard in the back, knocking him to the ground. He then threw three knives faster than humanly possible, but thanks to suit, Batista was able to deflect two with his sword and narrowly dodge the third, which still managed to slice through his jacket.
"The Baron equipped you well," the man said, "but this is your first time using the Chaoqiangfu, is it not? I have been training with it for forty years. Do you still think you have any hope of besting me? Lower your sword and I will grant you a quick death."
Quick or slow, death is death, which meant Batista had no real incentive to surrender, not that there was any offer the man could make that would convince Batista that he had any other way out except over the man's corpse. He got up and charged again like before. He was counting on the man of underestimate him, thinking he was only going to try the same thing twice. As he lunged with his sword, he drew his knife with his free hand and threw it. He didn't think it was going to work, but the man was careless and focused only on the sword, so the knife managed to stick him in the gut.
This didn't exactly serve to stop him, though.
"Petty trick!" the man fumed, meeting Batista's charge with one of his own.
Before Batista could react, the man backhanded him across the cheek with enough force to send him flying. It was a wonder he didn't cave in Batista's skull.
When Batista hit the ground, the man was just standing there, almost as if he was waiting for Batista to look back his way. He plucked the knife out of his stomach and contemptuously threw it into the ground.
"You choose to suffer," he said. "Then you will suffer in full!"
He leapt over to where Batista landed and delivered a harsh kick that sent him flying further back. He only gave Batista time enough to hit the dirt before rushing in again. Somehow Batista had managed to hold on to his sword through all this and tried swinging it at the man, but he caught Batista's arm and held it there while he used his other hand to start punching Batista in the stomach over and over again. Each blow was like getting hit with a sledgehammer, even with the suit dampening the impact, but Batista returned the favor by punching the man's knife wound. He couldn't muster as much force, but it was enough to make the man flinch. Taking full advantage of the opening, Batista drove his thumb into the wound and started pulling. The man howled in pain and fury. He let go of Batista's swordarm and grabbed the side of his head. Whatever he intended to do, Batista didn't give him the chance, thrusting his sword into the man's side.
The man's body locked up and shook, but he wasn't done yet. Batista was twisting his sword inside him while still pulling at the knife wound. The man took hold of Batista's wrist again and started to slowly pull the sword out. Even now, he was able to overpower Batista. His right hand, which seemed paralyzed a moment ago, grabbed Batista's other wrist to pull his hand away from the man's stomach. Batista fought him every sench of the way, but he was too strong.
Then Batista thought of something. It was the oldest playground trick. What do you do when you're losing a game of tug-of-war? You let go of the rope. You may not win, but the other guy falls on his ass, which counts for spite if nothing else.
Batista let his arms go limp and the sudden loss of resistance made the man lose his balance. Batista then kicked his leg out from under him and once he was down, he wasn't given the chance to get back up again. Batista brought his sword down with all his might and cut clean through the man's neck. Actually, it wasn't a clean cut. Whatever value the man's own suit had as armor stopped Batista's blade about halfway in. It was still a kill, though, and that was all that mattered.
However, even being nearly decapitated, his mouth continued to move. He wasn't able to speak properly, but Batista could just barely make out what he was trying to say.
"Betrayal is everywhere..."
As much to put him out of his misery as to prevent the remote possibility of him somehow getting up again and continuing the fight, Batista delivered a second chop to finish the job.
Only after the man's head was safely separated from the rest of him did Batista really start to feel the pain of the working over he'd received. Tempting as it was to just curl up in a ball and die, he dragged himself back to the dugout, where Masako was waiting.
"C'mon, princess, we gotta go," he told her. "It ain't safe here."
"But you are hurt," Masako said.
"I'm gonna be a lot more hurt if any more a' 'em come this way. We gotta keep movin'. Put the cloak back on. It'll keep the rain off ya."
"Only if you get inside as well," she said.
"I'm already soaked through," Batista replied. "Won't do me any good."
"I insist."
When Batista saw the concern in her eyes, any resistance he had melted away.
"Alright, princess, we'll do it your way."