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Apr 17th, 2015
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  1. What a big change, and what an awesome Jump! I found myself set up as a young fogey at some city college, the kind of dude you’d expect to be prematurely balding and with more ink in his veins than blood. And sure, it was nice to be able to wear woollen pullovers and suit-jackets instead of the hyper-edgy street-punk vigilante-wear I’d sported in the last world. Not that the pullovers-and-suits phase lasted long.
  3. It lasted about as long as it took me to find out that I could bench-press a shipping container and take a high-powered rifle-round to the face without flinching. And that took about as long as it took me to pick up the phone when I got called by a guy named Tony who said he needed to know everything I knew about killing giant flying whales from the inside. Which, surprisingly, was, like, a lot. I’d never made a study of sky-whale-killology, but suddenly I found out that I’d been an expert all along!
  5. At that point, the air in my little office just shattered and the hordes of hell came boiling out of the rent in the world.
  7. They looked horrifying, and in the time it took for me to get over my stunned revulsion, I’d already caught a rusty scythe-stroke to the chest. By the time I realised it didn’t hurt as much as it ought to have done, I’d caught a few more nasty, should-have-been-fatal blows. Which were… uncomfortable, certainly, and inconvenient, but there was a marked lack of sudden death that made me realise that this world probably ran on different rules.
  9. Then I punched one of the skull-faced goons into dust, and my soul rejoiced. I could get used to this!
  11. Pitting an unarmed egghead against ancient demons armed with weapons forged of hellfire was totally unfair. I wiped the floor with them. I retained whatever hand-to-hand combat expertise I’d picked up in my first Jump, and apparently moves that work against human beings also work fine on demons if you’re strong enough to punch holes in tank armour — which I apparently was. At the same time, some part of my savant intelligence was throwing up all kinds of interesting factoids about these creatures: which layer of Hell they came from, the metaphysical implications of their physical manifestation on the Earthly plane, and most importantly, where to hit them for best effect.
  13. Leaving my dingy, deserted office, I found the cityscape dominated by a vulgar, spined erection: a massive tower, covered in statuary of dubious origin and questionable taste, reaching up into the sky itself like a giant metaphor for overcompensation. Circling it was, I kid you not, a massive whale flapping its way through the sky like some kind of terminally-bloated albatross; I had time to think that maybe that Tony guy hadn’t been pulling my leg when it plummeted from the sky and obliterated six city blocks, all of which appeared to have been deserted.
  15. Well. It seemed like the city had been evacuated at some point before Jump-chan dropped me in. At the back of my mind, my newfound expertise on demonolatry was suggesting more ominously that the agonising death of innocents was a potent incentive for demonic manifestations, and the frequency and intensity of random attacks by wandering demons was such that the theory had some merit. I considered just flying across the cityscape, but opted for stealth instead: from the air I’d be an obvious target for demons everywhere.
  17. Instead, I explored the limits of my newfound strength, and was both delighted and somewhat appalled to discover that there didn’t appear to be any; or at least, any I would consider even marginally human. An unerring precognition alerted me to the presence of enemies and warned me of incoming attacks, and I quickly learned to trust my new reflexes to hurl me out of harm’s way with plenty of time to spare; whatever attacks I couldn’t dodge or block, I shrugged off. The only thing that inconvenienced me was an encounter with some kind of five-headed giant mantis-thing, that could step sideways into invisibility and launched blisteringly quick ambushes before fading away. One such ambush, coupled with a zig when I should have zagged, left me reeling, my right arm severed below the elbow; even with my newfound resilience, that hurt! Still, the flow of blood staunched quickly, and I managed to reach the top of the tower just in time to see a young lady in a miniskirt put a bullet in the head of a scar-faced man.
  19. I’m not sure why I reacted the way I did. Perhaps it was horror at seeing the first two humans I’d encountered in the entire forsaken city wreak such cold-blooded violence. I yelped in shock at the gunshot, and fell to my knees; perhaps fortunately, since she spun to face me and her second shot parted my hair. If I’d remained standing, it would have hit me right in the sternum.
  21. Say what you like about how Jumpers all end up as eldritch abominations: I wasn’t so far gone from human yet that I wouldn’t blink when shot-at. I raised my hands above my head immediately: her eyes were red, her shoulders were shaking, and the bandage on her thigh showed fresh red where blood soaked through the binding. She looked neither particularly sane nor stable, and I didn’t want to aggravate her unnecessarily.
  23. “Hey, hey! Whoa! Don’t shoot!”
  25. Her eyes narrowed, as she took a two-handed grip on her pistol. “Who the hell are you? How did you get up here?"
  27. I slowly stood up, still holding up my hands. “I’m… I’m Shane. Shane Masters. A guy called me about a whale."
  29. You have to understand, this is before I doubled-down on learning actual social skills.
  31. “What?” She scrubbed at her eyes angrily with the back of one sleeve, leaving a smear of ash and mascara across the white fabric. “A… whale?”
  33. We both looked down off the edge of the tower, where a sizeable chunk of city still lay buried beneath several thousand tons of rotting demon blubber.
  35. “I might have gotten held up,” I said, lamely.
  37. She snorted softly. “You have no idea.” She jerked her chin at the pulsing orb of angry red light that hung above the tower. “Dante’s gone on ahead."
  39. Dante, huh? The guy who’d called me said his name was Tony Redgrave, but eh, maybe there were more than three people in this ruin of a world. I sat down, dangling my legs off the edge of the tower, and reached a hand into the folded-space of a Warehouse portal: there was an infinitesimal pause, before one of the Warehouse’s ever-present robots placed a cardboard box in my questing hand. I drew it out and popped the lid, offering it to the girl.
  41. “Pizza while we wait?” For some reason, I had a surfeit of the stuff.
  43. She gave me a long, level look, as I’d just asked her to sprout wings and fly off the tower. Then again, I didn’t know a thing about this world: perhaps that request would have been less incongruous.
  45. But then her shoulders began to shake, and she covered her mouth with one gloved hand, wrapping the other around her midsection as if her sides ached, as she chortled with mixed hysteria and relief. I nodded sagely.
  47. Everyone here was crazy.
  49. Of course, I had no idea how right I was at the time. Everyone was crazy. The entire world was crazy. But ‘Tony Redgrave’ spent a few years showing me how that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: in fact, when I started applying myself properly, things started getting crazy awesome. He recognised the utility of my expertise on demons almost immediately, and we got ourselves set up somewhere else, in another city that hadn’t been devastated by an almost-apocalypse. The girl, Lady, had the Devil Hunter connections to get us jobs; ‘Tony Redgrave’ supplied most of the muscle (and property damage bills), and I supplied the actual office, seeing as how Old Uncle Pennybags turned out to be as good as his word, ensuring that I had some property to my name in every world I visited.
  51. So we went into business, us three. Busting ghosts, casting out devils, extinguishing grudges. Lady would find us the job, and then supply back-up on-site help; ‘Tony’ was always supposed to be muscle in case things went wrong, and I was usually supposed to go in first to dowse the site and make some observations. I think most people expected TV-style ghost-hunting, with cameras and motion-sensors and weird machines that went boop.
  53. Instead, we invariably ended each job with an abbatoir’s worth of dead demons to clean up, someone’s house would be on fire somewhere, and all our shirts would have contrived to have fallen off.
  55. We hung out some during our down-time, but it must be said that I couldn’t keep up with Dante. Lady couldn’t either; I doubt anyone really could. The guy takes living fast to a whole new level. Inevitably, I would have to take a step back from the booze and drugs and revolving roster of girls named Honey or Bunny or something and go look for a library, or seek the shelter of my Warehouse.
  57. Where, over several years of study, I discovered the means to surgically excise the demon-diseased arm of Arkham, Lady’s late father, and graft it onto my own stump. You see, Arkham had devoted his life to his unending quest to gain the power of the demon-knight Sparda, Dante’s father: he got halfway there. Dante could channel that power because of his half-breed heritage; Arkham, a full human, could hardly have done the same without suffering undue consequences, and so in preparation for receiving Sparda’s power, he had modified his body over the years, splicing demonic tissue onto his own frame, which caused the fantastic scarification I’d noticed on him immediately. With his corpse (which Lady had never noticed me taking) and his notes (ditto), I discovered that he had, in a way, succeeded: when he had drawn Force Edge from its resting place, the power of Sparda had overtaken his body, which had been unable to contain it, but in his death, some of that power had remained trapped in his warped flesh.
  59. The hand that had wielded the sword of Sparda was now grafted to my arm. My regenerative powers, self-bestowed by an infusion of demonic essence, had gladly welcomed the graft, stimulating the growth of new nerves and pink skin to bridge the gap between stump and severed arm, and as my heart’s blood began to pump through the demon-graft, veins of pulsing blue light began tracing their way through the dead flesh, bringing it back to surging life. The sensation was delicious, and, it must be admitted, addictive.
  61. I gathered my own mementoes over the years of devil-hunting with Lady and Dante. Tissue, bone, fluids; artefacts and relics. These I kept in my Warehouse. Some I experimented on, and a few of those experiments bore fruit in the form of gene-therapy and flesh-grafts that enhanced my capabilities, but nothing provided the quantum leap of power that Arkham’s arm and Sparda’s power had. I grew restless: the arrival of Jump-chan drew ever nearer, and I might never receive such a good opportunity to strengthen myself. I needed to grow stronger, and soon.
  63. I think it was Lady who first spotted the behavioural irregularities, when they cropped up. I found her looking at me oddly, one day, as we were watching the sun set on the blazing ruins of a lakeside Italian villa we had ‘exorcised’ (and levelled).
  65. “What is it?” I asked, nonplussed at the intensity of her gaze.
  67. She pursed her lips, and answered reluctantly, “It’s… it’s just the way you hold that notebook of yours. It looks so familiar."
  69. I glanced down. I had taken to carrying a leather-bound notebook with me to these excursions, taking notes during what downtime the jobs offered. I made the excuse that this compilation of knowledge would serve my partners well. Sometimes, my factoids did, when I could point out weaknesses in otherwise indomitable foes, but mainly, I was looking for the secret to unlock more of the potential hidden within the unholy fusion of demonic and human flesh. I was cradling the notebook protectively against my chest.
  71. “You’ve probably seen me do it a lot,” I replied, feeling a rising anger. This particular hunting trip had borne meagre fruit, and Jump-chan’s deadline was no more than a week away. My time was running out! I had to get stronger! And here Lady was, wasting my time with small-talk.
  73. She looked away, eyes pensive beneath her shades. “No. I haven’t. But my father used to."
  75. In hindsight, I wonder what would have become of me if I hadn’t flinched. But I was early in my Jump-career, and didn’t have the hardened nerves or heightened social savvy to control my behaviour down to the smallest tic, and so I did. She saw it, and her mismatched eyes narrowed.
  77. She wasn’t the only one. A heavy hand fell on my shoulder and spun me around.
  79. I faced down Dante, the Son of Sparda, gloriously bare-chested beneath his red leather coat. The grime and soot and bloodstains of our latest battle seemed to provide nothing more than an artistic backdrop on his skin against which his faint scars could shine more brightly. He stood loosely, with his usual nonchalance, but his eyes were hard as steel, and the hand that wasn’t gripping my shoulder was resting on the butt of one of his oversized pistols.
  81. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that,” he drawled. “You know. The whole arm thing.” He gestured at my right arm with his gun. The demon-graft was, as always, concealed beneath a stark black long-sleeved jacket, with a clergyman’s high collar; I wore a glove on that hand, to cover the gnarled scar-tissue and the lack of fingernails. “Because, you know, the day we met? You were kinda bleeding all over the place from a stump. Then shortly after, you had a new arm, and hey, it seemed to suit you, and you’re one of those egghead types, so I figured, what the hell. It’s probably some kinda robot arm thing, right?
  83. “But then I saw some of the things you’ve been doing with it, and I’ve been wondering. Wondering why some of your tricks seem so familiar. Why they remind me of my brother.” His eyes narrowed dangerously. “Or my father.
  85. “And then I really got to thinking.
  87. “So, Shane, my man, what happened to Arkham’s body, anyway?"
  89. I looked at him, helplessly. There was no real way forward beyond this point, was there? Everything since that day had driven me up to this moment: my quest for knowledge, for power, for strength, had pushed me to become the sort of thing that my partners of ten years would extinguish without a moment of hesitation.
  91. Well. So be it.
  93. During the first exchange of hostilities, I gunned hard for Lady: between her and Dante, she was clearly the weaker of the two, and also the one more likely to make a nuisance of herself with precision ranged fire from that improbable armoury she kept strapped to her tight, athletic body. Dante, for all his strength, was predictable, at least early on: I’d seen him fight on countless occasions, and I could rely on my enhanced reflexes and my defensive martial arts style to block and dodge everything he threw at me. At the same time, I dashed in, utilising air-hikes and short-range teleports to close the distance with Lady; in the end, I got close enough to send a spectral, clawed hand roaring out from my Devil Arm, extending my reach by a good twenty feet as I snatched her out of the air and hurled her to the ground, where she lay gasping for breath, rendered half-unconscious by the impact.
  95. And that was when Dante started getting serious.
  97. The man’s brash demeanour and determinedly himbotic ways are, I’ve come to realise, some of his most useful tools, because they make it ever so easy to forget that he is, in his own way, a true genius. Never a fan of book-learning, or at least, learning from books that didn’t feature centrefolds, he was nonetheless a virtuoso of the battlefield, and if he was normally a terrifying opponent by virtue of his strength, speed, and supernatural armament, he was when seriously committed a total force of nature. As usual, his forms were sloppy, but when Dante reached beyond his standard repertoire, he became capable of absolutely lethal improvisation.
  99. In that respect I was no slouch myself. Ten years of constant battle and a gradual infusion of demonic essence had made me, if not utterly inhuman, then at least something of a match for this half-Devil hunter. The style of fighting I’d developed over the last decade was very heavily defensive, as I’d always been able to rely on Dante and Lady to bring the pain: I was fast on my feet, evading attacks through acrobatics and space-folding techniques, and capable of stopping cold with my bare hands bullets and blades alike. Dante hammered at my defences, bending the laws of physics recklessly to come at me from every imaginable angle (and a few unimaginable ones as well), but if I focused on guarding myself and blinking out of the way of attacks instead of staying in place long enough to counter, even he was struggling to mark me.
  101. The problem was, I could hardly mark him in return. Over the years I’d accumulated quite the armoury of sacred, Devil-hunting relics, and with these I could at least theoretically threaten him despite his superior resilience. While the ancient relics I’d collected hadn’t been in any shape to be used in battle, I’d learned that I could distil their supernatural essences and store them in my Devil Arm, manifesting spectral versions of the weapons that retained all of their potency without the complications of material weaknesses. With phantasmal hammer, sword, and whip I drove at him; with chakram and crossbow I sought his death, but the man was a master, born to skills I had come by only through hard study: while he shied away from the touch of blessed soul-steel, he did so with unerring precision and flawless balance, dodging everything I could send his way. We were fighting to a standstill, and both of us knew it.
  103. Lady tipped the balance. From behind me, I heard the familiar sound of a safety pin being withdrawn, and a telltale clunk. Even with all my enhanced reflexes, there was only so much I could do against a rocket set to airburst at such close range. My combat precognition only showed me in various stages of ‘pulped’: even if I hurled myself through folded space and let my Devil Bringer drag me as far and fast as I could go, I couldn’t avoid being caught in that explosion and being perforated by blessed silver shrapnel.
  105. Precognition also showed me that there was no in way in hell, as battered as she was, that Lady could get out of the way of the blast, either. And unlike me, she couldn’t shrug off punctured lungs or heavy arterial bleeding.
  107. My instincts screamed at me to get out of the way. If I could minimise the damage done to me, I could guard my way through the worst of Dante’s next barrage of attacks, and think about escape: pressed as I was by his battle-genius, I couldn’t even scrounge the concentration to restore to a saved-state until I could get free of the fray, but I should be able to if I could just create some distance. Just get away get away get away get away--
  109. There was only one thing to do, really.
  111. The explosion of Kalina Ann’s air-bursting munition assaulted all of us with shock and flame and razor shrapnel. I dashed away, folding space to cover more ground in a single step than a running man could leap… and positioned myself between Lady and the blossoming flower of fire and hot metal death.
  113. I raised my forearms in a boxer’s guard before my face, muffling my scream in my sleeves as I felt something rupture wetly inside my torso at the sheer force of the blastwave. Shrapnel punched through my flesh, riddling me with holes; my precaution of covering my face turned out to be a bust when a piece of metal ripped right through my arm and tore out my left eye, shortly before the bones in my forearm just snapped.
  115. I couldn’t really feel myself collapse to the ground, but I must have; I can’t imagine having remained standing after that abuse. I tried to draw breath to scream and scream and scream, but instead just burbled wetly through punctured lungs. Something cold nuzzled itself under my chin, and I could imagine Dante standing over me, hipshot, the tip of his sword resting against my throat.
  117. “… ny last words?” he asked, sound fading back into the world only slowly after that concussive torture.
  119. “… Lady okay?” i croaked. If I was going to go out a power-crazed maniac, best not to do so as an outright bastard of one.
  121. There seemed to be a pregnant pause. I couldn’t tell if there was one or whether I was just drifting in and out of consciousness. But then the cold, sharp length of the blade was withdrawn, and I thought I heard Dante chuckle. “Yeah. Yeah, she is, although she’ll probably hate you for helping her survive to remember that she made such a rookie mistake.
  123. “Hey. Hey, you weren’t half-bad back there. Didn’t know you had that kinda fighting in you. So you like to get a little crazy now and then, huh? Well. I suppose I’m not really a great poster-boy for moderation, either. Let’s just say you’ve learned your lesson and call it quits, huh?"
  125. My fingers spasmed. I tried to nod.
  127. “Aw, c’mon. Don’t be such a big baby. Pull yourself back together and walk it off."
  129. And after a while, I did. Admittedly, it was a really weird and uncomfortable feeling, the sensation of your own deflated eyeball first sealing itself shut and then re-inflating with vitreous jelly, and the fritzing of colours across my field of vision as nerves rebuilt themselves was a singularly unique sight. Still. Better than dying, I suppose.
  131. As my nerves slowly stopped screaming damage-reports, I came to on the shores of Lake Como. The sun had set long ago, and the stars were out. Lady was still out, it seemed: Dante had relieved her of some of the more cumbersome items of her armoury and arranged her in a more comfortable position. Her breathing was deep, and even: true sleep, then.
  133. My clothes were shredded to hell and back, of course. My healing factor had seen me through fine: healthy pink skin showed through the shrapnel-riddled gaps. I hauled myself to my feet and shambled over to where Dante sat before a campfire, whistling tunelessly, twirling Rebellion’s pommel in his fingers: his coat was a pile of red leather at his side. Wordlessly, he tossed the coat at me, and I put it on, grateful thanks to my now-malfunctioning wardrobe.
  135. I sank to the sod beside him, and, reaching through a hand-sized portal, drew out two chilled bottles of beer and a box of hot pizza that one of the Warehouse robots handed me. He accepted a beer and helped himself to a slice of pizza, and we ate and drank in silence for a while, before he asked, “You’re not from here, are you?"
  137. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
  139. “I’m not sure what I mean either,” he admitted. “But something about you seems off, man. Not, like, the Devil Arm or anything. I mean, like, off off. You’re different."
  141. I thought about all the casual physics-breaking that went on around Dante. “I’m pretty sure it’s nothing special.”
  143. “Nah, brah,” he insisted. “It’s just the small things, you know? You seem to know everything there is to know about the Demon World and about demons and the supernatural and stuff, but every time a celebrity is on the news you look like you’ve never seen them before. You can reach into thin air and pull out beer and pizza. Not that I don’t think that’s awesome! But if I pull weapons out of my ass, it’s because they’re Devil Arms that are bonded to me. I’m pretty sure you ain’t sold your soul to some demon of Beer and Pizza, because if you did, and didn’t let me in on it, you’re holding out on me, man."
  145. Huh. So the peroxide prettyboy wasn’t as thick as he looked. I shrugged. Well. Jump-chan was coming for me in a week. So I told him.
  147. He took it surprisingly-well, considering. Just raised those silver brows at me, and went, “Yeah?”
  149. I nodded. “Yeah."
  151. “Sweet, brah.” We clinked beer-bottles, and that was that.
  153. Well, I say that was that. And I’m mostly telling the truth. The next week passed quietly. Lady was healing-up, and also she didn’t want to speak to me. Understandably so. Dante insisted I leave her a note, because nobody knew if I’d ever be back, and she wouldn’t forgive me if I just upped and left without saying anything after I revealed that I grafted her dead father’s arm to my body and I might have gone a little power-crazed due to demonic cross-infection. I snarked that since when had he become an expert on women, let alone Lady, and he threw a filing cabinet at me. So I guess that meant we were cool.
  155. I left the note. And also my notebook. She could use the info, and I hoped it would keep her alive.
  157. Dante insisted that I keep his coat. “Sounds like you’re from a boring world, man,” he said. “You might never get the chance to dress properly cool for a long time, if other places are lamer than this. You’d better bring some proper duds with you."
  159. And then, we weren’t alone in his office: Jump-chan, in what looked like a high school girl’s uniform, was perched cross-legged on the edge of his desk. Her features, as usual, were a haze of ineffable details: I got the impression of so many faces superimposed over one another that all she looked like was an overwhelming impression of Face and Eyes and Nose and whatever. I could tell she had those features, and that they were beautiful, but nothing else: I had no idea what colour her skin was, or her eyes or hair were.
  161. Her voice, however, was unmistakable: a playful lilt, with a tinge of mean-spirited mischief. “Well, Shane, looks like you’ve made a promising start to your jump-chain. This world was good for both of us, I think: you definitely learned some interesting tricks, and I was certainly entertained. But it’s time.
  163. “So what would you like to do now? Hang around? Move on? Or are you ready to head home?"
  165. Clear as her voice was, I thought I detected a bit of a quaver at that last one.
  167. I smiled. She needn’t have worried. Curiosity drove me on, as it always had. “I’m ready to move on, Jump-chan."
  169. She clapped her hands. “Great! I was worried you’d had enough there for a moment, when you almost lost your soul."
  171. Wait, what? “I don’t think things were quite that bad,” I protested.
  173. “No, they definitely were,” Dante said gleefully, the traitor. “You need someone to keep you on the straight and narrow, brah. Or at least, on the fun and cool and not at all lame."
  175. Jump-chan cocked her head to look at him, regarding him as if he were some fascinating species of beetle she was preparing for the pin. “You have a suggestion, I assume.” The suddenly-brisk, businesslike tones clashed with the carefree youthfulness of her voice.
  177. “Sure.” Dante jerked a thumb at me. “Same deal he’s got. I get a vacation, he gets someone to look out for him, and you get not one, but two hot bods on display. Everyone wins! And if something happens to old Dante, well, you’ll just drop him right back here, as if he’d never left, right?"
  179. “That’s right,” she agreed. “I’m not offering you the same deal, though. Hot bod aside.” I got the impression that her Eyes sparkled as they roved over his fine features and taut T-shirt. “Shane’s a little less predictable than you are, Dante. And he’s easier to fluster. Which is cute!"
  181. “Hey,” I objected, shuffling my feet a little.
  183. “See? Adorable. No, Dante, you’d go through the heart of the cosmos like a hot knife and only wonder when the fun ended what you missed.” She gave the impression that she was smiling, though. “Still, I do think you’ve been a good influence on Shane. So I suppose you can come along for the ride.”
  185. From his desk, she picked up one of his business-cards. DEVIL MAY CRY, it read: big, bold, and unapologetic as the man himself. The ivory-coloured card seemed to glow a little in her hand as she held it out to me. I took it, bemused, and looked it over front and back. It looked like every other card we’d printed for the business.
  187. “Just a phone call away,” she clarified, taking the card from my hand and tucking it into my breast pocket. Her hand lingered on my chest for a moment before she turned away. “Come on, then, Shane."
  189. She slid open part of the wall as casually as opening one of those Japanese screen doors, and held it for me. I glanced over my shoulder. Dante winked, and let his thumb fall as a hammer on an imaginary pistol as he pointed his index finger at me. “You call sometime, partner."
  191. “I’ll do that,” I answered, walking to the gateway and my next Jump, “partner."
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