Nolitz exhaled slowly as a small trickle of sweat rolled down his neck. Feet planted firmly in the dirt, back straight, the DJ braced himself.
"You ready?" a voice from across the field called out.
Nolitz straightened out his armor and made sure his earbuds were in place. After checking that everything was in place, he closed his eyes, breathing in and out. "Ready!"
The training field erupted with bullets as they tore several training dummies apart
Nolitz immediately dropped to the ground and slowly began to crawl over to the nearest barricade. The stuffing from the dummies rained down on him.
The DJ rolled behind the barricade and quickly sat up. The shield shattered as dozens of bullets collided with it. Several bits landed on his shoulder, which he promptly brushed off.
He pulled out a pistol and made sure it was full. As the seconds went by, it amazed Nolitz that all that ammo was coming from one gun
Eventually, the bullets came to a stop, followed by the faint sound of Shelly cursing. Nolitz rushed out from behind his cover, moving across the field and firing at Shelly.
The shark dove out of the way as Nolitz rolled across the ground behind another barricade. The world tumbled a bit, and he was left to catch his breath. He quickly reloaded his pistol and listened for Shelly.
The faint sound of dirt crunching under boots seemed to echo throughout the field around him. Beads of sweat rolled down the DJ's head as his opponent drew closer to where he was. The thought of rushing out to find another spot to hide behind filled his mind when the sound suddenly stopped.
He sat still for several minutes and heard nothing but the wind. Confused, he slowly turned and peeked around one side of the barricade, only to see a targeting laser aimed at his chest.
"Nice try, Stickman," Shelly chuckled as she approached, rifle in hand. "I give you points for making me jump to the side. Feel free to drop your weapon anytime."
Nolitz stepped out from behind his cover, dropping the pistol. "Where'd you get the rifle?"
Shelly held up said weapon and flashed her signature grin. "Always have a backup gun. You never know when you'll run out of bullets."
Nolitz noticed that she had slightly lowered the rifle to the side. "Is the exercise over then?"
Shelly arched an eyebrow. "Uh, do you see the gun in my hands?"
Nolitz suddenly launched himself toward her. Shelly stumbled back, surprised at this. She raised her rifle as if to shoot him.
Oh shit! I am screw-
Nolitz collided with Shelly before he could finish his thought, and both were sent tumbling to the ground. The rifle flew out of Shelly's grasp.
"Should've thought that through," Nolitz groaned as he sat up.
Shelly chuckled as she picked herself up. "Good move, though."
Brushing the dust off their clothes, the two found a shady spot and took a break. Shelly uncorked a canteen of water and took a swig before passing it to Nolitz.
"Thanks." He passed it back.
"No problem. So will you tell me now?"
Nolitz turned to her. "Huh?"
She corked the canteen. "Your fear of Nightmares."
He sighed and leaned back. "What about it?"
"Did you forget about the obstacles Troika faces?" Shelly crossed her arms, a look of annoyance on her face. "We may hunt down the corrupted in Anduruna easily, but Nightmares are on a whole other level. I understand you were traumatized as a kid, but if you can't even look at a Nightmare, you won't last long in Troika."
Nolitz arched an eyebrow. "Is that a threat?"
"A fact." She stood up. "I like you Nolitz, I do, but I can't keep you alive unless you manage your fear."
As Shelly walked off, Nolitz let out a soft sigh. He knew she was right. Aside from music, what else could DJ L0ckd0wn bring to a vigilante group if he couldn't even stand the sight of Nightmares?
After putting away the weapons and armor, Nolitz returned to the barracks. He found Mischief curled up, fast asleep on his bed.
Making sure not to wake the ryuu-neko, Nolitz sat down and pulled out his data scroll. Requesting a video call with someone from Oromoston, he set the device against the wall as a familiar face appeared on the screen.
Nolitz smiled at his sister. "Hey, Nevi."
It had been at least three years since Nolitz had left Oromoston and his family. He stayed in contact with Nevi, occasionally checking in to see how she was doing.
Nevi and Nolitz shared a few characteristics, such as their fin-like ears and sharp teeth. In contrast to Nolitz's blue skin, Nevi's skin was a bright green color. Her hair was a much darker green with red streaks, and her eyes were brilliant pink.
She was currently sitting in her room, dressed in her pajamas and holding a small cup.
Nolitz could see the seafoam green wallpaper in the background, along with the numerous hand-drawn illustrations she had done when she was young. He could also recognize the white ceiling fan with the crystal bulbs their mother had installed.
Nolitz's family had grown up in the Torisel Sector of Oromoston City: a vibrant community full of aspiring artists. His mother was a jeweler while his father was a carpenter. Nevi was determined to have a piece of her artwork on display in the Torisel Plaza.
Nevi gave him a small smile. "It's been a long time Nolitz, how have you been?"
"So far, so good, can't complain all that much."
"How are Mom and Dad?"
Nevi shrugged, taking a sip from her cup. "Not much has changed with them. Dad's still working, although Mom recently had surgery on her left leg due to an infection."
Nolitz winced. "Ouch."
"Yeah," Nevi nodded. "She had to stay bedridden for a few days."
Nolitz leaned back on his pillow. "How's school going?"
Nevi threw her head back and groaned; Nolitz had to stifle a laugh. It brought back memories of studying for tests. They could drive any student mad.
"That bad, huh?"
Nevi slid down her chair. "You have no idea! I've been up to my neck in studying!"
"Believe me I know the pain," Nolitz sat up straight. "You should've seen me studying for finals back in school."
Nevi scoffed. "Oh, please. You don't understand the pain I'm going through bro."
Nolitz feigned being offended. "How dare you! I went through the same thing you're doing!"
Nevi rolled her eyes and cracked a grin. "You just don't understand," she repeated.
They two siblings shared a laugh. Nolitz hadn't seen Nevi in person for years, so it always made him smile when he heard her laugh.
She set the cup down. "So how are things going in Anduruna?"
Nolitz shrugged. "As good as it can be."
"Mischief still a pain in the ass?"
He looked down at the sleeping ryuu-neko. "Yep."
She gave a small giggle. "And how are your friends? How's Kara and Axmon?"
Nolitz's mouth suddenly felt a little dry. "I haven't spoken to them for a few weeks."
Nevi adopted a confused expression. "How come?"
"We, uh," Nolitz cleared his throat while absentmindedly stroking Mischief's back. "We had a falling out."
"You had a falling out with them or with Endroge?" Nevi crossed her arms, confusion replaced with seriousness. "I've talked with them before Nolitz, and Endroge was rarely the friendly type."
The DJ exhaled softly. "I know."
He looked her straight in the eye. "The Soul Reapers offered us a chance to join them. I was the only one that didn't take it."
Nevi grew troubled at the mention of the gang. "I forgot the Soul Reapers also operated in Anduruna. Those bastards always stir up trouble."
"Tell me about it."
"So you haven't spoken to them at all?"
"No, not since they joined the Reapers." He looked at his surroundings. "Plus I've been busy with a new job."
"You managed to find one? That's great!" The mood suddenly became cheerful as Nevi gave her older brother a big smile and a double thumbs up.
Nolitz smiled back. "Thanks, sis."
"I didn't think anyone would accept you after, uh," Nevi hesitated and looked to the side. "Never mind."
Nolitz let out a heavy sigh. "Don't worry about it."
"So," Nevi continued after a few seconds. "What kind of job is it?
"Nothing special," Nolitz shrugged. "Just different jobs at a nightclub."
"Nice. Does it pay well?"
"F-for the most part," Nolitz hesitated briefly. His sister's question danced in his mind. Wait, are they paying me?
The DJ turned to see Fezra enter the barracks, dressed in stained mechanic overalls. She held a wrench in one hand and had a pair of goggles hanging around her neck.
The fennec fox jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "The Cosaint team wants to speak with you."
Fezra shrugged. "Their leader wouldn't say. He just kept pestering me to find you and let you know."
The frustration in her voice was clear as water.
"Alright," the DJ responded, "thanks."
He turned back to Nevi, who was still in her seat, stroking the back of the leaf ryuu-neko in her arms. It seemed Pollen was also in her room.
"Well, Nevi. I gotta go."
"Alright, I have to go too," she looked down at the ryuu-neko. "It's time for Pollen's walk."
Nolitz smiled at the ryuu-neko. "Take care, sis."
Nevi smiled back. "You too, big bro.
The DJ moved to end the call when Nevi spoke up. "Promise me something."
He paused. "Yeah?"
"Keep your eyes out for Kara and Axmon. You never know what kind of jobs that Reapers will have them pull off," she shuddered, holding Pollen close.
Nolitz thought back to his friends. He thought about how he first met them. What they went through growing up in Anduruna. How they believed the Reapers could help them.
He regretted not being able to convince them otherwise. He had grown up in a city where the Reapers thrived on chaos and would willingly do anything to achieve their goals.
After ending the call and switching off his device, he got out of bed, once again making sure not to wake Mischief. He approached his locker and opened it, reaching in to pull out the hard drive Raz had given him.
He held the device up high. "I have a feeling Cosaint wants you back."
"Do you have it?" Merle confronted Nolitz as the DJ arrived, hand outstretched.
The rest of his team were packing up their equipment. Raz gave Nolitz a brief, yet shy wave, which he returned.
Ever since she revealed her team would be leaving early, things had grown awkward between the two of them. They had hardly interacted with each other.
Turning back to Merle, the DJ wordlessly dropped the hard drive in the goat's hand.
Merle stuffed the device into his coat pocket. Raz flinched when he turned to face her. "I'll be having a few words with you when we get back to base. Understand?"
Raz looked scared out of her mind as she gave a meek nod in response. Cole and Dash looked at their teammate in concern as she went back to packing her belongings.
Nolitz clenched his fists as he glared at the back of Merle's head. "Leave her alone."
Merle looked over his shoulder at the DJ. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me," Nolitz crossed his arms. "She chose to give me personal information. Information that your team had no right to hide from me!"
Merle's teammates watched with shocked expressions as he turned back to face Nolitz.
"Look, kid, why don't you mind your own business," the goat fired back with a hint of frustration in his voice. "Your grandpa may have provided us with some useful information, but that doesn't mean his relatives are allowed to interfere with our operation."
"That's not the point!" Nolitz snapped. "My grandfather was ripped apart by a Nightmare. Cosaint knew and chose not to tell my family the truth!"
Merle shook his head and scoffed. "Our boss did that to keep your family safe and out of the line of fire. He was smart to keep you in the dark, especially."
"Merle," Raz moved to step toward the two but was held back by Cole.
Nolitz narrowed his eyes. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Isn't it obvious? You were nothing but a troublemaker! After the death of your grandpa, you spent the next couple years doing nothing but research on the Nightmares."
Nolitz growled. "I had to-"
"Not finished!" Merle snarled. "Despite the warnings, you kept digging for information, neglecting the fact that you put your whole family at risk! Did you ever stop to realize the danger you were putting them in?"
Nolitz tried to speak, but Merle's words echoed in his mind. He had considered it. Hadn't he? Did he forget or did part of him not even care about his family's well being?
Merle let out a heavy sigh. "Did you think that's what your grandfather would have wanted?" His voice was calm yet stern. "For his family to come under fire from the people responsible for his death?"
Nolitz felt his eyes briefly water. He had no reply. What could even be said?
"You've now put yourself in the crossfire by joining with Troika," Merle continued, "but your family is safe."
Nolitz looked Merle in the eye. "What about the OSF?"
"Remember when I said your grandfather's information, helped us deal with them?" Raz suddenly spoke up. "Well, let's just say the Cosaint Security Force has been keeping the city safe."
Nolitz stood in shock as Merle chuckled, while Cole and Dash fist-bumped, and Raz stood with a satisfied smile. "How?"
"Long story," Merle answered, "but also the reason why we're going back. They'll need all the help they can get to maintain control."
Nolitz swallowed. "I see. Thank you for letting me know."
Merle let out another sigh. "Look, kid, if you want to join the fight with Troika then, by all means, go ahead. Just don't let your grandfather's death be the only motivation for your actions. If you cling to it, you'll end up losing about everything and one around you."
Nolitz was taken aback by Merle's words, but the DJ steeled himself and nodded.
The goat nodded back before turning to his team. "Alright, let's get this wrapped up."
Nolitz stayed where he was, looking back on the time he had in Troika so far. He quickly realized that his grandfather's death was indeed the influence behind many of his actions.
His extensive research into Nightmares. From joining Troika to receiving the hard drive from Raz. The outburst at the club and the conversation with Zythe. All of them.
"You alright, Nolitz?" Raz asked as she approached the DJ.
"Hmm? Oh, uh, yeah. I'm fine." He didn't even try to look at her.
"No, Nolitz, you're not."
Nolitz's lips curled into a small smile. "Is it that obvious?"
Raz looked at the DJ with a soft, sympathetic expression before wrapping her arms around him. Nolitz turned in surprise as Raz rested her head against his shoulder. "I should've kept the drive from you. You wouldn't have gone through all that otherwise."
Nolitz shook his head. "No, I needed to hear that. It hurt, but Merle's right. My grandpa's death had an insanely massive impact on my life and choices. I just never realized it."
Raz stepped back after letting go. "So what will you do now?"
Nolitz looked to the sky. "To be honest, I have no idea. Taking a break seems like the best option right now."
Raz gave him a 'you've lost me' look. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I'm taking a break from all this," the DJ looked around at his surroundings, gesturing with one arm. "Troika, Cosaint, the Nightmares, everything. I need to step away from them for a little bit. Reevaluate whatever I plan to do from here on out."
"Hey Raz, hurry up! We're ready to go!" Cole shouted, cutting off what she was going to say. He and his teammates were standing with their equipment on a telepad.
"Coming!" She called over her shoulder, a faint look of annoyance in her eyes due to the interruption. "Looks like this is where we part ways."
Nolitz snorted. "Seems that way." He closed his fist and held it up. "Be seeing you, Raz."
Raz completed the fist bump. "You too, Nolitz. I hope you'll be able to work things out."
Nolitz watched her leave with a solemn look. "So do I, Raz."
"Yo, Nolitz!" Dash called out as Raz reached the telepad. "If you're ever in Oromoston, look me up! We should make a music video!"
Nolitz found himself letting out a genuine chuckle. "I'll think about it!"
Even though he had barely interacted with them, aside from Merle, Raz's teammates were very similar to Endroge, Axmon, and Kara.
Merle was, without a doubt, a lot like Endroge in terms of mannerism and personality. Both were hotheaded jerks who were a bit controlling, but their words weren't without reason.
Cole seemed to be a friendly and caring person like Axmon. Funny enough, they both asked for Nolitz's autograph the first time they met him.
Dash's love of making videos was reminiscent of Kara's love of video games. She and Endroge usually ended up challenging each other in a deathmatch whenever the question of skills was brought up.
As he left to find Shelly, the DJ thought back to the time when he had hung out with his three friends. Sharing stories, playing videos, going to the beach. Geez, when was the last time he had gone to the beach? Or played video games?
Maybe now was a good time to visit the Soul Reapers.