Brennan and Molly walked through town, looking for trouble. It was dark, and pretty quiet. After three days of relief efforts, most of the blockage had been cleared away. But even in normal times, the town was pretty dead at night, and these were not normal times.
“So why aren’t you patrolling with Lucia?” Molly asked. As restless as she normally was, she seemed unusually so tonight—walking on the balls of her feet and tapping her wooden sword impatiently against one leg. “I was surprised that she decided to go with Aaron.”
Brennan sighed. “We had another fight,” he said.
“Really? You seemed fine this morning.”
“We were.” He crossed his arms and glared at a passing alley cat. “Then we just—” He clenched his fist and took a deep breath. “Lately, it seems like all we do is argue.”
Molly’s look of sympathy was definitely not one he wanted, but luckily it didn’t last long. For some reason, he went on. “It’s been like this since the dam.” He walked on a few paces, shoving his cold fingers in her pocket. “I know she just wants to help, but she keeps pushing me in directions I don’t want to go. She keeps trying to… I don’t know….make things better? Like she can just fix what’s wrong by making the feelings go away. I don’t know how to get her to understand that I don’t want them to go away. I want to deal with them. On my own. And I want everyone to stop talking about it and get on with things.”
“Hey, you’re pretty much the only person who hasn’t been going easy on me,” he said. “Yesterday you almost broke my wrist.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” she said, wincing. “I forget sometimes that you haven’t been doing this long. Actually, you’re a lot better at fighting than I expected.”
“Yeah, well, I have had some practice,” he said. “Things aren’t as bad now, mostly because I got big enough that people don’t want to mess with me.”
“I told you about how I used to set things on fire accidentally? It didn’t exactly make me popular. And when Aaron started having seizures… well, kids can be little shits sometimes.”
“People in general can be kind of crappy.”
“Yeah, but most of them are good. They just make bad decisions.” Brennan glanced up the street, frowning.
“What is it?” Her hand tensed around her sword.
“I—” His eyes searched the dark buildings for a minute. “I thought I saw… there was a flash of heat for a second, but now it’s gone. Can you sense anyone?”
“No,” she said. “But I usually don’t.”
“It’s pretty dry outside.”
“Sure. But we’re standing over a sewer and there are water lines going to all those buildings, not to mention the water inside. My sense of water is more like smell than sight. It’s not that precise.” She hefted her sword, shifting her grip so that it would be easier to swing. “If you think you saw something, we should check it out.”
He tapped on his ear to activate the earbud. “Codex, we may have something where we are. Near the corner where that gas station is. Have you picked anything up with the tracker?”
“Not yet. Still scouring the residential areas. Be careful.”
The knot in his stomach wound itself tighter as they crept along the sidewalk, working its way up his throat, until he felt like his mouth was wired shut. The scar on his stomach seemed to burn suddenly, and his fingers had started to go numb.
Molly’s hand brushed against his shoulder. “I’ve got your back,” she said.
“You want to go first instead?” he asked, forcing a smile.
“Just remember to breathe.”
He nodded. Good advice, if he could figure out how to follow it. Molly squeezed his shoulder.
He sensed that flash of heat again, and this time he was prepared. “This way,” he said, pointing toward the gas station. “Parking lot.”
The alley opened onto an narrow, uneven gravel parking lot around the station. A few cars scattered the lot. Brennan figured they’d been left behind because they couldn’t get out after the quake, although one looked rusted enough that it had likely been abandoned years ago. All he could sense was the normal soup of early December air, mixed with warmth seeping out of buildings. “No one here,” he said. “I thought—”
“Look out!” Molly thrust both of her palms into his shoulders, shoving him backward and down as something whistled past his head. Brennan hit the ground and rolled, scrambling to find his feet. Fear and panic pulsed through him.
“Seeker! Ice!” Molly called, flinging water into a wall in front of them.
Instinct took over. He sucked the heat from the water into his glove. The spray crystallized in front of them.
“Where’d you get the water?” he said, unable to think of anything else.
“Ice freezer,” she said, dragging him to his feet. “Power’s been off since the quake. Come on.” She hauled him behind a minivan just as the ice wall shattered.
From the other side, a girl’s voice. “Did you hear that? They have codenames! Why don’t we have codenames?”
“Never mind that.” The second voice sounded more like a guy. “Did you see where they went?”
He felt Molly grasp his shoulder. “Look,. You’ve got to focus. Concentrate on what we practiced. I need your help. You don’t have time to freeze up.”
Before he could call her out on the really awful pun, something slammed into the car shielding them. Beside him, Molly swore.
“What is that?”
“Didn’t see. Definitely not a gun. Looked like some kind of projectile. One of them was glowing, so I’m guessing these are grandma’s friends she was telling me about.”
“Two, I think. Maybe three.”
“Why can’t I sense them?”
“I don’t know.”
Still numb with fear, Brennan reached for the heat stored in his glove and pulled it into his body. Warmth rushed through him. “Plan?” he said.
“Don’t die. Kick their asses.”
He nodded. “Good plan.” He took a steadying breath and risked a glance past the bumper of the van.
There were three of them. One was a tall, skinny teenage boy with white-blond hair and a patched red jacket. He hesitated as he checked behind a car, hands balled up to give a clumsy punch at whatever he’d find there. The other one was a girl. Despite the cold, she was wearing a tank top with her arms bared, and he could guess the reason why—one arm was covered in fine, metallic scales.
The third one was a little girl. He had no idea why she was even with them—she couldn’t have been more than ten. Right now she seemed incapable of helping her friends. She was slumped against the rail at the edge of the lot, arms curled around her stomach. Her hands glowed dimly, but the light flickered like a bulb going out.
He swallowed. It was hard to know what to do without knowing the boy’s abilities, he thought, searching the lot. Fragments of ice littered the ground where the wall had shattered. Plenty of water was mixed with it, cold but not frozen. “I’m going to distract them,” he said. “Get ready.” Mentally, he thanked Selena again for the glove. He’d need to push a lot of heat for this to work, and he’d have to do it all at once. Brennan took a deep breath, and focused on the glove.
“Now,” he said, funneling heat into the ice. Molly leapt past him, skidding with her sword out in one hand as the water turned to steam. He followed at a run, not entirely sure if he’d be much help.
The boy yelped and threw his arms over his face. The girl just grinned. Metallic scales had spread over her face, shielding her from the heat. “Cute trick,” she said. “But it looks like it hurts you more than me. Oh, do you want to fight?” she said as Molly hefted her wooden sword. “I might break all your fragile little bones.”
Molly didn’t bother responding. She just attacked. The other girl didn’t even falter. She met the full force of Molly’s sword with her forearm, which gleamed with the same metallic luster. Brennan pulled some of the heat from the ice, letting it melt to give her more ammunition, and turned his attention to the boy. He rushed the boy while the kid was still recovering from his scalding.
Halfway there, he lost his balance. A wave of vertigo crashed into him, and he stumbled. Before he could right himself, another blow slammed into him, pushing him backwards off his feet. He hit the ground harder than he should have. His body suddenly felt too heavy, like he’d been drugged. Like something was pressing him to the earth. Terror and heat flushed through him. Panicking, he fought against it, crawling to his feet and flight nausea as he grabbed onto a car bumper and strained against the pressure.
The blonde boy was standing in front of him with his hands out and an expression of intense concentration on his face. What kind of power is this? Gravity waves or something? Whatever it was, there was no way he could fight like this. He could barely even stand. All the training he’d done with Molly was pointless now; it came down to powers.
Luckily, using his didn’t require him to stand. He didn’t even have to reach into his depleted heat store, because there was enough ambient heat in the air from all the steam.
Much of it had dissipated, but there was still a substantial amount of heat trapped in those little molecules of water. Brennan pushed it all toward the other boy, channeling it into his hands. The boy flinched but he kept his concentration. Water began to freeze in the air, spattering in tiny crystals over the asphalt. Brennan pushed more heat at him, enough to cause damage. Gradually, he felt the pressure lessen, and managed to make it to his feet. The kid was crying openly now, and his hands had started to blister from the heat. As Brennan struggled toward him, he staggered back, giving little bursts of power that rocked him, but couldn’t knock him down.
As Brennan came within a couple steps of him, and the boy turned and ran.
Brennan cleared the distance with a couple of steps, and kid went down like a rag doll, flopping to the ground with a shriek. Once he’d gone down, he didn’t fight back, either. Jut lay there, crying. Still, he didn’t dare let up. The kid might get over it any minute and take what advantage he could.
One down. He turned to the third girl, the one who had been glowing. But she did nothing to defend herself. Small, slender, and quivering, she merely clung to the hood of an old SUV and stared up at him, shaking. “Please don’t hurt me.”
“I’m not going to hurt— Hey, you’re the ones who attacked us,” he reminded her.
The girl just shook her head, slumping further toward the ground.
Okay, no immediate threat there.
Molly had the metal girl on the retreat, but her opponent could take the hits without flinching. Her metal skin made her too tough, even with the added leverage of Molly’s sword. He kept expecting the wood to shatter with each hit.
The other girl’s cocky demeanor had dissipated, and she was so focused completely on the fight that she didn’t seem to notice her friend had gone down. Or maybe she was just concentrating reading her attacks, so she would have a better chance to defend—
“Tempest!” Brennan hissed over the earbud. The metal shifts.”
Molly hesitated for a second, and it was enough for the girl to give her a solid kick that staggered her back a few feet. As she recovered, she gestured with her left hand, sweeping water from the ground into her opponent’s eyes. The girl blinked, and the metal scales shifted to her face, leaving her arms exposed. While she wiped water from her eyes, Molly flung her sword forward. It slammed into the girl’s unarmored legs with the sickening sound of breaking bone, and spun back to Molly’s hand like a boomerang. She caught it handily, holding it in the air like a conqueror.
Brennan stared at her in awe, and she grinned.
“I drilled a hole in it and filled it with water,” she said. “Pretty cool, right?” Pointing the sword at the other girl, she demanded, “Are you with Avalon?”
The girl just glared back.
“Don’t hurt her,” the boy said. His voice trembled, either from fear or pain. The skin over both hands was bright red, and had already started to blister. Despite everything, Brennan couldn’t help feeling a surge of pity. He knew from experience how much that hurt.
“If you’re concerned,” Molly said, “you could answer my question.”
“She told us you’d do this,” Metal girl said. “That you’d fight us and threaten us. But you won’t kill us.”
“How much you want to test that theory?” Molly asked. “There’s a first time for everything.” The rigid fury in her eyes was frightening enough that even Brennan started to doubt she wouldn’t. “At the very least, I have no problem hurting you a little bit, and we know what a slippery slope that can be.”
“She gave us a message for you,” the guy said. “She said to remind you of her promise.”
Molly’s eyes narrowed. “What promise?”
“To protect us.”
Molly’s face went blank. To them, it may have looked like confusion, but he knew her better than that. The lack of emotion in her face meant she’d been hit with too much of it at once, and was fighting to keep herself in check.
“Yeah?” she said. “Well you can go back to that self-righteous, narcissistic witch and—”
“Tempest,” Brennan said sharply. “Remember why we’re here.”
Molly turned on him, and there was enough rage in her face that it felt like a physical heat.
“You came here to find the girl,” Brennan said, looking at the kids they’d beaten. “We’re not going to let you. Sorry. You can go back to Avalon and tell her that. Tell her we’re taking care of it. She’s under our protection. This is our town. Our problem. Get out of it.”
“You can’t beat them without us,” the slender girl said. Brennan had forgotten about here again. The child wavered as she stepped toward them. The glow round her hands sputtered, and she dropped to her knees. “We have to…” As the light faded, her eyes rolled back in her head and she tumbled to the ground.
“Skylar!” Metal girl called, struggling to get up despite her broken leg. There was no trace of her previous smugness. Only concern.
“What happened to her?” Brennan asked. “Is she okay?”
“She overused her power,” Bleach boy said.
“They’ve already beaten us,” he said. “They know they can’t kill us.”
“What are you going to do, Maya? You can’t fight with a broken leg!”
“You’re a coward,” she snapped back at him. “Avalon said—”
“Avalon cares about the girl,” Ethan responded. “We can’t help her anymore. Thanks to you.” He directed this at Brennan and Molly, with enough venom in the word to make it clear he hadn’t fully capitulated. “You’re not the only one looking for her,” he said. “If the suits find her first, you’ll never see her again. People like us disappear.”
“Suits?” Brennan asked. “What do you mean?”
“The bad guys,” Maya said sarcastically. “Are you stupid?”
“They don’t all wear suits; that’s just what we call them,” Ethan said. “They come after us, sometime. Maya was—”
“We can help you,” Ethan insisted. “If you just—”
“And I’m just supposed to trust you?” Molly asked. “After—”
“Tempest, there’s no time,” Brennan said. “They aren’t in any shape to do anything, and he’s right. We came to help Tara. We’ve got to go.” He started to get up and go. But he glanced back and saw Ethan still curled on the pavement, clutching his burned hands to his chest. With a sigh, he knelt back down, and before the other kid could resist, touched his wrist to pull some of heat out of his hands.
“Get help for that as soon as you can, and the burns won’t be that bad.” He turned quickly and stood up, brushing his hands off on his pants. “Come on,” he said to Molly, who was watching him with a kind of half-smile.
“Nothing,” she said, shifting her grip on her sword. “You’re right, we’ve got to go.” She glanced back at Maya, hefting the sword threateningly. “I meant what I told her. She’s not welcome here.” Then she turned and followed Brennan back toward the street.
* * * * * *
So, so sorry for the lack of post at the beginning of January. But no worries, I’m not dead yet. Just a little slow this month. The next chapter is still planned for February 1st.