Josua ushered Jourac out of the smoking laboratory through the melted exit, guarding the rear as cautiously backed up. Arsus and Zuel brought up the flanks and Laeaus took point as vanguard.
They started to leave when a flash of bright golden crimson appeared and there Yillo, a maddened demon, growling his rage pulled out a fiery fist.
Only Josua was capable of not only reacting fast enough, but skillfully enough to survive the next moment.
Yillo sent a punch that Josua barely deflected. Josua put both arms up to cover his face and let the blow connect to his forearms. It burned his sleeves but he rolled with the punch to avoid losing those arms.
Josua was still thrown back.
Zeul, Laeaus and Arsus were a second too late in doing anything.
Yillo’s color returned. He threw his next punch aimed for Jourac’s chest.
A loud bang followed and Yillo grunted. Jourac staggered. But there was no hole in his chest.
Doctor Vant stood in the laboratory with his gun still smoking.
He’d shot Yillo in the back, draining the Specter of his color just before the augmented punch hit Jourac.
It was but a normal punch that hit Jourac.
Yillo was stunned a half second long enough for Laeaus’ eye to smash into him and remove him from the exit, throwing the Paroxysm Specter once more to the far lab wall.
Arsus helped Josua to his feet as Zuel spewed lava to block the exit. They sprinted away without looking back.
Yillo stormed to Doctor Vant.
Vant said nothing, he was already tending to the injured scientists.
“I’m going after them,” Yillo blurted out. He wanted to hurt the Doctor for getting in the way. The mission was to stop Jourac from being captured. Vant did the opposite. Yillo could report him later, although Vant would probably make the excuse that he was aiming for Jourac.
It didn’t matter.
Yillo already forgot about it, focusing on the more important task of catching them.
Dartan radioed in. “Power’s back on! I’m watching the security footage.”
“Find Josua.” Yillo radioed back. He was running down a hallway following a path of unconscious guards.
“Got them! They’re heading to the south side, making their own exits.”
“Where’s Talayia?” Yillo asked.
“I’ll contact her, one sec.” Dartan changed lines.
There was some static but a voice came through. “Yillo? This is Talayia.”
“Where have you been?” Yillo took over the input.
“The scientist I escorted was making backups of all their recent progress, he just couldn’t say it for fear that Josua would find out.”
“Speaking of Josua, talk to Dartan and I’ll meet you at him. We have to stop him. He’s got Jourac.”
“Shit. Okay, what’s Dartan’s line?”
“He’ll find you.” Yillo turned off his radio.
The pursuit was on. All he needed was the direction. Josua would be too slow with a group that size.
Yillo was dying to fight Josua without interruptions.
Vandle and his team were apprehended one way or another. They’d been totally finessed, betrayed and lost the intel front as well. Someone high up in the government was making power moves.
“Tie them down, one by one.” Erahat ordered. They started with the unconscious Jid and then to Genjam. They blindfolded, tied, and muffled him. Restraining a Color Specter was risky and there wasn’t always a surefire way to know if it was working, but with several other Specters surrounding him with threat of death, they managed to keep Genjam in check.
Vandle was next and they roughly tied him down and cuffed his hands securely. Blinding him was useless.
As Erahat, Antho and the other Specters worked on keeping the struggling Emilo down, Veron hissed to Hales from inside one Yellow cage to another. “I know you can get out, Hales. You’re being stubborn even though you’re mine. You don’t care for this mission, but guess what? I do! Break out of there, you’d do that for me, right?”
Hales wanted to scream. It was obvious Erahat wasn’t planning on killing them, so there was no harm in letting them have this victory. It was a distraction anyways. Their plan worked and Josua made it to Jourac, the result of that was completely out of her control by now.
But Hales couldn’t disobey Veron. She couldn’t fathom letting her down. The Jinx working like a parasite in Hales’ brain.
Fine. Have it your way, witch.
Hales was ready to let it all out. Since breaking free of Veron’s charm was impossible at the moment, Hales would just take her anger out on the enemy who she didn’t even think of as an enemy.
And why are they so special? You don’t have moral reasons for fighting them? When did you become so soft? You’re so confident in your power that you just refuse to fight? Did you forget your training? You fight because it is the source of life and joy. You fight to prove yourself, to dominate the weak and hone your skills. You fight to please me! I will not see us lose, not now, not ever! You need motivation, how’s this then? Get strong enough and I’ll break you out of Veron’s Jinx. Yeah, that’s right, you heard me. You need to win, win every single battle you ever fight and get so terribly powerful and I’ll get stronger too by association. Deal?
“Deal.” Hales said aloud.
‘What?” Veron asked, confused, not realizing Hales was talking to herself. “Okay great.”
Hales emptied her eyes of a current of stars, flowing forth one at a time and letting the suns orbit around her body. They began to melt through Antho’s Yellow and she grew their size as well. The heat blazed against her.
“Look out!” someone shouted. Rhenai immediately activated her Blinds and Cathee charged with his ostrich-turtle Totem creature.
But Hales’ first strike was already en route. A planet aimed for Kassel in the far back. The surprise planet brutally collided into Kassel’s head and knocked the girl unconscious, bits of rock crumbling over her.
Antho sprinted around in the dark to find a blindside to approach from.
Hales controlled the stars she’d brought out to melt the Yellow and sent them above her. She crashed them all together to create a fiery flash. It lit up Rhenai’s darkness long enough for Hales to see everyone’s locations.
In that time during the flash, she already had new stars drawn out that she then sent to orbit each Specter. She was marking their locations long enough to send out more.
Realizing they had no time to waste, Antho, Rhenai and Cathee attacked Hales.
She kept a large star in her own orbit to dull the effects of the constantly changing Blinds.
Next, Hales drew out a whole solar system and began rotating it over her finger.
“Careful.” cautioned Antho. “She’s quick.”
Hales launched her solar disc toward Antho, flicking her wrist to give it extra spin. He ducked under it and moved his arms to create a barrier of Yellow around himself.
The solar disc whizzed by and wheeled back toward the fight. Hales had tethered the disc’s gravity to Erahat. It took a wide loop before coming back.
Antho noticed it first.
“Watch out!” He shouted in warning.
Hales had a swarm of miniature asteroids building up which she launched one by one at the charging Cathee. She stepped into each throw of the half-meter wide asteroids.
Cathee’s Totem creature leapt to the side of one, dodged another by leaping over it and headbutted the next, barreling straight through and reaching Hales.
Hales repositioned herself as she faced off with Cathee on one side and Antho on the other. Rhenai was stalking her, prepared to cut off her escape. Hales kept them from attacking by duel swinging stars, each the size of a person.
Behind all this, Erahat easily dodged the predictable solar disc and watched as it sailed by and began to return again to complete its ellipse of him.
As Hales was circled by three Specters, who kept their approach wary, a fourth, slightly invisible one was upon her.
Kris, the Swarth Aspect. Kris jabbed Hales in the stomach with a palm and made to send a backwards kick when she saw the solar disc rapidly zooming towards her.
Hales had really used Erahat in the back, who could reliably dodge her obvious attack as a slingshot to send it back to her. She’d made the appropriate adjustments, leading her adversaries to the right spot where the solar disc would come spinning, daunting anyone that wanted to fight close combat for a moment.
It worked perfectly.
Kris was forced to leap out of the way while her Swarth image was obliterated by the solar disc.
Hales did two things in that opening. The first was launch a small star to Genjam, who with the other captured Specters, was now left alone, tied and blindfolded.
The second thing Hales did was take her twin stars and rotate them above her, allowing the gravity of one star to tear apart the other.
Hales had them spinning fast enough where the plasma spewed out wouldn’t hit anything directly underneath as the centrifugal force propelled the bits of star outward from the center.
Kris, Cathee and Rhenai retreated. Antho advanced, reacting to the star shower correctly.
With his Yellow trails following his hands, Antho worked on reducing the available space Hales could move to.
She kept him at bay with more stars and planets, and he used that opportunity to surround her with Yellow.
Hales’ stars could melt through the Yellow, but Antho’s Aspect was a much more constant ability and he replaced and reinforced the steel-like trails of his hand motion faster than Hales could destroy them.
Genjam shouted out, shocked by a sudden ball of fire that burned through his wrist bindings and some skin as well. But he was free and the swirling cloud of black and blue above him followed the commands of his fingers.
He put up two fingers and pointed them down. Two spears materialized out of the Chaos Blue and came plunging down on his bound feet. Free to stand, Genjam removed the muffle and blindfold.
“Kris, handle Genjam!” Erahat ordered.
“On it!” Kris projected her physical image into five different ghosts, all equally distributing her full image. They were each twenty percent opaque and somewhere between them was Kris’ actual body.
“Ready for another fight?” Kris challenged.
“Ready to actually fight? Not just tricks.” Genjam was trying to use Kris’ voice to pinpoint her location, but something was off. Why would she willingly talk? That had been her downfall their first fight.
“You should know by now,” Kris said with a smirk, all five making the expression. “Tricks is what I do.”
Genjam spread his hand out and fired five spears, one aimed at each image. They passed through the apparitions, destroying them in the process, only for them to reappear before they faded completely.
Kris was untouched.
“Where are you?” Genjam asked.
“Behind you.” Kris said.
Genjam shot spears all around himself, hitting nothing.
Genjam was hit right after his spears plunged into the street by a combination of punches that contained only a fifth of her strength, a fifth of her physical body.
How did Kris shift from behind me to in front so fast, Genjam asked himself.
Genjam made a motion with his hand, reducing his spears to particles and recalling them to his cloud.
“Do you really have time to think so hard?” Kris taunted.
That voice, again. Where is it coming from?
Genjam took a kick to the face. He threw out spears in a line as he reeled back. Hitting nothing once more.
“Tricks. That’s all you get. Well, this is real improvement. Cerulean Knight!” Genjam’s entire cloud blanketed itself around the Specter, forming into a blue-iron cuirass, greaves, pauldrons and helmet, a full gear of armor, complete with a short lance and kite shield.
“So what’s new? You’re just slower and have less range.”
“Come then, see for yourself.”
Kris and Genjam engaged in their own rivalry fight as Hales continued to fend off Antho, Cathee and Rhenai.
Rhenai made a point of stopping any other Specters from being freed, taking extra care to keep them in the dark. Fighting in the Blinds was her element, something she’d spent all her Specter training perfecting. She was good too. But Hales had switched to firing primarily asteroids and she had so many just orbiting randomly across the street. They hurt, but didn’t cause serious damage, unless they hit the face or were one of the really fast spinning ones that Hales snuck in. Beyond that, the asteroids proved to be an obstacle that caused natural flinching and distraction. It made the fight harrowing in a less than ideal way.
Antho had enough. “Rhenai, drop the Blinds!”
Rhenai tapped her shoe and deactivated her power. “We can’t beat her.” admitted Rhenai, frustrated. She ducked under another asteroid and saw that Hales already switched back to stars for her ranged attacks. Her ability to multi-task was incredible, Rhenai realized.
“Check on Kassel, we may have to bail!” Antho shouted.
“Make that a certainty!” Erahat announced, getting off the phone. Mission complete. We need to jet.”
Antho did his best to keep Hales pressured into defense, to stop her from sending more stars out to his team as they made their escape.
Erahat beckoned in a rush, “Kris let’s go!”
“You’ve learned to throw your voice.” Genjam said suddenly, in between breaths of a stalemate fight.
“Took you long enough. You wasted so much time trying to solve something fail proof. You’ll never know my location again.” Kris disengaged and even if Genjam wanted to, he’d be hard pressed to tag her.
“Answer me this one thing. If Garghent is so evil, why did you not kill us when you had the chance?”
“You’re a dolt. Maybe not everyone is as bloodthirsty as you military type.” Her apparitions disappeared and she was gone.
Genjam rushed over to Vandle first and began to undo his binds.
Antho managed to get in close enough to land some strikes on Hales. The Yellow trails constricted Hales’ space and she banged her arms and legs several times trying to maneuver. The close proximity to her own stars exploding on the Yellow trails and the leftover glass from Kassel’s Vitro Aspect dug their way into her skin.
Antho forced Hales back and made another barrier in the window he created. Antho fled in the next heartbeat. It would be impossible to chase him with his Yellowmancy trails lingering behind. Easy to find, but harder to navigate through.
Hales was in no condition to run with glass in her feet. She winced and walked carefully to Veron where she used stars to melt the cage that surrounded the Jinx Specter.
“Good girl.” Veron flattered, the way she might a puppy.
Hales smiled, the charm Jinx making her genuinely amicable to Veron.
The radioes kicked on simultaneously “Anyone there? This is Dartan. Power is up.”
“Dartan, what’s the situation?” Vandle responded on his radio.
“Bad. They took Jourac, burned the lab too. Yillo and Talayia are after them. They’re heading the opposite direction from you. What should we do?”
Vandle looked up and saw Laeaus’ eye was gone. “Regroup. As for Josua and Jourac, tell Yillo and Talayia to back off. They’ve got networks and avenues we’ll never catch up to today. Mission is a failure. They had us fooled and outplayed from the start.”
“Aye, but it’s not a total loss. Come to the security room when you can.” Dartan disconnected the line.
“It was my gaffe. I’ll handle the responsibility. Perhaps I’ve spent too long in retirement.”
Genjam interjected. “No sir, we let you down. It was my decision to leave the laboratory.”
“You followed my orders. Now no more talk of this. We will debrief and review the events. We gained valuable data from this, albeit at the cost of some of our own valuable intel. Hales, go see a medic and report back for debriefing. Genjam, take Jid and drop him off at the medic on your way. Veron and Emilo, with me.”
“It was that Sage Erahat. His power made us so entranced by his words we completely let our guards down.” Veron was visibly upset at losing to another Sage.
Vandle realized his former students were not dejected or beaten at all. Any longer and they would have won that fight. They acted like professionals, keeping their heads up and learning from the experience. Losing was motivation in the Specter world.
Hales left the group and made her way to the medical facility. Genjam was further behind carrying Jid. The streets were secured again, apparently all the crowds were paid to disrupt the military guards and in reaction to some signal, just stopped. Garghent’s military district was back in proper working order.
Hales checked in at the medical counter and was immediately given a room and nurse. Specters in Garghent’s military had many perks, including a full service clinic that dealt with the diverse wounds and biologies Specters faced on a daily basis. The doctors and clinicians here were experts in treating Specters.
Hales didn’t wait a full minute before a nurse entered the room. “Hello captain Ailor.” The nurse was a woman in her thirties and very heavily pregnant.
Hales immediately felt awkward and embarrassed. Her wounds were light enough she could’ve treated them herself.
“Where are your wounds?” the nurse asked sweetly.
Hales cleared her throat. “Glass in my legs and feet and some minor burns and cuts on my arms.”
“We’ll start with the burns.” The nurse began working on treating Hales’ wounds.
“How far along are you?” Hales couldn’t resist asking.
“Ah, eight months.” her eyes had a sparkle when she smiled.
“They’re having you work so late?” Hales blurted, her voice rife with ridiculousness.
The nurse just smiled diplomatically. “I’m expected to work up to three days before the delivery date.” It was as if the nurse had explained that enough time to the point where she believed it was right.
“That is the way of the world, captain Ailor.”
“Please, you can just call me Hales. And that’s still wrong. Being around blood and injuries and stooping all day long.” Hales shifted away from the nurse and grabbed the tweezers from the tray. “I can do this, really.”
The nurse slapped Hales’ hand away. “It is really no problem. But thank you for caring, Hales.”
“What is your name?” Hales asked, leaning back in the chair.
“Annana. Annana Wes.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Hales greeted.
“Properly.” Annana Wes corrected. “I’ve treated you and the other Specters many times.”
Hales reddened. “I…I’m sorry. I’m usually off daydreaming.”
Annana Wes finished wrapping the burns and moved on to the glass. Hales tried her best to suppress the winces and gasps.
Hales found it odd how none of her wounds hurt while she was fighting. She wasn’t fully convinced adrenaline was responsible. Hales was learning to tune out her own body during combat. It was a scary thought and she didn’t want to continue that daydream.
“So is it a boy or girl?”
“You know, you’re going to think I’m crazy seeing as I’m a nurse and all, but I’m not going to find out until I deliver.”
Hales was reading the subtly pained expression on Annana’s face. “That’s not crazy, that’s exciting!”
Annana forced a smile. Silence lingered on for a moment as she removed some glass. “This isn’t your first time with glass in your feet, is it?”
Hales laughed. “No, unfortunately not.”
“You Specters are getting younger and younger.” Nurse Wes started, making conversation. “What makes you choose that sort of life?”
“We don’t, at least I didn’t, not really. You grow up with nothing but a dream of a better life, of having powers and doing anything you want. More than that, you grow up with talent, academic or physical or both. They scout you from a young age, elementary school I think. Monitor your progress through middle school. The best get invitations to prep for an entrance exam. Spend your whole middle school career learning things years ahead of your grade level. Very few pass the exam, but if you do, you get a ticket to the schools that promise to awaken your Aspect.” Hales wasn’t sure why she was talking so much about this. Maybe she’d never really discussed her life with anyone. It all happened so suddenly, despite the sluggishness of feeling through every single day of her existence. Either way, Hales sensed Nurse Wes needed to hear something like this. “In high school for the first three years, they teach you college level academics and set you on daily workout and fitness routines. Fail those or your studies in any way and you’ll be dropped. Still, they dangle that fruit called the Aspect over your heads, all the while conditioning you as weapons. As a kid, you don’t really comprehend what that means. It just sounds like soldier, and who doesn’t grow up wanting to be a soldier? It’s true, Garghent is starting them younger and younger. They are mass producing us Specters and it’s only going to increase. They’re getting better at it. We’re on course to be deadlier and more powerful than our elders. Garghent thinks in decades. Always in decades.
Nurse Wes had tears in her eyes. She bit her lip. Her voice was emotional. “I can see the way the other doctors and the older Specters and Generals look at me. No, not me, my baby. Like greed and avarice in their eyes. I know what they are thinking, I can just feel it! Everytime they see me they squat low and hold my hand and talk to the baby and act like decent people but I see through that! They think that because I work with Specters everyday that my baby is going to grow up and become one of them!” She wiped her tears and composed herself.
Hales couldn’t look Annana in the eyes when she spoke next. “That’s exactly what they will do. Is there a father?”
“It was an affair, a fling really. He’s a soldier. Haven’t heard from him since I told him I was pregnant. Annana gasped, “you don’t mean?”
“No, no.” Hales assured. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you he was a plant. I didn’t even think about that, it’s really not important. But Garghent will want that baby, that I can tell you. They’ll stop at nothing if it means more power.”
“You really believe that?”
“As I live and bleed. That is the way of Garghent.”
Nurse Wes sat down, having completed with the bandaging. “Oh what can I do?”
Hales could see that Annana was close to folding in half and breaking.
A thought occurred to Hales. “Leave.”
“What do you mean?” Annana said between sniffles.
“I… I can’t. There’s nowhere to go, all the cities are enemies of Garghent, I’d never make it.”
“There is one city. I can vouch for you. It’s closer than most and you’d be safe there, I think. Safer than here. No one would touch your baby.”
“You can’t be serious! That Deo is a monster and the city is filled with the dead!”
Hales gave a tight smile. “All too true. But Deo would let you in. He has a large living population. They’ve rebuilt and have much land and wealth between them.”
“How can you begin to be sure of that?”
Hales sighed. She looked distant. She tried not to but it came over her regardless. “In a not so long ago time, I was pregnant too and I didn’t know about it until I was already in the field, seperated from my squadron and alone in a desert. I lost the baby. But the father was Deo. The same Deo. Mention my name and he will let you find refuge. No one hates Garghent more than him.”
“I’m so sorry.” Annana gripped Hale’s wrist in compassion. She inhaled a deep breath. “I can make the trek. I know I can. But how do I leave Garghent’s gates?”
“Meet with me tonight. Prepare for the journey at once when you get home. I can get you out of Garghent.”
“Thank you so much, I can’t even begin…”
“It’s a lonely thing. Annana. That journey. But Garghent won’t lay a finger on that baby.” Those sickly, greedy fingers of theirs. “I have siblings, three of them. Sometimes I get asked about them. It makes me shudder and fills my stomach with empty pits.”
“I can do it. For my baby.”
“You’ll make it before winter. The days will be nice and cool and the scenery is beautiful.”
“You’re a good person Hales. Whatever you’re struggling with internally, know that.”
Hales forced another smile. “I have to get back now. I’ll contact you tonight.”
Annana Wes drew Hales in for a hug. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Hales walked out, her feet bandaged thickly enough that the wounds were securely in place and so she didn’t have to be ginger.
“Damn you Garghent.” Hales couldn’t directly go against Garghent, but she could rob those devilish fingers of a single soul.
Hales felt the potential power radiating from Annana, as tiny as a heartbeat, small and needing nurture.