“Okay, let’s see what you’ve got. Who wants to go first?” Quill asked. He was all patched up from his recent stabbing and apparently rearing to go. Ian’s betrayal was…it was betrayal. It sucked. Was he the one that messed with our heads?
Questions whirled through my mind. I didn’t think his powers did anything to other people, but he managed to lie to two empaths without them noticing. What else could he do that we didn’t know about? Come to think of it, how much was I missing? Days? Weeks?
“You guys alright?” Quill asked, apparently oblivious to what happened to Ian.
“Not really,” Erin finally spoke up. “I’ll go first.”
“Okay…” Quill said. “I’ve got to make sure you guys can handle yourselves if things go sideways,” he continued, growing out his spines. For some reason, it made me very uncomfortable watching them grow out. I couldn’t quite place the reason why.
How long were those things? I glanced away, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Corey look away from me. Despite everything, I felt myself grin, just a bit.
“—Let’s get started,” Erin said. Her green aura glowing to life.
Quill grinned. He slipped into a fighting stance while Erin stood with her arms crossed. Quill seemed confused for a minute, but he gave a slight shrug and lashed out. In a fluid motion, he pulled several spines off his arm and launched them with alarming precision.
They bounced anticlimactically off Erin’s invulnerable form. “That’s impressive,” Quill said, unleashing a string of punches that looked about as useful as hitting solid steel. Quill quickly realized the futility in trying to hurt Erin directly, so he grabbed her arm and tried to throw her to the ground.
Erin was waiting for that. Once she was off her feet, her glow turned blue and her trajectory instantly change. She shot over Quill, bending him over backwards before shifting her powers to red. She launched Quill like she was a track and field star and he was a javelin. Quill sailed through the air, landing in a sprawling heap over a dozen feet away.
“Why do I get the feeling you were holdin’ back?” Quill called out from his position on the ground.
“Because I don’t want to hurt you,” Erin said.
“You’ve got a pretty good set of powers there, but are you any good without them?” Quill asked, swiftly getting to his feet. I wasn’t an expert fighter by any means, but even I could tell he had some sort of enhanced physique to let him move like that.
Erin didn’t say anything, but she let her glow fade. “So, no powers then?” She asked.
Quill grinned, covering the distance in a few long strides. Erin didn’t wait for Quill this time. She struck first, causing Quill to duck under the blow. He came up swinging an uppercut that Erin batted to the side before catching Quill off-guard with her other hand. While he reeled from the hit, Erin drove a knee into Quill’s gut.
The porcupine staggered back, holding his stomach as he gasped for air. Quill was well-built, but Erin had a slight edge in the size department. Quill did have his spines, which made it hard to attack him, but they were mostly defensive unless he was throwing them. And Erin was a really good fighter, actually.
Wait…I knew that already, didn’t I?
“I think you’re good to go,” Quill wheezed.
Erin shrugged and walked back to the group while Quill pulled himself together. “Okay, who’s up next?” He looked at us all eagerly, but no one really spoke up.
“How about you, Nate?” Quill asked. “You seemed ready to fight earlier.”
“Uh, sure, but my powers are kinda dangerous,” I said, surrounding myself with energy.
“But how well can you fight?” He asked, throwing a sucker punch.
On my own I’d probably have gotten hit, but I with my energy I managed to jump back. Quill didn’t let up. He pressed the attack, throwing more swings and jabs that I only narrowly managed to avoid. While I was still on the backfoot, Quill stepped things up.
He started mixing in kicks and feints, and I found myself getting hit. “Come on, Nate, fight back!” Erin yelled. She was right, I was just letting him wail on me—not that it really hurt—I could hit back without hurting him. The second I heard that, I felt the presence shift. I didn’t remember it really doing that before.
Suddenly, everything flashed blue. When I came-to, I had managed to catch Quill’s fist. I was glad he couldn’t see my face because I looked about as surprised as he did. Before he could break free, I pulled his arm. Now he was staggering and off-balance, so I shoved with my free arm. I didn’t know how tough he was to start throwing careless punches. My open hand hit his chest and I shoved harder, the energy on my arm rippling in response.
Quill hit the ground and instantly scrambled to get back up. “I’m getting real tired of y’all throwing me around.”
“Then get good,” I jokingly said, flinging my shell forward.
Moving around with my powers felt like I was wrapped up in the unholy child of jello and a rubber band. But damn if I wasn’t getting better at it—I thought, unless I was forgetting being better.
I started throwing punches on my own, but despite my powers, Quill had more training than I did. I was faster and stronger, but his powers let him move just fast enough to deflect my blows. After he knocked my arms away, he charged, slamming his shoulder into me. I hit the ground, sprawled on my back while Quill caught his breath.
Another point to me; I didn’t get tired as fast. I willed my energy to move, and I felt it respond. It practically lifted me off the ground. In fact, there was split second where my feet didn’t touch the ground.
Quill must have noticed I wasn’t steady; he launched a volley of his spines at me, and I felt the presence recoil. My vision erupted in a sequence of sapphire explosions as my autopilot managed to catch Quill’s…quills.
“Okay, that’s it,” Quill said with a smile, holding his hands up in surrender. “You pass.”
“I’ll go next,” Whitney said with none of her usual humor showing through. I glanced back at the others, and they seemed about as concerned by her tone as I was. Quill didn’t seem to pick up on our apprehension.
“Alright,” Quill said, still grinning. I glanced at Erin, but she just gave an exasperated shrug. Whitney was still pissed about Ian—that much was obvious, but I was worried she was going to take it out on Quill.
Whitney was still a dozen feet or more from her target when she suddenly dropped low and slammed her hands onto the ground. The explosion was almost deafening as she rocketed forward. Quill dove to the side as Whitney slid to a stop on all fours. She was up and swinging in an instant. Quill just barely managed to duck out of the way, but Whitney was ready for that. I saw the glowing rock in her hands at the same time Quill did.
The explosion threw him back, but with some sort of inhuman reflexes he managed to land on his hands and quickly flip back to his feet. His expression had shifted; he realized Whitney wasn’t having a friendly sparring match.
Quill ripped some of the spines off his arms, but Whitney didn’t give him the chance to use them. She ducked low again, and set off several explosions in front of her, sending black smoke up in a thick screen. Quill stood his ground with the spines ready to throw at a moment’s notice, but the smoke didn’t clear. It kept expanding, forcing Quill to take a step back or be caught in Whitney’s trap.
“Should we stop this?” I asked Erin. “Whitney isn’t exactly tough like us, and those spines are sharp.”
“I think that’d just piss her off more, and they have healers here.”
I didn’t like it, but Erin was probably right.
Suddenly, a small shape loomed out of the darkness as Whitney emerged, black smoke trailing from her hair and hands. It almost looked like she was burning; small cinders flowed with the smoke. Quill locked on, but Whitney opened her mouth and shot a jet of the smoke directly into Quill’s face. He sputtered and reeled back, but Whitney’s attack cut his view off from her wild haymaker.
Her fist caught him in the face, disorienting him as she followed up with a left hook. Whitney’s face was twisted with pent-up rage as Quill staggered from the hits. She wasn’t backing down. More smoke billowed out like an evil fog, enveloping the two completely.
“Whitney!” Erin called out. Her worried shouting was silenced by another explosion.
Quill flew out of the darkness towards us. His shirt was in tatters, and part of his chest was mildly burned. He was alive, though, at least. “God…” He groaned, trying to get back to his feet. Adam walked over and offered him a hand up while we watched the rapidly vanishing cloud of smog.
Whitney was standing there, frozen in place except for a few minute twitches. Two of Quill’s spines were jammed into her arm.
“Her major muscles are locked up. I had to slow her down,” Quill said, as Adam helped him up. “Pull out the spines and she’ll be fine. I think you guys are fine, we’ll talk later about what you need to do.”
Quill didn’t seem particularly angry, but it was clear he didn’t intend to stick around for when we unfroze Whitney. He walked away, apparently shrugging off Whitney’s explosions like they weren’t potentially deadly.
Corey looked almost mortified as he hurried over to help Whitney. He grabbed one of the spines but seemed to hesitate. Whitney made some sort of grunting noise with her limited movement, and Corey nodded, at least pretending like he understood it. He must of thinking to act like it was a bandaid; with a quick yank he ripped it free, eliciting a pained yelp as Whitney lost her balance and slumped to the ground.
“Whit—” Corey started to say as Whitney reached up and tore the other spine free.
“I’m fine…” she spat, a quiver in her voice. “I’m fine. Fucking Ian. Stupid fucking Ian!” She seethed.
“Hey, we’re pissed too, but that’s no excuse to go beating people up,” Adam said.
“I know—it’s just…He was so fucking…just…he was here smiling and upbeat while we just had a person we thought was our friend stab us in the back.”
Whitney was still fuming, but I noticed the wounds on her arm weren’t bleeding. In fact, they were shrinking, rapidly.
“Whitney, you don’t have healing powers we don’t know about, do you?” I asked.
“What? No, of course not,” she said.
“Then what’s up with your arm?”
“…I don’t know, maybe it was Quill,” She said. “I’m going back to the tent.”
“We’ll come with you; we’re still a team, with or without Ian,” Erin said.
“Fine,” Whitney said, almost sounding defeated. She pushed away Erin and Corey’s hand and stood up on her own as we started walking back to our tents. “Is it getting colder or is it just me?” Whitney shivered, rubbing her arms.
“Must be a cold front moving in,” Erin muttered, preoccupied by something.
I trailed the others as we walked back through the middle of camp, I wasn’t sure why, but suddenly, I felt my legs lock up in place and my mouth clamp shut on its own. The others didn’t seem to notice, walking on their merry way as a hand slid around my waist while the other covered my mouth.
“Heard you were looking for me,” Eli said as I felt control of my body return. I spun around, maybe a little too fast, and Eli took a step back, raising her hands. “Woah, take it easy, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You literally snuck up on me,” I said.
Eli gave a mischievous smile that slowly faded. “We need to talk.”
Her tone caught me off guard. She was deadly serious, almost out of the blue. “About what?”
“Wanna go on a walk?” She asked, offering me her hand.
“Uh, sure…” I said, not taking her hand. She sighed dramatically and turned the opposite direction of my team.
“You really know how to ruin a moment, don’t you?”
Was she talking about last night?
“Duh. Among other times,” She muttered.
“Look, about what happened with Corey—”
Eli sudden gave a small gasp, as her face lit up. “Oh my god!”
“Stop reading my mind!” I hissed.
My reaction only made her smile grow. “And then you carried him back? Nate, that’s adorable! I mean, I knew he had a crush on you, but I never thought he would admit it. Poor guy’s timider than you!”
“You mean he…? It wasn’t…?”
“…just the alcohol? No. It just gave him liquid courage. But, as much as I would like to tease you about this more, we do have more important things to talk about,” She said.
“Like what?” I asked with my head still spinning.
Eli rolled her eyes, “You’re still stuck on your little winged boyfriend, aren’t you?”
“Ye—no—just drop it.”
“Fine. Ian wants to talk to you.”
“You’re working with Ian?”
“Yes, but calm down: he’s not the traitor you think he is. He’s trying to help you and the rest of your…friends,” She said, putting extra emphasis on the word. “Alright, I’ll stop with the teasing. Maybe.”
I shook my head, “What are you talking about?”
“I’ll let him explain,” Eli said, wrapping her arm around me again. I flinched, but she didn’t let go. “Come on, we don’t want to raise suspicions, do we?”
“Guess not,” I muttered as Eli walked us out of camp and into the woods around it.
I thought we were lost more than once before Eli ended up leading us back to the same clearing they had the party in. Ian was waiting there, on one of the large rocks by the river.
“What took you so long?” Ian growled, giving Eli a death stare.
“I got distracted,” Eli said innocently.
“What do you want, Ian. I thought they told you to get out of here.”
Ian’s death stare migrated to me. “You need to get the others to leave, now. We’re in danger.”
“Fucking duh, dumbass! But we were always in danger, weren’t we? Thanks to that shit you pulled with Argus. I teleported into oncoming traffic to help save your ass!”
“Hey, you were the imbecile who tried it! And you don’t have the whole story—”
“Oh, you were keeping more from us? How shocking!” I said sarcastically. “Of course you want us to leave; you always run from a fight don’t you? You don’t care about us. You just want your bodyguards, don’t you? Too much of a coward to face your mistakes yourself. Maybe we want to stay and help; maybe we want to do the right thing.”
Ian just sat there through my rant, staring at me angrily. “You done?”
“I guess so!” I said, out of things to say.
“Then shut up and listen: there is a red barn on the blue archipelago.”
Before I had time to process what he said, everything came flooding back. It was like a mental slideshow playing back everything Librarian had taken away. We were undercover, Hollands had Librarian mess with our heads so Savant wouldn’t peg us as spies. The Argus chases, being on the run; it was all part of the rouse. And Eli…The brakes slammed on my runaway mental train.
I could feel the energy crackling as it manifested. I turned to where The Anarchist was standing, leaning nonchalantly against a tree like everything was forgiven.
“You!” I yelled.
“Fuck—” She said, her expression immediately jumping to fear. “Come on, let’s be calm about this—I know you’re mad—”
“Of course I’m fucking mad! You tried to kill my family and then show up and try to—to—to flirt with me? What the hell kind of monster are you?”
The Anarchist was backing up quickly, ducking behind a tree for a little cover. “I helped you back there. I warned you we were coming, and I’m doing the same thing now!”
“She’s telling the truth, more or less,” Ian said, not exactly convincingly. “We need to extract the others so Argus can move in before the Kreigspiel move in. There are innocent people here that are going to die or get hurt if Argus can’t evacuate them.”
“For the last time, it isn’t the Kreigspiel or The Gold Diggers coming,” The Anarchist spoke up from behind her tree.
I could probably blow that tree to hell if I tried.
“Nate, don’t think like that: those are bad thoughts.”
“For once I’m glad you can read my mind,” I said, letting my energy drop. “But why did you give my memories back. We weren’t supposed to break cover,” I asked Ian.
“Because she said if I didn’t, she would,” Ian replied.
“Listen Nate, if you guys stay, you’re gonna get killed with the rest of them. I’m trying to save your ass here.”
“Why are you helping me? You have a guilty conscience or something?” I asked.
“Pretty much, yeah,” The Anarchist said defensively. “And the guy we’re working for, he’s…an asshole to say the least.”
“You mean Chess?” Ian asked.
The Anarchist shook her head. “He’s not the biggest fish, but I’m dead if I tell you any more.”
“But you promise to tell me what your little group of murder buddies wanted, so spill it,” Ian said.
“Fine,” The Anarchist said in a huff. “They’re after Edward; they want to recruit him. He’s apparently some insanely dangerous meta.”
“He’s the target? An empath?” I asked.
“There must be more to his powers than that,” Ian said. “And if he doesn’t join, they kill him, right?”
The Anarchist nodded, “Exactly. They don’t want him coming back later as a threat.”
“So, what’s our next move? I’m compromised now, right? Savant and Edward will spot me from a mile away, and you’re not exactly on good terms with the rest of team.”
“If you travel though your dimension, I don’t think they’ll be able to detect you,” Ian explained.
“It’s true, I can’t find you when you go there,” Eli offered.
“Okay, so I just walk though my spooky, dead forest in another dimension and then what; find the others and tell them the secret codes to give them their memory back? And then what? If Edward is dangerous enough for the Kreigspiel to want him, what if he attacks the team?”
“We’ll deal with it,” Ian said with what could possibly, almost be the faintest hint of a smile.
I took a breath, still processing everything. “How much time to we have?”
“Not long. Haven’t you noticed the chill?” The Anarchist asked, almost tauntingly.
“No, ever since I started using my powers more the cold doesn’t really bother…me…” I trailed off, noticing the snowflakes starting to fall.