Amber knew she’d get away with it. She strode through the doors and past the crowd, chin held high, without even glancing at the hospital staff. The lobby buzzed—workers and visitors marched from room to room, lining up at the coffee shop or mixing in and out of elevators. Amber ignored them all. She knew nobody would recognize her, anyway. She’d tied her hair back into a bushy ponytail, and actually wore her reading glasses for the first time in months.
She hummed on her way up the stairs. Her voice, though soft, echoed up, surrounding her with her own lullaby. Above, a door snapped shut. The heavy crack cut off Amber’s song. In a crowd, she’d blend in. One-on-one, somebody could actually recognize her. She took a breath and continued on, eyes hard and forward.
A nurse met her on the landing. He was taken aback a moment, nearly running into her, but waved a hand and apologized before going on is way. Amber closed her eyes. Too close. She shook her head and—
“Hold on,” the nurse said. His footsteps clattered around as he caught up to her. “I know you.” He found Amber’s eyes and frowned.
I’ve seen him before, Amber thought. He takes care of Yessi sometimes. “Yeah?” she said, raising an eyebrow. Her hands tightened up in her pockets.
He craned to peek at the doors before leaning in to whisper. “You really shouldn’t be here. If security sees you, they’ll turn you in. You know that, right?”
Don’t you dare. “Look.” She straightened her back and stared through him. “Nobody’s going to stop me from seeing my sister.”
The nurse fiddled with his glasses. “I—”
Amber didn’t give him a chance. She poked two fingers into his chest and pushed him toward the window. “Nobody gets between me and her. Okay?”
He looked down at her hand. “Hey, easy,” he said. “I was going to say—Ms. Sorrel—I wasn’t going to stop you.”
She took her hand back. “Good.” The room went quieted, but her heart still swelled. “Can I go now?”
What now? “Yes?”
The nurse scratched the top of his bald head and smiled. “I don’t believe them.”
“What do you mean?” Amber brought her eyebrows down.
He turned to leave. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t believe them. What they’re saying about your team.” He lifted his shoulders. “You still have at least one fan.”
/ / /
“You think this place is actually haunted?”
Amber kicked a soda can into the yawning dry dock. “Can’t say I believe in that stuff.” The can bounced off the wall, across rusted crates and beams, and crashed into the water below. “Do you?”
“A bit.” Hana leaned on the railing, craning over to peer down at the chasm. “There’s people like us in the world, aren’t there?” She twirled to rest her back on the fence. “Why can’t there be anything else?”
“I guess.” Fog blinded Amber to anything outside Adamastor Yard. “It’s creepy here. I’ll give you that.” The mist blurred the sunset like frosted glass. Her breath rolled up in clouds. “The city really shafted this place, huh?”
“Well, it’s kind of awful out here.” Hana checked her watch. “Five minutes, by the way.”
“Sure. But people worked and lived here. Twenty years, and nobody even tries to rebuild?”
“I don’t know, Am.” The girl shrugged. “Too much work?”
I should’ve known better than to try talking to Hana about something serious. “Let’s go with that.” She left the precarious edge and sat on a fallen light pole to inspect her guns. They’d been fine before she left, and they’d been fine when she checked them on the way. Still, it was the nature of guns to break and suddenly become loaded at a moment’s notice.
“Time?” she asked, producing two clips from her belt pouch.
“Almost.” Hana stood tall in a feline stretch. Rings of fire roared up around her wrists. When she breathed out, a plume of steam and distorted air surrounded her. Amber heated up just being near that girl. Hana was unsuited to stealth missions, like the one Kelly and Brand would carry out during the diversion. Everyone could feel her energy, getting hotter and hotter the longer she fought. Just standing there, the magic pushed at Amber’s own aura, hedging her away.
After the spontaneous yoga, Hana nodded. “Now it’s time.” Her flames soared along tensed muscles, sheathing her arms. The temperature blasted up. “You know,” she began, slanting into a boxer’s stance and toeing toward a decaying crane, “I’m glad nobody lives here anymore. I never get to let loose.” She reared, breathed out steam, and launched into a right hook.
Amber staggered—even standing well behind—and her hair flew back. Reflex brought a hand up to shield her eyes. Harsh light blazed between her fingers, leaving burn-in on her eyes when she closed them. The shockwave punched her in the gut. Jesus, Hana. Chancing a look, she lifted her hand. The fiery crane leaned into the dry dock, dropping rusted crumbs into the water. The shipyard glowed orange.
“Awh yeah.” Hana shook her hand out, spraying sparks into the concrete. “That felt good.”
“That’s a good start,” Amber said, eyebrows up. Fire-magic wasn’t just heat and flames. Hana had ignited an explosion in her palm, condensed it through willpower into a beam, then allowed it to expand at the point of impact. She hasn’t used that trick in a long time. “Come on. Keep blowing stuff up.”
Hana whirled her hands around each other, as if turning a wheel, then lunged for the second crane, across the pit. The fire revolved and gathered in her hands, then whirled out in a jet.
No turning back now, Amber thought. She pulled up one of her guns, settling her index finger outside the trigger guard. “Hana!” She tapped her shoulder. “Let’s get moving. We don’t want any gangs getting to us right away.”
Hana calmed her energy and reduced it to two motes in her palms. “Gotcha.” She jumped to follow Amber between the warehouses. “We really need to make a scene, though!” Crates and garbage caught fire in her wake. “How much time do we need to buy them?”
“At least an hour.” The alley opened up to a parking lot, where scattered husks of cars lay rusted and forgotten. A little devil of a grin came over her. “Okay. Light it up.”
Hana cracked her knuckles, sending embers snapping. “You got it!” She leapt ahead and stomped down. Walls of fire raced through the pavement, reaching tendrils to the bricks of surrounding buildings. Smoke hazed out in jagged curtains, and Hana cheered. Was that a good sign or a bad sign? Either way. The flames retreated to her hands and collected into a ball. Heat shimmer radiated like daybreak.
“We just need it to burn!” Amber shouted, cupping her mouth. “Save your energy!”
The girl smiled over her shoulder. “Sure, sure.” She tore the fireball in two and threw her hands in opposite directions. Flames erupted in tides of fiery wind. Again, Amber shielded her eyes. Metal crunched all around her. She felt it more than she heard it—her aura, her magic, shivered and jostled as the cars cracked and bucked in the firestorm.
She’s not listening. Amber sprinted to the next alley across the lot. There, she aimed between the buildings, toward the water, at a high arc. Her finger looped into the trigger guard and squeezed. She’d been ready for the bang. Hana, though, startled, suddenly stopping the streams of fire. “Come on! Don’t get distracted by your own diversion.”
Hana swished a flaming hand harmlessly through her hair. The firelight toyed with the green of her eyes, turning them more hazel than emerald. Her mane lifted and swirled in the shifting air. She seemed to casually ignore the fact that her clothes were on fire. “Don’t worry,” she said, quenching the flames around her. “I’m just living a little.”
That’s for sure. Hana’s presence paralyzed her. Amber wasn’t exactly short, but Hana’s energy towered over her. She outranks me. Why am I giving orders? She looked away. “We should get going.” The only eye contact she offered was through a side glance. “Okay?”
Hana winked. “Yeah. Let’s make sure everybody knows we’re here.”
/ / /
They wrought a path to Madrigal Lane, sending empty and isolated buildings up in flames. They developed a process on the way: Amber maneuvered in, cleared the building, then signaled the fire. The plan was crazy. Amber knew that. But they’d put the nail in the coffin days ago, anyway, so why not go completely off the rails? Assuming Amber did her homework properly, nobody would get hurt. Even the gangs tended to leave Adamastor and Madrigal alone.
After turning a corner onto a side street, Amber made a cutting gesture. “Let’s take a quick break,” she said, bending to rest her hands on her knees. “I’m not in shape like you are.”
Hana pouted. “Can’t keep up?”
Don’t test me. “You want to work me harder? I won’t be able to cover you.”
“I can manage without it.” She brought up a burning fist. “Give me a chance to shine. I never get to go full strength. There’s always somebody who’ll get hurt.” The flames rose with her smile. “This is therapeutic.”
Amber snorted. “I guess I can understand that.” Before she could help it, she fell onto her bottom. “But damn, chica. You make me jealous.”
“What’s up?” Hana knelt beside her, one fist in the dirt.
Residual heat crept over Amber’s exposed arms. “What do you mean?” She laughed, half-panting. Maybe one day you’ll hear the long version. “Look at you.” With a shake of her head, she rose back to her feet. “Whatever. I’ll do my best.”
“Pushing yourself is a good thing.” Hana clapped a hand onto her shoulder. “You want to get your golden age body back? You have to work for it. Come on.”
“If I get back in shape, you’ll have competition. I mean—” She stopped herself. Mentioning Brand isn’t a good idea. Not to her. “—ah—I have good genes for having a great body.” Really, Ámbar? That’s what you come up with? Idiot.
Hana pinned her with a confused look. “Well, there’s the confidence you need. Just work on it, okay?”
“Work on what?” She tilted her head. “My confidence? I think I’m pretty solid, you know.” This is the dumbest thing to be talking about right now. And I’m just digging a bigger hole. “Hey, anyway. We need to focus.”
The girl shrugged. “Nobody’s come after us yet.”
“That,” Amber said, pointing at her, “is exactly the kind of thing that gets us ambushed right after you say it.”
Hana laughed. “Come on, Am. This is real life.”
She tapped her thumb against her pistol. “You know, for as long as I’ve been a ranger, I’ve never regretted being careful.”
“I think you’re looking at being paranoid more than careful.”
Chuckle. “Whatever it is, it helps.”
Hana lifted her shoulders. “I don’t understand how you live like that.”
Seems like we have the same problem. “You learn to make do.” With a sigh, she gestured to the last house she’d cleared that Hana hadn’t set fire to. “Let’s hide out in there for a bit. Either UNGC or a gang will show up. Then we can make more noise.”
Hana followed. “You’re a lot like my mom, actually.”
“Is this important?”
“Well, we need to talk about something. That’s just what popped into my head.”
Amber did her best to stare up into her own brain as she opened the door. “All right, how am I like your mother?” I love this girl. But oh my God.
“Well—” She flopped into the first chair she found, leaning it on two legs and wobbling back and forth. And she thinks I’m lazy? “—You’re just such a worrier.”
The safety clicked back, and the gun went back in its holster. “I’m just realistic,” Amber said. She produced her other gun and double-checked its safety. “There’s no sense in going in blind. For anything. I need to consider all the facts before I evaluate my expectations.”
Hana stamped the chair back on all fours. “That’s so boring, though.” Her lips bunched up at one side. “How much have you missed out on because you sat around thinking first?”
Amber let the words hang for a minute as she sidled toward a window. The peeling drywall nettled her arms. “Nothing important, I don’t think.” At a crouch, she could peek without exposing herself. Dusk and fire spread across the district. Why do I keep talking us into crazy ideas? Amber made a line of her mouth and looked down. As much as the others called her the thinker of the group, she wasn’t sure. Between the bonehead plan to train in a hazard zone and the ‘set-the-city-on-fire’ diversion, Amber wondered what happened to her reasoning skills.
“…exciting to be spontaneous.”
“Qué?” Amber flicked her attention over. “Sorry.”
Hana leaned forward and smiled. “You know what I think? I think you’re secretly a daydreamer.”
“What makes you say that?”
The girl shrugged. “I dunno. You just always have your head in the clouds.”
“If you say so.” Amber’s hand drifted to a gun as she watched figures across the street. Three, tall, their features obscured by smoke. “This is going to sound really weird, but I don’t like thinking too much.”
“Yeah, that does sound weird.”
Amber lowered her voice and crouched. “My thoughts go dark places.” She beckoned her friend with a snap of her head. “Come here. There are people out there.”
“Oh, good,” Hana answered, getting down and crawling over, “excitement. Finally.”
“As if the past half an hour wasn’t exciting for you.” Her thumb ran back and forth across her gun. “They’re not UNGC. If they’re a gang, I can’t tell who they are from here.”
Hana smacked a fist into her palm, puffing up embers. “Let’s go get them.”
“Hold on.” Amber put a hand out. “This is exactly what I’m talking about. We have no idea who that is.”
“There’s only a few options, really.” Hana counted on her fingers. “Mekhanika or Seinaru Guntai. And maybe Victorians. But we don’t know how many of them are here, other than McTavish.”
The mystery group ran down the road to a burning house. “Those three groups operate very differently,” Amber said. “Mashina’s gang is probably the most violent. But I’d rather fight them than Seinaru. And I know nothing about the Victorians.”
Hana hovered back over to the window. “Kiber’s gang, you mean.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Kiber leads them now.”
“Oh. Right.” Amber nodded. Great. Now she can rub my face in that for a week. “Either way, my point stands. We wait for them to make a move, then adjust our approach accordingly.”
“Those are big words for a wimpy plan.”
Swearing in Spanish always satisfied her more, even at a whisper. Hana laughed at her for it, prompting another eye-roll. “I’m not going to let you run out there and get hurt,” Amber said.
Hana stood, crossing her arms. “I don’t need your permission, you know. I mean, technically, I could tell you to stay here and you’d have to.”
Is she really pulling rank right now? “Sure.” Amber heaved out a breath and left the window. “You know, I’ll still listen to Kelly’s authority.” Hana’s eyes didn’t scare her as much in there. Amber could handle looking into a beautiful girl’s eyes. It was throwing flaming reflections in them that made her nervous. “But you? You’re reckless. Hana, I adore you, you’re my friend. But I don’t see the value in following your orders.”
“What?” Her eyebrows pulled in, getting sharp. Here’s where she explodes. Hana erupted in—Amber’s last guess—a smile. “Sweetie, that’s the most me thing I’ve ever heard you say.” She winked and fist-bumped Amber’s shoulder. “Come on, you crazy bitch. Let’s go get ‘em.”
Amber slacked her jaw. Before she could say anything, Hana ignited her hands and launched out the door, barreling it over with her shoulder. I can’t believe she and Kelly are related. She armed herself and let her magic senses stretch out. Every bit of metal pulled her aura toward it, like magnetism, dragging Amber’s consciousness thin, almost into third person.
Hana abandoned any advantage of surprise by letting out a battle cry when she hit the street. Wheels of flame spun into the air around her, hula hoop style. “Show me what you got!” She pirouetted and cast a hand forward. The wheels broke into streams and chased the three unknowns on the opposite sidewalk.
Cover. Need cover. Amber ran to the side of the house and stuck herself to the wall. The southeast buildings all burned, so no luck there. The streetlights wouldn’t help, either. She winced at blasts and waves of fire. Come on, come on. There, two houses down, a transformer lurked in the grass with its door swaying open. She bolted.
“What the hell is your problem?” a male voice said, panicked. The speaker, Amber assumed, was the one somersaulting beneath a flamethrower. I’m so glad Hana’s on our side. Before she could duck behind the transformer, Amber’s senses prickled at movement. Something small, dense, heavy, rising from hip level to shoulder level, then—shit, gun!
Amber closed her eyes and condensed her aura into a vortex, near the shooter. The energy warbled in her body, like muscles rolling and pulling. Echoed shots made the roaring flames a whisper. Her invisible grasp buckled as bullets swung through the air and slammed into it. The tension translated to Amber’s arm and closed fist, as if she’d caught the bullets herself. She grit her teeth and held the magic there.
The gun fell and bounced. The impact startled another shot out of the weapon. Amber adjusted to catch that, too. She opened her eyes and leaned out of her cover. Her teammate grappled one of the two foes left standing and held him in front of her. Let’s give that last one a little scare. Amber aimed and drew a focused breath. When she squeezed, the shot rocked her, rippling through her arms and down into her chest and stomach. She smirked.
Energy surrounded the bullet, and Amber tuned into it. She trusted her aim, but a little magic never hurt. With her fingers, fresh from the trigger, she gestured right and guided the projectile. Half a second later, she let it go as it grazed the sleeve of the man’s coat and dug into a brick wall behind him. He hurled himself away from the shot and right into the wall.
Hana shoved her charge back and pinned both opponents. Amber watched her lean in and say something, though she couldn’t hear. Between the fires and the aftershock of gunshots, most sound was muddy. Amber swore she picked up an intermittent sound from the north, but couldn’t make it out in the swelling deafness. Goddammit. Why didn’t I bring my earmuffs? The Walther Atlas was actually quieter than most guns—MINERVA put a lot of research into it—but it would still make you deaf by age 30.
“Who…your deal…us go!” The thugs’ words warped in and out of ringing.
Amber holstered her weapon and pushed Hana aside. “Let me pat him down,” she said, barely catching her own words. Her senses scanned him as she clapped hands about his person. The man’s dress didn’t suggest any particular affiliation. Neither Mekhanika nor the Seinaru Guntai had uniforms, but the latter wore tattoos denoting specific factions within the gang—Amber knew the White Tiger faction’s the best, considering Kelly once had them. These men didn’t have any tattoos like that. “Nothing.” Amber shrugged at Hana. “No tags or other weapons or anything. Let me see the next guy.”
Her hearing crept back in as she searched the second man. Loudness still surrounded them: cracking flames, and—something else. Amber slowed as the sound wormed into her senses. Something high-up, a growling machine, too loud to echo, cutting itself five or six times a second. Oh boy. “Hana!”
The girl grabbed Amber’s wrist, nodded, and took off running. For God’s sake. Hana’s legs, longer and stronger, yanked Amber along. “I’m going to need that hand!” Amber shouted, wrenching her friend’s arm away. With her limbs free, she clawed her hands up and floated her pistols into the air, where they hovered alongside her. “Weirdly enough,” she started, taking a sharp turn to follow Hana into a backyard, “this is a good thing. Kelly and Brand can get started if UNGC is here.”
Hana hopped onto the house’s back porch. “Who do you think they sent after us?”
“Petrichor Gold is too junior,” Amber said. “They wouldn’t send them to the Snarl.”
“What about Iris Rust?”
Amber shook her head and trailed Hana into the house. “Last I heard, they were out on recon in the Greys.”
With a laugh, Hana slammed the sliding door shut. “So, Byzantium Black.”
“Pretty much.” This house had curtains on its windows, at least. “I’m sure they won’t mind a rematch when they find out it’s us here.”
“I wasn’t there when you guys fought them.” Hana sidled up by Amber and kept her voice low. “Honestly, I think I could take them.”
Amber shot her a side glance, squinting. “You? Alone? Against seven rangers?”
She shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
Part of her wanted to laugh. “And you call me the crazy bitch.” The thugs ran off, out of view. “I’m wondering when we’re going to have to dogpile you just to keep you from getting yourself hurt.”
Hana smiled and checked another window. “I don’t think you guys could all take me.” She hummed and pushed her brows together. “Well, Brand could, maybe. It’s exhausting to turn all that water into steam.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Amber said. The helicopter approached the ground, circling a patch of road without power lines or houses. “I’m surprised you haven’t just run out and shot them out of the sky yet.”
Hana looked over with a grin. “I’m confident and optimistic, not dumb.” She jogged up the stairs. “I attacked those guys because I knew I could take them. And I knew I could do it without me or them getting hurt.”
“I wish I had your attitude,” Amber answered. The stairs dipped and threatened to crack underfoot. “See anything?”
Hana’s hand gestured from behind a door. “Ropes coming down,” she said. Amber navigated a field of children’s toys to crouch by the window.
Four rangers, all in black, swung down from equally black ladders. Half wore standard ranger badges—a single upside-down triangle—while the other two had lieutenant’s badges. One horizontal line above the triangle for second lieutenant, and two lines for first lieutenant. Jay and Carter. Earth-chosen. Amber didn’t know Byzantium Black’s roster by heart, so the two rangers with them would be a mystery. Up in the chopper, half out the door, two rangers and Captain November—judging by the double-triangle badge—sat poised for air support.
Amber swerved to put herself away from the window. “Okay. Let’s give them a few minutes to look around, until they’re thinking about heading back.”
Hana, opposite her, nodded. “Then we’ll hit them?”
“Yeah. Hit-and-run, that is.” Her breath slowed. “Delay the reveal that it’s us. Escalate force, without hurting anybody. They might send for reinforcements at that point. Then, when they’re already nervous, show our faces. As long as Kelly and Brand haven’t been spotted, they’ll probably think they’re here, too.” Running through the details filled up the growing pit in her stomach. This makes sense, right? “So they should send for reinforcements then, definitely. And the less personnel at Guardian Tower, the easier it’ll be for Kelly and Brand.”
“Sounds like a plan to me, second lieutenant.” She emphasized ‘second’. “Being the ranking officer of this operation, I say we do that, and I’ll call it my idea.” Her cheeks dimpled with a smile.
“Really?” Amber blew air out her nose. “I don’t even think we’re military anymore, chica. Not since going rogue.”
Hana shrugged. “I can still try.” Her gaze found the floor. “I never got to give orders. I always wanted to know what it was like.”
“It’s not like I give orders either,” Amber said. “I come up with ideas, mostly. Kelly usually likes them, so she makes them orders.”
“So, what you mean to say is that you give orders.”
She rolled her eyes. “If you really want to be pedantic about it, sure.”
They stayed quiet for a minute, sitting on opposite sides of an abandoned playroom. The last bits of daylight cut through the top of the room, passing over their heads. Dust spiraled along the beams like little snowstorms.
Hana looked up and spoke first. “I’m jealous of you, you know.”
Amber tilted her head. “What for?”
The girl turned to the window. Her eyes adjusted back and forth. “Because Kelly likes you better.”
The tap of her foot marked out beats between their voices. “I don’t—” She swallowed back nervous spit. “You two are family. Like, blood family.”
She hoisted up her shoulders. “Kelly doesn’t give a shit about that.” Her nose twitched. “Sure, she changed her name to match mine, but whatever. That was just to snub her dad.”
“What do you mean?”
Hana clunked her head against the wall. “My dad changed his name to be English. He was born a Hamanashi, but changed it to Rose when he got here. A hamanashi is a type of rose in Japan, so—yeah.” She met Amber’s eyes. “That pretty much got him disowned by his brothers. And then, hey, I meet up with Kel by accident when we’re teenagers, and she thinks that’s a great idea, too.” She shook her head. “So she got her name all fixed up and English. So I don’t think she cares about blood.”
Amber watched Hana fidget. “It has to mean something to her. I don’t think she likes one of us more than the other.” A grin came over her. “If there’s anybody she likes more, it’s Madi.”
Hana puffed out a breath of steam. “Yeah, no kidding.” She bit her lip. “And—you know, I don’t know if Kel likes girls or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, just look how she acts around Mads.”
Kelly interested in women. That’s a fun thought. “I don’t know. I think they’re just really close. Were really close, anyway.”
“I don’t get it,” Hana said, leaning into her own shoulder. “I feel like I should be closer with her.”
“What makes you say that?”
She fiddled with her fingers. “Because I’m not? I want to be her family. I always feel sort of left out.”
Amber supported her head with her hands. “I don’t know how to talk about this kind of stuff, Hana. I’m tired, okay?” She stared at her friend’s dimmed eyes. “I don’t have a job. I’m out here risking my life for revenge. My sister might never wake up.” A few choice words in Spanish slipped out. “I don’t even know how I’m going to go see Yessi anymore. I’m doing all this to protect her, I guess. But I still want to see her.” Her face slipped into her crossed arms. “I just don’t know, chica. This shit is stressful. And I don’t know what advice to give you. I’m sorry.”
Hana sat still, observant. “It’s okay,” she finally said, running a hand through her hair. “I guess I wouldn’t know what to say either.” Her gaze found the window again. “Maybe I’m just talking for the sake of talking.”
You do that a lot, Amber thought. She wanted to say it, too, but had no way to put it gently. “Whatever helps.”
“Yeah.” Flames squeezed through a clenched fist. “She does, though. Kelly? She trusts you more than me. She relies on you. It feels like she just puts up with me.”
Amber drew her hair back and offered Hana a smile. “We all love you. You know that, right?” She leaned over and took the girl’s open hand. “Maybe we have weird ways of showing it sometimes. But we do. All of us, we’re a family. Right?”
She answered with a side glance. “I don’t know. Things have been weird since last year.”
Sigh. Amber retreated and pushed a hand into her cheek. “Yeah.”
Hana occupied her hands with her ponytail, swishing it in circles. Her lips quivered. “I miss Avery,” she said, eyes closed. “I miss him a lot.”
“Yeah?” Amber crossed her arms around her stomach and pulled her legs in closer. “Hey. I know I can be—cold, I guess—sometimes. But if you need to get something off your chest? I’m here.”
Her wild hair bounced to a shake of her head. “I miss him so much.” Tears put a shine to her eyes. “I really, really liked him.” She coughed out a laugh. “I don’t know if I was in love with him. Maybe. I could have been. I don’t know.” Embers rode on her breath. “Has it been long enough yet?” She wiped her face dry. “I managed to talk myself into a bad mood.” With a growing smile, she cleared her throat. “Come on. Sitting around is for losers.” Before Amber could say anything, Hana jumped to her feet. “Yeah, let’s do this.” The air heated up and the dust swirled. The girl wobbled into a boxing stance, throwing shadow-punches into the single stream of fading light. “We’re the bad guys now, right? So let’s get dangerous.”
Amber stood slowly, her gaze chained to Hana’s eyes. I think I understand now. Eventually, she found herself smiling, too. “Okay.”
/ / /
In the last minutes of dusk, Hana’s flames shone like fleeting sunlight. She skirmished with a hail of bolts, firing in short bursts before dodging into the next spot of cover. For once, Amber respected her tactics. She can fight smart when she wants to. The enemy rangers answered with glancing barrages of their own. Whole sections of crumbling walls rocketed ahead, flanked by darting blades of ice. Great. The enemy had the advantage: seeing Hana’s attacks was easy, but detecting rocks and water in near-darkness was much more difficult.
Amber stayed back a hundred meters or so. Hana would fare better in a melee—unlike Kelly, Amber didn’t have close-quarters skills. From a distance, though, she covered Hana’s approaches and escapes. Her guns floated at her extreme left and right. Whenever she caught Byzantium Black gaining ground, she’d fire from wildly different angles to cut them off. Then her guns would fly to different spots and shoot again. With her hands free, Amber covered her ears. No sense going completely deaf again. Partially deaf was bad enough.
The helicopter loomed in the east. When Amber and Hana first engaged, the chopper had gone off to Adamastor Yard. Since the firefight around Madrigal Lane began, though, it had gotten closer and closer. We’re in for some air support soon, Amber thought. She found a porch with an overhang as her next hiding spot. Even prone, chin to the wood, she could watch through the bars of the railing.
The battle quieted down. Hana wove her way between buildings, only loosing one or two shots on her way between houses. Amber took that as a cue to relax her cover fire—was she drawing Byzantium Black into a trap? That would be smart, given the impending helicopter support.
A searchlight beam cut down the road. Shit. The din of engines and blades morphed into the background noise a while ago, so Amber barely noticed the rise in volume. The light swept left, panning the suburbs for Hana. The enemy rangers broke away from their pursuit to run along the road. Amber took that chance to hook around the back of the house and find a new hiding spot.
The fires around the district had died down, so light was scarce. Where the hell is she? As she crossed the spaces between houses, Amber checked the street. She expected Byzantium Black to suddenly be there, ready to gang up and take her down. Or she expected to see them doing that to Hana. They still don’t know it’s us, do they?
After a glance, Amber slowed to a jog and veered toward the nearest wall. Her legs ached, and her chest pounded. Even her gums hurt, somehow. God. Need to get back into shape. With clenched teeth, she slid down the wall to sit. She called her guns over to rest on the ground before her. The remaining ammunition would have to do for the rest of the fight.
Her attention flew to the road. Shouts erupted, loud enough to slip through the helicopter roar. No! Amber rolled onto all fours and crawled to the corner. The searchlight roved down the street, fixing on something out of Amber’s view. Blasts of fire rained down from the chopper, too many to be produced by one person. They’re using fire against Hana? A harsh glow shone between the houses. Amber winced and grabbed a pistol. Each volley of flames sent another flare across the neighbourhood.
Gunshots pierced through the other sounds. What the hell are they doing? Amber’s heart skipped and raced. Those weren’t handgun shots. Despite how much her muscles grated and chafed, she pushed herself up and rushed to the next house, nearer the melee. Her aura radiated out, but struggled to stay taut. The energy fell limp, like a net with too much slack. Come on. Push yourself, Ámbar. Strain choked her breath and filled her eyes with sparkles. Fatigue clawed at the energy she wanted to spend. Amber tensed every muscle that would still budge. Come on! Energy squeezed out from the center of her being, pulsing beyond her into her aura. Nails and scraps pinged into her awareness as her magic passed them. Shots and blasts echoed from the street.
Amber’s breath shoved past her teeth, and she fell onto her knees. Her aura snapped and collapsed on itself. Energy reeled back into her body all at once. She seized and toppled onto her side at the force. Numbness claimed her hands and feet, and stars took her eyes. No, no, no. Stay awake. Stay up.
“Amber!” Hana’s voice called from behind her. What?
Amber hoisted herself to a sit, clutching her forehead. “What’re you doing here? I thought you were—” She craned her neck past the corner. “—Who are they fighting, then?”
Hana knelt. “Are you okay?” Her voice, a harsh shout, scratching and rasping, barely met Amber’s ears.
“I’ll be okay.” She smelled Hana more than she saw her. The scant light reflected from the girl’s sweat-covered face and arms. Hana leaned in closer. Oh. She can’t hear me. She moved up to speak into her friend’s ear, almost yelling. “Tried to use too much magic.”
Hana swept her hair back. “Be careful.” The girl grabbed Amber’s shoulders and lifted her up. “I don’t know who just showed up. But it’s really bad over there.”
Amber took a steady breath once she got to her feet. The chopper, the guns, and the crash of stone competed to overwhelm each other. Pure, thick sound rattled her vision and shook her ribs. “Those are assault rifles!” she said, screaming at Hana from a foot away. “AKs!” She shook her head. “Who the hell still uses an AK?”
Hana peeked around the corner, but recoiled back immediately. “Beats me!” She wiped her eyes. “How many?”
Amber held her palms skyward. “I can’t tell you that!” Her throat begged her to stop yelling. “More than one. More than two! I don’t know, a lot!”
The ground shook. White-and-yellow light blasted through the alley between houses. The gleam sent Amber falling back, and the rumbling tripped her completely. Fire washed away from the street, flowing over the bricks and refuse scattered about. Hana waved a hand and stopped the inferno from consuming them. Just as Amber took a knee to right herself, another crash shook her back into the grass. Hana covered her own head and leaped onto her. God save me, Amber thought, face full of dirt. Hana’s hair draped across her face, and her legs straddled her hips. The girl’s scent, all sweat and exhaustion, clouded Amber like fog.
Debris stormed across the lawn. Shredded planks and pieces of brick left craters in what ground she could see. Hana’s yelps rang against her ears. An impact rattled her, even through Hana’s body above. Prayers raced through her mind—the ones her mother whispered to her and Jessenia before bed, the ones they’d say together. Yessi—Hana screamed again, her chin knocking against Amber’s skull. I need to see Yessi one more time. Just one more time. Please.
Spearing pain gripped her chest. Amber’s back curved violently away from something between her shoulders. Her neck cracked and twisted. Her arms paddled at the ground. She found a solid grip and shoved with her right arm, ejecting herself up like a piston. Hana flopped onto her back as Amber disengaged from the huddle. Searing and stabbing ran all along her spine. Jesus! God! What the hell? She swatted at herself.
Then she saw the light. Orange, red, glowing out from her. Shit! She clawed her fingers into her tank top and tore it off. When she threw it, flames clung to it. The pain dug into her, but less intensely. For God’s sake. Amber let herself fall onto her back in the dirt. The cool mud and grass wrapped her like a blanket of snow. Meanwhile, her shirt blazed into a small pile of dust.
Hana lay barely above the ground, supporting herself on her forearms. Fire wreathed her and rose high into the air. Her eyes reflected the embers. “Amber!” she called out. “Are you okay?” Her body refused to speak, so she nodded. Hana returned the gesture and heaved herself to her feet. Despite the flames, everything on her person remained intact—hair, clothes, and all.
Beside her, Amber discovered the answer to what had happened. The house they’d taken shelter behind no longer existed. Foundation and remnants of walls marked where it once stood.
Another house went up in a cloud of scraps across the street. Grenades? Amber squinted to focus her eyes. Instead of anything she expected, an armoured car soared out through the wreckage. Rough and ragged plates formed a shell around what looked like a pick-up truck at the core. A crew of people waved rifles from the back. Muzzle flares lit the road like fireworks. A second vehicle, something more like a jeep, tore down the road, eluding a chasing searchlight. Amber wondered what it sounded like. The world devolved into various pitches of ringing.
The truck circled a group of people in the road. Its crew fired into the air. The trapped people—Byzantium Black, Amber assumed—threw a series of elemental attacks at the vehicle. Rocks, jets of water, and shards of ice all bounced off its plating.
Hana flapped her mouth, and Amber nodded, pretending to hear. I hope that wasn’t some kind of order. Her teammate charged into the street, flooding the battlefield with flames.
Okay. Cover. Where’s some? The next house over still existed enough that she could hide behind it. Amber tried to lift herself, but collapsed into a coughing fit at the attempt. Shit. Okay. She crawled. One arm after another, army-style, through the grass and debris. The battle in the street changed. Hana joined the rangers at the center and launched tornadoes of fire at the attacking truck. She led her attacks, forcing the truck to drive into her flames.
Nobody fell. They must have had a metal-chosen shielding them from bullets. Good. Amber, panting after her trek, rolled herself onto her side and craned her neck around the corner. The crew—eight in total—leaped from the blazing truck and advanced on the rangers. One of them led the offensive. From her position, Amber could vaguely make out long hair and a feminine curve to the figure’s shape. Wait. No way. Is that Kiber? If Kiber herself came to play, Kelly and Brand would have a much longer diversion to work with.
The woman dashed into the rangers, brandishing two metal rods. She jumped, raising the weapons above her head. The batons gushed electricity in streaming arcs. Her targets cleared out, but when Kiber slammed the ground, lightning bounced out from her impact. What the hell is that? Something MINERVA-made? An already-dangerous gang leader with a new super-weapon. Because that’s what we need right now. Jesus Christ. Kiber dodged a blast of fire, cartwheeling out of the way. She swiped another lightning-stick at a ranger. The victim writhed in place before falling prone and helpless.
Amber pawed at her left holster. She had no idea where her first gun had gone, and thought not to risk another feedback loop by using magic to find it. Her arm clicked in a few ways it shouldn’t when she adjusted to bring her pistol up. Adrenaline coursed and pushed pain away. She could suffer tomorrow. She would deal with that then.
Her fingers slipped on sweat. The gun wobbled in her shaking grip. Amber grabbed at it. It discharged and hurled itself backwards. Fuck me! She pushed at it with her knee, inching it toward arm’s reach. In the distance, rangers continued to fall. Hana remained standing, jumping around someone and protecting them from Kiber’s attacks. Must be the metal-chosen. Can’t afford to let those guns work. Amber hoped that chosen would be focused specifically on Mekhanika. If they blocked her shot, too—well, let’s not think about what’ll happen then.
Finally. Her gun, in hand, and steady. Amber fell onto her chest, arms out before her. She aimed. Kiber moved often and swiftly, but she had a pattern. She dodged, dodged, then lunged. On the follow-through of her attack, she hesitated to shift directions and dodge again.
Amber lined it up. Her index found the trigger. Please, God. Just this once, okay?