Kelly didn’t expect McTavish to have an army. She stepped into the fray, sword in hand, and froze on the outskirts of the battle. Nearer the exit, the grey-clad UNGC soldiers and the rangers in black held a line. Across from them, masked gunners darted into cover under a wave of suppressive fire. Tracer shots drew green paths in the darkness between light flashes. Where is he?
She cast a last look to the stairwell. No sign of Brand. Good. The shaking walls pushed Kelly to move. Whenever the room fell dark, she dashed along the wall. Once she hit a corner, she paused and felt out with her aura. Whirring blips careened back and forth, dropping ripples into her magic. Nothing nearby left the impression of a sword.
Kelly tensed a fist and stuck herself deeper into the corner. Her ears rattled at the volume of the fight. If he’s not here, I need to get out. Sight offered little, and her hearing faded. Shit. Her aura recoiled from the flurry of metal. The plastic walls bound everything in, making a sixth-sense echo chamber.
Something ahead pulled at her aura. It lay beyond the walls, but still reached through and signaled interaction with Kelly’s magic. She felt the static line, the almost-magnetism, as if she could pull a string and feel it tug at the other end. What is that? She turned toward the source and smelled it before she saw it.
Smoke, burnt metal, and gunpowder. They blew a hole in the wall. Kelly held her blade toward the fight and sidled closer. Bullets drilled into the walls. Her instincts pulled tight and juiced her with adrenaline.
The masked soldiers marched on the UNGC forces. The rangers’ powers—the whirlwind, fire-bolts, and darts of ice—fell back, through the shattered windows. Kelly got hints of shouted orders, but a growing deafness made the words sound underwater. She swore at herself. Where is he?
After her next dash, ducking beneath the lines of tracer shots, Kelly stood at the edge of a torn-open entrance to the building. Gentle night wind, cold and sharp, tickled her face. Red light from the tower lit the grass. The surrounding gardens lay flattened, beating a path of crushed plants to the makeshift tunnel. Kelly rolled her sweater sleeves down and popped her hood on. She placed her footfalls in the existing prints, brushing past flowerbeds and bushes.
The city glowed with fire to the south and city lights to the west. A trio of helicopters roved across the harbour, streaking searchlights across the water. Warbled sound swamped her from the battle. Chugging gunshots and helicopter chops surrounded her.
The breeze kicked up, flattening the gardens from above. What? Kelly’s hair and clothes twisted in the sudden wind. Another helicopter, unmarked and running dark, cut around the side of the tower. As it swept over, the force of the air knocked Kelly on her side. The chopper spiraled around the building, disappearing from the intermittent light.
Shattering glass joined the soundscape from above. Kelly brought her sword above her head reflexively. A falling shard split itself apart on her blade and burst into a cloud of dust. Kelly’s eyes snapped shut and her body hunkered down. Needles rained down her back. Before she could reorient herself, an axe-sized jagged shard burrowed into the ground beside her. Dozens more followed it, soundless and sightless.
A leap, guided with metal-magic, took her back through the tunnel and into the smoking lobby. The combatants squared off outside now, in the plaza, leaving a wasteland of bullet casings and bodies. This is his fault, Kelly thought. Her knuckles cramped and cracked in her fists. “No!” Her heart kicked up against her ribs. She screamed. “You can’t keep getting away with this!” Kelly dropped to her knees with a hand clawed into her hair. “Fuck!”
I’m sorry. Bodies, limp eyes glinting in the rhythmic light, bridged the room. Fire and shockwaves rocked in from the courtyard. Casings bounced up like disturbed water. Is this where I give up? Kelly coughed out her breaths. No. Hamanashi Kaori, giving up? Laying down? Being weak? She smashed the hilt of her katana against the floor and pushed up to her feet. No. I refuse.
Metal floated on ethereal winds around her. Kelly flipped her sword into a backhand grip. You better hope you get out before I find you. She sprinted back to the stairs. You don’t get away this time. Her short legs took her up as fast as they could, a step and a half at a time. I am not weak. My friends are not weak. We are not weak.
The building shook. Fire and rubble crashed down from the stairs above. Kelly tripped herself sideways, hurling herself onto her shoulder in the landing, through the second-floor doors. She landed on her weak arm, and the impact bit into her. Her eyes twitched. Aren’t we, though? The stairwell filled with heat and shimmering air. Get out of my head. She scampered up to her feet and found herself in the hallway. I’m putting you down this time. You stay out of my head. You be quiet. Be quiet!
Her vision blurred, but Kelly growled and blinked until it stopped. Not now. She turned to the elevator shaft, doors blasted open, paces away from the stairs. Magic laced her armour. She ran. At the edge, she jumped. Her feet hit the opposite wall first, where she twisted and kicked off again. Kelly urged her magic up, giving her jump barely enough height. The clunk of her kicks and leaps echoed in both directions. One more.
At the last, Kelly threw her hands forward. She let go of her katana, tossing it through the doors, and caught the ledge, dangling into the elevator shaft from her shoulders-down. Why is this so hard now? Her abs burned as she dragged herself up. I really wish I could still fly. After securing herself on the third floor, she stayed on all fours to pant.
“You failed, Kelly.”
Only one person on Earth had that voice, that accent.
“You let them die.”
He stood there, in the haze of smoke and flitting embers, with his sharp jaw clean-shaven and his hands hidden in the folds of his longcoat. “You know that,” he said, smirking.
“No!” Kelly shut her eyes and punched her sword forward. Her voice dragged out, abandoning the word and crumbling into a scratching, teary wail. She fell forward and caught her head with her hands. No. Don’t be weak. I refuse. Her sword returned to her open palm. McTavish disappeared. “Come back!” Kelly charged into the misty smoke and slashed. The soot swirled around her blade. Nothing but air.
Static overwhelmed Kelly’s aura, tickling down her spine and shoulders. She pivoted, bringing her sword across in an arcing parry. Thunder clapped from the hallway behind her. A metal screech sang from her blade, followed by pings and ricochets from the wall. Magic wavered and rained white spots across Kelly’s vision. Silence took hold again. Bullets surrounded the blade, orbiting with their remaining momentum.
A masked soldier retreated around the corner of the corridor. Kelly’s lips pulled into a snarl. She charged, keeping a defensive stance with her sword and its cloud of bullets. Try me! At the corner, she stopped on her heels and let the collected ammunition fly forward. When the bullets hit the wall, gunshots blasted from farther down the hall. The wall to Kelly’s left crumpled under the fire.
She dove ahead, sliding her aura beneath the stream of bullets. Her magic lifted the bursts and twisted them into a revolving shield. The soldier backed away, down a line of offices. The next bend in the corridor lay too far for him to reach. You made a mistake. Kelly clenched a fist, squeezing against an invisible resistance, and condensed the ammunition into a battering ram. Heart racing, she leapt up and kicked the ram. She backflipped to land on her feet and raced down the hall, trailing her improvised weapon.
The soldier threw himself to the floor. The ram flew over him and clunked against the far wall. Kelly launched into a cartwheel as her foe lifted his weapon. A burst of fire streaked past where her legs were seconds ago. When she landed, Kelly followed through on her acrobatics with another launch of her sword. The soldier moved to fire on her again. No way! Kelly impaled the sword with her gun, spearing through the metal and pinning it to the floor. Her enemy scrambled to all fours and fumbled with the straps keeping his weapon to his jacket.
“Stay down!” Kelly caught up to him, planted a foot on his rifle and retrieved her sword. She grimaced. Gouges and dings painted the tip of the blade. What’s—”Hey!” She kneed the man in the side and curled the fingers of her free hand. A handgun snagged on her aura and popped out of his holster. “Don’t even think about it.” She tossed it down the hall.
The soldier grunted and stayed down, stomach to the floor. “Do it,” he said. His voice was softer than Kelly expected. He spoke quietly, without energy.
“Do what?” Kelly crouched to remove his goggles and balaclava.
He averted his dark eyes. “You know what. That’s what you people do, isn’t it?”
What? “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, matching his tone. “What’s your name?”
“TK,” he said. “Sorry. Theo.” His gaze, hard and cold, met hers. “Theo Kurtis. You going to mourn me?”
“I don’t even know who you are.” She scanned the hallway. “Why are you here? Why are you helping McTavish?”
“Because that’s my job.” His baby-faced features crumpled into a frown. His eyes twitched. “Just do it.”
She rolled her eyes and stood up. “I don’t know what it is you think I’m going to do. You think I’m a killer?”
Theo stared up and down at her. “You all are.” He crawled backwards, putting his shoulders to the wall. “All you people.”
I’m wasting time, Kelly thought. But maybe he knows something. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m not stupid,” he said. His eyebrows arched up and he shook his head. His voice wobbled. “The chosen? You?” A smile crossed his face, though Kelly doubted it was genuine. “God didn’t choose you.” He shut his eyes and whispered. “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy.” Theo grasped at something around his neck and coughed. “Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.” He opened his eyes to stare at Kelly again. In the flashing light, his features trembled. “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” Tears muddied his words, and he buried his face in his arms. “From such turn away.”
Kelly watched him, eyes wide. I don’t have time for this. “I’m not a killer.” The two of them let the hall go silent, broken only by screeching alarms. How do I get up? Kelly trailed her gaze from the ceiling to her bullet-forged battering ram. Stairs are out. And to hell with triangle-jumping all the way up the tower. She hoisted the ram with her aura and smashed the ceiling. Theo cowered at each smash, backing away on his haunches. I still don’t know who you are, but I’m sorry. Three crashes later, Kelly broke through the floor above. “Hey,” she said, turning to the soldier. “Take care of yourself, Theo.” She forced a smile. “We’re not all like that.”
Aren’t we, though? The voice slithered and echoed in Kelly’s mind as she climbed. Once on the next floor, she found her way to a wall and leaned, blood pumping. No. Stop that. I’m getting you out of my head. She wiped her brow and tilted into a run down the hall. A minute later, she found the stairwell. Rubble buried the floor below. Chunks of the stairs leading to the fifth floor lay toppled underneath. With clenched teeth, Kelly repeated her maneuver from the elevator. A running jump took her to the wall on her right, and a timed bounce—along with metal-magic on her armour—carried her up to the remaining stairs.
The landing took the breath out of her, and she fell forward onto her knees. Damn. Above her, the stairs continued intact. Night air and shivers of rain gusted in through the shattered windows. Of course it started raining. Kelly tensed her muscles, stood, and took off up the stairs. Shots, explosions, and helicopters drowned the taps of raindrops and footsteps.
Kelly caught glimpses of the city on every landing. Several floors up, something in the sky made her freeze. She toed to the edge of the window, the rising storm scraping across her. There, to the south, where the fires once blazed, darkness fogged the ruins. But a light, piercing as a star, floated with the clouds. What the hell? Kelly squinted through sheets of rain. The light jumped back and forth. In an instant, it streaked across the bay. The sky glowed around it. Kelly stepped back. No way. When the light crossed into Port Noble, Kelly saw the human shape inside.
She slowed, circling the black spire of Guardian Tower from above. Despite the rain and wind, Eclipse was still. Her cloak, black and billowing, draped calmly to her heels, and her flowing white hair cascaded over it. Light radiated from her. In the shadow of night, Eclipse was crisp as day. Her eyes glowed the colour of dawn, contrasting her dark skin. Rain crashed into an invisible bubble around her.
The sky exploded with a flash of lightning. Kelly’s ribs crunched together and her breath flew out at the wall of thunder. She stumbled and fell onto her back. White blotches stained her vision. Outside, the city was as bright as morning. Rivers of lightning cracked against Eclipse—at least ten, with a hundred forks splitting away into the clouds—and the woman remained still. She held a hand out, palm skyward. The electricity warped into her hand.
Eclipse threw her arm forward, and a blast of lightning rocketed over the tower. Kelly struggled to stand on the shaking floor. The sky darkened again, and the thunder rolled down into silence. What just happened? The blades of a helicopter drifted to the ground past the window. Kelly’s jaw hung open. I need to move. Now.
Adrenaline pumped through her as she sprinted. Maybe your god chose her, Theo. The sky lit up a different colour every time Kelly checked. White with lightning one moment, then orange with fire the next. How many steps had she climbed? Kelly lost count. In the upper floors, fire licked through the corridors. Ceilings crumbled, and sections of stairs toppled underfoot.
The staircase ended. Kelly stood twenty floors up and stared out at the city. More helicopters—three of them—circled, gunfire flashing in the darkness. They darted across the sky, dodging bolts of lightning and blasts of fire. What am I even doing here? Kelly slowed her breath and walked to the window. Tell me he hasn’t escaped yet. Please. She closed her eyes and laced her aura around her armour. No turning back. The Hamanashi way. She jumped.
In the air, Kelly twisted herself into a backflip and lifted herself with magic. The world swirled around her: rain, streaks of fire and lightning, explosions and muzzle flares. She caught the edge of the building with her free hand and spun into a landing. Her chest heaved. Why do I do this to myself?
Pipes and vents circled the roof. Kelly ducked behind an air conditioning unit and peeked over the top. A bulky unmarked chopper sat on the helipad, engines off. Two people stood beside the skids. One male, taller than the other, hair and beard matted to his face by the rain. A long, black coat flared in the wind.
Kelly twitched. Her fingers wrapped the hilt of her sword. Her stomach lifted and her chest swelled. You. She traced her scar. Her vision blurred. This ends.
She stood. McTavish must have sensed the metal on her—he turned, staring directly at her. Kelly jumped onto the vents. Her heart raced as fast as the rain. “McTavish!” Her scream burned her throat. She approached, hopping down and extended the point of her sword at him.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.” He spoke just louder than the wind.
The surrounding world melted into static. Kelly’s senses only reached the edge of the roof. Eclipse and the helicopters circled high in the sky, and the rain and thunder roared around them, but none of it sank in. “This is your fault,” she said. The person with him—a woman, olive-skinned with waves of black curls for hair—stood silently, arms holding something out of sight behind a vent. “This is your fault.” McTavish looked away. What’s wrong with him?
His hair stuck to his cheeks in black strings, and the ragged beard dirtied his jawline. “You’re right.”
Kelly took hard breaths. “What’s wrong with you?” Her face scrunched up. Either rain or tears wet her cheeks. “Why are you here?” A lump stuck in her throat. “Why are you still alive?”
“You know,” he began, removing a hand to swipe it through his hair, “I’ve been asking myself that same question.”
“No!” Kelly spat with her words. “You don’t get to say that!” She stepped forward, slashing at the ground. “Who do you think you are? You think you get to feel sad about everything you did?” Vents crumpled in her aura. “Fuck you.” Her teeth chattered as she snarled. “Fuck you!” She jumped and flew at him, lunging with an overhead cleave.
Something stabbed her through the stomach. She smashed into the roof. Everything blurred. Something—not pain—shocked through her. Her sight returned in time for her to see an arrow piercing her gut. Muscles seized and twitched. She lost control of her voice and sputtered noises barely coherent enough to be screams. Her body convulsed, arching her back as far as it would go, pushing the limits of her spine.
Then, every nerve and muscle relaxed all at once. Exhaustion devoured her. Kelly rediscovered control of her limbs and heaved up to all fours. She stared at the arrow, which glowed and sparked with a rainbow of energy.
“I need him alive,” a woman said.
“I don’t want to kill you, Kelly.” McTavish sounded more resolute than before.
“No!” Kelly choked out a growl. “You don’t get to use my name!” She panted. “This can’t stop me.”
The woman lowered a bow—the item she’d been hiding—to her thighs. “You people are hard to kill.”
Kelly held a hand out toward her fallen sword. Get back here. She urged her magic over. Nothing happened. She tried again. Nothing.
“Doesn’t feel good, does it?” the woman asked. Kelly looked up to see her nocking another arrow. “This can end whenever you want it to.”
“What?” Kelly struggled to find her aura. Her energy disappeared. What did she do? The arrow in her stomach still glowed. She knelt to pick up her sword, keeping her gaze fixed on McTavish and his companion. The pain would hit soon. “Who are you?”
She drew. “Artemis.”
Kelly swung her blade up. The world slowed around her. “Don’t even try it!” She slashed the arrow from the air and dashed for her.
“No!” McTavish threw himself ahead and caught Kelly’s sword with magic. He grimaced. “You don’t understand what’s going on, Rose!”
Kelly tightened her grip and pushed against his aura. She closed her eyes. “Then tell me.” Sobs threatened her. No. Be strong. “Tell me what’s going on! Tell me! Tell me why you keep getting away with this!” Instincts shouted for magic, but no answer came.
He didn’t meet her eyes. “This is bigger than us.” A gunshot clapped out from behind them. McTavish lifted his other hand and stopped the bullet in mid-air. “None of you understand what’s going on!”
Kelly turned and nearly lost her grip on her sword.
Amber stood at the cusp of a smoking hole in the roof, holding a rifle trained on McTavish. “This time, we win.” Her shadowy hair flowed like a battle flag in the storm.
A torrent of flame erupted from the tunnel, and Hana burst from the fire. She spun into a battle stance, hands blazing. “Don’t even think of hurting my cousin!” Steam hissed as water vaporized around her.
The rain spiraled from the air and rushed down into the floor below. Then, it geysered up, carrying Brand, who rolled onto the roof. He brought his sword up into a forward guard. “You—” His voice cut off, and his eyes shot open. “—you—you…?”
Kelly smiled, breath raking out of her. “See?” she said, finding McTavish’s eyes. “You don’t get away this time.”
McTavish still didn’t look at her. Instead, he stared at Brand. He kept his lips in a tight line. “Hello, Brand.”
“You’re—” Brand let his stance go and stammered. “What are you doing here?”
“This is just how it is.”
“Brand!” Kelly said. He doesn’t know what McTavish can do. “Don’t let him! Don’t let him trick you!” She pushed against McTavish’s aura again, but her sword didn’t budge.
Artemis slid behind McTavish and climbed into the helicopter. Amber fired on her, but the bullets froze again. “If you make it out of this alive,” Artemis said, “let me know.”
Kelly growled. “Hana! Stop her!”
As the chopper’s engines kicked into life, Hana flew into a roundhouse kick and unleashed a fireball at it. The blast hit something, but not the helicopter. A silver shimmer splashed out from the impact and reverberated around the machine. The flames died. Hana reared her hands back and shot two streams of fire, but the same happened.
What the…? Kelly stepped back. “Somebody take that thing down!” At her order, only Amber and Hana acted. Fire and bullets bounced away from the chopper as it lifted. The roaring blades and blasting air toppled Kelly over. “Brand!” She didn’t even hear herself over the engines. “Brand! Do something!”
The boy stuck there, eyes flitting back and forth. No. Don’t choke now. Kelly fought back up to her feet and faced McTavish. The arrow bit into her. Adrenaline faded, and pain began to flare. The storm raged and threw her back. Kelly wobbled, clutching her stomach. Her katana dragged against the roof as she stepped away from her opponent. She shook and screamed. He can’t even hear me. Piercing pain soared through her, pulsing out from the arrow. She charged, spinning her sword toward McTavish.
Steel rang into the air. But it wasn’t McTavish’s blade stopping her—it was Brand’s. “Stop!” he shouted. His eyes pleaded. “Kelly, stop!” He panted. “It’s over!”
“Get out of my way!” She bared her teeth. “Brand. Get out of my way.”
The boy shook his head. “You don’t need to do this.”
“Yes. I do.” She let up her strength and twisted around Brand’s sword to shove him aside.
McTavish held up his empty hands. “I’m not going to fight back.”
Kelly laid the edge of her blade against his throat. “No.” She bit her lip. “No, you can’t do this.”
He shook his head. He had no sharpness left in his face—he frowned, eyes half-closed. “I’m not fighting you.” He nudged her sword back with his aura and fell to his knees. “I’m sorry, Rose,” hs said. “I’m so sorry.”
Kelly’s hair flailed in the wind. “No! You don’t get to say that!” She threw her sword down and smashed her fist into his face. “You don’t get to apologize!” Her knuckles rang with numbness.
“Kelly, stop!” Brand grabbed her by the middle, crunching more pain into her wound, and dragged her back. “Stop hurting him! He’s—he’s giving up!”
She kicked at the boy. “Let me go!” She smacked Brand with her hilt. Two solid blows to the shoulder released his grapple. “Stay out of this!” she said, pinning her eyes to his. “Don’t you dare try to stop me.” Her voice went low. “Don’t get between me and him.”
McTavish reeled on the ground, rain and blood painting his face. “Kelly—”
She drove her foot into his stomach and screamed. “Just—stop—talking!” The rain hid the rest of the world as she straddled him and drove fist after fist into his face. He flailed, struggling against her. Kelly cried and ignored the blood and pain streaming across her hands. Amber, Hana, and Brand shouted at each other. The words didn’t register with Kelly. She caught scuffling and yelling, but nothing coherent.
Her body slowed down. Throbbing pain rocked her abdomen. McTavish lay beneath her, eyes shut, mouth slack. His chest rose in ragged breaths. Kelly put her hands into her hair and toppled forward. The rain chilled her. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Ryker, Victor, Avery.” She smacked her forehead against the ground. “Madi. I’m sorry. This is the best I can do.” She clawed at her hair and cried. Shivers echoed through her. From her bones to her veins, she shook with cold. This is the best I can do.