The gears worked steadily in the silence, the occasional puff of steam disturbing the air like a huff of breath from someone trying to keep warm in the cold. Aurora remained still as possible in the darkness, her eyes sliding around every corner for a sign of her opponent's form.
The earlier betrayal of movement seemed to have taught whomever had come for her a lesson; they were not making that mistake again. Aurora cursed quietly, gingerly sliding to her right away from the trapping formation of crates, which curved in an inconvenient U that would have prevented easy escape.
Aurora worked her way around the perimeter of the ground floor. Staircases climbed the four corners of the space in spindly, spider-like formations made from thin black iron and wood. Each led to a higher view of the floor, punctuated by catwalks that allowed workers to access the pulleys and cables shooting up to meet the ceiling. Aurora's eyes followed them carefully, her ears working to distinguish a flutter of feet from the chug and hiss of sleeping industry.
There was another clang; it rang through the thick lack of sound like a gunshot. For the briefest of moments, a stunned part of Aurora's brain thought, That was clumsy of them, before screaming at her to turn.
The whoosh of metal passing through air at top speed registered before the sight of the woman wielding it was able to trickle, like paint through water, to the part of Aurora's mind where the puzzle pieces of her vision were made coherent. Aurora's arm shot up in a protective block, absorbing the sword's blow into the thick leather of her gauntlet before she stumbled back and pulled her Hero's pistol from its holster. The metal inscribed into the side of her gauntlet made the blade spark in the dimness as she pushed it away from her, raising the gun. Before the shot was even fully fired, her adversary ducked, leaving the cloud of gunpowder with nothing to reveal as it cleared. Aurora cocked another shot, her eyes peeled in every direction.
"Your reflexes are quite something," the woman called, her voice coming from somewhere high, maybe to the right. "I'll be better prepared from now on."
Aurora didn't respond. Being careful not to fumble, Aurora clicked the gears on one of her gauntlets, switching it to electricity. This was an invention she had managed to put forth before her shameful disappearance – gauntlets that could switch between forms of Will without having to completely interchange the gloves themselves. She only had one set made with three sets of magic on them, but that was just fine for now.
Aurora hesitated to spark a flame; she had no idea who she was facing – although she could guess who they worked for – and she was loathe to give herself away so early in a fight. Focusing on her footing and the comforting hardness of the gun in her grip, she waited.
The whistle of an object gaining speed made Aurora do a demented sort of twirl out of harm's way; she caught herself on a pillar, turning to see a dagger vibrating gently out of the wall that had been behind her only seconds before. Several more followed, pushing her further and further towards the front doors of the factory. Growling under her breath, Aurora's eyes flashed in the darkness; she was being herded.
With a Hero's speed, Aurora holstered her gun and then ran and jumped up onto one of the conveyer belts, drawing her katana (her Dragonbone hammer was in their hideout, too heavy and obvious to holster properly on her back). The blade sliced the air as it went to cut one of the cables; Aurora held on with the other hand, feeling the strange sensation of leaving her stomach behind as she shot into the air. With the litheness of a cat she landed, crouching, onto the catwalk above. Aurora dropped back into the shadows as she sheathed the sword, watching the ground below.
"Very nice," the woman's voice echoed with a purr. Aurora could not pinpoint where from. Inside her, her Hero's Will was stirring, gathering resistance. She closed her eyes, trying to repress it. In this darkness, her blue eyes would glow as brightly as a lantern when she summoned her magic, giving her position away completely. As her breathing slowed, Aurora tried to see with her other senses, feeling the space around her.
"Your brother was right to send me," the woman continued, "No man would have had the patience for these games." Aurora ignored her words – Of course it was Logan, that back-stabbing bastard – and realized the woman was coming up a staircase on the far side of the room, talking loudly to distract her. Her steps were slow, deliberate – she wasn't sure where Aurora was and was trying to see upon which catwalk she had landed. Aurora relaxed somewhat, opening her eyes to see if she could find the distorted shape of her opponent against the slats of light cast by Industrial's street lamps.
The woman was tall – she could see her now, crouched low and sliding up, one hand feeling the way. Like Aurora, she wore trousers and boots – clearly a woman trained, although her earlier aim had already confirmed it. When she reached the first catwalk, the woman leaned slightly forward, straining to see Aurora through the gloom. Unfortunately for her, she was briefly revealed in a pool of light she had not noticed. Her skin was as white as snow underneath a pile of bright, luminous hair. Without hesitation, Aurora pulled her pistol and shot, deliberately missing enough just to skim the right side of the woman's crown without seriously injuring her. She cried out and fell back, the thump of her body hitting the wood followed by the unmistakable clatter of a weapon falling to the ground. The woman cursed.
"Good shot," her voice was shakier now. Aurora could imagine her touching the injury with one hand; pulling it away to examine the stickiness of her own blood. "I'll have to return the favor, shall I?" A clicking sound told Aurora the woman's new weapon of choice. She hated getting shot, but as long as it didn't hit anything important she'd be able to heal out the bullet within a few hours. Aurora decided she'd had enough of this and scurried forward in a low crouch, summoning her Will.
"Your brother thought you to be an untrained innocent; clearly he was mistaken." The woman's voice was moving away, towards the other end of the building. Aurora stopped, curious; why was she going so far in the other direction?
Suddenly, a resounding crack made Aurora spin in surprise just as the woman's feet loomed out of the darkness and into her chest. Aurora was shoved back into the railing, only just managing not to tumble over. Her would-be captor landed hard, releasing the cable she had cut back into the darkness. Aurora tore herself away, eyes skimming over the enormous dent she had made in the iron, before she rounded to confront the next attack. A shot missed her by the space of a lover's breath; the next one cocked audibly.
"AURORA DAMN YOU!" Down below, the front doors vibrated under Walter's assault. Aurora took advantage of the distraction and raised her hand.
The electricity in her left gauntlet crackled as it found its mark; the female assassin gasped, her muscles contracting into an uncontrollable contortion of shock and pain. The gun she had been holding disappeared, spinning, into the dark mouth below them, the sound of its landing echoing back upward. As her opponent fell to her knees, Aurora kicked her back, earning a nice cracking noise from the woman's jaw. The woman crumpled, unconscious, onto the wooden footway.
"AU-ROR-RA!" The doors rattled with each enunciation, cracking under her mentor's weight. Taking the window of opportunity to escape, Aurora launched herself over the railing to the nearest balcony below, then onto the ground. Just as she landed, the doors tore open, revealing a purple-faced Walter and a scuffed, irritated Ben Finn.
"Let's go," Aurora said; through the fading haze of adrenaline, she felt a trickle of warm wetness on the back of her neck. Aurora reached up and swiped her fingers underneath her hairline, coming away with a stain of red. Fair enough – one for one, an even score.
"You're hurt! Who in the bloody devil was that?" Walter went to check her injuries, but Aurora tried to wave him away, being careful not to reel from her injury. It would heal soon enough; she didn't need Walter fussing over her like a persnickety nursemaid.
"Don't know, don't care. I trounced her, let's get out of here!"
"Her?" Ben asked, eyes immediately moving upward as if to look for the felled opponent. Aurora gave him a little shove back into the street.
"Yes, her. Working for my brother. Do you think we could discuss this on the way?"
They tumbled out into the street. The whistles of the city guard had stopped; presumably, they had found the chaos at the Riveter's Rest occupying enough not to pursue Aurora further down the way. She didn't think caution could hurt, however, and took care to extinguish the lamps ahead of them with well-placed shots of electricity, running alongside Ben and Walter back towards the underside of the canals.
"We're not done talking about this," Walter huffed through his mustache as he attempted to keep pace with her. Aurora realized Ben was wincing and favoring one of his ankles; guiltily, she flushed. She had hurt him when she threw them out. Without asking, Aurora took the arm on that side and threw it over her shoulders, wrapping her arm around his waist and hauling him down the street. He grunted in protest, but Walter took the other side, and Ben fell into surly silence.
The tangle of limbs they formed made it difficult to navigate the unevenly cobbled stairs down into the Pits. They rounded a corner and Ben hissed, his injured ankle twisting against the movement. Aurora tried to slow down, but every part of her screamed to get away and it took a measure of control she didn't usually bother to exercise not to tear away and rush the door into the sewers. She had been running for too long; Aurora huffed and pulled Ben's arm tighter around her shoulders, setting her jaw in determination.
The hideout was as they had left it, Roosevelt sleeping soundly in the corner until his mistress' footsteps alerted him to her presence. With a happy bark, he came to greet them, his tail a metronomic feather of joy. After depositing Ben onto the cot, Aurora went into their thin store of medical supplies and used what bandages they had to secure his ankle, Roosevelt following her every move. As Ben fell into a deep sleep, Walter practically arm-wrestled her into a seated position on an upright crate, yanking off her hat so he could examine the cut cresting the top of her neck.
"You need to stop trying to prove you're a bloody Hero and listen to me for a change," Walter muttered angrily, cleansing the wound with a damp rag. Though it was already mostly healed, there was still a thin welt not entirely closed, and Aurora winced against the contact.
"And what, pray tell, would you have told me to do?" Aurora muttered, trying not to fidget with minimal success. This was ridiculous; she had handled her injuries alone just fine after fights in the Crucible arena.
"Not make a bloody ruckus, for one. You're lucky the guards didn't hear you and come running."
"Says the man who tried to break the door down, screaming a wanted felon's name at the top of his lungs – ow!"
"Cheeky," he reprimanded, squeezing the rag out. She saw, however, from the set of his eyebrows that he knew she was right. He just hated that she had left him out of it. Aurora realized he was afraid for her.
"Walter," she murmured, her tone softened. Walter grunted, gingerly wiping her wound again. With an impatient sigh, Aurora took the rag away and looked him in the eye.
"Walter, stop it for a moment." With a jolt, Aurora remembered her mother, tall but still shorter than her favorite advisor, one eyebrow raised as she got in his face and made him meet her gaze. Aurora shook herself, pushing the image from her mind.
Walter said nothing, sitting on another crate next to her, his expression stubborn and vulnerable at the same time. Aurora felt the stirrings of tenderness she had thought lost to her a long time ago; with some hesitation, she took his big hand with her smaller one, letting the silence settle over them.
"I know you worry about me," she told him finally, somewhat awkward and out of her depth. "But I'm fine – I've survived this long, haven't I?"
"That," Walter replied, "Is precisely what your mother said right before she died." He seemed unable to look at her after he said this. Aurora swallowed, trying to think of what to say.
"Then you should know as well as I do how much this nanny routine is going to work," she answered, offering a crooked smile. "I'm not a child anymore, Walter."
"I know that," he spat irritably, "Why do you think I chased your stubborn arse all over Albion? Because I knew – know – that you are destined for a greatness that may even overshadow that of your mother and it's time for you to take it! But you've got to stop playing the Hero and actually think!" He ripped his hand away, agitated. "Risking yourself alone to prove something proves nothing but your lack of experience! Do that again and you'll lose the faith of everyone I've been gathering for the last two years, if you don't kill yourself first!"
That stung; Aurora tried to stamp on the spit of temper it invoked, but it was hard won. "And you've got to stop assuming I'm playing at anything! Don't you realize I've been surviving and fighting and doing everything for the last two years without your help?!"
Walter reared back like a mongoose from a snake, "You wouldn't have had to if you bloody stayed here!" His raised voice disturbed Ben, who snorted and turned over in his sleep. Both momentarily subsided, watching until he settled again, mouth slightly ajar and breathing loudly.
"Well, there's nothing I can do about that now, is there?" Aurora snapped quietly, crossing her arms. Beside her, Roosevelt sat high on his haunches, his warm brown eyes giving Walter a disapproving stare. Walter briefly studied them both – the Agitator and Anklebiter, as Jasper had been fond of calling them – and almost laughed at their mirror image of disgruntlement.
"Little Bean," he sighed finally, giving in against his better judgment and setting one of his hands on her crown, the thumb gently smoothing over her dark hair. "I am not asking you to live with regret – just to learn from your mistakes." He nodded over at Ben – Aurora was huffing and reluctant, but followed his eyes nonetheless – and added, "Maybe, just maybe, it would be better to use our help than to toss us about like refuse?"
Aurora flushed, "I didn't mean to hurt him."
"No, you didn't," Walter agreed. "But you did – a Commander is more than someone who puts themselves in the front of their army. They take care of their men and know how to use their skills properly. Being a Hero doesn't mean sweeping in over everyone else."
Aurora bit her lip; he could see that she didn't disagree, but her sodding pride – God, she was so like her mother – was making it difficult for her to admit it. He extended a branch of encouragement.
"And maybe I could teach that a bit better than trying to shove you to the sidelines. I'll remember what that leads to in future." His mustache twitched; Aurora squinted at him suspiciously, leery of false bygones, but saw that he was being truthful. Sighing, she nodded and Walter embraced her under one arm, his beard ruffling against her hair.
"Now, let's get some rest," he gave her a little shake, pulling away from her. "We've got to see Page in the morning." Walter raised his woolly brow, communicating some trepidation.
"What? What's wrong with Page?" Aurora worked on spreading out the bedroll Ben had occupied the night before, trying to fluff it to make it more comfortable.
"You'll see," Walter replied. "She's got her heart in the right place, but…" Walter seemed to struggle to find words, "She's not one to greet you with open arms."
Aurora raised an eyebrow at that, but chose not to worry about it. "Very well; we'll resupply in the morning beforehand?" Aurora put the wide-brimmed fedora next to her bedside with some affection.
"Yes, especially food. I'm starving." Walter settled in next to her, Roosevelt curled up between them, his tail wrapped around all the way to his snout. Walter patted the dog on the head, earning himself a snuffly yawn.
"Goodnight, Walter." Aurora punched her pillow as lightly as she could manage. With enough force she could punch right through it to the floor and she had a feeling that wouldn't make it very comfortable.
"Goodnight, Aurora." Walter peeked at her from one eye, "No bedtime stories of Heroes and their adventures?"
Aurora tried not to roll her eyes, "I think I've had enough of those to last me a lifetime."
An almighty belch rent the air, releasing a series of interesting odors to join the fetor of modern industry.
"Excuse me," Aurora muttered politely, her skin turning a delicate shade of pink. Ben and Walter both only stared, their bacon sandwiches suspended in hand, mouths open with a mixture of shock and hunger. Roosevelt licked his chops underneath his mistress' knee, eyes on the dripping bacon – a patron saint of the ever-hopeful.
"What manners did you learn while you were away?" Walter barked disapprovingly; his sandwich landed with a squash back onto its plate, while Ben appeared to collect himself and take another bite. Aurora shrugged.
"Not good ones, apparently," she picked at some cheese on her own platter, ignoring the hoots of passerby and a kiss blown from a whore. She really must stop drawing so much attention to herself. Or perhaps people could learn to mind their own business? Shaking his head, Walter returned attention to his breakfast, occasionally giving her a dark stare. Really! It wasn't as if she had killed someone at the table!
Once thoroughly fed and watered, the three made their way for a few other merchant stands closer to the edge of Industrial, on Old Town road. A few miles further north and they'd be back in the sparkling center of Bowerstone Market, where the leeching, sooty fingers of Industrial seemed to give way to a more picturesque scene. It was, Aurora supposed, in many ways – but it remained under her brother's tyrannical rule. The only true difference between the Market and Industrial was that Bowerstone Market remained unmarred by Reaver's factories. It was the home of the upper and middle classes – the shopkeepers; business men; and the foremen who had rubbed with the right elbows.
They bought potions of healing, bottled in small vials of glass the shade of a summer rose. They bought some more food, mostly dried goods and hard bread that wouldn't rot when traveling. Flour and grain were useful, along with a few cooking items – a kettle, a bucket, some flatware and pewter plates and cups. New, larger packs were also purchased to carry their goods. Walter wanted to find Aurora some new clothes as well, still very disapproving of her mother's bodice. Aurora would have argued on principle but, she had to admit, the damn thing was very uncomfortable.
Ben had gone hunting for information while Walter and Aurora did the shopping; an old contact who still worked at welding in one of the factories was able to tell them the new location of the Resistance headquarters.
"We've practically been circling it since we got here!" Ben had to raise his voice to be heard over a scream of released steam. Reaver had constructed railways to transport his goods; the trains were not much to speak of yet, but the noise they made seemed to say enough as it was. Aurora rubbed her ear disconsolately, eyeing the great machine with suspicion.
"I'll lead us there, just as soon as I can change these soiled drawers!"
When Ben caught Aurora's disgusted expression, he elbowed her playfully, "Although, knowing what it's like to be around Page, I mightn't bother! We'll just have to change them again, anyway!"
Aurora nearly stuck out her tongue at him, but managed to restrain herself. Ben winked.
"Alright, you two! Enough cheek – let's go wash ourselves best we can and move along!"
Aurora shivered with delight under the lukewarm stream of water she managed to pour over herself from a china pitcher and bowl. They had not bothered to seek a room at the Riveter's Rest, where they would have surely received a sound clobbering before being handed over to the city guard. There was, however, a smaller hostel near the orphanage which offered – to say the very least – modest accommodations for those without enough coin to afford their own home. There was one toilet in the whole place and, had it not been for her desperation to see whether her skin remained a peachy color rather than grey and black, Aurora would have balked at the very idea of changing there.
The soot wiped away slowly with a great deal of encouragement. When her hair could be described without the word "grease" somehow being involved, Aurora toweled off and changed into her fresh clothes. Her boots were the same dirty brown leather set she had woken up with that morning, but she had some new brown trousers and a lovely white linen button-up that she tucked in over an undershirt Walter had cut in order to make it short enough for her. With her mother's red coat and the brown leather fedora, she felt rather fetching for once, instead of like something scraped out from underneath the bar at the Rookridge Inn.
"Would you look at that," Ben said as she exited, carrying her pack over one shoulder. "The girl does clean up, doesn't she?"
"If that's your attempt at a compliment," Aurora replied without stopping, "Then your flattery needs some work."
Ben chuckled at her retreating back; with a shake of his head, he went in the loo after her, shutting the door behind him.
Walter had kept watch outside the hostel; they had been leery all morning of descending guards after the fight Aurora had won the night before, but it seemed that whatever agent had come for her had either not recovered enough to send out more representatives or did not have access to her brother's men. Aurora wondered if the mission itself was so deeply secret Logan couldn't risk tipping his hand by trying to get her out in the open. The thought was not a comforting one.
"We're still safe, it seems," Walter didn't jump at her voice; and she thought she'd been sneaky. The man missed nothing.
"That's an odd word to use, considering." Walter gave her one raised, bushy eyebrow, keeping the other half of his face to the street. "I don't like it, Aurora. The whole thing stinks to high Heaven of one of your brother's schemes."
"Well, we've got more important things to worry about right now."
The location of the Resistance hideout, as Ben had indicated earlier, was indeed within a stone's throw of where the three of them had taken refuge the last two nights. Aurora was surprised Page had not been alerted to their presence sooner; it made her question the woman a little, wondering at her lack of security.
"Alright," Walter warned Aurora, peering around the corner, "Watch yourself. There may be guards about and they won't be happy to see us – at least not at first. Ben, do you know the latest password?"
"Nope," Ben replied cheerily. "Howard was rather cagey about that – I get the feeling he and Page aren't on speaking terms and if he showed up right now he might be shot on sight."
Walter grunted, "Botched another assignment, did he? I never understood why she hired him on in the first place."
"Old childhood friend from the factories, our Howard," Ben ensured his pistol was loaded, the chamber clicking noisily alongside the steady drip-drip-drip of the sewers. Aurora had done the same. The sewer was not only a living space for the rebellion, but for Hobbes as well. Hobbes were nasty creatures; most abided by the rumor they were cursed children, deformed into some kind of monstrous manifestation of their tainted souls, but that was likely an old wives tale told in order to deter children from misbehavior. In Aurora's experience, they were nothing but irritating beasts to kill – stupid enough to fall for most tricks, but tough-skinned and squirrelly, with just enough intelligence to be a real bugger to bring down. Especially in large groups, which was how they often travelled in any underground area they could reach. As a precautionary measure, Aurora drew her favorite rifle from her back. The dragonbone hammer was holstered there too, just barely secured with the help of her full pack. Roosevelt growled quietly, sniffing the air as they cautiously walked along.
"Ho! Stop right there!" The clicks of several hammers being pushed into place rattled the air, as bullets were lined up for firing and barrels lifted to face potential adversaries.
"Kidd?" Walter asked, identifying one of the men. The rebel in question let his guard down, squinting.
"'Sir' Walter to you, laddy!"
The man, Kidd, was tall and broad-shouldered, with a head the shape of a bullet and a generous peppering of stubble. A red kerchief was tied around his neck, over a tight black shirt and khaki trousers. "Alright you lot, lower your weapons!"
The other two men blustered, "B-but, Boss…"
"They're with the movement! Now put 'em down!"
"Hello, Kidd," Ben extended one hand, holstering his own pistol. Kidd shook it briefly, before nodding to Walter with respect. "Sorry Walter, you know the drill."
"Aye, no harm done – would have been disappointed in you boys if you'd done otherwise. Now, where's Page?"
"In the back," Kidd tossed his chin in that general direction, his eyes falling on Aurora. "And who's this?"
Aurora felt suddenly shy; now came the true first test of what it meant to be the Princess in all this. Walter patted her shoulder, his face beaming with pride.
"This," he answered happily, "Is Princess Aurora."
"Aurora will do just fine, thanks." Aurora extended her hand to Kidd, trying not to blush. Her blue eyes peeked out from under the brim of her hat, her soft lips curved into a half-smile. Kidd studied her only briefly before accepting the shake, his expression thoughtful.
"Hmm, well, that presents some new possibilities, I suppose. You can all come in."
"Boss! They haven't got the password!" One of the other men gave them a nervous look, as if they might shoot him at any moment. Kidd rolled his eyes.
"No, because they've been gone on an important mission, you idiot. Now shut up and get back to work, will you? Right this way," Kidd indicated where they should follow, and the three fell into line, leaving the suspicious rebels behind them.
The chamber into which they were led, as Aurora would later learn, was referred to as the War Room. This base was the longest held by the Resistance since they had to move underground. Because of its central location in the sewers, it was difficult to reach without encountering a good number of confusing turns and hordes of aggressive Hobbes. The evidence of the last three months was scattered everywhere, in discarded papers and half-finished projects. There were more supply crates and, further along into the sewers, barracks of sorts for the rebels. In the center of the floor was a round map table, marked with pins and notes, but not like the one her mother had owned. It was a mundane imitation, without the Will to make it an operable means of travel. Standing next to it and arguing heatedly was the woman Aurora supposed she had heard so much about.
"No, Jimmy! We've got to get more weapons if we're going to get anywhere with the bloody – Walter! You're back. And you." Page glared at Ben Finn, arms crossed and face etched with intense dislike. Aurora perked up somewhat; perhaps there was something they shared in common?
"Ah, you missed me, didn't you?" Ben grinned, putting one hand over his chest. "How heart-warming; I thought you'd never come to your senses."
"Hello, Page. Jim. How is everything?" Walter shook the hand of the man Page had been shouting at when they walked in. He was slight with a mop of yellow hair and keen, intelligent green eyes which immediately snapped onto Aurora, full of speculation. Walter saw this and smiled, nodding.
"Aye, there she is. The one and only –"
"You brought her here?" Page cut across him in horror, staring at Aurora as if she'd blow the whistle at any moment. Aurora flushed again – this time with irritation.
"Of course I did! She's to be our leader! She's got to see the base of operations." Walter looked between the two women in confusion, completely oblivious of the way Page's dark skin seemed to turn darker at these words, her metaphorical hackles raising at the suggestion her movement was being taken over.
"I'm here to help, Walter," Aurora inserted quietly. "Not stomp around claiming things. That's my brother's job, remember?"
At this, Jimmy snorted appreciatively. Page glared at him, sending some silent message. Jimmy shrugged, "C'mon Page," he coaxed, sticking his hands in his pockets and rocking back on both heels. "She's here to help."
Page huffed, turning back to look at Aurora with more scrutiny. She came closer, staring into the Princess' eyes. Aurora noticed that Page was rather beautiful, despite her bad temper, with her hair tied into many braids that were secured at the nape of her neck with a wide band. Her skin was the color of coffee with cream, and her eyes were a cerulean blue, surprising and intense – just like the rest of her.
"You've got a lot to prove, sister of the tyrant King." Page told her aggressively. Aurora's eyes, usually so temperate, flashed with magic, making the group step back in alarm. Irritated she'd been caught off guard, Page shut her open mouth, fists clenching at her sides.
"Well, we'd best get started then, hadn't we?" Aurora snapped, not to be intimidated. "Unless, of course, you wanted to posture a bit more." Aurora and Page leaned further in towards each other, teeth bared.
"Now, now, ladies, there's plenty of me to go around. Break it up, break it up." Ben put a firm hand on the Princess' shoulder, giving her a look that put paid to any fantasies of setting Page's backside alight. Aurora rolled his hand off with a sound of disgust.
"I'd thank you, Finn, if you stopped failing to put the moves on my lady." Jimmy went to Page and softly touched her arm; the light cast by the flickering lanterns blanked out Jimmy's eyes as they reflected off the lenses of his glasses, but whatever message he was attempting to send to Page seemed to get through. Her shoulders relaxed an inch and she stopped curling her chest defensively. Both women stepped back, haughty, but relenting in increments.
"So, you really are a Hero then?" Jimmy asked Aurora, once again assuming the face of the inquisitive. Aurora's eyes swept the room a second time, noticing the "projects" which now looked more like inventions than refuse. The Resistance had a scientist, it seemed.
"Yes," Aurora moved closer to the table to look at what they were doing. Page immediately went to block her.
"Page," Walter reprimanded in a thunderous tone, "That's enough."
"No, Walter," Page was immutable, her face set in hard lines. "We've worked too hard to go on the word of one man – that was what got us here in the first place. If she wants to help, she's going to have to show us some loyalty first."
"I'm not," Aurora replied with forced calm, "Like my brother."
"That very well may be true," Page allowed, obviously with some difficulty. "But you still haven't done anything against him, have you?"
Aurora went white; even Ben noticed it in the dim light, as much as he usually preferred to stay removed from such things. Walter grew more defensive, "Page…"
"No," Aurora cut him off, her voice a little too high. "I can see her point, even if she's a thick-headed know-it-all who has absolutely no idea what she's talking about."
Page gaped. Aurora got right in her face, her hands shaking, eyes brightening slightly in color as her temper and magic rose in tandem.
"You want to see what I can do? What I'm capable of when it comes to my brother?"
"Aurora," Walter was now warning her, his brow lowered with concern. Ben looked between the two of them, not understanding. Jimmy was mystified as well, but more watchful than anything, reserving judgment until he got enough information to do otherwise.
"No, it's fine," Aurora stepped back and the color of her eyes went back to normal. She pushed the images of Elliot and Jasper from her mind, along with the nameless faces of the factory workers killed in her name and a laughing, victorious Reaver. Page was a fool and Aurora was going to prove it. She exchanged a glance with Walter, who seemed to understand. He crossed his arms, watching the two women closely.
"Alright," Page gathered herself, determined not to show how much Aurora had shaken her. The woman, if legend told its stories true, could break her in half in a fit of temper. Page decided not to push the envelope any further.
"We need more allies, more supplies. It's hard to recruit when the roads are crawling with Elite Soldiers, mercenaries and Balverines. We can't exactly risk our best men." Page nodded to Jimmy, who led Aurora to a part of the map table that depicted Albion's far-east corner, where Brightwall and the Mistpeak Mountains were located.
"There are some scattered leaders still among us who believe as we do, but lack the conviction to join the movement without the assurance of a… " She seemed at a loss for words. Ben helpfully provided one.
"A leader?" He supplied, smiling. Page glared at him.
"A replacement King or Queen," Page corrected angrily. Ben put up his hands, shrugging. Jimmy sighed.
"And who are these people?" Aurora asked.
"The people of Brightwall, for one. It's where your mother's university was located before King Loganshut it down. There's a man there who used to be a professor at the university, Samuel. He's just a librarian and steward now, watching over the Academy, but he has a lot of influence in the village. He keeps peoples' spirits up and hides people the Elites come after in the Academy. So far, he hasn't been caught. That's the kind of person we need on our side."
"Brightwall is a farming town," Aurora said, looking over the map. "And they have good trade in weapons and metals. They were a mining town too, weren't they? Until Reaver opened the Monorail?"
Page nodded, "They could be a supply and transport base for the revolution. And they'll be motivated to help; the entire village wants the Academy reopened. They just need to believe there's a chance they can win."
Dryly, Aurora replied, "So, you don't trust me a wit, but you want me to haul my arse across the country to prove to these people the revolution can be won?"
Page was impatient, "You're a Hero; whether I like it or not, you're our best chance of getting people behind the movement. I suppose the only question now is: can you actually do it?"
Ben hooted from behind them, "I wouldn't tell her she can't do something!"
Both women turned to give him disdainful stares; he grinned, "She tends not to like it. She'll prove you wrong just to spite you."
Page's expression was serious and only for Aurora; "I'm counting on it."
"So, this Sabine bloke, he's a Dweller?"
Ben Finn pushed away the empty plate that had once contained a meager lunch. Aurora was eating more slowly; she had become accustomed to bouts without food during her time on the run, when fighting in the Arena was too risky or she had been banned to save the bookies some modicum of profit. Almost no one betted against her – usually, it was the opposite problem, with so many people winning in her name that the profits nearly cleaned out those who usually benefited from others' losses.
"He's the King of the Dwellers, which is very serious to them. The Dwellers don't operate under Albion law; they respect it, but they have rules of their own and live nomadically in the Mistpeak Mountains. They used to do well there, but since Logan relegated them to the coldest, harshest part of the peak with no access to the food in the plains, his people have very nearly starved to death."
"That's horrible," Walter mumbled, looking guiltily down at his food. Page nodded in agreement.
"They more than most will want to see Logan gone. We have to recruit them."
"Sorry to be the voice of reason, but as much as I would like to see them fed, what help can they offer us?" Ben asked.
"Explosives," Jimmy answered before Page could go into apoplexy. Aurora didn't understand.
"What do you mean? If they're nomadic doesn't that mean they're… well…"
"Simple?" Page supplied scathingly. Aurora glared at her, "It's a fair question."
"It is," Jimmy agreed, pushing his glasses back up his nose. "But Sabine was educated in your mother's university. They were old friends, you see, from when your mother was a Dweller."
Page looked surprised; Aurora sat back, smiling at her with satisfaction.
"So there is something you don't know."
Jimmy, oblivious, went on, "Well, she didn't learn to read until a year after I did, so – "
"Jim," Page snapped, closing her eyes as if in pain. "Don't."
Jim looked between the two of them, and understanding dawned. "Oh, that was sarcasm. Right."
Ben snickered. Walter elbowed him, rolling his eyes.
"Sorry, Jim," Aurora apologized. His complete innocence made her somewhat shamefaced, "Please continue."
"Well," he cleared his throat, "Sabine got an education, then went back to his people to share it. That's why he's King. Dwellers didn't always have that structure, but the works he did for his people got him elected. Sabine was interested in engineering and struck a deal with Brightwall that allowed the Dwellers to move through the mountains undisturbed and trade for goods with the village."
"Explosives for mining," Jim got excited, leaning in as if to share a wonderful secret. "You see, Sabine was rather clever at executing explosions so no one got hurt. He was also good at building machinery for the mining process. His expertise earned him the respect of the villagers and he worked alongside them in the mines for food from their harvest. That is, until Logan shut the whole country down to fund the factories and his treasury."
"He outlawed the practice of mining and let Reaver build his Monorail to transport goods from all over the country, then the trains for places where the Monorail couldn't reach." Page curled her hands around her napkin, her anger manifest in every tense movement. "He made it illegal for anyone to have an education and shut down the university, the schools. He pushed the Dwellers to near the top of the mountains where it snows year-round and told them they weren't allowed to move anymore, or seek food from their neighbors. Taxed everyone down to their last penny. They would have starved if Sabine hadn't been there."
"But why?" Aurora lamented, "Why would he target them? Why cut off that resource?"
"Because Sabine would never have worked for him," Page spat, "He knew it, but if he had tried to kill him everyone on that side of the country would have risen up in his defense. So he just painted them all into a corner, separated them. The possibility that everyone could die left both sides in a stale mate. It's our job to break it."
Everyone sat in silence for a time; finally, Aurora stood, scraping her chair back. Roosevelt's head perked up, his eyes and ears alert for any sign of forthcoming scraps. Ben took pity on him and tossed him a chicken bone; the dog cracked it with relish, rolling onto his back as he licked his chops.
"We better get going if we're going to reach them sooner than tomorrow."
"T-tommorrow?" Jim stammered, confused. Page also looked alarmed.
"Aurora, that's not a good idea." Walter warned her, although his voice lacked conviction. Aurora gave him a challenging stare.
"Oh, and riding for weeks and weeks on Elite-infested roads is so much better?"
"Hello?" Ben raised his hand, "Do you think you could clue us in, please?"
"There's a magical map table in my mother's Sanctuary," Aurora explained. "You can only go there with me, but once there we can use the table to get to Brightwall almost instantly."
"Fascinating," Jimmy breathed, pushing his glasses up again.
"So, I suppose the only question is whose coming?" Aurora looked around, searching each face.
"I am," Walter stood with her, facing the others. "I'm not sure who else should come, though."
"Jim and I have got to stay here," Page admitted with regret; she would love to see this table and what possibilities it had for the revolution, but she couldn't leave her people alone in the base. "We've got a lot of work to do on security around here if we're going to stay for a while. I think we're fairly safe and we've grown enough now that we can't easily move everyone anymore."
"That's a good thing, though," Jim reassured her, taking her hand. "We're making real progress."
"Well, I'd love to, but I'm not sure what use I could be to you." Ben took his ease in the spindly wooden chair, folding his arms into a headrest. "I'm not very good in matters of diplomacy."
"No," Walter agreed with a growl, "But you can fire a pistol and use a sword. Even with our travel cut down, we're going to encounter danger. Aurora can't fight it all alone."
"Well, that's debatable," Aurora grinned at them all when they looked incredulous, "But I wouldn't mind the help."
Walter glared at Ben beseechingly; finally, the soldier sighed.
"You're worse than an old granny, Walter. You could guilt a sailor out of his stock, you could. Alright, I'll come. But no funny stuff." He pointed at Aurora with look of mock severity. Aurora smiled benignly.
"Same to you," she lifted one palm and opened it to hold a ball of crackling flame, which cast orange light and shadow over her face. After the threat was made clear, she extinguished it, the air left behind smelling faintly of smoke.
"Wow!" Jim was out of his seat, grabbing her arm without guile. "That was amazing! Do it again! What are these?" He held her hand up, squinting at the gauntlet. Rather than get offended, Aurora gently tugged herself away.
"They channel my magic into various forms. These were specially made for me by a smith who Jasper knew; they can switch between electricity, fire, and wind."
"That's spectacular! Can I look at them?"
Aurora obligingly removed one of the leather gloves, handing it to him. Jim went to a light to study it more closely.
"Have you ever operated your powers without them?" He asked loudly, completely entranced by the workings of her gloves. Aurora shook her head, "No."
"Why not?" Ben asked, stretching as he stood up to join her and Walter.
"Because then my magic would explode."
Everyone stared at her. Aurora clarified.
"My mother and I are unusual in the world of Heroes; usually, a Hero is of a specific set of skills: extreme Strength, acute Skill, or powerful Will. Our line was blessed with all three in order to overcome powerful enemies that were faced in each generation in which the Hero trait manifested. Come to think of it," she added, "They seem wasted on just my brother."
Jim ran back over to her, agog, "The Heroic power wasn't passed generation to generation?"
"No, my brother doesn't have any Heroic powers."
Page looked at the ceiling, "Thank God."
"So, why does that make you explode?" Ben asked.
Aurora shook her head impatiently, "Not me, per say. My powers are, as I said, unusual. When I've tried not to use the gauntlets, the magic doesn't have a particular form. It's uncontrollable – it comes out as pure, undiluted Will."
"That," Jim said, his voice filled with awe, "Is very interesting."
Aurora looked at him as if he were mad, "If you want to be blown to bits, maybe."
Page snorted, "He spends most of his time trying to do just that. Although I won't knock it, his inventions have saved us ten times over."
Jim ran to the door, excitedly pulling Aurora with him. "See this gear and red light?"
Aurora nodded, startled by his enthusiasm.
"This is an alarm system I set up; any Elite soldiers who come within a mile of here will trip them and give us a heads up."
"Then why didn't you know we were staying so close by?" Ben asked shrewdly.
"There weren't any trip switches installed there yet," Jim was regretful of this oversight. "We ran guard patrols mostly because we'd been there recently and knew the terrain; we were more worried about the areas that were less familiar."
"So, what happens when it's tripped?" Aurora asked.
"The light flashes and a sounding alarm goes off, giving us enough time to clear out. Each light," he pointed to several others, set in a row above the door, "Is connected to a different set of coordinates, giving us an idea of which direction they're coming from."
"Clever," Aurora complimented, offering an impressed smile. Page harrumphed, narrowing her eyes at the Princess.
"It's just a silly thing, really," Jim seemed inordinately pleased by her approval. "I've got lots more ideas, just not all the knowledge I need execute them."
Aurora felt a pang of guilt; yet another good person who had suffered because of Logan. If the university had stayed open, Jim would be a successful inventor by now, instead of a brilliant man forced to hide in his people's sewage.
"Well, it seems like your practice has led to some very good ideas," she offered awkwardly. Holding out her hand, she asked for her gauntlet back.
"What? Oh yes, of course. But, do you think… Well…"
"What?" Aurora asked.
"Could I study one of these? See if I can't make it a bit… spiffier for you? I'd love to understand more about what you do, make some weapons for you."
"Bloody hell, Jim, what about weapons for the rest of us?" Page complained. Jim bit his lip, looking crestfallen. To Aurora's amazement, this managed to shame Page, who flushed guiltily at poking a hole in his enthusiasm.
"I don't mind," Aurora said carefully, not wishing to get in the middle of two lovers. "I have more in my pack, although not ones with the switching gears."
Jim looked at Page; sighing, she nodded with resignation. Practically dancing on his feet, he said, "If you can leave one of the regular kind and one of these with the gears, I bet I can make one that can switch between all forms of magic! And give the power more oomph!"
"How could I say no?" Aurora went to her pack and handed him another gauntlet, replacing the one she lost with a gauntlet of ice. "Just be careful, if you please. Those were my mother's."
"Of course, not to worry!" Jim ran from the room in glee, clutching his new treasures to his chest.
"He'll be gone for a while," Page predicted, rising from her seat. "I might as well do the rounds; there'll be no use in planning anything else without him."
"We should get going too, while the going's good." Ben cracked his back, "I'll just take a nap, first, shall I?" He looked hopefully at Walter, who pointed at Aurora.
"Ask her, not me."
Ben looked at Aurora, who said, "If you're not back within the hour, you'll get a shocking wake-up call. And I mean that literally."
"Duly noted," Ben agreed, and went back to the barracks for a kip.
"Page, thanks for the meal," Walter held out his hand; after a moment of reluctance, Page shook it, smiling in spite of herself.
"I keep forgetting, Walter. They don't make men like you." To Walter's embarrassment, Page gave him a kiss on the cheek. His face went ruddy and, following a mumbled excuse, the old army general went to the barracks as well. Aurora and the rebel stood in an awkward silence.
"Good luck, Princess," Page said, carefully polite. She held her hand out; Aurora took it. "You're going to need it."