We’re armed and ready to go in less than ten minutes. Hank has his long sword strapped across his back, the hilt poking out over his right shoulder; Anya has two katana strapped across her back in an X formation, the leather bound handles poking out to the sides of her hips; Oliver has handguns and spare ammo strapped to his thighs and belt and I have an assortment of knives concealed and sheathed all over my body. I’ve told everyone where we’re going and now we’re walking out of the refuge, fully prepared for whatever we might face.
“Alright, take hold of my arm and don’t let it go,” I say as I raise my right forearm for them. They each take a firm grip and nod to me, indicating that they’re ready to go. I immediately pull the image of the decrepit warehouse to the front of my mind and step forward. I feel the familiar rush as we are hurled through space and within seconds my feet are hitting solid ground again. There is no sound, no signs of life, as I study the warehouse.
“This place is horrible,” says Oliver, voicing my thoughts.
“Let’s go,” says Anya. She is in full warrior mode and I think I’d feel sorry for anyone stupid enough to get in her way right now. Taking the lead, I enter the warehouse first. The place smells damp and dirty. There are wooden planks rotting in piles in the far corner, more rusted sheets of metal and stacks of old tyres. There’s a thick layer of foul smelling mud covering everything. I reach out, but I can’t sense anyone. At least not anyone bigger than a rat and there are dozens of them. We spread out and look around, lifting sheets of metal and checking every space large enough for someone to hide. I’m terrified that Jillian might be right, that I’ll lift up one of these metal sheets and find Gwen’s mangled body hidden beneath. What would I do then? Images from my nightmares spring unwelcome to my mind and for a moment I feel like I might drown.
“Over here!” Hank calls, saving me from my own thoughts. I run over to him and he points to the ground. There’s a hole at the base of the wall and, from the gouges in the mud, someone crawled through here not too long ago.
“There are two sets of tracks,” Anya comments, indicating a set of stairs where two sets of muddy prints are leading to the second floor. I hear the sounds of metal sliding against leather and turn back to see that Anya has unsheathed her katana. Oliver follows suit, drawing one of his handguns and telling me to go on ahead. I begin walking up the stairs, the rotting wooden boards making ominous creaking sounds with every step. We get to the second floor and it’s clear that this area used to be an office. There are old filing cabinets, big boxy computer monitors and rotting desks that are bowing under the weight of the monitors stacked on top of them. At least it’s cleaner up here, barely. I follow the footprints leading me to the very edge of the second floor, where the collapsed ceiling prevents anyone from moving further. There’s only one way to go from here; a room to my left. I open a blue door with peeling paint and a glass panel that’s covered in so much grime that I can’t see through it. I cross the threshold, dreading what I might find, and pause, completely confused. There is an old man leaning against the far wall, sandwiched between some desks and stacks of wet and disintegrating old newspapers. ‘Old’ is kind of an understatement. He looks ancient and has a silver beard that would be long enough to use as a belt. He opens his eyes and gives me a calculating look, assessing me. He’s sizing me up and I quickly realise that his man is not what he seems. I open my mouth and begin introducing myself but a voice in my mind shuts me up.
“What is your business here?” Judging from the surprised gasps coming from behind me, he’s in the other’s heads as well. Even in my mind, the voice sounds exhausted and pained but it’s still brimming with power. Clearly this man is a powerful Elemental, and I don’t trust him at all.
“My name is Derek,” I tell him, out loud. “I’m a Guardian and a Warrior and I’m here looking for a girl.”
A small smile plays upon his lips as he speaks once more.
“She said you would come,” his voice fades, his eyes roll back into his skull, and his body goes limp.
I rush over to him, desperately searching for a pulse, as his words bounce around my skull.
“She said you’d come.” He was talking about Gwen. He has a pulse but it’s thready and his breathing is shallow.
“He’s in a pretty bad way,” says Hank. “He’s not going to last much longer if he doesn’t get help.”
“He knows where Gwen is,” I say, more to myself than anyone else, and the others look to me as they understand what I’ve said.
“We need to get him to Mags,” says Anya quickly, already lifting him up.
“We need to go now,” says Oliver, taking his other arm.
The old man is now being held between Anya and Oliver, one arm slung across each of their shoulders.
“You go. I’ll stay here and look around. Gwen couldn’t have left too long ago and I might be able to track her,” I don’t look at them as I speak, pretending to look at scuff marks on the floor. Oliver starts to say something but Anya interrupts;
“We’ll see you when you get back,” she says as she and Hank put a hand on Oliver’s shoulders and they, and the old man, disappear.
I look around the building once more before returning to the room that the old guy was in. There is no sign that anyone left this building. There is no sign of Gwen. It’s infuriating! To finally have her exact location after three god damned months and still not be able to find her! I kick a piece of wood that’s lying at my feet to vent my frustration. It hits an old desk, shattering the mouldy chip board and making a loud thump as it falls back to the floor. I have to go. The longer I stay here, the colder Gwen’s trail gets. I turn to leave but something catches my attention as I reach the door. It’s a tiny flicker of movement on the very edge of my vision. I move back to the mouldy desk and quickly lift it, throwing it aside to surprise whatever is hiding under it and…freeze immediately, in a complete state of shock. I thought I was prepared for this, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
She’s so small, curled up in a ball and less than half the size she was when she was taken. They’ve clearly been starving her. She’s wearing just a dirty bra and disgusting, shredded denim shorts. I sink to my knees as I realise that what I thought was mud and grime is actually dried blood; her dried blood. There is blood still seeping from large gashes across her thighs and ribs. She’s covered from head to toe with bruises, cuts, stab and slash wounds and jagged scars. There are only two places that have been left untouched; her face and her forearms. I guess they didn’t want to risk destroying her marks. She hasn’t moved since I threw the desk, not even a blink. I can barely see her breathing. I check to see if she has a pulse, just in case her breathing is just wishful thinking. Her skin is ice cold and for a moment I truly believe that she is dead. I almost collapse under the weight of my own relief when I feel a weak pulse softly beat against my fingertips. She’s alive! I wrap Gwen in my jacket and lift her, cradling her against my chest as I take a step into space and land at the facilities entrance. Gently shifting Gwen so that I can place my palm against the fig tree without putting her down and I just about run into the tree when the bark opens. I’m desperate to get Gwen to Mags.
I almost jump out of my skin when I hear a weak and croaky voice quietly say my name. I look straight into Gwen’s big, green, alive and not-at-all-dead eyes. I have no idea what to say to her.
“You…found me,” she struggles to get the words out, her voice faltering and breaking.
“Of course I did,” I smile down at her. She’s alive, she’s awake. I’m so damn relieved.
“The…the…old man…” I was right, he did know her.
“We found him, he’s here,” I reassure her, softly moving bloody hair out of her eyes. I need to try and keep her talking. “Who is he?”
She doesn’t respond and her eyes slowly shut once more.
“No, Gwen! Stay with me,” not now Gwen, we’re so close. “Who is the old man?”
Her eyes open, just slightly.
“He…helped…me…” her eyes close again as my annoyance with the old man evaporates and becomes gratitude as we finally stop moving. I enter the refuge and everyone immediately comes to an abrupt halt, staring at Gwen. In other circumstances it might be funny, like someone has pressed the pause button, but right now it’s just an inconvenience. I don’t have time to be stopped. I move as fast as I can, trying my best not to jostle Gwen too much, and head straight to the infirmary where Mags has assembled the best Healers that she knows. There were a lot of injuries after the battle and she needed the best team she could have to help her deal with it all.
“How did he help? Gwen?” I shake her, just a little bit, to try and get her to open her eyes. “Come on Gwen, we’re almost there. Stay with me! How did he help?”
She blinks up at me, not comprehending a word that I’m saying, but I don’t care. I just need her to stay awake. I’m halfway to the infirmary when Hank walks out of a room and I almost crash into him.
“Get out of the way Hank!” I yell at him and try to pass his massive body. He looks at me and a split second later he takes off running down the corridor. I move faster, sprinting now, and Mags is waiting for me when I finally reach the infirmary.
“Not in here,” she says, hurrying to a room further down the hall. “I have a separate room set up just for her.”
Anya and Oliver emerge from the infirmary and hurry behind me. They are all business and ready to do whatever they can to help Gwen, but their chalky complexions no doubt mirror mine.
“Put her on the stretcher,” orders Mags as we get to the room. I do as I’m told and the others stand at the foot of the bed, awaiting orders, as Mags gets her first real look at Gwen. She gasps, her hands flying to her mouth.
“Oh, sweetheart, what have they done to you?” Her professional, no nonsense façade slips for just a moment before she pulls herself together. “Take the jacket off of her.”
I do it immediately as she turns to the bench beside her. I avoid looking at Anya and Oliver as everyone gets their first look at Gwen’s wounds. I know Hank will be able to handle it but they won’t and I need to concentrate. Mags flinches as she turns back with a bowl of water and cloth.
“You three,” she says, indicating Anya, Oliver and Hank. “This isn’t going to be pleasant but we need to act fast.”
She wets five cloths, rings them out and hands one to each of us. Mags cleans the worst of Gwen’s cuts, the ones that are open, deep and still bleeding, and the rest of us get started on the dried blood and dirt.
“That’s enough,” says Mags. “I can see what I’m doing now. I need you all to step back now please.”
It’s taken us over half an hour to get enough of the dirt and blood off of Gwen to be able to properly see her wounds. We step away, doing as we’re told, as Mags steps up and starts to really examine Gwen. Anya has tears slowly dripping onto her shirt and even Hank looks pale as we get an unhindered view of her injuries. It’s a gruesome sight and her wounds tell a clear story as to what’s been happening to her. She’s been starved, whipped, beaten, burned, had her bones deliberately broken, she’s been stabbed all over and, in some places, chunks of flesh have just been ripped away. There are no words to describe what I’m seeing. Not even my nightmares were this horrible and I’m beginning to feel nauseous. Mags places her hands on Gwen, one palm over her heart and the other over her forehead, and they begin to glow. We watch as some of Gwen’s wounds begin to fade. Bruises, cuts, burns and scars begin to heal as Mags continues her ministrations but most show absolutely no change. We hear the grinding and cracking of broken bones being put back into place. Some are clearly being broken all over again so that they can heal, which makes me want to vomit. A little bit of colour returns to Gwen’s grey complexion, her blue lips becoming a little bit pinker and her breathing is slightly evening out. A few minutes pass before Mags removes her hands, leaning on the edge of the stretcher and breathing heavily. There is sweat streaming down her face and arms.
“Don’t exhaust yourself,” says Hank as he moves to Mags’s side.
“I’m okay. I’ve healed the most worrisome injuries, the ones that none of my healers would have been able to heal, and they can handle the rest,” she smiles tiredly at us. “I will organise a group of my best people and set up a schedule. Hopefully we can have her bandaged and awake in a few hours.”
She leaves the room and I pull a chair to the side of the bed, sinking down into it and leaning against Gwen’s bed. Today has been so surreal. We’ve gone from having no trace of Gwen, to having her use her last ounce of strength to tell me where she is. Then Jillian tells us that she’s dead and we go to Gwen’s location, expecting to find her body, but instead we find an old man. Then, just as I’m giving up hope and walking away, I find her huddled beneath a desk and practically torn to pieces. I recall how cold she was and, getting up from my chair, I move to the cupboards and pull out a thick blanket. I warm it up, using a little fire magic, and lay it over her. She’s still so cold to touch.
“How did you find her?” asks Hank, breaking the thick silence that settled over the room the moment I took my jacket off of Gwen. I sit back in my chair, the others grabbing chairs of their own and sitting them on the other side of the bed.
“I got frustrated and kicked a block of wood that was on the floor. It hit an old desk that was on the other side of the room and shattered the back. I turned to leave and thought I saw something move so I went back, threw the desk aside and…” I swallow past the lump in my throat as I remember seeing her in a heap on the floor. “I wrapped her in my jacket and brought her here.”
There is a moment of silence before I hear Anya’s tiny, sad voice;
“She was there the whole time and we almost left her behind.”
We all fall silent again as we realise what would have happened had we all just given up and left without her.
Throughout the day Gwen is visited by a number of Healers and each one does the same thing. They walk in, freeze for a moment as they take in the sight of her lying motionless on the stretcher, place one hand over her heart and one over her forehead, glow for a few minutes and then they shuffle sadly out of the room. It’s after 8:00pm before Mags comes back in, looking better, and examines Gwen.
“We’ve healed what we can. I’m afraid the rest of her scars are permanent and the remaining wounds were made by some incredibly strong magic and will have to heal on their own,” she explains with a guilty look on her face, like she’s to blame for Gwen’s pain. Gwen’s body is still mostly bandages and scars. “I could probably wake her up now.”
She tenderly brushes a few hairs from Gwen’s forehead.
“Is that a good idea?” asks Hank. It takes either a very brave or a very stupid man to raise questions about Mags’s treatment of her patients. “It’s just that, with everything she’s been through, I’d wager she hasn’t slept in a really long time. Maybe we should give her as much rest as we can before throwing her back into the fray?”
Mags looks down at Gwen, her mask of professionalism finally slipping, and tears fall silently down her cheeks.
“I’m over 400 years old and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she says; her voice so low that I have to strain to hear her.
The room falls silent again as we just sit and wait at Gwen’s bedside. When I finally feel my eyelids closing I let them and drift off to sleep, my head resting on the edge of Gwen’s mattress.