I’ve been trying I really have, but I just can’t manage to force myself to sleep. It’s frustrating as all hell but what am I supposed to do about it? Bang my head against the wall until I knock myself out? That wouldn’t help me at all. It’s been a week since Gwen was taken and, so far, not one of the other facilities has sent through even the slightest morsel of the information that Hank requested. Either they’re procrastinating and have no intention of giving up their intel, or, they don’ have any new information. If that’s the case then they better be sending Warriors and Guardians out to gather some or I’m going to personally visit every damned refuge and raise as much hell as possible until they do. It’s pretty clear that I won’t be sleeping tonight so I may as well climb out of bed and find something productive to do. I expand my mind, prepared to wake Anya and Oliver, but hold back. Just because I can’t sleep doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t either. No, I’ll let them be. Besides, a quick check of the time tells me that it’s just after 3:00am and they’ll be up in a few hours anyway. I throw on the first shirt, pants and shoes that I see and head out the door, turning down random corridors just to see where I might end up. I don’t know where I’m going; I’m just walking through random corridors and turning down whichever hallways take my fancy when I get to them. For the first time in a week, I let my mind go blank and I just wonder around aimlessly; so much for finding something productive to do. I’m not too sure how long I’ve been walking when I hear someone calling my name. I turn around and see Jasper coming towards me from one of the hallways that I’ve just walked past.
“Hey Jasper,” I say, my voice sounding flat.
“I went to your apartment first, what you are doing all the way out here?”
“I’m not sure,” I shrug. “I was just walking.”
“Uh-huh,” he says, narrowing his eyes in suspicion, I think. “Well stop that. I need you to come with me to one of the training rooms. I have a group of Warriors meeting us there in about twenty minutes.”
He turns back and starts walking in the opposite direction to where I was headed. I follow along behind him, not really bothered at the change in the morning’s activities. Honestly, what else was I going to do right now anyway? He has piqued my curiosity enough that I’d go with him even if I actually was on my way somewhere but what’s so special about these Warriors and why does he need me?
“What do you want me to do?” I ask, my curiosity getting the best of me.
“I’m trying to narrow down the candidates for the elite teams you want to set up to help in the search for Gwen. I want you to make the final decisions. I can only assess their abilities and analyse their accomplishments to a certain degree. You’ll know a lot better than me who’s best for the task,” he explains and I don’t argue. Partly because he’s right, but mostly because it’s going to make me feel like I’m doing more than sitting around just waiting for information to start coming in. He’s just missing two important things…well two important people actually.
“We should stop and get Anya and Oliver. The Warriors we choose need to be able to work with them as well and they should be included in this too. Besides, they see different things in people that I don’t even look for.”
“Way ahead of you,” he says as I finish talking about my friends. “I woke them when I went to get you from your apartment. They’ll already be waiting for us when we get to the training room.”
I nod and continue walking beside Jasper. We walk in silence for several minutes before we reach one of the areas in the refuge that is dedicated to Warrior training.
“From now on we’ll be working out of this area,” Jasper says, breaking the silence. “This whole area has been reassigned so, from now until we get her back, this place has been handed over to us and the teams we put together to search for Gwen.”
This is news to me. I didn’t even know we could do that.
“When did that happen?”
“Yesterday. Hank is officially the head of this refuge now and the first thing he did was secure a space for us to work. It’s also close to the entrance so we can come and go as we need and we don’t have to worry about lengthy treks through this maze of a place to get to the exit.”
It’s smart. I should have known Hank would be given control of the refuge. The former leader, Ann-Marie, is incompetent, arrogant and downright lazy. She didn’t even have a patrol or protections in place to keep Recruiters from infiltrating the general population. How she managed to remain in charge so long is a mystery to me. We walk around the last corner and I see Anya and Oliver standing outside a huge set of double doors. There isn’t anyone else around, so I guess the Warriors aren’t set to arrive for a little while yet.
“Morning,” greets Anya, sounding much more cheerful than I know she feels. She’s been uncharacteristically miserable since Gwen was taken, but it’s not in her nature to let her feelings bring other people down. Today is no exception as she bounces over to me and hands me coffee and a breakfast burrito.
“Thank you,” I say as I accept my breakfast from her and I really do mean it. I look to Oliver and see that he’s also holding a takeaway cup, undoubtedly filled to the brim with a triple shot cappuccino, and two more breakfast burritos. It appears they were waiting for me to get here before they started in on breakfast themselves. Jasper opens the door as Oliver extends his fist and I bump it with my own before I head inside. The training room is pretty standard, with row upon row of weapons from all different times and countries lining the walls; everything from swords to rifles. The only major difference is that this room is about three times the size of any of the regular training rooms back at the canyon. There’s a small set of bleachers built against the wall to the left of the entrance and I head over to take a seat on one of the benches about two thirds of the way to the top. I get comfortable and, realizing just how hungry I am, start ravenously chowing down on my burrito. Incidentally it might be the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in a long time, well, besides Gwen’s cooking – I slam that thought back immediately. I can’t afford to go there right now, I need to focus.
“So, what’s happening Jasper?” asks Oliver in between bites of burrito and chugs of coffee. I assumed they already knew what was going on but it looks like Jasper might have just woken them up and ordered them to meet him here.
“I’ve arranged for a group of our best Warriors to meet here in ten minutes from now. You guys are going to choose which ones you want to help with locating Gwen.”
“So, this is some sort of audition?” he says, looking a little miffed.
“How are we supposed to choose? I thought we were just looking for the strongest,” Anya says, looking to me. It’s a good question but it isn’t like we have a list of requirements and pre-requisites.
“We’ll know it when we see it,” I say and immediately realise that what I’ve just said sounds ridiculous. “We know the sort of people that Gwen will be able to work with and we know the sort of people she’s worked with before. We need Warriors that we know will be dedicated to this. They need to be strong fighters; hand-to-hand, weapons and magic all included. They also need to be decent people and able to take orders without complaint from not just Jasper and Hank but also the three of us and even Gwen if need be.” They nod to me, my requirements apparently being agreeable, and I continue. “They also need to be able to get along with Guardians.”
“Why is that?” I hear Hanks voice and look up as he walks into the room and makes his way over to us.
“Because I’ve been thinking about how we need to go about conducting these searches and I’ve decided that we need there to be some sort of structure,” I explain and he nods his approval, stroking his beard as he thinks. It never fails to amuse me that he actually, genuinely, stokes his beard when he’s thinking.
“How do you want to do this?” He asks and I’m a little taken aback that he’s deferring to me on this. I have to think quickly though because I haven’t really thought much past combining the strengths of both Warriors and Guardians. What more might we need? Teams, we’ll definitely need to teams…I hear someone clear their throat and look up to see that Hank is trying to get my attention. Right, I should probably be thinking out loud.
“We’re going to have teams. I want at least one Guardian per team and they have to be the strongest teleporters we can get. They will be responsible for transporting their individual teams to wherever they need to go. The Warriors themselves need to be excellent fighters and I want all of the elements covered in each team.”
“What do you mean you want all of the elements covered?” asks Jasper.
“I mean that I want enough Warriors per team that all four elements are strongly represented. That way, if they run into any Recruiters, they’ll have a Warrior strong enough in their affinity to combat whatever threat or obstacle that they encounter,” I clarify, liking the plan that I’ve come up with so far.
“I never would have thought of anything like that,” says Oliver, looking at me like I’ve grown a third eye.
“When did you become such a diligent tactician?” jests Anya, elbowing me lightly in the ribs.
“I like it,” says Hank as he turns to Jasper. “I guess we need to set up a time like this for Guardians too.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Jasper replies, a small frown crinkling his brow as he thinks. “I have Warrior sessions set up for the rest of today.”
The door opens almost immediately after Jasper finishes speaking and a steady stream of about thirty Warriors walk silently into the room dressed in full combat gear and armed to the teeth. The group of men and women look fearsome and I have a feeling that forming these search teams is going to be quite an eventful experience. Jasper looks expectantly at me as the Warriors silently fall into formation, but I subtly shake my head.
“We’ll be watching from here,” I speak to Anya, Oliver, Hank and Jaspers’ minds. “I want to watch and assess from this vantage point. We can make cuts throughout the session if we need to but I’ll be able to watch better from here where I’m out of the way and can see everything.”
Jasper nods and turns to the assembled Warriors, immediately becoming the fearless leader that we all know best and getting their attention. Hank steps up into the bleachers and comes to sit by me.
“Alright, I want all eyes on me and I won’t be repeating myself so pay attention,” Jasper starts, addressing the Warriors as though they’re students still in training with him. “As you all know, the canyon refuge was attacked last week, forcing our move here. Some of you were there but most of you weren’t. You will also be aware that one of our own was taken. She fought fearlessly but sacrificed herself in order to save her friends and if you are in any way the Warriors that I expect you to be then you will know that no-one gets left behind. What the majority of you are not aware of is that this woman is the most powerful Elemental that anyone has ever seen or heard of, which is why the Recruiters targeted her in the first place. They are going to do their damnedest to turn her to their side. We will not let that happen. Our goal today is to sort the best from the Warriors we have in order to assemble an elite team whose sole task is going to be working with the behind me.”
Jasper pauses and turns to indicate Anya, Oliver and myself as the leader of this new elite team and I all of a sudden wish I was wearing my gear rather than old jeans and a white t-shirt. I suppose it could be advantageous for these Warriors to underestimate me.
“Are there any questions?” Jasper turns his attention back to the assembled Warriors and I watch as curious eyes continue to assess the others and myself. The eight Warriors in the group who I recognise from the battle at the canyon don’t so much as blink when they look at us, but the others look sceptical. However, no one voices their doubts and Jasper moves on.
“Good,” he continues. “Let’s get started. Two of you step forward, the rest of you go to the back and stand by the wall.
Immediately, a massive man steps forward with one of those cocky demeanours and smug faces that makes me want to punch him already. He’s joined by a woman who is not much taller than Anya and has a similar pixie-like physique. In the human world, a match-up like this would be considered criminal. Our world is a little different. There is a hard glint in the woman’s eye that tells me that she is just as lethal as her behemoth of an opponent.
“Alright then, we’re going to be starting with hand-to-hand sparring; no weapons, no magic. This is merely an assessment of your abilities, it is not a competition so don’t think that winning will automatically solidify a position for you in the search teams. You’ll begin on my signal and not a second before, got it?”
Jasper lays out the rules and the woman, who hasn’t taken her eyes off of the arrogant giant, removes the nun-chucks, throwing stars and knives from her belt and various hidden compartments within her gear and places them on the floor against the wall. The big guy just rolls his eyes and stays as he is. I’ve already decided that he isn’t getting anywhere near my teams or Gwen, but I just know that he’s about to get his arse handed to him and I can’t bring myself to send him away before this tiny woman has the chance to take him out.
“Who’s assessing us?” he quickly asks as Jasper steps out of their way and moves closer to us.
“That would be me,” I say, knowing that no one will contradict me even though Anya and Oliver, as well as both Jasper and Hank, will have their say too.
“You?” he snorts. “You’re barely old enough to shave.”
He turns away, apparently dismissing me as an inconvenience and Jasper calls for the fight to begin. The big oaf immediately lunges at the woman, trying to frighten her, but she, almost lazily, steps out of his reach. He turns back and lunges at her a second time and she dodges him once more with the same ease as the first time. He tries a third time with much the same results but, instead of pulling back and preparing to lunge again, he uses the momentum to quickly change direction and lashes out with a roundhouse kick that I feel he has used air magic to make faster and more powerful. The woman doesn’t flinch. She simply turns her head slightly to the left, the rest of her body not moving a muscle, and his foot sails harmlessly past her cheek. Her stance changes the moment his foot hits the floor and she rushes forward and jumps, landing on the big guys’ shoulders. She wraps her legs around his shoulders and neck and throws her body backwards, taking him with her. They do a complete turn in the air and she releases her legs, sending him sprawling to the floor as she lands lightly and gracefully on her feet. It’s an impressive display of control, precision and power and I already know that I want her on one of my teams based solely on what I’ve seen in the last minute and half. The giant, on the other hand, has absolutely nothing to be so arrogant about. His movements are clumsy and ineffective and it’s obvious that he thinks his size alone should win him any fight he’s in. He’s dead wrong of course, you can never know what your opponent is capable of and it’s stupid to make assumptions based on their size or appearance. The fight continues for another few minutes and, even though he’s made some effort to adapt to his opponent, the giant hasn’t managed to so much as graze the pixie woman. In contrast, she has been landing blows all over the place and has displayed some impressive martial arts manoeuvres that have sent her opponent flying across the room on several occasions. Jasper eventually stops the fight, the winner clear, and sends the woman, Jada, to sit on the lowest bench of the bleachers and the giant, Barry, to go back and stand within the group of waiting Warriors across the room.
“Just in case it wasn’t obvious already,” I speak to the other’s minds. “That woman is in.”
I sense their amusement and approval through the connection and settle in to watch the next match-up. Within two hours there are a further nine Warriors sitting on the bleachers with the pixie woman, eight of whom are the Warriors who came with us from the canyon. Jasper is sending the others away. Most of them weren’t that impressive which we discovered was due to the fact that majority of them were still in training. I won’t be appointing students to Gwen’s rescue teams; I want experienced Warriors only, no exceptions. That new stipulation has thrown a spanner in the works for Jasper, and he’ll need to reassess the people he’s called in for evaluation, but I have ten impressive Warriors and I don’t think that’s too bad for two hours work this early in the morning. It’s only just turned 8:00am and we still have a full day of this ahead of us. It feels good to actually be doing something more than waiting. This, at least, is a step forward. Even without any intel from other facilities, I can form enough teams then I can start sending them out to gather our own information. The Warriors left standing so far have been remarkable and, even without knowing their affinities and magical strength, I’m confident that they will be assets to whichever teams we assign them to.