I can see her. Oh my god, I can actually see her. Happiness blooms in my chest as she begins shuffling towards me into the light and…a scream of pure horror lodges in my throat as I get my first clear look at her. She looks like she’s been thrown into a blender and pulled out just a half second before her limbs were ripped from her body. She’s nothing but torn skin, broken bone and there is blood dripping from her body and pooling at her feet. Gwen takes a step forward, her eyes focussing on me and showing a glimmer of recognition, and I hear her say my name. If I wasn’t watching as her mouth opened and closed around my name then I wouldn’t for a second believe that I was hearing her voice. It’s nothing more than a ragged, rasping, croak that sounds like it was torn from the pits of hell just to terrorise me.
“Derek,” she struggles to choke past her own blood that is now flowing from her ears, eyes and mouth. I try to run to her but get thrown back again, unable to move. There are diamond shackles around my ankles and wrists and I can’t get to her. I’ve come all this way, I’ve finally found her, and now that she’s right in front of me I can’t help her. This has to be some sort of cruel trick. Surely Oliver or Anya is around, maybe Hank? Surely there is someone else with me who can get to Gwen.
“Gwen, it’s okay,” I start to say as a shadow creeps up behind her and Gwen begins to slowly lose strength and sink down onto the floor. Garrets’ face looms out of the darkness and he crouches down to rest his chin on Gwen’s shoulder. He snakes his arm around her waist and slowly moves his hand up her arm, over her shoulder and neck and holds it against her bruised and blood encrusted cheek, slowly stroking his thumb over her cheek bone. Never in my life have I wanted to kill someone, but Garret is definitely going to die. If I have anything to do with it then I can guarantee it will be painful.
“It’s okay Gwen,” I say again, trying to take her focus away from whatever Garret is about to do her. “I’m going to get you out of here. Everything is going to be okay.”
A sick grin spreads across Garret’s face at my words and he turns to Gwen, his slow caressing of her cheek becoming a vicious, vice-like grip as she cries out in pain.
“Tsk tsk Derek, you shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep. It most certainly is not going to be okay.”
And then he smashes Gwen’s head against the wall. Again, and again as I stare on in silent horror. Bang! Bang! Bang!
I sit up so suddenly that I fall straight off the couch, jarring my hip against the corner of the coffee table as I fall. The banging sounds again and I jump to my feet searching for Gwen…but she’s not here. This isn’t a dark room and there’s no pool of blood on the floor where Gwen should be. This is my apartment and the banging sound isn’t coming from Gwen’s head repeatedly making contact with a brick wall, it’s from someone viciously knocking on my apartment door. I was dreaming. I dreamt that I found Gwen and thinking back to what I saw…well I’m not sure whether I’m angry about it or not. I take off my sweat soaked t-shirt and throw it across the back of an armchair before stomping over to the door and throwing it open.
“Woah, you look like crap,” says Hank, his fist still raised in preparation to knock again.
“What do you want?” I don’t bother trying to be polite. It’s pretty obvious that I’m in a mood.
“Meet me at your office in half an hour. The other facilities have finally started sending their files through and we need to get to work,” he starts to walk away but turns back after taking just a few steps. “Have a shower first, yeah? You really do look like hell.”
This time he doesn’t turn back and I immediately turn toward my bathroom. The water starts flowing the moment I step beneath the gargantuan shower head and, though showering is holding me up and keeping me from getting my hands on those files, I have to admit that the water does feel amazing. I feel a thin thread of hope slither into my chest as I consider what information we might find in those reports and the fact that it might lead us straight to Gwen. The thought is both exhilarating and terrifying. We don’t know what they’ve done to her and we have no idea what it’s going to take to get her back. Not that that’s an issue. Whatever needs to be done, we’ll do it with no questions asked. I’ve spent long enough in the shower and I get dressed in the first clothes I grab. I throw on a t-shirt, jeans and I’m out the door…and then I’m back again because in my haste I’ve stupidly managed to forget my shoes. Thankfully no-one is around to see it and, after finally attaching my boots to my feet, I’m back out in the hallway and walking as fast as I can to my office. I guess it’s not really ‘my office’, not right now at least. It’s a room set aside for Anya, Oliver and I to use as a sort of base of operations. It’s got everything we might need, from maps and stationary to a coffee machine and couches to nap on if we need to. I’ve pretty much lived here for the past week, co-ordinating the new teams and trying to match the right Warriors with the right Guardian. Not that I’ve had too much luck with that. Every time I think I’ve figured something out, Jasper hands me a list of new Warriors to add to the teams. It’s pretty damn important to get the teams right. Dysfunctional search groups will be of absolutely no use to me so I may as well take the time to perfect them now while I have the time. If it comes to it then I’ll just throw people together, bark orders and hope for the best, but I’ll at least try and get everything right so that we can find Gwen as quickly as possible. I walk through the door, expecting to see Hank and the others, but I’m met with silence and a room that’s empty except for a table covered with stacks of folders. I would wait for the others, but I’m too anxious to get into these files and, knowing that these must be reports from other facilities, I dive straight in. I discard the first report almost immediately. It’s a report from Washington DC that details a group of shady Recruiters who took a tour of the White House. I use it as the base for what I’m assuming is going to be a very large and exasperating reject pile and move onto the next. Germany, Samoa, South Africa, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Fiji...the reports are massive in quantity and miniscule in quality. They don’t say anything at all that would suggest that Gwen is anywhere in the area and I’m already about a fifth of the way into the stack! I’m reading a report from Denmark when the door flies open and I just about jump out of my skin. I’m not sure when it happened, but I’m sitting on the floor surrounded by folders and small discard piles.
“Hi,” Oliver says as he steps over a few folders and takes a seat at the table. “Is there anything useful?”
“Not yet,” I scowl and turn back to the Denmark folder only to start reading it again from the beginning. I end up chucking it onto one of the ever growing reject piles. Anya walks through the door as I’m reaching for another file and, to my surprise, slaps it back down onto the pile it came from and shoves an obscenely large cup of coffee into my hand instead.
“We may be working ourselves to death but I’m at least going to make sure you eat,” she says with a stubborn glint in her eyes that I am all too familiar with. “I have lunch being delivered to us at twelve and there is a fruit bowl and plenty of bottled water on its way as we speak. And so help me if you don’t eat something Derek Greene.”
She stares me down until I accept my fate and nod in agreement. The longer we go without Gwen, the more of a mother hen Anya becomes. It’s probably the one thing she can control, so Oliver and I have just been letting her go about her over-protective ways. I can’t wait for the day she completely loses it and starts berating Jasper or Hank as well. I take a sip from the bucket of coffee now weighing down my left hand and turn back to the rest of the reports.
-New York: Recruiter activity in central park. Investigated, determined to be harmless. Arrest made. No casualties à Reject Pile
-Sydney: Elemental kidnapping in city centre. Elemental recovered. No casualties. Elemental taken to GBR and assigned to Guardian Regina Sanders à Reject Pile
-Glasgow: Elemental taken, not recovered. No arrests. Investigation in progress, two civilian casualties à Maybe Pile
And the pattern continues! By the time lunch arrives, chicken caesar salads and assorted soft drinks, I have nothing more than multiple big fat piles of nothing! Anya and Oliver haven’t managed to find anything of interest yet either. We’re all sprawled out on the floor surrounded by piles of files scattered all around us. Hank and Jasper have stopped in a few times in the past couple of hours but they’ll undoubtedly put aside some time to go through these piles later on, when there aren’t three frustrated, sleep deprived and emotional Warriors hanging about who are looking for connections that clearly don’t exist. The only thing we’ve managed to figure out is that at least 20% of these files originated in the UK, which is not at all good news for me. I’ve only gone back to England twice in the few years since my affinities activated and, even then, only because I didn’t have a choice. The first was simply because I was in England the day I was attacked, my date was murdered and I was nearly burnt to death. The second was a few months ago when I was once again at the England refuge, only this time to help solidify plans for a new location. The few years between those two visits were spent at the canyon refuge where, at first, I trained with Hank and then I qualified as a Guardian and Warrior and I’ve never looked back. My home became the canyon and everything else became a memory. Now, I suppose, I’ll have to go back to try and sort this out and squeeze as much information as I can out of the place. A plan begins to form in my mind as I consider the logistics of the missions but-
“Hey!” I hear as a pencil slaps against the side of my neck.
“What was that for?” I ask as I throw it back at Anya.
“You zoned out and started mumbling to yourself. Have you found something in that report?” she says, mildly amused but mostly frustrated.
“Hmm? Oh, no, this is just some crap out of Moscow about a Recruiter setting fire to a chapel on a dare,” I reply, feeling incredibly grateful that idiots like this guy thin out the threats in the Recruiters ranks. As I throw the report onto my most recent reject pile it collapses and I’m a little taken as to how high the tower was before it finally fell. It’s like we’re all playing report Jenga and losing badly. Every single report we’ve read has gone into one reject pile or another, which is infuriating enough, but the fact that none of this information can in any way be tied to Gwen is enough to throw me into a rage and make up my mind.
“That’s it,” I shout, losing control a little as I jump to my feet. “I need the two of you to go and find Hank and Jasper. Tell Hank to come and meet me in the training room and tell Jasper that I want all of our Guardians and Warriors in the training room by three.”
I check the time and see that it’s nearly 2:30pm. I figure a half hour will be more than enough time for them to get to me. They both get to their feet immediately and begin trying to clean up the files.
“Don’t worry about those. I’m going to take them to the arena with me.”
“Okay, plan on telling us what’s going on in that head of yours?” demands Oliver.
“I’ll explain when you get to the arena.”
They nod and head out the door without asking anymore questions and, not for the first time, I’m struck by their trust in me. Using a little air magic, I gather the files into manageable stacks and start teleporting back and forth until all of the files have been successfully relocated. It’s taken about a million trips, but all the reports are now stacked in ten neat piles all lined up a few metres in front of the bleachers. I just finish sorting and rearranging the files by continent, trying to at least put them in some sort of order, when Hank walks in with Anya in tow.
“You’ve been busy, I see,” he points to my newly arranged folders and walks further into the room.
“These files don’t really contain much,” Anya says to Hank, scowling at the files like they’ve just insulted a puppy before turning back to me.
“So what’s going on and what do you need from me?” Hank asks, probably interested in why I summoned him and not the other way around.
“I’ll wait for Oliver and Jasper before I explain. I want to get the ball rolling on this as fast as possible and I don’t want to waste time repeatedly explaining myself,” I say, only slightly apologetic.
“Fair enough,” he responds and takes a seat on the bleachers. “He shouldn’t be too long, I was only with him a few minutes before Anya came barrelling into my office and grabbed me.”
“What’s with the files?” asks Anya as she comes to stand by me.
“I sorted them as best I could by location. I had to do it quickly, but for the most part they’ll be sorted by continent. I’ll tell you why when I explain the rest.”
Using the air again, I pick up and move the stacks until there are at least three metres between them. Jasper and Oliver walk in a minute or so after I finish and all eyes immediately turn to me. I guess it’s time to tell them the plan I came up with before Anya smacked me with a pencil again.
“All right, I’m guessing that by now you’ve all figured out that I have some sort of scheme in mind.”
“I don’t know about these guys, but I thought we were having a slumber party. I, for one, am disappointed. I was really looking forward to braiding Hanks’ hair,” jokes Oliver.
I can’t help laughing at the idea of Hank with a braid, but I move on immediately after.
“First things first; Jasper, how many Warriors and Guardians do we have so far?”
“Including the people I added yesterday?” he asks and I nod. I thought that was obvious. “About ten Guardians and seventy or so Warriors,” he answers.
“Okay then, ten Guardians will give us ten teams. That’s about a million files per team,” At least it feels like it. “It’s not ideal but I can work with that.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” demands Oliver. He hates it when he’s out of the loop or can’t understand what someone is talking about.
“Maybe you should start from the beginning,” suggests Hank, clearly setting in for what he’s assuming is going to be a long and difficult conversation. Lucky for him, I don’t have the time or patience for long and difficult. I’ll aim for short and sweet so we can finally make some headway on whatever these files may have to offer us.
“I want to split our guys into ten teams. Each team is going to take one of these piles,” I point to the stacks on the ground behind me. “And they’re going to head out to hunt down their own leads and information. If they find something relating to Gwen or the location of a Recruiter stronghold then they will dig deeper and from there they will develop their own report. After that they’ll present their findings and we can proceed from there,” I explain, and surprisingly they don’t have anything to say just yet. It’s almost thirty seconds before anyone makes a sound.
“It’s kind of genius,” says Oliver and I’m not sure whether or not to be offended by the surprise in his tone.
“That’s not everything,” I continue. “Splitting them into ten groups means that they will have enough people per group to split up. I’ll explain the rest of my plan to the group at large when they get here but, basically my plan is to cover as much ground as possible in as little time as possible.”
“I like it,” says Jasper, which is a little unexpected. He’s usually a nay-sayer but apparently not today.
“It’s smart, I agree, but what will that leave us with? You want to palm the whole workload off to the teams and I have no intention of going back to just waiting around to someone to just tell us where Gwen is,” Anya chimes in, her anxiety and stress obvious. I put her at ease immediately.
“Unfortunately we won’t be doing ‘nothing’. The three of us will be going to England.”
I see Hanks eyebrows shoot up in surprise but thankfully he doesn’t voice his thoughts.
“Why are we going to England?” asks Oliver, just as surprised as Hank though not for the same reasons.
“Because majority of these reports come from the UK and I plan on going directly to the source and wringing every ounce of information from everyone in the whole damned place if I have to.”
“And what will Hank and I be doing while your off gallivanting about England?” asks an annoyed Jasper.
“You’ll be doing exactly what you’re doing now. Hank is going to continue gathering and analysing reports and you are going to continue holding trials, forming teams and training everyone up. I’d also like you to keep track of the files please. Make sure none go missing and keep the new reports separate from any that the three of us have read so that we can review them when we get back,” I answer, my words being met with a nod from Hank and a frustrated sigh from Jasper.
“Not a problem, I would’ve assumed you wanted to read them for yourselves anyway. How long do you think you’ll be in England?” asks Hank, frowning at Jasper’s impatience.
“No more than a few days but that could change depending on what we find when we get there,” I say, hoping that we find something immediately and get to leave almost as soon as we arrive.
“Just one more thing, h-” Jasper begins, but is interrupted by the loud arrival of almost one hundred Guardians and Warriors and their various forms of gear and weaponry. Before they’ve even lined up I find myself immediately making alterations to the people who have just walked in. I wait until they’re in formation and have fallen silent before I step forward and call on two of the assembled Warriors.
“Howard and Megan, come forward,” I call and motion for them to come right up to me and wait for them to be out of earshot of the others.
“What?” demands Megan, her tone and demeanour just as unpleasant and arrogant as usual.
“Both of you need to leave,” I say with no preamble whatsoever and feel a sense of satisfaction as their faces become a wonderful display of shock and indignation.
“You’ve got to be kidding me! I qualified last month!” yells Megan, completely ruining my attempt to keep this conversation private.
“And I’m the best you’ve got!” shouts Howard, eliciting very clear yet unspoken challenges from the entire group of Warriors behind them. I imagine Anya and Oliver wouldn’t mind challenging these two themselves, especially after the way they treated Gwen when we were at the canyon.
“I don’t care. I don’t trust you and you’re not going to be involved in any of this,” I manage to keep my voice low and even as they become more enraged. Megan opens her mouth again but I put my hand up and she shuts it. “There’s nothing more to be said about it so leave and stop being a hindrance to the rest of us.”
With one final murderous glare from each of them, they turn and walk stiffly from the room.
“You know they’re going to try and make you pay for that, right?” says Oliver with an amused smirk plastered across his face.
“I’d like to see them try,” adds Anya, looking like she’s very much hoping they will, which is rare for passive little Anya. She’s always disliked and distrusted Megan and she was pretty neutral towards Howard until he took a particular dislike to Gwen. With no more time to waste I step forward without responding to them and focus on the task at hand.
“Guardians step forward, line up and spread out!” I shout and ten people immediately separate from the crowd. It only takes a few seconds and I’m able to move on.
“Fire affinities, line up behind a Guardian and spread out as evenly as possible!”
Another eighteen people step forward and spread out and I’m able to continue down the list until all eighty-eight people are teamed up. Twenty-six water users, fourteen earth users and twenty air users take their places behind their chosen Guardians and the whole process has taken less than a minute. You’ve just got to love the efficiency of Elemental Warriors. Using air magic again I wave my hand and have the ten piles of reports lift off of the ground and come to stop on the floor before each team.
“Each of these stacks contains reports detailing Recruiter activity from around the world over the past two months,” I indicate the stacks and realise that I’ll have to revise my initial plan. If the teams split up then who knows how long it will take them to collaborate and get these tasks completed. Not to mention that it would spread the Guardians a bit thin with eight Warriors each to watch over in different locations across the globe. “Your jobs will be to take these reports and investigate them one at a time. Guardians, your job is to transport your teams to whatever location is specified in the report and use your mentalist capabilities to constantly scan the areas searching for Recruiter energies. If you find them, you track them. Once you’ve all reached your destinations you will conduct your own investigations into the event outlined in your folder. Understand?”
I wait for everyone to indicate that they all understand and don’t have any questions before I move on.
“You will be looking for absolutely anything that could lead us to a Recruiter stronghold or the whereabouts of Guinevere Faye. You’ve all been briefed on her abduction so I expect you to place bringing her home as a priority. If you find even the most miniscule, seemingly inconsequential piece of evidence then you are to follow that lead and report back the moment you’ve got anything solid. Let me be clear; you are not rescue teams. You are scouts. Should you find anything pertaining to Gwen or a stronghold you are to inform Hank immediately and await further instructions. Does everyone understand their assignments?”
I receive a collective nod from all assembled and with that there is just one more thing to add.
“Alright then, just one more thing for the Guardians and then I want everyone to take off. Guardians, should you sense any Recruiters you are to follow them back to wherever they’re staying and you are not to engage. I will repeat this; do not engage. You will report back with locations and numbers to either Hank, Jasper or one of us three,” I indicate Anya, Oliver and myself, much to their surprise.
A chorus of “Yes, Sir,” comes from the ten Guardians which makes me uncomfortable. I hate it when people call me ‘Sir’. I’m in no way superior to them, and there is nothing at all about me that would suggest that formalities are required, so I wish people would settle for just using my name.
“Get going,” I finish up and there is an immediate flurry of activity and quiet chatter as they pick up their folders. After a moment they all begin clasping arms and disappearing as the Guardians transport their teams across the globe.
“That was quick,” Anya points out before turning to face me. “When would you like to leave for England?”
“You’ve got fifteen minutes to gear up,” I reply and start towards the door, Anya and Oliver following closely behind me as we head in the direction of our apartments.