Old City Buildings
Jumping from branch to branch, Hop wondered what the direction she was given led her to. Glancing back, she couldn’t even see Paradisum’s main building anymore. She’d never been this far into the woods, past the village where she was born. Not even the Nox Academy was this far.
Taking a deep breath, she continued on. It was her first test mission, to get a sense of what was to come. That was how Maria had described it at least.
“At the end of the forest, you’ll find a broad river, try to see what you can find there.”
What could there be to find? Some hidden lair? If there was anything like that Liber was dumber than she expected. Anyone with a little bit of intelligence should know better than to build a base on enemy territory. Therefore, Hop was rather skeptical about finding anything worthwhile.
For a second she stopped, holding onto the bark of a large tree. Beside the rustling of the many twigs and leaves, she started to hear the rushing of water. It sounded wild, as if a waterfall was nearby. Frowning, she continued, noting how the trees started to thin out.
Hop jumped down from a tree, deciding it was better to go on by foot. The river started to get into view, the rush getting louder and louder. It was a strange sight, having lived in Nandanavana all her life and never knew the land was divided by a river. She doubted anyone knew, and it made her wonder why it was never told. No one even dared to go too far into the forest, so why lie about what lay beyond it?
As Hop arrived at the bank, she could make out the continuing trees and plants across. As if the river never interrupted the land. Scratching her head, she tried to make sense of it all. At first sight, there didn’t seem to be anything noteworthy on the other side, nor anything interesting around her. What was she supposed to do? Wander around a bit? See if she could find a frog?
Sighing, she started to walk along the side of the river, watching her Nox boots sink into part of the earth where it was still damp from the rain. It sucked that they got dirty because of this useless mission. Hop loved her boots, more than any other piece of her Nox suit since it gave her the ability to just run away. If she ever got demoted or fired she knew what she would try to sneak out first.
Looking back at the tree line across, she narrowed her eyes. There couldn’t be anything but trees out there. It sparked her curiosity. Going there was not an option. The river was too wild to either swim or use a boat to get to the other side, but she wondered if she could see anything above the treetops if she got high enough.
Hop looked for the tallest tree on her side. When she found one suitable enough, she took a few steps back. Readying herself, she leaped forward and jumped up to the nearest branch. Climbing with ease, she reached the top in a matter of seconds. A small laughed escaped her as she looked behind her. The smile immediately left her lips as a lump settled in her throat. She used to race Luca every so often to see who was the fastest. It became a habit to look back whenever she reached the top, knowing Luca would always be behind her.
Swallowing, she looked away, focusing on the task at hand. Squinting her eyes, she tried to make out what she was seeing. She was right about one thing—there was something far beyond those trees, and it was big. Although tiny to her vision at that moment, the fact that she could still make out there was something was enough. It almost resembled buildings, like the ones in Paradisum City. Could it be Liber’s main office?
Scanning the horizon further, she doubted that was it. There were too many of them to be part of just one group of rebellion. Unless Liber was larger than she expected. Then still, why build their base this close? Was that even part of Nandanavana? And if it wasn’t, then what was it called? Could there be more people out there besides Liber?
Leaning back against the trunk, question after question flooded Hop’s mind. Nothing made sense anymore, and it bothered her endlessly. Her eyes kept their focus on the shapes in the distance, hoping for an answer to magically appear.
Though, between the many questions, one caught her attention the most and deepened her frown only more. Maria knew of this and wanted her to find it, but why?
Once Félix was certain Hop was out of sight he crossed the river to the Old World. He had been more than a bit surprised to find her this far out. Hop wasn’t one to go outside the walls of Paradisum unless given the orders.
Biting down on his lower lip, he glanced behind him at the fading river. This would only complicate things. If Hop sided with the Hall it could mean big trouble. They were taking action, first with Luca and now Hop. They were close, close enough to risk people finding out. Their pretty lies and mind games weren’t needed for much longer.
But what really troubled him was Hop. Why did they choose her? And why did she agree? After the whole ordeal with Luca, he couldn’t really blame her. For all, he knew she was offered to see him again if she played along. Maybe that was what made her an easy target.
Sighing, Félix pushed his hood down, running his fingers through his hair. There was one thing he was sure of, however. While Hop was still scouting the riverside it was unsafe for anyone to cross. And so was telling her he was part of Liber. He couldn’t risk that now.
His chest was heavy most of the way to the hospital. What he had to do, what this new discovery mean, it didn’t sit right with him at all. He couldn’t lose another one of his friends, not in Paradisum nor Liber. It was impossible, he knew that, but his heart still lay heavy with the decisions. He couldn’t trust Hop anymore, which hurt him more than he expected.
“You’re back early,” Phantom said as she saw him approaching the building. Félix didn’t look up, simply continuing on his way. “Félix?”
“I got important information,” he said before brushing past her. “Is Boss busy?”
Phantom shook her head. “What’s wrong?”
“You’ll hear soon enough.” Félix entered the Hospital, his feet carrying automatically to Boss’s office. He didn’t speak to anyone he passed, his mind to busy with processing what had happened and what could happen. Pressure started building behind his eyes, but he blinked until it faded again, taking deeper breaths if needed.
He stopped in front of the door to the office. It was open a crack, as it usually was when Boss was alone inside. Taking another deep breath, Félix tried to find the words he needed. He stepped inside, closing the door behind him, and opened his mouth to speak. Though, no words came out.
“Félix, my boy,” Boss said in a gentle tone, closing the journal he had been writing in. “One word at a time.”
“It’s Hop,” he choked out, tears filling his eyes the exact same second he did.
Boss nodded, humming as he stood from his chair. “What’s the matter with Hop?”
“I-I saw her.” Félix straightened his back, trying his best to hold back the tears from falling. “She was at the riverbank, observing the city buildings of the Old World. I think-I think she-“
“She’s working for them,” Boss finished for him, placing his large, scarred hand on his shoulder. “They took her before we could.”
Félix nodded, unable to meet Boss’s gaze any longer. He closed his eyes, steadying his breathing as the final hit of the situation washed over him. To him, it felt like he had failed Hop like he had failed Luca. “I’m sorry, Boss.”
“It’s not your fault.” Boss squeezed his shoulder, though it did not bring the comfort it was meant to. “Hop and Luca aren’t lost yet, we still have a chance at stopping Maria and the Hall.”
“They’re using her because they are close,” Félix said, looking up again. “They’re looking for our base so they can attack once they’ve succeeded. Why else would they send her out there?”
“Then lead her in the opposite direction.” He let go of Félix’s shoulder, sitting back down in his chair. “Don’t jump to conclusions, my son. You know Hop better than I do, but I doubt she would give in to the Hall that easily. Try figuring out the facts before you let your mind run wild again. You’re hurting yourself only more like this, have a little faith.”
“Yes, Boss.” Félix raised his chin, forcing the pain of betrayal somewhere he wouldn’t feel it. Having faith wasn’t as easy as Boss always made it out to be. Each day was a constant battle, a constant reminder. Perhaps it was so easy for Boss to have faith if all he had to do was instruct, wait and see. Seeing the effect, the breakdown, first hand made it almost impossible. Sometimes Félix wondered if the years in hiding had made Boss weak. As if he had forgotten about the horrors of Paradisum.
“Warn the others not to come close to the river for the time being,” Boss said with a final nod. Félix nodded in return, clenching his jaw as he turned to leave. As he made his way down the hall he noted Brandon in one of the rooms, staring out as he sat on the windowsill.
Félix walked inside, announcing his presence by clearing his throat. Brandon looked up, a smile twitching at his lips until he took in Félix’s expression. “Who hurt you?”
“It’s getting too much,” Félix admitted, sitting down on the bed and leaning back against its frame. “I feel like I’ve only been losing ever since I became a Nox.”
“Then all you need is a win,” Phantom said as she entered the room, closing the door behind her. “Boss is getting old and slow, we need to hurry if we want something to happen.”
Brandon got down from the windowsill, nodding at her. “What do you have in mind, Darling?”
“We need to get Luca out.”
Félix raised his brow. “Wasn’t that the plan already?”
Phantom sighed. “We were going to discuss our next move when you returned, but Boss got cold feet when he heard of Hop. He said to stay away from the riverbank when I asked him just now.”
“What if he’s right?” Brandon said, leaning back against the wall with his arms crossed. “What if we got to take a step back for now? We’re already risking enough with Félix coming and going every now and then. And those bodies, wasn’t it enough to shake the people awake?”
“They blamed their deaths on us.”
“Are the people stupid?”
Phantom scoffed. “Who would you believe; some rebellion group you’ve never heard of before or the government that has kept your whole family safe and happy for generations?”
“The rebellion, of course. Sounds a lot more exciting compared to that boring happiness,” Brandon said, glancing outside. “If we were to plan something, what could we do anyway?”
Walking over to the bed, Phantom went to sit next to Félix’s feet, biting her lip as she thought. “We got to figure out where they put Luca first, then sneak inside to break him out.”
“Your best time at sneaking in is right before the collection shifts start,” Félix added, “all the attention is focused on whoever is brought in, though I’m not sure if that is a guarantee for the rest of the building.”
“Can’t I be brought in?”
“What? No,” Brandon said, standing up straight again. “Honey, I’m not letting them take you.”
Phantom turned on the bed, looking between Félix and Brandon. “Think about it. They would lead me straight to Luca, and if I got some little gadgets on me while inside like the door unlockers and tiny stunners there shouldn’t be any problems. I would go in, get Luca, and get out before anyone even noticed.”
Félix fidgeted with the strings on his hoodie as he thought it over. It could work. If Luca was kept with the other collections than there was no doubt she couldn’t break him out. The only thing that bothered him was that he didn’t know how much Paradisum could see. There are no cameras in the building since most of the walls are see-through, but that didn’t mean their security wasn't tight.
“It could work,” Félix said after a moment of silence, “but there is always a risk.”
“I’d risk everything if it meant we could stop waiting around.”
Sighing heavily, Brandon ran both his hands through his hair. “Fine, but if you end up dying I’ll never stop telling you I told you so. Hell, I’ll write it on your tombstone; Brandon told her so.”
Phantom’s pale lips parted into an excited smile, causing Félix to smile as well. It had been a while since he last saw her this thrilled about something. It made another thought come to mind, one that made him rather curious about her behavior recently.
“Hey Phantom,” he said with a grin, “you’ve met Luca in the forest, right?”
She drew her brow together. “Yeah, why do you ask?”
“What did you think?” Félix bit on his tongue to keep his grin from spreading wider. “Pretty handsome, huh?”
A pink tint steadily colored her pigmentless skin, turning her ghost-like face to a rose petal. He knew she’d been watching Luca closely before he was taken in. However, this was the first time he considered it was for a different reason than ‘a potential ally’. He had to admit, she was good at hiding it, or he was too daft to see it sooner.
“I guess,” she said, trying to brush it off. “All those Nox guys look the same to me, especially with those weird masks.”
Brandon hummed, leaning over the bed frame. “What is this? Does our infamous ghost have a crush?”
“I do not,” she replied just a little too fast, her cheeks reddening even more. “You guys are making things up, I do not have a crush on that idiot Nox boy, okay?”
Félix crossed his legs, leaning forward so he could whisper in a lower tone, “You know, even though our suits help us move around easier, we have to train a lot to keep in shape.” He took her hand, placing it on his chest before she could protest. “Every Nox.”
“Oh Darling, you know those boys got some nice abs,” Brandon added. “Have you seen the asses on them, I mean, imagin how many squats that would have taken.”
Félix almost pitied her. Almost.
“Fuck you,” she practically yelled as she pulled her hand back, standing to move away from the bed. “You two are so childish.”
“How so?” Brandon raised his brow. “We’re giving you excellent intel on Paradisum’s most elite soldiers.”
“You haven’t even seen them once.”
“I’ve seen Mister Nox Soldier Félix enough times.” Bandon pointed at Félix who raised his hand while nodding repeatedly.
“Luca and I used to train a lot together,” he said, trying to keep the most innocent look in his eyes. “He took his shirt off very often when he got too sweaty.”
“Oh really?” Brandon held his hand before his mouth as he gasped.
“Félix, what are you even doing here?” Phantom said a little louder in the hopes of changing the subject. “You weren’t supposed to return for another two weeks.”
Félix’s grin fell. He tried to swallow, but the lump from before had returned to his throat. Right. Shaking his head, he forced a chuckle, standing from the bed. “No reason, just couldn’t take staying there for a second longer.”
“I doubt that.”
Rubbing his neck, he looked down. “I got to go back anyway, I’ll try coming by tomorrow so we can discuss further details on the plan.”
“What about Hop?”
Brandon’s smile faded as he raised his brow. “What about Hop, did something happen to her?”
Phantom looked back at him. “She’s been spotted at the riverbank looking at the city buildings, we think she’s working for Paradisum as more than just a Nox.”
“I’ll figure something out.” Félix nodded at them once before opening the door. “I’ll see you guys soon.”
He left before they could say anything else. The heaviness in his chest was already building up again with each step he took. Today wasn’t supposed to go like this, but it was foolish of him to think it was going to be different. He’d been so sure of it. He would go to Boss, tell him his decision was final, and he could finally take her to safety. Like he couldn’t do for Luca.
He was supposed to tell her later tonight, after their shift. Hop was going to be by his side from that moment forward. Yet, the reality was that she couldn’t be further from his reach.