The Fourth Faction

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The Defense Mode

From the rooftop of a three-story building, a teenage girl had her arms crossed and a bemused smirk on her slender face. She stared down at the high school football stadium, watching as punches were thrown, flames billowed and ignorant spectators clamored from the stands. She watched with great interest. It was all a surprise twist in the festivities that she would have otherwise groaned at the prospects of sitting through. Her subjects did not always make the liveliest entertainment, but she found herself enjoying this turn of events.

"I see you're still not doing your job."

"Oh? What job might that be?" She did not need to turn around and see the young man standing several feet behind her to know who it was. His voice was all too familiar. It pained her to listen once again to his nagging whine, but she refrained from displaying her agony.

"If I have to tell you after all those years of basic training, then you're beyond help," he said bitterly. His spikey brown hair quivered in the cold autumn wind that gusted throughout the night. "You never did take your work seriously, like I do."

She shook her head teasingly. "It really is pitiful to watch someone talk of things he knows nothing about," she said, keeping her eyes on the football stadium. The wind tossed the long, brown ponytail that stretched down to her hips.

"I do know, and I'm starting to think you don't," he said, obviously annoyed. "Don't you see what's going on down there? The Artificials are running amok. They're going to expose us and ruin everything we've worked for. And you're just standing here out of the way."

"My mission," she explained, "is to catalogue the Artificials and observe the actions of the Fourth Faction and the Catalyst." She articulated and spoke slowly as if she were talking to a child. "That is the job I proposed, the Jury approved and I was selected to carry out."

"This is all a waste of time," he grumbled, "The risk only increases the longer we drag our feet. I knew someone like you couldn't handle this kind of work. Why don't you go back home and hand over your position to someone who deserves it?"

"Someone like me can't handle it, huh?" she said curiously. She lifted the ends of her cloak up so that it fell behind her shoulders like a cape. She turned towards her teammate, revealing her tight, black jumpsuit. She faced him with an amused smirk. "And I suppose you think you would do a better job?"

"Actually, I know I would," he said quickly, raising his chin proudly. "I wouldn't put our whole mission in jeopardy by just acting like a bystander." He looked a little less pompous when his teammate started walking towards him.

"Is that right?" She walked right up to him. She was two inches taller than him, but the height difference was only noticeable when they were right next to each other. She suddenly felt like reminding him. "Then why don't you go and express your dissent to the Jury and the Head? I'm sure if you keep squawking loud enough, they will give you the treatment you deserve."

She held her hands on her hips, sticking out her chest and smiling wryly. Though they were only inches apart, he refused to look her in the eye. Instead, he stared down at the ground to his right, except for at one point, when his eyes momentarily darted to her chest. His unhappy face scrunched into a scowl.

She saw his reaction. Her opinion of him could not get much lower, but at the moment she truly thought he was pathetic. Over her breast was a grey square with the words "Field Agent: Kathryn" printed on it. She knew that beneath his own cloak was a similar nametag that read "Supply Agent: Stealer." She knew that he wanted to get out of the base more often, but if he never learned to stop complaining and apply himself, the Jury was not going to let it happen. He was insufferably childish in the worst way.

"Don't act all high and mighty around me," he huffed. Stealer turned around abruptly, hitting Kathryn with his knee-length, black cloak. "I may just end up passing you by one day. I'm going to do it. Just wait," he said as he stormed off.

Kathryn kept her silence until he dropped off the roof. She shook her head disapprovingly. "The poor boy." She then turned around and walked back to where she had the best view of the stadium. Though the bleachers were still full and something was groaning out of the loudspeaker, the green and white-striped field was now empty. "Hmm, now where did my little friends go?" she hummed to herself.

When Mark and Book caught up to H, he was sitting at a bench in the quad of the school. He had removed his band uniform and sat with both his arms and legs crossed in a green t-shirt and jeans. Standing to his right was Tally, seeming as vibrant as a scarecrow. He had removed her uniform, from fear of damaging the expensive outfit, and left her standing in a white tank-top and shorts. A bandana tied around her head, covering her green eyes, made them look like a semi-normal pair of teens in the lightless school after hours.

"H, what's going on?" Book asked as they approached. She had reverted the Pike back to its smaller setting, which was less noticeable and easier to carry in the palm of her hand. "Why did Tally go into a state after sunset?"

"That's right," Mark said, "Didn't you say this never happened at night?"

"You are not allowed to speak," Book said in a dark and ominous tone, glancing angrily at Mark through the corner of her eye.

"Huh?" Mark bent sideways at the waist, reaching eyelevel with Book. After all that fighting and applause, he felt pretty good, so Mark could not guess what had upset Book this time. "What's wrong now?"

Book enlarged her Pike and brought it over her head like a scythe poised to relieve a man of his agony. Her target was Mark and her face looked every bit to be that of the frightening reaper of souls. "You want to ask me that again after leaving me to fight off all the Artificials while you had a little one-man therapy session?" she roared.

After whimpering his apologies, Mark regretfully left the conversation and positioned himself several feet away, sitting on his knees as he faced the wall of the library. He held his head low in shame.

"This is quite peculiar," H said, ignoring the antics of his friends, "My understanding is that this has never happened before. Could something have changed in Tally's power that we didn't notice? If that's the case, then what was it? And how can we find out if we can't even be certain whether or not this is the first time she has gone into a state at night?" H rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"Maybe it was the stadium lights," Book guessed sarcastically. "Or something she ate caused her to go into a state. Maybe the notes you guys were playing triggered it. The alignment of the planets or stars or whatever in space perhaps? Or it could be that she goes into a state whenever she steps on that exact, precise location on the field. Or maybe one of your classmates has an aura that triggers her powers." Book wanted to keep going in order to make a point, but H cut her off.

"As unlikely as I feel those guesses are, it's not like we can fully deny that they are possibilities," H said, "After all, Tally's connection to the sun is only based on observations. We don't know what can trigger her powers, if anything at all."

"I don't understand how so many people can study this girl for so long, but still have so little an idea about how she works," Book said bitterly. She and many others were anxiously awaiting the day when someone announced that he or she had cracked the code for the Catalyst. Only then could she stop worrying about this unpredictable variable. "Have you seen anyone from the other factions?"

"No, I haven't."

"Me neither," Book said. She crossed her arms and began tapping her foot as she thought it over. "I wonder if it's possible that one of the other groups has figured out a way to control Tally's power. Or at least found a way to interfere with it. Our best bet would be with C-Unit or the Society."

"There's still a possibility that this is just a natural tendency or a development in her powers. Regardless, getting in touch with the others would be a good idea," H said. "Normally, I'd think it would be better to keep this little anomaly to ourselves, but it doesn't matter. After all, there are no secrets here."

"Aw!" Book said suddenly as she remembered. "Did you see that snotty punk from the S. Organization? I don't know what she looks like, so I can't identify her, but I'm sure she was watching."

"No, Kathryn has not made herself apparent to me. From what you've said, I would think unintentionally exposing the Community to such a large audience would go against their original agenda," H said.

"If they could control Tally's powers, I don't think they would do this on purpose," Book mused.

Mark called over from his place of punishment, "What about the Artific-"

"Silence, worm!" Book ordered like a tyrannical empress.

"Yes, ma'am," Mark squeaked before quickly returning to his humble position.

She turned back towards H calmly. "What about the Artificials?"

"That's an anomaly in and of itself," H said loud enough for Mark to hear clearly. "They are all scattered throughout the city. We took special care to make sure not one of them was housed within ten minutes running distance from Tally's house or the school, and it would be impossible for them to all come at her at once like this."

"So they all thought it was safe to walk around town because it was nighttime? Don't they know there are deranged people with swords running around?" Book said. "Even if Tally didn't go into a state, that doesn't mean it's safe for any of us to be out on our own."

"We can ask them when they come to their senses," H shrugged. "But I have a question. Why did you decide to fight the Artificials in the stadium?"

"What do you mean?" Book asked defensively.

"I had Tally. They would have followed me out of the stadium if you guys didn't start to fight them. Why didn't you wait until they were in a less conspicuous location before fighting them off?" H asked.

Book had a blank face, as if the obviousness of it all was too hard to take.

"Yeah, Book, why didn't you think of that?" Mark teased from the ground.

"Shut your face!" Book growled through her clenched teeth.

"Sorry," Mark said quickly.

Book steamed for a brief moment before seeing H leaning over, looking passed her. She turned around curiously. "Hmm?"

There was no one at first, but then an Artificial tumbled into the quad. Two more followed. One jumped down from the roof, having traversed over a classroom to track Tally's power. The psychic link she shared with all these people led them to her. More and more kept coming, panting and scrambling, some running on all fours.

Book gripped her Pike with both hands. "Mark, get up," she ordered.

The white-haired teenager jumped to his feet, holding his weapons at the ready.

"No need." H got up with ease and walked nonchalantly around Book. He did not so much as remove his hands from the pockets of his jeans as he walked head-on into the torrent of madmen.

In the lead was Pete. The shirtless Artificial with the metallic, fire-retardant shorts lunged at H, trying to clasp the stoic teenager's head between his scorching hands. H crouched down, ducking from the attack, before he spun around on one foot, extending his leg and slamming the heel of his shoe into Pete's left cheek. Pete fell and skidded along the grass of the quad until he came to a stop.

The long-nailed Artificial came at H from the side. Without turning to face her, H extended his leg out quickly, jamming his foot against her lower jaw and creating a perfectly straight line from his right foot down to his left. The girl left the ground for a moment, but when she returned to it, she was flat on her back.

Wally, the largest of them all, ran at H with his arms in the air. H leapt into the air, high above Wally's head, did a front-flip and landed hard against the Artificial, digging his shoes into Wally's face. Then H launched himself backwards like a spring. Wally fell to the concrete beneath him, and H landed softly several feet away.

"Whoa," Mark said as he watched the fighting before him. He would have been impressed if H had done all the acrobatics in real time, but it almost seemed like the quiet boy was moving in fast-forward. He was taking out one Artificial after another in only a matter of seconds. "No wonder he could do this job by himself for so long."

"It's not that impressive," Book said snootily as she looked away from the action. She caught sight of a smear from the corner of her eye.

Kenneth had climbed up on the roof of the library, out of sight from Tally's protectors. The wind tossed his ill-cropped hair before he leaped from the building. Tally stood bellow him like a doll, defenseless as he came down on her. As he closed in on his target from above, his fingers rigid like claws, Kenny's eyes widened.

Book turned around quickly, but she could not react fast enough.

Kenny's hand was grabbed and instead of pouncing on his target, he was flipped in midair and slammed into the concrete beneath him. Kenny gulped for breath, the air in his lungs having left him in a fierce burst the moment his back struck the ground. Through his immense pain, he looked up with blurry eyes, trying to see who held the vice-grip on his throbbing hand.

Around H, the Artificials collapsed. In one sudden moment, they all fell to the ground, bodies limp, groaning from their aches and pains.

Tally brought her hand up to her forehead, tucked a single finger under the bandana and pulled it down. She spun around quickly. With one arm, she hurled Kenny against the wall of the library. He could only gasp as his battered body smacked into the wall. He fell to the ground with a shower of crumbled debris. Tally waited a second, keeping her sharp eyes on him until she was sure he was not moving, before turning her gaze on the others in the quad.

Book stared intensely. She kept both hands on her weapon, ready to defend herself at any sudden moment. The Catalyst was dangerous when she entered the defense mode. While many gave H credit for being the protector of the Catalyst, in reality, she only needed protection when she went into a state. When she was not in a state, any threat to her being would be easily wiped out. It was the great hurdle that no group could overcome. Neither the strongest magic users nor the most cutting edge weapons derived from the Source and the Cure themselves could get past the defense mode. Tally, as a person and as a power source, was untouchable.

For as long as she could remember, Book had heard stories about this person. She was an average girl, unaware of her powers. It did not matter, though. Whether she was aware of her power or not, she could never control them. It was impossible. And that was a fact. They could not clock when she would enter states. They could not predict how much danger warranted the defense mode. Was there a way to remove her powers? Where do they come from? Would a medical examination reveal the secrets or would the defense mode prevent anyone from making a single cut? Years of ranting and debating, bribing and backstabbing, alliances and all-out war spawned from these and other questions. She remained a frustrating variable that lent itself only to rough estimates and flimsy theories.

To a child, this girl named Tally was a monster, a demon so powerful that nothing of this world could vanquish it. She belonged in mythology as the daughter of a god or an alien being from a sci-fi. The Catalyst was a flame too hot to put out. The higher-ups she had pledged her allegiance to, the enemies she shook in fear of and least of all Book herself had any hope of stopping the defense mode. Her existence was beyond the realm of human feats.

What was this mysterious girl really capable of?

Mark threw down his Double Blazers and dropped to his knees. He lowered his head and raised his arms up as if he had just been caught by the police.

"What do you think you're doing?" Book asked, looking thoroughly annoyed. "If you value your stupid life, you'll take this seriously!"

"I'm making myself look as non-threatening as possible," Mark said through a terrified smile. He remembered seeing Tally mercilessly trounce a member of her own family. Even with his superpowers, Uncle Morrie could not hold a torch to his niece. Mark did not believe he would fare much better.

The Catalyst moved its head in Book's direction.

Book, being of short temper and great pride, generally resisted any action that would make her look weak. When the prospect of serious injury -if not sudden death- increased ten-fold, the short girl unconsciously reevaluated her priorities and sunk down to her knees. In this position, it almost looked like they were worshipping Tally. Book briefly thought that if this act satisfied the Catalyst, maybe it was a descendent of gods. This sense of vanity would be typical of a divine being, she thought.

Speculation aside, Book had thrown her Pike down to the ground. It transformed back to its miniscule cone shape and rolled a few feet away. Book tried to control her heart rate as she considered that her weapon was too far away. If this silly stunt failed to convince the Catalyst not to attack them, Book was unsure if she could grab her weapon in time to defend herself or Mark.

Tally lunged forward quickly. Book reacted as swiftly as she could, reaching forward to grab the Pike, but it was too late. Book could not arm herself by the time the wind caused by Tally's immense speed tossed her navy blue hair.

Neither Book nor Mark was her target. She moved over them without as much as a second glance. Tally threw her lightning-fast fists at the one person who could never cast aside his weapon.

H dodged her initial attack, leaving her swinging at air, but it was quickly followed by a rapid series of punches. He deflected them swiftly with the back of his wrists. Tally swung her leg up, arcing at eye-level, but H ducked and took the opportunity to leap to a safe distance. But Tally quickly followed. When he jumped away again, Tally slammed her hand into the ground where he had just been, crumbling concrete with her bare fingers. H jumped to the roof of the library, and Tally followed. Bolts of bluish energy trailed from her fingers and threw up dust and debris as they struck the roof of the school.

Tally looked up suddenly. With a fierce cry, Book flew at the Catalyst with her Pike raised over her shoulder like a baseball bat. Book swung at Tally, but the blonde girl redirected the attack with her hand, the bolts of energy suddenly vanishing the moment they touched the golden cone. Tally shot her leg into Book's stomach, launching the shorter girl horizontally across the roof. She grabbed the railing the moment she flew over the edge, but her momentum made her swing into the wall. Book lost her grip and fell onto Wally down below her.

With the cry of "Double Blazers," a thick cylinder of flames pierced the night air. From his spot on the ground, Mark targeted Tally on the roof, going all out with his attack. Without a moment's hesitation, Tally stuck out her arm, intercepting the beam of fire with but two fingers. From her fingertips, a flurry of energy beams sprayed out, scattering the flames and shielding Tally's body from a single scorch. Mark ceased fire and looked up at her, totally unscathed, in the moonlight.

"What? No good?" Mark said in disbelief. She had not even flinched.

Tally stepped off the roof, dropping softly to the ground. As she looked at him, Mark was unsure if he should take the chance to attack again or try playing dead.

"Don't just stand there!" Book yelled as she ran at Tally from behind. Tally grabbed the Pike below the cone just as Book swung at her. Tally used Book's momentum to lift Book over her head and throw her across the quad.

"Double Blazers!" Mark yelled as he fired at the Catalyst. She stepped aside, evading the flames, and swung her arm in an arc, whipping a beam of energy at Mark. It easily cut through the fires of the Double Blazers and struck Mark hard enough to send the boy sprawling across the quad, only stopping when he collided with the wall.

Despite the silence of the sneak attack, Tally turned around quickly, crouched and caught H's foot in her hand as he came at her from above. As she straightened her body, Tally threw H down onto the concrete. And when his body bounced back up, she kicked him in the chest. H skidded and flipped for twenty yards.

"Hyah!" Book yelled as she ran at Tally without her long Pike in hand. She got in close before she revealed the little golden cone in her fist. She enlarged her weapon, extending it quickly at the enemy. A solid strike on the lower jaw would be a satisfying hit. At least it would mean striking a blow against the defense mode. But it did not work. Tally jerked her head to the side, dodging the golden cone. The Catalyst then took the opening and planted her hand over Book's face.

Book's eyes widened as she felt the pressure on her nose, lips and cheeks. She saw the sky briefly behind Tally's fingers. And then she saw nothing.

Tally had pushed back on Book, knocking the shorter girl off her feet. Then Tally slammed Book's skull into the ground. The concrete cracked on impact.

"Book!" Mark screamed in horror. He struggled to get to his feet.

Tally removed her hand from Book's face. She straightened up and took a moment to look down on the small girl. There was no remorse, no hint that there was any regret. The face of the defense mode was as cold and lifeless as a corpse. She turned her head slightly to face Mark.

Then she ducked suddenly, evading H's attack from behind. H landed in front of her. He turned around quickly, sweeping his leg out at Tally's head. She quickly reached up and grabbed his ankle before he could hit her. Tally pulled hard on H's leg, lifting him off the ground, before socking him in the gut. H flew into the wall of the library, not so far from where Kenny lay, but after rebounding off the wall, he miraculously regained his stance. His breath was heavy and his body shook from the exertion.

H viciously threw himself at her, but Tally jumped high over his head. H hastily turned to face her as Tally jumped up again. This time she fell towards H, who leapt to safety before her foot collided with the ground. Cracks grew out from her footprint and rocks and shards of debris flew into the air as if the quad had been made of drywall rather than concrete.

"Book!" Mark yelled again as he ran towards her, trying his best to ignore the pain in his right leg and chest. He dropped to his knees by her side and raised his hands, but he did not know where to place them. He looked up and down her unmoving body with a panicked expression. He did not know how to help her. The placement of the quad, with classrooms and buildings surrounding it on all sides, was convenient as no outsiders could see what was going on right now, but it meant no one was coming to help. And he could not call an ambulance with Tally in this condition. He felt lost. "Book? Book? Please be okay," he nudged her gently, feeling thoroughly useless.

Tally launched herself into the air again, holding her arms to her sides as bolts of energy trailed from her hands. As she reached her highest point, easily twenty or thirty feet, she brought her hands above her head and then threw them down again. With a loud crash that belonged more in a warzone than in a high school, the energy bolts were whipped towards H beneath her. He lunged to the left, barely evading the cloud of dust and debris that was thrown up from Tally's attack on the quad. Tally landed and immediately swung her arm out in a horizontal arc, flinging another bolt at H. The boy in the green t-shirt jumped over the energy bolt, but before he could land, Tally jumped up and punched him in the face.

H's head flew back as he did. The sudden jerk of his skull hurt his neck as much as the collision with her fist had hurt his nose. He bounced off the ground once, but before he could collide with it again, H flipped and landed on his hands and feet. He could feel something warm trickle down his upper lip as he paused for a couple heavy breaths. He looked up at Tally, who landed several feet away, totally unfazed. Her green eyes regarded him distantly. He looked over at Book in Mark's arms at the other end of the quad. H took a deep breath before moving swiftly. In the blink of an eye, he jumped onto the back of a bench and then onto the roof of a classroom. Tally followed; first destroying the bench and then abusing the building. And then with a few more crashes, cracks and thuds, the two of them were out of sight.

As the crisp autumn cold settled in on the quad, a wounded and frightened boy cradled his fallen comrade, his littlest friend, in his arms. He brushed her hair off of her still face, smearing the blood that trickled down her forehead, over her eyelids and across her cheek. Mark tried his best not to sob, but his childish impulses were hard to fight.

In a foggy void, as images came and went with varying realism, a child stood alone in darkness. She was young, but had tough skin and heavy eyelids. Standing opposite her, across an expanse of emptiness, was a beautiful girl of all white. Her skin was perfect, her body untainted and her smile completely pure. The young child failed to understand the animosity she felt for this person. It was strong. Her anger burned for every second this girl was before her. At the smiling girl's side were two men, who looked at her fondly. The three of them smiled and laughed, joked and relaxed as if the world was without crime. As she stood opposite them, cut off by the great void of blackness separating her from the images, the child felt her ill feelings boil within her.

I don't understand. Did you come here to die? You had a chance to escape this life, but you chose to come here anyway. Was this your plan all along?

Kenny hung up his cellphone and limped over to Mark, wincing with each step. He placed his hand on Mark's shoulder. "Mark, you have to go," he wheezed softly.

Mark looked up abruptly, and seemed stunned by what Kenny had to say. He scowled and shook his head. "What? I can't just leave. Book needs my help. We need to get her to a hospital." He reached into his pocket, awkwardly hunting for his phone.

Isn't this good enough? Be free from fear; free from paranoia. Just leave. You don't owe these people anything anymore. You can disappear and escape this nightmare.

"Mark, listen…you have to go help H." Both Kenny's face and tone showed his exhaustion. He was fed up and tired. Though he tried his best to hide his lack of patience, his mask was wearing thin.

"H doesn't need my help. Book's the one lying here bleeding to death." Mark said harshly. His scowl morphed as he looked back down on Book as she lay helplessly.

"I will take care of Book, but right now-"

"No! I have to help her!"

Is living a life without fear even realistic? Aren't you sick of this? Even if the Community vanished and all the memories of it ceased to exist, that wouldn't change anything. If it's not sword-wielding maniacs, its normal murderers, house fires, poverty, brain cancer, global warming…There is no end.

"Mark, please listen," Kenny begged softly.

Hopeless. Things are already in motion. The world is changing. Wanting things to go back to normal; that's just a foolish dream of a child. You knew it when you ran away. You knew it when you were first attacked by the S. Organization. And yet you still came here. Why is that?

Mark gave up all pretense of anger. His quivering lips made him look pathetic. "I have to save her! I left her alone to fight all the Artificials by herself. If I had helped her then, maybe she wouldn't have been as tired and could have dodged Tally's attack." No matter how much he tried to insist, Mark got no preferable answers from Kenny.

Don't torture yourself any longer. Let this suffering end. This world has no place for the weak. Just disappear while you can.

"I get it. As a person who is constantly plagued by feelings of regret, I get what you're saying." Kenny moved to the other side of Book so that he could look Mark in the eye. "But please believe me when I say this: if you don't go and help H right now, and you let Tally murder her best friend in cold blood, you will never forgive yourself!"

"But…" Mark looked from Kenny to Book. Then he looked over at nothing, a confused expression on his face.

"I would go myself, but it's taking all I've got just to stand up. H needs you. They both do."

A shiver ran down Mark's spine as a once proud voice, forced by the unrelenting pain into meekness, whispered into the frigid blackness.

"Idiot," Book mouthed breathily against the night air. As she spoke, her tiny fist uncurled and the little golden Pike rolled out of her hand.

Mark stared down at his friend as her body went limp in his grasp. He reached down and picked up the little cone in his fingers. He looked at it with sorrowful eyes for a brief moment. Mark dropped it into his palm and clenched his fist. Everything Book had in the world, everything she staked her life on, was in his care.

"Alright," Mark finally said, looking up at Kenny with an unhappy but convinced expression. He could hear the sirens of the approaching ambulance as he gently set Book down in the cold grass. He stood up and turned towards Kenny, who looked about ready to collapse himself. "Please look after her."

"You have my word," Kenny said with a nod and a tired smile.

Mark finally managed a smile. He stepped towards his friend and extended his hand. "Thank you, Kenny. I don't know where I'd be if you weren't around."

"No thanks are needed," Kenny said as he took Mark's hand and used it as a lever to spin him around. Before Mark could react, Kenny gave him a light kick in the pants. "Now get going! We'll be waiting for you, Mark," Kenny said with a thumbs-up.

"Right," Mark said, nodding confidently. He looked back at Book one last time. "Just leave it to me!" With the Double Blazers in hand, Mark turned away from his friends and ran off to rejoin the battle.

Kenny shook his head with a quiet chuckle. He looked over at Book. Don't worry, Book, Kenny thought, He will get better. Have faith.

After leaving the school property and wandering down several blocks, tracking the fight to the best of his abilities, Mark realized he did not know where he was going. He was alone in a dark alley when the thought that he had missed the climax of the conflict struck him with a sense of panic.

"Hello there, Mark Spryt."

Mark swung around quickly, extending his arm in one full motion and firing a Blazer at the person who spoke from behind him. With lightning speed, the person reached her right hand into her opposite pocket and pulled out a sword handle, and from the guard, a blade with a blue-tinted edge unraveled like a party favor. Her sword intercepted the beam of the Double Blazer, scattering the flames into a flurry of aimless sparks. Once Mark remembered that Tally never talked in the defense mode, he stopped firing.

The young woman standing several feet away smirked as she recoiled her blade and tucked her weapon away. Just as Mark was beginning to wonder if his weapons would ever work on an opponent again, she said, "A tad trigger happy, aren't we?"

"Who are you?" Mark asked, as if he did not already know. Book had gone on endlessly about people with blue, glowing swords. It was a dead giveaway.

"I am Kathryn Word, field agent of the S. Organization. I trust I don't have to explain what that is." She spoke with an air of superiority and maintained a condescending half-smile. "I'm sure you have questions for me, and I would love to chat, but there are more important things we must think about right now. I'll lead you to H and the Catalyst. Follow me."

"But why are you helping me?" Mark asked as Kathryn turned around to leave.

She looked back at him over her shoulder, her smirk having morphed into a full grin. "I'm not helping you at all. I'm leading you down the path of your own demise," she laughed. "But your mind is already made up, isn't it? So, come along. And make haste." She ordered as she ran from the alleyway.

Mark was already frazzled, so every word from her mouth and every moment she had that look on her face annoyed him intensely, but he followed her nonetheless.

Kathryn, though not willing to get much closer herself, pointed Mark in the direction of two L-shaped, brick office buildings that stood next to each other with a concrete courtyard between them. The windows were black in both of these five-story buildings, as were most of the windows in the surrounding buildings. There was virtually no nightlife in this section of the city, a perfect place to fight in secret.

H had just been thrown to the ground from an absurd height. Tally landed softly a few feet away and stared down at him with a chilling look, like a gladiator preparing to deliver the final blow. A random wolf whistle made her turn her head abruptly.

Standing across the courtyard, Mark swung one of the Double Blazers around on his finger. Then he tossed it into the air cockily and caught it. "Double Blazers!" he yelled as he extended his arms in Tally's direction. Tally jumped high into the air as the huge cylinder of fire flew towards her. She landed thirty feet high against the wall, her heels and fingertips digging into the brick surface to keep her from falling.

"Oh yeah? Try this," Mark said as he began alternating short consecutive blasts until he was firing the Double Blazers like a pair of machine guns. Each blast crashed into the brick wall, shooting out smoke and red shards. Tally jumped away, keeping close to the wall and maintaining three points of contact to keep from falling. Mark's fire followed her as she jumped until she reached the top of the building. Free from the wall's restriction, Tally swung her arms and threw three bolts of energy at Mark. "How 'bout a nice taste of my Double Blazers!" He yelled as the huge beam intersected the energy with a bright and loud explosion.

As the dust settled around them, H pealed himself off the concrete and made his way to Mark's side. "Glad you could make it," he said stoically, keeping eye-contact with Tally as she watched them through the cloud of smoke and dust from atop the building. "But you didn't have to come."

"Actually, I kind of did," Mark said with a smile. "Sorry I took so long, though. I had to have another brief therapy session first."

"You sure have great timing." Though he was speaking somewhat casually, he never took his eyes off of Tally. H looked pretty beat-up. Mark could only guess how many hits he had taken since he led Tally out of the schoolyard. He wiped the blood off his upper lip with the back of his hand, but a number of bruises were starting to show.

"You're telling me," Mark said. Then he reached into his pocket and said, "You know, fighting barehanded can't be easy. Think you can use this?" He tossed a little golden cone to H.

H did not look as he caught it, but he knew what it was. He remembered the effect the Pike had had on Tally's powers when Book used it against her earlier. "Yeah, I think I can," H said as Tally finally made her move, jumping off from the roof of the office building. "Pin her down."

"Got it."

As she plummeted to the ground, Tally brought her hands together above her head. In midair, she threw her arms down, whipping a vertical energy bolt that stretched higher than the office buildings around them. With an enormous crash, the bolt struck the building behind her opponents. H leaped to the right. Mark ducked to the left, his arms extended, waiting until Tally was just about to land.

"Double Blazers!" As a storm of dust, bricks and shattered glass enveloped him, striking Mark and cutting his exposed skin like bits of shrapnel, his flames cut through the torrent. With only a moment to spare, Tally intercepted the beam with the palm of her hand, scattering bolts of energy shielding her from the flames.

Mark ceased fire when H was close enough to throw a punch. He watched closely as the two fought hand to hand. Following the conflict with his weapons and one opened eye.

Tally grabbed H's fist as it flew towards her, and in the next instant she caught the other fist as he tried again. Tally shot out a kick towards H's stomach, but he managed to dodge before doing a backflip to free himself from Tally's grip. At the same moment she threw her arm above her head and swung it down with an energy bolt that tore up the concrete with a cloud of dust, she leapt high into the air.

"Double Blazers," Mark muttered under his breath.

The incoming fires threw Tally against the brick wall, the heels of her shoes digging into the structure as she shielded herself with both hands. H went after her, moving like lightening up the side of the building, jumping from windowsill to windowsill until he was only several feet away from where she had been pinned dozens of feet off the ground. As he lunged at her, Mark ceased fire. Tally jumped higher up the building, sinking her fingertips into the cracking bricks to hold herself up. H caught himself, using his shaky fingers and the slight traction of his shoes to cling to the wall.

Another huge burst of fire targeted Tally, but rather than taking the blunt force of it, the Catalyst jumped away, dodging Mark's attack, scraping her fingers through the red bars, keeping her back to the wall and her front facing her far-off opponent on the ground. The Double Blazers struck the office building with a loud clap, smashing the windows in its wake and spilling fires through the hallways of the structure. Shards of brick and dust rained down on H below as he struggled to keep his footing.

Mark kept firing, and Tally kept dodging, occasionally whipping an energy bolt to deflect the attacks as she jumped to safety. The beams were blasting the siding off the building, and the curling and pulsating flames scattered up and down the structure, blowing into the sky from the force of the attack, the recoil of which Mark could feel on his sore arms as his shoes slid ever so slightly backwards across the floor of the courtyard.

As the building shook, H released his grip and allowed himself to fall. The very edge of his right foot landed on the windowsill below him, but it was enough for him to regain balance and begin advancing on Tally again. He narrowed his eyes seriously as he watched her move, the defense mode protecting her at every moment. He leapt to another windowsill and then another, climbing higher up the side of the office building.

Tally kept moving to her right, and Mark repeatedly fired in brief blasts, but once Tally's shoulder struck the perpendicular wall, where the L-shaped building cornered her, Mark refused to let up. Tally shielded herself from the flames, sending out energy bolts that stretched in every direction, but she was stuck.

Even as Tally finally felt the flames stop, she had no time to react before H came down on her. With both her feet pressed against the two walls and her right hand clawing at the bricks behind her, Tally dug her fingers into H's right shoulder. Energy bolts coming from her hand quickly tore away his green t-shirt and were swiftly burning away his pale skin. H gritted his teeth and bared the pain, an unwavering, final pulse of determination in his eyes. He planted his feet on both sides of Tally's body and clung to her right shoulder with his left hand.

Tally's possessed yet charming face was only inches away. Typically, when Tally slipped into the defense mode, her demeanor was cold, unfeeling and indifferent, but now, as H forced himself into close contact, her pretty face was in a scowl and her teeth clenched. It was as if even the powers that controlled her were fed up with their battle.

H moved in closer, his eyes set square on her soft, pink lips. It was all he could think of to do. He could barely lay a finger on her. His attempts to hide had done nothing; he was too slow to escape her sights without a distraction. And that would only put someone else in danger. H was not confident that this was going to work, but as he felt Tally claw through his skin cells, he knew it had to be done now.

H raised his arm, threw his fist at Tally and clamped his hand over her mouth. Her head backed away slightly, and with another bolt of energy flinging from her mouth, Tally spat out the little golden cone. It could not fall; the chance could not be lost. H leaned back against the open air with the ground dozens of feet below him. His grip on Tally's shoulder slipped and he only barely saved himself with a hasty grab of the white strap of her tank-top. He plucked the Pike out of the air, pinching it precariously between his index finger and middle finger. Then H hauled himself up and with a rarely heard battle cry, shoved his fingers and the Pike into Tally's mouth.

Tally struggled to swallow and her teeth broke the skin on H's fingers as she clamped down on them like a bear trap. But finally the Pike made its way down Tally's throat. The blonde girl's eyes were still green, but her face wore an expression of confusion. It was like her body had not yet realized what happened. She lurched forward, gagging and spraying out bolts of energy from her mouth with every stomach-churning heave. Her face contorted painfully and her hand lost hold of the wall. Then her eyes flashed from green to hazel briefly as they closed and her body went limp.

Tally lost her ability to hold onto the building, and H fell backwards to catch her. He managed to flip as they dropped to the ground, grabbing hold of a windowsill and then using several more to make their fall easier. Once he finally returned to the comforting firmness of the concrete courtyard, H held Tally in his arms just as he had earlier, one arm under her legs and the other behind her back. This time, though she was equally as unresponsive, and looking rather green around the gills, she felt heavier than before.

Mark ran up to meet them. Though he was covered in dust and had a large, bleeding gash across his right cheek, he wore a look of concern rather than one of fatigue. His black, button-up shirt, the one they had gone out to purchase the night before, was torn and dusty from the debris, and the rolled up sleeves revealed a number of cuts up and down his exposed forearms.

"Is she alright? Are you alright?" he asked quickly.

"I don't know. She's not in the defense mode, but we should definitely get her to a doctor. The Pike may have unknown effects on her body," H said.

"And you, too. You don't look so good," Mark said, still feeling jittery.

"I am fine," H said, apparently not too concerned about the large open wound on his shoulder.

Mark stared at it for a brief moment before returning to his senses. "Ah! A doctor! Hold on! I'll call an ambulance right now," Mark said in a panic as he searched his pockets for his cellphone.

H nodded. He did not smile, but there was a distinct look of relief about him. He looked down at Tally's face. Her brow was furrowed cutely and her lips quivered as if she had just tasted something nasty. It was possible. He had no idea what that metal thing that Book carried around was made out of or where it has been. He really hoped the short girl had not stumbled across it while digging through someone's garbage. If Tally got seriously ill from that thing, it would be a pain.

He had a feeling that, no matter what the Pike ended up doing to her body, Tally would forgive H for making her swallow it, especially if she knew the truth. That was just the kind of person she was.

She groaned meekly, her unhappy expression only growing unhappier. Tally, lost in a flurry of unconscious dreams, lightly clutched H's t-shirt.

Mark, his cellphone up to his ear, tapped H's unharmed shoulder like he would knock on a door. H looked at the smiling, slightly taller boy and his expression softened. He readjusted Tally in his arms and tapped the back of his fist against the back of Mark's, almost smirking.

"What did I tell you? Did I or did I not say I would die working with you two? And there I was, a hair's breadth away from death. Go on. Tell me. Was I right or was I right?"

H stood in the middle of the room with his arms crossed, wearing his usual green shirt, brown jacket and jeans. Unseen was quite a bit of bandaging over his tender shoulder, which made his movements stiffer than usual. Any relief he had felt upon entering the room had since left him, and now he looked rather annoyed as he listened wordlessly.

"I hope this little incident has taught you clowns a little something about not being too laid-back. Okay, it's decided then. I'm making an executive decision right now; no more dances. No more football games. No more pointless outings. Got it?"

Mark stood at H's side. There was a big, white bandage stuck over his cheek, which made it hard to move his face, so he could not look too unhappy. He was enjoying the lecture even less than H was, but he did not have the heart to interrupt. After all, he was extremely relieved to learn she was okay.

"And I'll be expecting a new weapon, too. Geez, I leave you guys with everything I have, and you go and lose it. Thanks a lot," she said grumpily.

Book sat in her light-blue hospital gown, her lower-body tucked comfortably under the blankets on her bed. She sat up, leaning back against a mountain of white pillows, her arms crossed as she complained endlessly. Bandages wrapped around her head, beginning just above her eyebrows and covering the top of her cranium. She had kept her eyes closed as she lectured the two high school boys, but she opened them slightly and regarded them as she asked, "So what did you tell her?"

H briefly eyed the closed door to the bathroom on the opposite side of the hospital room. From beyond it came a seemingly endless string of groans, chokes and splashes. It echoed through the room sickeningly. H lowered his voice a touch and said, "Tally passed out during the halftime show, and I helped her off the field."

"And the Artificials?" Book asked.

"Just a circus act," H answered vaguely.

"A circus act?" Book spat, "You've got to be kidding. What kind of circus does drive-by performances? What moron came up with that?"

"Why, the local newspaper, of course," H said with more showmanship than his face let on. "Choreographed fighting maneuvers, rock concert-style effects and everything. No pictures, though."

"Anyone recognize us?" Book asked from her cozy bed.

"I've gotten a few questions from the people in band, but I just told them that I had to get Tally off the field," H said, looking around the room with his hands in his pockets. It was a nice set-up with potted plants, a television set and no roommate. Someone was going to have to foot the bill, and he knew Book had no source of income.

"Hold on," Mark halted the conversation by putting up both hands as if he were stopping traffic. "No one has said anything to me. What gives? They recognize you, but not me? I've got snow-white hair! I should be the easiest to identify!" He held up two strands of his pale locks for emphasis.

"No one cares about you, Mark," Book said cruelly.

"Oh," Mark said, sadly dropping his arms and bowing his head. "Is that true?"

After seeing Book awake for the first time since that night, Mark had been overjoyed to the point of tears. He just about leapt on her, wrapping his arms around the small girl in a tight embrace. Book then responded just as anyone would have expected. She aggressively pushed him away, shouting obscenities through the whole struggle until she finally pried herself free. Mark's efforts to give a genuinely passionate apology for not being a better fighter and friend were quickly scuttled as Book declared apologies to be a stupid waste of time and Mark to be an idiot for insisting on something so pointless.

"What happened to your face anyway?" Book asked.

"It's not just my face," Mark said, quickly recovering from his brief bout of melancholy as he rolled up his sleeves to reveal his bandaged forearms. "The side of a building practically collapsed on top of us. It was terrifying! And the only thing I could tell my parents was that I tripped and fell off the bleachers."

Book snickered through her teeth. "Yeah, that sounds like something you'd do."

"Well, he was just rushing to help you," H said wryly.

"What happened to me?" Book asked hastily.

"You were so excited about the circus act that you fell off the bleachers and dove head-first into the concrete below," H explained. It was hard to tell if he was enjoying telling this story. For sure he had the time to come up with a more dignified explanation for how Book had acquired her head injury, but H had decided to tell Tally this one, regardless of the more flattering exploits he had imagined for her.

"I would never do that! Come on!" Book stated angrily, "I'm not that clumsy. Didn't you see me running on top of the fence? Tell him, Mark."

"That was so freakin' cool!" Mark brought his arms up just so he could throw them down dramatically. "Can you teach me how to do that?"

"Don't think so," Book said blankly. "It wouldn't even work for you. Your center of gravity is too…" The unspoken words seemed to have gotten caught by her tongue before they could escape her mouth.

"High off the ground?" Mark guessed with an amused expression.

"Shut up," Book said, turning away, "Don't call me short."

"Whatever you say, Edward," Mark said playfully.

"Don't call me that either," Book turned her annoyed gaze up at his smiling face.

Their stare-off was interrupted by a loud heave from the bathroom and subsequent splash of toilet water. Both Book and Mark grimaced at the nauseating sound. Book brought her arm tenderly over her disturbed stomach.

"Please tell me she's going to stop soon," Book whimpered.

"That doesn't seem likely," H said with a sigh. Upon waking up after the battle on the night of the homecoming game, Tally had been overwhelmed with an unrelenting case of what she had diagnosed as the stomach flu. In all the time H had known Tally, he had never once seen her sick and even now he doubted the ability of any normal pathogen to successfully infect her. Nonetheless, he and Mark stayed with her during the whole unpleasant experience, waiting on her, helping her around her quiet house and occasionally holding her hair back. H did most of it, seeing as Mark did not have much of a stomach for such work, but he helped when he could.

"Has she puked up my Pike yet?" Book asked.

"I haven't been so meticulous as to check," H answered.

"Would you even want it back after that?" Mark asked, looking grossed out.

"I need a weapon, Mark. Something's better than nothing. You never know when Kathryn Word is gonna come for me," she said.

Mark pursed his lips briefly before sticking his hand in his pocket. He produced one of the Double Blazers and held it out to Book. "Here, you can use this until we get you a new weapon." He dropped it into her possession after she reluctantly stuck out her hand. "Now we're twins," he said with a teasing smile.

Book crossed her arms, slouched down in the bed and mumbled, "I don't believe this." She turned the Blazer over in her hand, looking it over, and sighed. "Something is better than nothing, I guess. I mean, I don't want to get caught unarmed. Not now."

"What do you mean?" Mark mimicked Tally's mannerism and cocked his head to the side as he asked.

"It hasn't been very long, so we can't say for sure," H stepped in and answered, drawing the sights of his friends onto him, "But the biggest thing inhibiting access to the Catalyst was the defense mode. Through sheer luck, we managed to stumble across a way to overcome that. We don't know what the other factions would do if that information got out." He sounded tired as he explained, seeming bored. H never showed any enthusiasm.

"And we consistently prove to be the most transparent group in the Community," Book added. "There's no chance this whole incident was just overlooked. Someone's got to know. If not the Society and C-Unit, then that Kathryn Word had to see something."

"She was there," Mark said, scratching the back of his head. Now he was depressed. The joy of coming out on top in their first big battle as a team was overshadowed by the apprehension of the looming future struggles ahead. Mark had been prepared to hear congratulations and offerings of a well-deserved break, but suddenly he anticipated a lot of work in the next few months. It dampened his smile.

"It's nothing to get so concerned about," H said, noticing Mark's perturbed expression, "We'll just have to put our plans into motion."

"'Bout time," Book said with a genuine smirk and a confident look on her face. Though she was not yet sure of what H had planned, she was suddenly more eager than ever to leave this hospital behind and get back to work. Finally, they could move forward.

The optimistic response of his friends brightened Mark's spirits a touch, and he could not help but smile, too.

As they spoke, the unpleasant background noise went silent, and then the bathroom door was opened. Clinging tightly to the door handle was a high school girl with her blonde hair tied back into a ponytail. She staggered awkwardly across the small room, pressing her arms tenderly against her sore abdominals. Before H or anyone could move to help her stand, she collapsed onto the bed, facing up towards the ceiling.

"Hey guys," Tally said as cheerfully as she could, which given her current condition was not even a tenth of her usual output. Her pleasant voice was weighed down by her exhaustion. She had a soft smile, but her flushed face and the dark patches around her eyes gave her away.

"Tally," Book said, "are you sure you're not the one that needs a hospital visit?"

"Oh, no, I'm fine," Tally claimed.

Upon learning that Book had woken up the previous night, Tally insisted that they go and visit her right away. However, the next morning, she had a hard time making it out of bed. It took several hours before H was convinced she was in any condition to leave the house. It then took them most of the afternoon to walk to the hospital, as frequent rest stops and Tally's insistence on not get a cab held them up. Tally had wanted to get Book some flowers, but H convinced her to not overdo it. When they finally met Book and Mark in the hospital room, Tally was so overjoyed to see the small girl that she ended up upsetting her stomach yet again.

"I'm more worried about you, Book," the sickly girl said, "Are you feeling better?" Tally closed her eyes as she spoke. The lights were making her woozy.

"I'm just fine. Don't worry about it," Book said quickly, as if saying it again was incredibly annoying for her.

"Really?" Tally said, "I'm sorry I messed up our night. I feel that I should have been there for you when you were hurt."

"Do I have to tell you what I told Mark?" Book said, "There's no point in apologizing, so don't bother."

"I still feel bad that we couldn't go to the dance, though. I thought you were really looking forward to it, too," Tally said sincerely.

"I wasn't!" Book said angrily. "Dances are stupid and pointless and a waste of time! Don't talk to me about dances or dresses or anything like that! Got it? Are we all clear?" Book waved her hands to turn the question of confirmation to the other two members of the audience.

"Oh," Tally said softly. There was a brief moment of silence, during which Tally rolled her head back to get an upside-down view of Mark and H. "I got some really cute pictures of Book in her dress. You guys want to see?"

"Would you all just get out of here?" Book yelled with fists clenched. "All you're doing is ticking me off. Just let me sleep!"

Tally smiled softly.

"Well, we'll come check on you again tomorrow then," Tally said as she slowly sat up. H offered her a hand up, and she clung to his arm as she moved carefully across the small room. "Sweet dreams."

Book's eyes widened ever so slightly. She had not expected them to actually go.

"See you later, Book," Mark said with a smile and a wave.

"Later," H said casually as he and the others stepped into the hallway, letting the door close heavily behind them.

Book stared at the door unhappily. She could still hear their voices from the hall.

"You really shouldn't antagonize her like that. She's just going to get mad."

"I'm sorry. She's so cute when she gets all embarrassed."

"You know, you've got a bit of mischievous side."

"Do I?" There was a brief sound of feminine laughter followed by a pained groan.

And then their voices trailed off, and Book was left alone in the tiny room. She stared at the door silently for a few moments. Then she inhaled deeply through her nose and leaned back into her collection of pillows. The single Blazer was hidden under the covers next to her. She closed her eyes and crossed her arms. Book stubbornly sneered as she tried to silence her thoughts and feelings until she could fall asleep.

Yeah. Later.

The blackness of nightfall came up on the city quickly once the sun had abandoned the heavens.

"Understood."

Leafless branches quivered as the biting November wind crept through the neighborhoods.

"No, that is not necessary."

A familiar, thin river trickled through a muddy riverbed with freezing water, reflecting the vigilant moon.

"My reports will follow shortly. They will be delivered within the day."

Light footsteps could be heard crossing over the bridge that careened over the lonely river.

"No, no, it's nothing like that. Please inform the Jury and the Head."

A professional voice was having trouble stifling a touch of eagerness.

"I'm coming home."

Her light pink lips bent into a twisted grin.

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