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Chapter 29 - Isolde

I sprint to her, but she has already collapsed, her body twitching.

Hadyn lets out a strangled yell, one full of despair and pure fury. Dozens of replicas appear, each snarling in rage. Blue streaks dart out from a cluster of bushes to my left. I jump away from Katarina, scared but relieved at the same time – she is not dead. But we have been found. Again.

Tristan’s expression is formidable. His hazel eyes blaze, and his lips mash into a hard line. He stands, waiting for our opponents to show before acting. The top of a helmet appears, and Tristan immediately launches himself at the person, Hadyn after him. I have ducked behind a tree, yet again. But I can’t just hide here while they fight.

I don’t know how to fight, but I’m sure my instincts will kick in when I am desperate. A choked sound comes out of me when I again see Katarina lying prone on the ground, but there is nothing I can do other than keep the Hunters away.

I hurtle through the bushes, moving to my right quickly in case a gun is fired at me. Tristan wrestles with a tall, wide, unnaturally muscled woman and an aging but still powerful man.

Hadyn is beating up a third person, a young male. His copies aim kicks and punches at the person. Only the real Hadyn can make any physical contact, and the AH does not know which one that is. When struck, he wheels around to face his opponent, but is met with a replica and a knock from behind.

Tristan is suddenly hit with a glancing blow to the head, and stumbles backward. His male adversary rushes forward, bringing back an elbow to slam it in Tristan’s face.

I intake sharply, and water appears in thin air, quickly turning into a thick block of ice. I pound it into the man’s face, wincing as I do so. His hands fly up to his face as he growls in pain. My fists clench together and my body is tense, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.

I continue battering the man with the ice, trying to tune out the groans of him and Tristan. A figure jumps at me from my right; I skip back, but I am too late. A body slams into me with immense force.

I go down at once, but try to flip over, franticness overriding my senses. A palm is driven into my cheek with force, but then I send hot water into my foe’s eyes. He cries out, and I manage to push his weight off of me, quickly getting to my feet. I cast a quick look around, but Hadyn and Tristan don’t look to be in too much danger, so I turn my attention back to my own opponent.

I wait until he gets up, then blast him with a jet of a vast amount of water – right where his stomach is. His arms and legs flail as he is pushed back fast, so fast. His mouth opens, and he cries out once. Then he hits a tree behind me, and slumps, stilled.

My hands shake badly as I watch him for a few more seconds to make sure he is unconscious. I can’t believe I just did that. It is sick, it’s utterly –

Concentrate! I tell myself, but my trembling won’t cease. I turn to Tristan, who is only battling with one person now – that massive woman. Her hand suddenly goes down to her belt, and red sparks spiral into the air. Tristan gets a chance to kick her in the knee, causing her to stagger away, but she looks somehow relieved.

A chill goes through me; those sparks are probably a signal to other AHs. They went pretty far into the sky as well.

I quiver even more. Before a rush of Hunters come upon us, these two need to be defeated, then Tristan, Hadyn and I have to carry Katarina and rush to safety.

Impossible, a sneaky voice in my head says.

I nearly collapse, but force myself to stay upright. There is hope left.

“Move back, Hadyn,” I call, and the duplications all comply.

The man turns towards me, his face drawn in horror. I almost hesitate – he looks so pathetic, so scared – but I remember that there is no room for being soft. I set my face and give him the hot-water-to-the-eye thing I unleashed upon the other man. He screams, and blindly runs forward. He falls into Hadyn – the real Hadyn. All the replicas to run to the real boy, and disappear. The man sightlessly thrashes Hadyn, who fights back but is unable to escape from under his enemy. I cannot use my powers of water; Hadyn will get caught up in the mess.

I dash forward; my aid will have to be physical. My hands clamp round the man, and I pull with all my might. He comes away too easily; my back smashes into the earth behind me and the man begins to hit me instead.

I grit my teeth against the pain and try to wrench him off, but even blinded, he overpowers me. The guy is big and so are his fists. It’s like smashing your face against gravel. Like having a ball thrown directly to your vulnerable nose – repeated dozens of times. So many different types of pain, combined to make something unbearable.

Sharp, sudden rush of a tin lid slitting skin. Dull, aching shock of running into a lamppost. Mind-numbing effect when you hit the top of your head on a low ceiling. I sob as something wet and warm trickles down my face – blood. I struggle, but my attempts are futile. The man relentlessly strikes me, again and again. I give up trying to escape. Every beating is followed by pain, then a short period in which I tense for the next blow. Over and over until I’m sure that I’ll just die; that is what I’m doing, waiting for death.

Then, suddenly, it stops. I gasp for air, dragging oxygen down into my lungs.

“Isolde. Isolde. Come on.” It is Hadyn, sounding very frightened.
It hurts too much. I moan this too him, curling up on my side.

“I know,” he says thickly. “You just have to get up.”

“Can’t,” I whimper.

“Isolde.” It’s Tristan now, his voice even rougher than usual. “They’re coming; the Hunters are coming. You have to move.”

“Just go,” I wail. They should leave me here. I feel like I’m done for, anyway.

“No. Listen, I already need to carry Katarina. Hadyn can’t manage you. Get up. Please.”

The first time I have ever heard him say ‘please’.

A hand tugs on my arm, and my name is repeated over and over again.

I think of being trapped in Confinement forever. This steels me; with the assistance of Tristan and Hadyn, I manage to rise to my feet.
“They’ll be here in . . . maybe three minutes,” Tristan tells me, wiping blood from his hands onto his jeans. His hazel eyes, for once, show concern. “I know it hurts, but we have to run. Now.”

I try to nod, but it stings too much, so I croak out, “OK.” This sends waves of pain through my cheeks.

Hadyn supports me as I move. My legs are stiff and aching from being trapped under that man. My face and neck are in complete agony. Each breath, each step brings a fresh wave of torture. We reach Katarina in several long seconds. Tristan unceremoniously hauls her onto his back, and sets off at a jog. Hadyn stays by me as I try to move faster than at a crawl. I force myself into a walk, and then push that, putting the remaining energy I have into trying not to bawl out loud. My legs are OK, really, but the pain upwards . . .

The sounds behind me drive me on. I pause every few seconds to wipe blood from my face. Tristan looks back at us often. His face is red with effort as he carries Katarina. He is trying not to show it, but he is exhausted.

I want to ask when we will stop, but I’m too weary to even open my mouth. But soon, I know I cannot go on.

I begin to gasp from pain, and my knees buckle. Hadyn holds me, looking extremely worried.

“Can’t,” I wheeze. I try to find some strength in my body, but get nothing.

Tristan looks back at me, and he exchanges an anguished look with Hadyn.

“Just leave me,” I say. Voices in my head scream out their dissent, but I am not going to condemn us all to death or imprisonment. I simply can’t.

“No,” Tristan and Hadyn say at the same time.

I squeeze my eyes shut, scrabbling for even the tiniest amount of might in my body to hold on to. There is nothing, nothing but the dread of what may happen to me if I do not get up.

I try not to groan as I shakily rise to my feet, and fail miserably. Taking a step feels like an impossible feat.

“No running,” I say. “Hide.”

“They’ll find us,” Tristan says. He looks past me, his face drawn. I can actually hear footsteps – not a good sign.

“Leave,” I repeat, and clutch at a tree for balance.

Hadyn’s grip on me slacks.

“Run,” I urge.

What are you saying, you idiot?

He looks uncertain, his will to be safe swaying him. But then he shakes his head. “I won’t leave you. I can’t survive on my own, anyway,” he says.

I feel incredibly frustrated. I can’t let these people’s freedom be taken away from them because of me.

I take two painful steps forward, quickly. Then two more. I begin to jog, gritting my teeth so tightly they ache. Tristan starts to move, too, quicker than me even though he is still holding the unconscious Katarina.

We zig-zag through the forest, silent now except for our breathing. Dread is the thing that makes my burning legs motor. It is getting darker; hidden tree roots strike my ankles. I clamp my lips together, my face straining. This hurts, but I do not want to yell out.

Hadyn mutters encouragement in my ear, and gratitude fills my wracked body.

“They’re still looking,” Tristan slows to say quietly.

My speed must be going down.

“Diversion,” Hadyn says, looking at Tristan pleadingly.

“We can’t afford it,” Tristan says.

“Not doing it is what we can’t afford,” Hadyn retorts. “You are tired, Katarina is unconscious, and Isolde is injured. I’m still OK.”

“Hadyn, we need to keep together,” Tristan says, and that ends the conversation.

We move on, and every atom in my body hurts – above the shoulders even more so.

You can do this, I tell myself.

After a while, Tristan says, “They’ve gone off in a different direction.”

“How . . . do you know?” I pant, bearing my weight against Hadyn, who struggles to keep me upright.

“I can tell how far a lie is being told,” he replies.

“Someone is lying?” Hadyn says.

“One Hunter is telling himself that he is brave and capable,” Tristan answers distantly. “He is not.”
Hadyn nods. “Should we find a cave, now?”

Tristan glances at me. “Isolde?”

I grimace, and say, “If I get down, I won’t be able to get back up.”

So we go to find some shelter, each second pressing down on me.

Soon, we come upon a hill. I stare up the steep slope, mouthing the word ‘no’ repeatedly. Tristan says, “We’ll walk in that direction.” He points to our right.

My watch claims that it is a minute later when we find a perfectly concealed cave. It feels like a lot, lot more than a minute.

Hadyn spreads a quilt, and I gladly sink into it. What pain I managed to push away on the journey no washes over me. I summon up some water and tenderly wash my face. Tristan gently sets Katarina down beside me. I look at her, worried.

“Will she be OK?” I say. My words aren’t very coherent, but Tristan seems to understand.

Tristan nods. “Soon.”

I let out a long breath as the tears rush. I cry openly, not even bothering to hide my face, but making sure that I am not noisy. I am hungry, but I cannot eat. I am sad, but I cannot be comforted. I am injured, but I cannot be assisted – not like in Brackleby, anyway. I know it’s pathetic, but I can’t help moaning to myself.

Tristan puts down another coverlet and sits on it.

“I’ll take watch,” Hadyn says, going to sit by the mouth of the cave.

I am left with Tristan, who looks at me while I cry. Just looks, with not a trace of irritation or sympathy or hatred or kindness and empathy or anything. I have a brief, sudden itch to punch that apathetic expression right off his face.

He must take the angry spasm that crosses me as pain, for he says, “I have a first aid kit.”

He digs it out of his bag, and starts cleaning me up, applying spirit which really stings my raw wounds. My face feels swollen and hot; I get some cold water to turn into ice, and carefully put it on my cheek, letting out a sigh. It helps.

Tristan puts all the clinical waste into a thin plastic bag.

“You were good back there, you know,” he says matter-of-factly.

I snort.

“Seriously,” he says sincerely, nailing me down with those enigmatic hazel eyes. “We wouldn’t have gotten out of there without you. Thank you.”

“Without my powers,” I correct, my voice thick. By a miracle, it doesn’t crack.

He shakes his head. “No.”

I’m too tired to reply; I just lay back and try not to make too many sounds as I weep.

“Goodnight,” Tristan says softly. My arms move by themselves, and my hands close around the fabric of his jumper. My eyes are closed, but I can feel his own looking at me. I pull him closer, so he’s lying down, too, and he doesn’t stop me. My arms go round him, and I bury my head in his chest. Carefully and gently, his own arms encircle me.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I just need someone to hold me while I cry.

And Tristan, the angel, does so.

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