Mayella Island, North Atlantic International Waters – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 06:32 PM.
Now that the subject of Sarina’s alternate identity as the Healer came up, Rune saw an opening and took it. “Right. Go ahead and prove you’re not the Healer, maybe then we can stop discussing and start getting shit done.”
“We never stopped getting things done,” Andrey reminded him. “And we’ll have a lot of issues to deal with when Kathy and Athena check back in with updates. You should relax while you can.”
No one objected, but no one looked like they were ready to relax, either. The tension of the day’s events was evident in the rigid lines of their bodies. With one exception.
Unfazed by the somber mood, Sarina unfolded her legs and rose from the beach towel with one swift movement. “I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I’m going to try because I want to help.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t have to.” Peter began to rise as well, but she put a hand on his arm, stopping him.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “You don’t have to stay hungry and get drenched in the rain for my sake.”
As Peter slumped back down, his gaze dropped to his half-eaten corn cob. “Oh. I’m not that hungry, but sure, I guess.”
“Is easier if not everyone go,” Calavera suggested in his thick Mexican accent. “Too many eyes make harder when try something new. Is something new for you, yes?”
Sarina turned to the curtain of rain, a distant look to her face. “Yes. But I’m getting better at trying new things.”
Looking at her now, Andrey’s thoughts went back to what Athena had told him less than thirty minutes before. She emulated his power. The fact that she did it so easily after watching him do it once should give you pause. It did give him pause, but he wanted to believe that she would learn to use her power responsibly now that Gentleman no longer had influence over her.
“I’ll go with,” he told the group. “She hasn’t been able to rest yet, so we’re giving this one try only. Rune, you’re coming with us. If this doesn’t work, I’ll invite her to spend the night in a remote location far from any pursuers.” There was no need to mention Legion. The monster’s name remained a looming threat ever since the first tents had been set up for the refugees on the island.
A tiny voice at the back of his head told him that she didn’t need rest, that ever since the girl tested her powers on the island, she no longer appeared to be exhausted or in pain. The speed of her recovery was equal parts amazing and frightening.
She needs some alone time with her brother, at the very least.
“Damn straight I’m coming with you.” Rune straightened, stretching his massive frame to his full, impressive height. “Milan’s one of mine, after all. I’m not leaving you alone with him.” Even without his horned Viking helmet, the broad-shouldered Swede towered an inch over Andrey.
Aura smiled weakly. “Good luck.”
Most of the others chimed in with well wishes of their own, though Peter looked more anxious than hopeful. He rubbed his arms with both hands as if he was cold, even though the fire was right in front of him.
When Andrey stepped out from beneath the canopy, Sarina strolled along beside him, unperturbed by the heavy rain. Rune followed without hesitation but with a muttered curse in what Andrey assumed was Swedish. Still feeling the warmth of the fire in his bones, Andrey winced at the coldness of the rain that pounded down on him, but kept going. He didn’t need to see the beach or the forest to find his way to Milan’s cabin. He had walked that way often enough.
Unlike Rune and himself, Sarina wasn’t getting wet. She walked inside a fair-weather bubble that didn’t extend more than a few inches beyond her body. Catching Andrey’s glance, she said, “It’s a trick I learned by watching my Revoker friend. Snow. You said she’s in hospital?”
Andrey wiped the rain from his eyes with a cold wet hand. “That’s what Emily told me on the phone. Is Snow part of your team?”
“She was already part of the team before I came along. She’s always so… serene. Flounces down a street like a queen, not letting anything affect or bother her. I admire that about her.”
Emily believes she’s going to die. Reality has caught up to her after all. Andrey wished he had the opportunity to invite the Revoker and everyone else on Sarina’s team to the island before they got hurt or killed, but he understood their wish to hide away from a world that saw them as villains.
Rune muttered something but didn’t make the effort to raise his voice over the noise of the rain. He trudged along in dour silence, kicking up wet sand with each stride.
“Rune’s been with me – with us – since I left the Covenant,” Andrey told Sarina as he led the small group onto the narrow, stony path leading away from the beach and up to Milan’s cabin. “He lost half of his team fighting alongside me, but it never deterred him from wanting to do what’s right. I couldn’t ask for a more loyal friend.”
“Right,” Rune grunted. “That’s why we’re going to help Milan now. Or die trying.”
Something in his voice compelled Sarina to give him another, longer look. Whatever it was she saw in his strained, tight-lipped face, it changed hers. Her expression softened as she looked past Rune to see a lone one-story cabin nestled within the exotic, wind-whipped forest. Its separation from the hero and refugee settlement, was painfully obvious.
No one could deny the possibility that Milan’s condition could have adverse long-term effects on people near him. It had certainly affected the vegetation around the cabin. Any trees and plants within an eight food radius had withered and died. The small wooden hut was enclosed in a circle of autumn.
The sight of it stopped Sarina in her tracks long before the trio reached the front door. “Shit. Is he doing this?”
“Not willingly,” Andrey explained. “When we liberated Smolensk, Sylph drained the life from him before I took her down. She wasn’t able to drain him completely, but when his power interfered with hers, it changed him the way drugs change some Evolved.”
“Changed how?” she asked.
“We’re not sure,” Andrey admitted. “Calavera believes that Milan unconsciously absorbs energy from the environment to stay alive. He can’t eat, and no hospital would take him in his state.”
Unlike Sarina, Rune averted his eyes from the circle of dead vegetation. “The kid hasn’t been conscious since Smolensk,” he muttered.
The girl slowly approached the door. “You haven’t heard from Jasper yet, have you?”
“Not yet.” Andrey tapped his earbud with a finger. “Morpheus is tracking him in Italy. You’ll be the first to get news when I hear something.”
“I wish he was here. He always made me better at everything I did. Even without his music.” For the first time since she came to the island, she sounded sad.
Rune passed her with long strides, reaching the door before she did. He dug out a key from the shirt that clung wetly to him and inserted it into the padlock securing the door. He pushed the door, and it swung open with a long, mourning creak, revealing a gloomy room that was sparsely furnished. The scent of freshly cut wood drifted from it, mixed with the putrid whiff of death.
Glad to get out of the rain, Andrey followed Rune through the doorway. Sarina entered right after him. When she spotted Milan on his bed, she froze on the spot, and her hand flew to her mouth.
Even though the interior was shrouded in twilight, the single window above the bed allowed enough light to illuminate the pitiable state Sylph had left the young hero in. His face was shriveled and sunken, with a lipless mouth that gaped too wide and contained no teeth. Only a handful of frizzy dark curls clung stubbornly to his leathery skull. Two stick-like arms rested on the mattress on either side of him, and his impossibly narrow chest barely moved. Only someone who spent a good amount of time with him could tell he was still breathing.
Rune sank against the wall beside the bed, his chin dropping low. “This is what happens when leaders can’t keep their fucking promises to the team.”
“I made the same promise,” Andrey said. “Told everyone we’d get them home safely. We all did our best, Rune.”
He hoped with all his heart that Sarina would let him help her. Athena was right about one thing: the girl had lost the natural aversion most humans had to killing. She was more powerful than any mortal should be and, as far as Andrey could tell, all that power was clouding her heart and her judgement.
Right that moment, the girl stood by the edge of the bed with her arms hanging limp at her sides, her face nearly as white as Milan’s bedsheet. “Who the hell does something like this?” She asked the question without looking at Andrey or Rune. “If you’re going to kill someone, do it fast. This, this is messed up.”
“Sylph meant to kill him,” Rune rumbled. “He got his power off before she was finished. Are you going to help him or not?”
Instead of responding, she kneeled on the wooden floor by the bed and touched Milan’s twig-like wrist with her fingers. The air vibrated around her, stirring the hairs on Andrey’s skin.
He held his breath in anticipation. He noticed small changes to the cabin interior – some of the wooden planks that made up the walls and floor changed took on lighter hues, and the withered flowers left by Milan’s parents vanished from the vase – but the young hero himself still looked deathly sick. His appearance didn’t change in the slightest.
So it’s true. Her power doesn’t affect the living.
Andrey hid his disappointment. It was too early to give up or feel defeated. Sarina herself had admitted that she was only now learning new uses for her power; it was entirely possible that she hadn’t found the Healer switch within herself yet.
“Sorry,” the girl muttered. “It feels like I know how this works – changing people, I mean – but there’s something missing, and I don’t know what it is.”
To Andrey’s surprise, Rune didn’t have any more arguments to throw at him. The massive Swede worked his jaw, but no words came out. He stomped back to the door and tore it open, hinges squealing in protest, and then slammed it shut behind himself.
We’re not giving up on Milan, Rune. I promise.
Sarina winced at the sound of the door slamming, but quickly composed herself. Her attention was on Andrey now.
He crouched on the floor next to her, placing his hand over hers so they were both in touch with Milan. “Has it always felt like this when you tried to heal someone? Like there was something missing?” he asked.
“Yes, and no. After my transition I couldn’t control my power at all. Only DJ – Jasper’s – music brought it out, and it felt like it was a different me using it. I hated my power. It never did exactly what I wanted.”
“But now it does?”
Pulling her hand back from beneath Andrey’s, she sagged against the edge of the bed and turned her back to Milan. “It does, mostly. Gentleman thought my power takes the path of least resistance. When I wished for water to stall Rune’s heroes in Liverpool, I got sewage because a sewage pipe was the nearest water source.”
Andrey nodded. “I’ve wondered about that. Do you still feel like a different you is using your power?”
“No. I’m good since Bratislava.”
Since the day you killed Raven’s gang and created a city of glass. The thought sent a shudder through him, though he was careful not to show it.
Unsure whether the reassurance was welcome or not, he touched her arm with his thumb before pulling back to settle his fingers over Milan’s arm again. “We’ll figure this out together. I’m sure your friends will be able to help once we find them.”
“I hope so.” All of a sudden Sarina sounded insecure, like the troubled teenager she was. She lifted a finger and placed it on the soaked white and gold fabric covering his chest. “I used to think you were a murderous jerk. Sorry about that.” She didn’t pull the finger away.
As he glanced down at it, he saw the costume dry before his eyes. The coldness that had settled on him since stepping into the storm ebbed away. The girl’s eyes took him in, never leaving his face. He was starting to believe that Kathy’s assessment had been correct: Sarina had an interest in him that went beyond curiosity. Why was it always women who noticed such things?
She’s seventeen, good Lord.
He closed his fingers around her hand and gently pulled it away. “I wish Prodigy was still with us.”
She settled back and folded her hands against her stomach. “The teenage genius from New Zealand?”
“Yes. He wasn’t able to produce solutions at the touch of a button, but he had his moments. Australia requested his return home. They have troubles of their own that need to be addressed.” Andrey glanced at the window and the rain that continued to fall in torrents. As much as he would have liked to have this conversation somewhere else, he was dry and reasonably comfortable right now.
And even though Milan never showed a reaction to visitors, Andrey wanted to believe that on some level, the boy was aware of his presence. That he knew he wasn’t alone.
“Like many of us here, Prodigy lost someone,” he went on. “Legion took his girlfriend and absorbed her powers. There are worse things than Samael out there, Sarina.”
A shadow fell over her face. “I know.”
“It’s easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment. I know this better than most. But if you still want to be a heroine and turn wrongs to rights, you need to control yourself. Some of my biggest failures happened when I got carried away by my emotions… anger, for the most part. But arrogance played a part in it. Thinking that I didn’t need a team to back me up, that I could get away with throwing warnings to the wind.”
There was a pause before Andrey heard a response. “Jasper said something along those lines when we were still back in the UK.” Sarina raised her eyes to the window, where the storm continued its relentless assault. “Feels like it was a long time ago.”
“What did Jasper say exactly?”
She frowned, trying to remember. “He has a power he describes as good people sense, but it’s more than that. He gets an impression of people’s mood and personalities, kind of like Aura does, but it’s all music to him. He thought my power changed me because I used it when I was full of negative emotions, and told me I should think about something or someone I love instead.”
“Did it work?”
“I don’t know. Not really, but I wasn’t trying very hard. I was scared of everything back then, even my own power, and it was hard to let go of that fear in tight situations. Later it was more anger than anything else, but again, same thing.”
This wasn’t a solution to her healing disability – far from it – but her words left Andrey with an impression of significance, and he had a hunch they were making progress. Something was different about the girl, something more than the unique classification and her unprecedented potential to change the world. She had to find a way to make it work in her favor before it destroyed her.
“What did you feel when you tried to heal Milan?” he asked.
Her frown deepened. “I feel sorry for him, and I really want to help. Maybe that wasn’t enough.”
“I don’t know the answer, but I look forward to meeting Jasper. He sounds like a remarkable young man.” He flashed the girl an easy smile that came from the heart. “Do you know what a hero’s most defining trait is?”
This time, she didn’t hesitate. “They’re the opposite of a villain?”
“Yes, but why? A villain pursues schemes to achieve his personal goals. A heroine does everything she does for others. For the people she loves, for those who can’t defend themselves. For a better world.”
This gave her pause. “What am I, then? I didn’t try to save the world because I knew it would put my friends in danger. Everything I did the past few days was to keep them out of harm’s way. And to save Jasper.”
Andrey didn’t doubt her, but he couldn’t dismiss Rune’s concerns, either. “Work with me, and we’ll figure it out together. All right?” He instructed his armband to contact Kathy, but kept it on mute, preferring to receive responses through his earbud instead. “Kathy. Do we have any news on Jasper Davis yet?”
“Yes, but it’s not all that helpful. Yet,” Kathy responded in his ear.
“Just tell me what you know.”
“All right. He’s in Italy, and Italy is pure chaos. Haters are rising up against Evolved supporters, and as far as we know, Jasper left the location he was transported to and went looking for help. Morpheus got a visual of him on a surveillance camera, but it’s a recording, at least thirty minutes old. We’re closing in on him, though. Don’t worry about it, okay?”
“I’ll try not to,” Andrey replied, aware of Sarina’s inquisitive gaze on him. “You know I’m ready to head over there and help. What about Checkmate?”
“He just came back, everything went well. The Americans are going to question Christina of course, but they’re saving her life in New York right now. Checkmate mentioned something important she told him. Are you alone right now?”
“Not exactly. I’m with Dancer and Milan. Why?”
Kathy hesitated just long enough for him to suspect a big reveal. If she was worried about Sarina overhearing, it had to be.
“I’ll tell you when you stop by,” she finally said. “We looked for someplace Dancer could spend the night and found a nice little island some distance from Australia. If she’s worried about Legion, it would be perfect. Checkmate will take her and her brother there before he gets some rest. David called a minute ago. He can’t wait to see his sister.”
Andrey couldn’t hide his relief at the long-awaited phone call. “Your brother contacted us,” he told Sarina. “Are you ready to get some rest? We have a lot of hero work ahead of us tomorrow.”