Authors: Sherwood Smith
ROSS DUG INTO HIS AMMUNITION POUCH, HOPING TO
find one more bullet. It was empty. He hefted his shotgun to use as a club, then saw the enemy soldiers falling back. He spared a glance for Mia. She'd been holding her own with her bow, but when the fighting got fierce, he'd lost sight of her.
“We did it!” Julio exclaimed. “They're on the run!”
His people cheered. Ross finally spotted Mia, moonlight glinting off her glasses. To his relief, she seemed unhurt.
“Fall back!” A familiar voice roared out. “Fall back now!”
It was the voice of Voske's lieutenant, the man who had jumped Ross's claim and stolen everything he owned but the clothes on his back.
A cold anger burned through him. One of Voske's men sprawled nearby, a sword near his lifeless hand. Ross dropped the shotgun and grabbed it. The sword was heavier than he was used to, but it would do.
Yuki panted up. “Come on, we have toâ”
“Voske's lieutenant!” Ross pointed at the burly, red-headed man. “I'm going after him.”
“Go for it. I'll get my team and follow you.” Yuki whistled sharply.
The moon had descended, riding above the hills. The retreating soldiers were silver-outlined silhouettes, led by the silhouette with glinting red hair. Ross put on a burst of speed. The man had slowed as he scanned his soldiers. Counting them. There was a hissing sound, and one of Voske's men fell with an arrow between his shoulder blades.
Ross didn't look back for the bow team. He was still running as he pulled his belt knife. He slowed to take aim, then threw.
The lieutenant whipped up his shield. The knife bounced off. But it delayed him long enough for Ross to close the distance. He hefted his sword, and brought it down with all his strength.
The man's sword came up in a vicious underhanded arc. Sparks flew as the steel blades met. The shock jolted Ross's arm to the shoulder, forcing him back as his opponent slashed for the kill. Ross dropped low and pivoted, using his momentum to snap a side blow to the rib cage.
The man blocked with the shield, then lunged, trapped Ross's blade in a bind, and tried to wrench it from his hand. But Ross had seen it coming in the twist of the man's wrist. He waited, then yanked back with all his strength.
The lieutenant was too strong to drop his blade, but he stumbled, lowering his shield. Ross side-stepped. If he'd had a knife in his left hand, he could have driven it into the man's sideâbut his arm was useless for anything but balance. He started to bring his sword around; the man raised his shield, and the opening was gone.
Then the man lunged, blade whirling in a complicated feint and strike. Ross blocked, using his left wrist to support his right hand. The man threw his shield; Ross barely managed to dodge it. As he ducked, the lieutenant's free hand swept down, and though Ross hurled himself away, one fingertip brushed his neck.
There was a flash of blinding white light, and an impact like the time his burro Rusty had kicked him in the head. When he opened his eyes, he was flat on his back, his ears ringing. Most of the bow team stood around him, looking down, Yuki wincing and wiping his eyes.
“Did you get him?” Ross tried to sit up. His right palm stung when it touched the ground, as if the hilt of his sword had burned him.
“No,” said Yuki. “And we won't catch up now. He's gone.”
Mia pounded up, weapons clattering, and dropped down beside Ross. “What happened?”
“Voske's lieutenant has some kind of Change power. Don't let him touch you.”
He wrung and flexed his fingers. His muscles and joints felt watery. Mia offered him her hand. So did Yuki. But he was tired of looking weak, so he managed to pick up his sword and himself without anyone's help. He planted his feet wide so he wouldn't wobble, as Paco, the last member of the team, grimly caught up, dragging his bad leg.
Yuki pointed with his sword. “We're not far from the west wall. Let's get over there. The sentries will pull us up. We'd better report.”
IN THE FLICKERING LIGHT OF THE ENEMY'S TORCHES
and lanterns, Jennie could make out Brisa and Yolanda on one side, Rico and JosÃ© on the other.
The diversion had to be soon. It was time to place the bottles.
She slid her backpack off, and the others swiftly followed suit. Rico and Brisa began to hand their packs to Yolanda and Jennie.
As Yolanda took Brisa's pack, a bottle clinked. Yolanda froze.
“I heard a noise!” cried the nearest sentry.
Jennie pulled a throwing knife from her belt, and readied it as the sentry raised his lantern high, cocked rifle held loosely under his armpit. In her peripheral vision, she spotted JosÃ© about to lay his palm on the ground. With her free hand, Jennie grabbed his wrist and shook her head. It was still possibleâ
“Tarantula!” someone yelled.
“Another one over here!” Guns fired.
The Rangers had been forced to start their diversion early. The sentries turned, and the one with the lantern took one step, directly toward Brisa. Two.
The air filled with the ululation of the Ranger charge, and the sentries ran to meet the attack.
Jennie gave the signal. She, Yolanda, and JosÃ© crawled toward the nearest barrels, leaving Rico and Brisa behind. From the tightness of their mouths, she knew they understood the danger: if the three of them were killed trying to place the bottles, the other two would complete the mission.
She slid bottles from her pack as she knee-walked the last few feet. With trembling hands, she shoved a bottle between barrels, and kept going, placing the bottles one by one.
Soon both backpacks were empty. JosÃ© was done. Yolanda placed her last bottle between a barrel and a big box, and began crawling back. Jennie and JosÃ© followedâ
A shadow moved. “They're at the barrels!”
Jennie leaped to her feet, drawing her sword.
“Retreat!” she yelled, hoping the sentries would think they'd repelled an attack.
As someone shouted, “Retreat? Where?” and a deeper, sharper voice snapped, “Who said that?” Jennie whispered fiercely to her team, “Go, go, go!”
They ran, JosÃ© and Jennie closing in behind the others.
“Now?” Brisa panted.
“Edge of your throw,” Jennie muttered.
Brisa glanced over her shoulder, almost unfamiliar without her ribbons.
Ten feet, fifteenÂ .Â .Â . fifty. The sentries, blinded by their own lights, did not spot the black-haired team in their black clothes. Jennie exulted. It was workingÂ .Â .Â . it was workingÂ .Â .Â .
“Here!” Brisa whispered.
Rico shut his eyes and clenched his fists. Yolanda took up a defensive position, sword high in her right hand, left outstretched to summon the wind. Jennie and JosÃ© flanked them as the sentries began to close in.
The sentries stumbled as the earth shifted beneath their feet. Before they could recover their balance, Yolanda's fierce wind sprayed mud into their eyes. Jennie reached out with her mind and yanked a pistol from one man's hand, then jerked so hard at a woman's belt that she went sprawling to the ground.
Brisa's arm whipped back, then out. A rock hurtled through the air. It hit a barrel, bounced off, and exploded. Flames flickered from the bottles, one by one, lighting up the barrels.
A man yelled, “Sabotage! Put out the fires!”
Most of the sentries dashed back toward the ammunition, then staggered as JosÃ© loosened the earth beneath their feet. Brisa hurled another rock. It hit a barrel and exploded.
“Flat!” Jennie yelled. Her voice was lost in the blast.
She wasn't aware of hitting the ground. She blinked up at the stars, then sat up, struggling against dizziness. Rico, Brisa, JosÃ©, Yolanda: everyone was present. Everyone was alive.
She got to her hands and knees as another barrel exploded, rocking her backward. Then another. Flames shot skyward, lighting the faces of her team. Brisa laughed. Rico grinned.
Silhouettes appeared from beyond the blaze, coming straight at them.
“Run!” Jennie commanded. Her ears rang. She wouldn't hear a signal if Sera was giving one.
But in the light of the fires, she saw that the fighting continued between the Rangers and far more soldiers than she'd seen protecting the ammo dump.
The plan had been for Jennie to retreat first with her team, and for the Rangers to close in behind her. Their mission was complete, so there was no reason for them to stay and fight. But the Rangers were not retreating, even though they were vastly outnumbered. Something was wrong.
Jennie raised her hand, then dropped it. She was too far from the fighting to be able to use her Change power. But she was able to catch Sera's eye.
“Jennie!” Sera shouted. She pointed her sword at a man with clipped silver hair. “That's Voske!” Then an ax swung at her head; she whipped the blade around to deflect it, then in to strike. The ax fell at her feet, followed by its wielder.
The silver-haired manâVoskeâwas surrounded by soldiers, so many that Jennie kept losing sight of him in the crowd.
Sera pressed toward him, backed by the other Rangers. Her voice rose above the clash of metal and crackle of flames. “Take him down! They'll fall apart!” She had worked for Voske. If she thought his army would scatter if he was killed, she had to be right.
“Did the plan change?” asked Yolanda. “Should we go fight?”
Rico tugged at Jennie's arm in silent inquiry.
She had sworn to his mother that she would protect him. The only way to keep her promise was to follow the original plan and escort the kids back to town. The chance to win the battle right now didn't change that. The fact that the Rangers desperately needed help didn't change that. She couldn't abandon the kids.
Jennie counted seven Rangers. Someone was already down. She couldn't abandon them. The captain could give independent ordersâbut one rule was absolute: you never abandoned your team.
She turned to JosÃ© and Brisa. “You two get the kids to safety. I'm staying here.”
JosÃ© gave a quick nod. “You heard her,” Brisa told Yolanda and Rico. “Run!”
Jennie drew her sword and dove into the fray. The trees were on fire. Burning leaves drifted down, and acrid smoke stung her lungs.
Light flashed off steel. She ducked, kicked her attacker in the knee, then whirled her sword in a lethal figure eight, forcing a path toward Sera.
“Where is he?” Jennie shouted.
Sera sidestepped a small fireball. It hit a branch and set it aflame. “There.” She began to gesture with her dagger, then shouted, “Duck!”
Jennie dropped. An arrow flew past; she heard it hum through the air. An ax swung down at her head. Still on the ground, she brought her sword up horizontally, blocked the ax, and used both her physical strength and her power to twist the blade. The ax flew out of the enemy's hand. Jennie rolled to the side, and the blade buried itself in the dirt.
She leaped up. Five paces away an archer raised a crossbow. Jennie extended her fingers and jerked the bow out of the woman's hands. But the fighting was in such close quarters now that she didn't take a shot; instead, she smashed the bow over the back of a soldier's neck.
Her shoulder stung, and she slapped out a burning leaf.
On her left, Indra staggered. He'd lost his machete, and was fighting two opponents with a pair of knives. A man behind him raised a sword.
Jennie lunged, her free hand reaching out, and mentally yanked at the sword. The man hung on, but it swung away from Indra. Jennie took out the man's knee with a side kick, then brought her sword down on the arm of the next attacker.
“Jennie,” Indra panted. All down one side his black clothes gleamed wet.
With her power, she wrested a knife from the hand of his last enemy. It pinwheeled toward her. She ducked, swept it from the ground, and threw it back.
A cool wind filled the air with glowing cinders and tumbling leaf-shaped flames. Jennie shaded her eyes and searched for the man with silver hair. She spotted him, closer now, though still surrounded by guards.
Voske seemed strangely familiar. Jennie squinted, her eyes burning with smoke and sweat. A sword swept toward her. She dropped her hand and jerked it down until the tip hit the earth, then cut down her opponent while his weapon was still trapped.
Again she searched. This was the first time she had seen Voske, but she knew that sharp-featured face.
A flare of light and a shock wave knocked her back. A tree branch lay a few feet away, burning furiously. Jennie lunged up, swept her hand out, and knocked several weapons askew. The smoke was making her dizzy. Her head pounded, and she staggered.
Voske was farther away now, surrounded by protectors. His silver hair glinted in the firelight as he spoke to someone.
“Around me!” Sera shouted. “We'll make aâ”
She grunted. A blurry shadow shifted away. The Ranger captain yanked a knife from her arm and hurled it at the shadow.
Jennie threw her own knife in the same direction and heard a cry. A woman appeared where the shadow had been, a blade in her thigh. Frances tackled her from behind.
Voske was still out of reach, but firelight fell bright across his face. And she had it: he was a taller, paler image of Sera's son, Paco.
But Jennie had no time for distractions.
Sera pressed toward Voske, the remaining Rangers forming an attack wedge around her. Jennie couldn't see Indra, so she leaped into his usual place behind Sera's left shoulder.
She was back in the rhythm, deflecting attacks as they worked forward, one step at a time. On her right, a Ranger pulled his pistol and shot a soldier, who dropped. He clubbed another one with his pistol grip.
Sera fought off two men with her sword, then ran a few steps. Jennie picked up her pace, leaping over a fallen enemy. They were doing it! It was working! The battle would end right here, because Voske didn't share command, he was the only force keeping his people togetherâ
“Take her down!” a voice shouted.
Two, three shots rang out. Sera staggered, then her sword lowered, her head bowed. Another shot knocked her back, and she fell.
Frances dropped to one knee, pressing her hand to her side. Blood spurted between her fingers.
The enemy advanced, weapons raised. Jennie reached with her free hand and her mind toward the sword swinging at her. Her mental pull exerted so little force that her opponent didn't even seem to notice. She stumbled backward, barely avoiding the strike, and tried again. Like an overworked muscle giving out, her power failed entirely.
“Retreat.” Even her voice was gone.
But the others had the same idea. Desperately warding off the pressing attackers, the Rangers hauled up their wounded. Jennie blocked, swung, and kicked her way to Sera's still form. She picked up Sera's sword, using both weapons to drive back the enemy.
It was over. They'd lost, but she would keep fighting untilÂ .Â .Â .
She swayed, almost losing her balance. The attackers in front of her tripped and fell as a narrow crevasse opened beneath their feet. Jennie thrust the sword through her belt and bent over Sera. Four shots. No one survived four shots, but Jennie checked anyway. No breath, no pulse. Sera was gone.
Jennie pulled Sera over her shoulder. She was so lightâ
“Come on,” JosÃ© said in her ear. “I'll take her.”
She couldn't speak. He dropped to his knees and laid his palm on the ground. Once again the earth rumbled, and a wave rolled through the dirt, knocking Voske's soldiers off-balance.
JosÃ© rose, and took Sera from Jennie.
You never abandon your team.
She glanced back, and a few steps later, she scanned again. Someone was missingÂ .Â .Â .
I'm looking for Sera. I want her to be alive.
Indra dropped to his knees and pitched onto his face. Jennie ran to him and turned him over. His eyes were closed. But when she put her hand on his chest, she could feel him breathing.
Sobbing, she hauled on his arm, but he'd become a dead weight. She finally managed to wrestle him over her shoulder, but when she tried to stand, her knees buckled. Kneeling in the mud with Indra's blood running down the back of her shirt, she thought,
I can't leave him. We'll both die if I stay, but you never abandonÂ .Â .Â .
All I have to do is move him. It doesn't matter how.
She laid him down, got a grip under his arms, and began to drag him.
The Rangers struggled with their burdens into the darkness. Jennie forced herself to match their pace, though she could barely lift her feet and her lungs labored. Indra stirred, trying to get his feet under him. Jennie halted, sucking in air.
Brisa's whisper made her jump. “The kids are safe. Sorry I couldn't make it back sooner.”
She held out a wad of cloth. Jennie tore it into usable pieces, her hands trembling, then pushed up Indra's shirt. Brisa's breath hissed in. It looked like he'd been hit with an ax; in the merciless moonlight she could see splintered ribs.
Jennie did the best she could with the makeshift bandages, then she and Brisa got Indra to his feet and his arms around their shoulders. At first he tried to take his own weight, but soon they were dragging him. His hands were icy cold.
His fire's gone out,
Jennie thought. The absurd thought kept circling in her mind, crowding out everything else, until they reached the wall.
“They're back,” someone said.
“Let down the rope.”
First they handed up Sera, then those too injured to climb. Jennie hauled herself over the wall. She was here. She was safe. She'd completed the mission.
“Someone tell Dr. Lee we're coming,” she croaked.
“I will!” cried Rico. “I'm a Ranger.”
Jennie walked from one moment to the next. Here was the pasture, pungent with clover, grass, and cow. Here were people saying words that she couldn't hear. Here were cow patties, black circles among the silver-edged grasses. She could feel a shivery bubble of laughter rising up, but she kept it inside. If she let it go, she knew it would tear her apart, turn into tearsÂ .Â .Â .