"So I have a question." Raya whispered to her side.
"What's that?" Lance Liwanag asked.
Lance and Mariel watched the camp under the shadow of a large boulder. Raya was crouched beside Lorenzo nearby with her back against cover, trying to whisper to her teammate without exposing herself.
"How do your powers work? Where do you go when you disappear? Do you just break apart and reassemble?"
"Maybe." Lance teased.
"Raptor imps. Twenty-nine targets. Seven armed, the rest are sleeping. Heat based weaponry." Mariel said. "Be vigilant."
The soldier imps wore steel face masks adorned with feathers that formed a mane surrounding the face. Their masks bore the sharp hooked beak of an eagle on the nose. They stalked the camp, guarding the cargo.
"Never crossed my mind, but I genuinely want to know now." Lorenzo pondered. "Do you technically die when you disappear?"
"Not exactly." Lance chuckled. "Do you always interrogate the new guy?"
"Lance, you're up." Mariel said. "Move in, be careful."
Lance clutched his staff. The tattooed insignia on his upper bicep began to rotate rapidly. His dark eyes began to glow white. Locks of his hair began to blow back, yet there was no wind. In an instant, he faded from sight.
"Stay behind cover. Wait for my signal."
Mariel closed her eyes and took a deep breath. A cool night breeze drifted through the desert, enveloping everything – the great dunes and boulders, the rocky cliffs and every crack and crevice within.
"He's good." Mariel said – her eyes still closed. "Rookie's got some moves. He moves efficiently."
"Pretty early to judge." Lorenzo speculated.
"Well he works pretty quickly." Mariel opened her eyes. "Take a look."
Lorenzo turned slightly, keeping his arms tucked to his torso to watch beyond the cover of his boulder. It was difficult for him to keep his herculean body under cover. He was only nineteen, not much older than Raya but younger than Mariel – yet he was often the tallest adventurer in the room.
"What's that smirk?" Raya asked. "Impressed? Unconvinced?"
"Not bad. He's got a knack for stealth."
Raya took a look for herself. Seven soldiers patrolled an armored caravan. A black cloaked silhouette moved through the moonlight, just narrowly avoiding their lines of sight and disappearing just before being detected.
Lance materialized beside Mariel. He snapped his fingers and gauntlets began to cluster in a pile beneath him. Within a few seconds, a bell began to chime.
"Nice work." Lorenzo said. "But they're starting to panic now. We should strike."
"Right. Lorenzo, your turn." Mariel said. She turned to Raya. "Cover him."
"Got it." Raya nodded.
Raya climbed to the top of a nearby boulder and perched. She extended her hand forward and felt the moonlight on her skin. Raya plucked starlight from the heavens. She molded light in her palms and sent fragments of light hurtling into the camp that burst like grenades as they struck the surface.
"Terrifying." Lance said in awe.
"Yeah." Mariel agreed.
"I'd hate to be on the other end of that."
"Let's not lag behind Lorenzo too much."
"I can warp us forward."
"Do so. But stay behind Lorenzo." Mariel insisted.
Lorenzo knelt to the ground and clutched a golden cross hanging from a chain around his neck.
Deus est scutum meum.
A golden aura radiated from Lorenzo's body. He stood to his full height, towering over his other three teammates. He leaped onto the boulder, joining Raya. Raya gave Lorenzo a nod.
"Lorenzo, is he …?" Lance asked.
"He is a brother of the Order of San Leon."
"Heard they make armor." Lance said. "My parents are weapons junkies. Had a whole room of antiques growing up. Never let me touch any of them, but you know how parents are."
Mariel was silent.
"You know –"
"My parents abandoned me when I was two years old."
"Oh – Uh. I'm sorry. That must've been…"
"I'm just hazing you. Get ready."
With a single bound, Lorenzo propelled himself toward the soldier's campsite. Astonished, the soldiers stepped back, posturing and baring their talons.
"Submit." Lorenzo commanded.
"You will yield to Lord Amokan, King of the Raptors!" One shrieked, lunging at Lorenzo. Lorenzo grabbed the imp by its head and slammed it to the ground.
"Anyone else?" Lorenzo taunted.
The imps shrieked with what Lorenzo guessed was either fear or delight.
"They're about to frenzy." Raya suggested.
A hailstorm of lights rained down toward the soldiers, detonating into flurries of hot sparks as they hit their targets. Raya landed a solid cross on a nearby imp's jaw. Her fist was glowing white hot and steaming.
"Likely." Lorenzo said. "Where's Lance and Mariel?"
A deluge of whistling wind followed by a crash flooded the camp. A violent wind current whipped past Lorenzo and Raya, sending a group of imps crashing into the armored caravan.
"Found them." Raya chuckled.
Lance clutched his staff, vanishing and appearing like a firefly's light. He struck an imp and disappeared striking it again from the rear. Vanishing again, Lance flanked the imp and threw an elbow to its jaw.
"Good in a fight too. Impressive, newbie." Raya said. "Are you gonna answer my question?"
"Dimensional transitioning." Lance admitted.
"I knew it." Mariel smirked sending out a blast of wind.
"What?" Raya said confused.
"Different parallel worlds vibrate at different frequencies. I can change the frequency of my molecules to send my body into a parallel world." Lance said. "I can move across it and reappear here."
"You did not know that." Raya demanded. She swept a soldier to the ground with a swift kick as she molded a light grenade in her hand.
"It was my first guess." Mariel shrugged. She spun a cyclone around her to knock back the imps around her.
"You're bluffing and you know it." Raya grunted at Mariel.
"Am I?" Mariel snickered.
"Interesting." Lorenzo hurled an imp against the armored truck and used the momentum to strike another with his helbow. "You temporarily stored the gauntlets in a different parallel world."
"Yes." Lance replied.
"And you withdrew them behind the boulder once they were disarmed."
"So is that what your staff is for?" Raya said.
"No." Lance clarified. "It's for this."
Lance lifted his staff and levitated off the ground. He shot across the battlefield, knocking down two raptor imps in his path. Lance disappeared again and reappeared in the air – striking another imp with the staff as he landed. The dust cleared. Lorenzo took a deep breath and his aura dissipated. The winds surrounding Mariel calmed. Raya smiled and wiped the sweat from her brow.
"Nice job." Raya said. "Raptor imps are admittedly a pretty good way to stretch your legs. You're doing great."
"Raptor imps." Lance said to himself.
"Imperials." Lorenzo explained. "They're a cult. Obsessed with resurrecting an ancient empire."
"Huh… The more you know."
A crisp breeze wafted around the campsite.
"Nice." Mariel said. "Looks like we're done fighting."
Mariel's fishtail braid wavered in the wind. She dusted the loose sand from her tactical vest. The raptor imps' unconscious bodies were littered across the campground. Their masks were broken, blown away or shattered. The imp's faces were shaven down completely, eyebrows and all. Their cheekbones brandished tattoos that looked like soaring wings. Talons on their fingertips retracted into their hands as their battle enchantments wore off. Raya plucked an eagle feather clinging to her red leather vest and flicked it into the wind.
"So what do we do now?" Lance asked.
"Retrieve the stolen package, finish the mission." Mariel smiled. "Then we go home."