Fair warning: this chapter introduces a character that tends to be offensive. Just so you're prepared.
The guard wore a dark helmet that hid his face, but from the way he abruptly stopped to look at them, it was clear they had startled him. From the corner of her eye, she saw the boy shrink back behind her. The motion brought her out of her shocked stupor and she shoved the guard with both hands. He stumbled back a step, but recovered quickly, raising the gun at them. He never got to fire it as he disintegrated before managing to take proper aim. The pair ran into a second guard as they rounded the landing and her hand immediately flew forward, connecting with the man's arm. Her whole body was screaming in protest as she demanded more effort of it than she ever had. She ignored the pain, hurrying up the stairs. She quickly discovered that if she balled her hands into fists, she could brace them against the wall without destroying it. Apparently, only her palms were lethal. Her breath was ragged and she had to slow down a couple of times, violent coughs shuddering through her frail body. The boy had a hard time keeping up, limited to breathing through the two small holes carved in the mask at nostril level.
They reached sub-level three at the same time as four guards. These were ready and pointing their weapons at them by the time the duo stumbled to a halt. The boy was wheezing behind her and she wasn't much better off, the muscles in her legs and back straining from the exertion. She stared at the armed men. They were too far away. No matter what she tried, she probably couldn't deal with more than one. For the first time since she'd left her cell, the cold tendrils of fear slithered inside her, dousing the ever-present and reassuring boil of her anger. Was this it? Back to her cell? To the punishment room?
The door to their left swung open, slamming the closest guard into the wall. A person that was more beast than human sprang out of the hallway, barreling into the remaining guards before they could regain their bearing. The creature was big, large enough that its sharp horns scraped the ceiling, wide fur-covered arms grabbing one of the guards and shoving him to the ground. Another beast appeared, slithering out between the first one's muscled legs. It was a white snake that curled around one of the remaining guards, long enough to envelop his whole body. It opened its mouth and bit through his throat. The reptile released the limp body and morphed into a pale-skinned, yellow-eyed, naked young woman who sprinted up the stairs without a glance back. The first beast grabbed the last standing guard and smashed him into the wall hard enough to leave an indent. It turned surprisingly gentle eyes towards them.
"Run!" it thundered through its bull-like snout.
Neither of them needed to be told twice and they ducked under its powerful arms, hurrying up the stairs. They found the snake-girl on the floor above, coiled around a female guard. There was another inmate by her side, with cropped hair and wild green eyes, fingers wrapped around a rifle. Short in stature, his maniacal laugh reverberated through the staircase every time he downed an incoming guard. More inmates were cluttered in the hallway behind him. When the trickle of guards seemed to dry up, he threw the people around him a wide grin.
"How's 'bout we take this party upstairs?" he asked, voice filled with glee.
He didn't wait for an answer, sprinting up the stairs with the snake-girl right on his heels. The others followed without hesitation, sweeping the duo along. She balled her hands into tight fists, careful to never graze anyone, while the boy was desperately clinging to the hem of her filthy shirt. They made it all the way to the ground floor without any other incident, protected by the mass of bodies. By the time they arrived, there were no security agents left standing, the hallway littered with the bodies of inmates and guards alike. The rifle-wielding redhead had shot through one of the many large window panes that decorated the entrance out of sheer amusement – he had no interest in the doors that were wide open – and was currently busy breaking the glass. Inmates were slipping outside, swallowed by the darkness of the night. She wasn't paying attention to them, however. In fact, she had all but forgotten about escaping once her eyes had landed on a tall, metallic structure that she recognized from her hazy childhood memories: a water fountain. She shuffled over, grateful that it was activated by pedal. She leaned over, avidly gulping down the cool liquid, enjoying the feel of it trickling down her chin.
She glanced sideways at the boy who had yet to release her shirt. She straightened and reached out towards his face, not surprised when he shied away again. She stood patiently, waiting for him to come to terms with the situation. No matter how much he feared his own ability, it was ridiculous to think they could get anywhere with the muzzle in place, hindering his breathing and making it impossible for him to feed or hydrate himself. She ignored the small part of her brain that pointed out that she didn't need to take the boy along. She owed him nothing; just because she freed him didn't mean she was now responsible for his well-being. Yet, as she stared at his small, hunched figure, pallid skin and frightened eyes, she couldn't bring herself to abandon him. Maybe because he reminded her of herself as a child, when she still had hope that someone would come to rescue her. Maybe because now that she was on the doorstep of freedom, she was afraid of being alone. She didn't know. She had no explanation for her attachment to the boy, but as she watched him take a hesitant step towards her out-stretched fingers, she vowed never to leave his side. She would protect him like no one had protected her, watch over him the way no one had watched over her. He stopped inches away from her, his wide eyes alighting on her person and she could read the shy permission in them. Gently, she traced a fingertip over the muzzle and watched it crumble, revealing sunken cheeks and thin, colorless lips. She gave him one of her grimace-smiles and with a responding twitch of his own lips, he turned to face the water fountain.
Glimpsing a vending machine out of the corner of her eyes, she made her way to it. The protective glass on its front was broken and most of its contents taken, but she still managed to find a bottle of water and some snacks. A pleasantly warm feeling spread through her chest as she recognized the chocolate-coated raisins she had loved as a child. She looked around, trying to find something that could carry the items; she refused to leave any form of nourishment behind. As if he had read her thoughts, the boy materialized beside her, an empty black hip pouch in his hands, shyly holding it up for her to inspect. His eyes lit up at her nod of approval, shoveling all of what was left in the vending machine – the bottle of water, the chocolate raisins, two bags of chips and a large waffle – into the pouch. The model must have been specifically designed for someone of a bigger stature, for it was too wide for him to fix to his hip. He settled on attaching it diagonally over his chest instead, the strap resting against his shoulder.
They silently exited the building, only to freeze when a pair of headlights landed on them. A rusted SUV had pulled up further ahead on the road, its side door sliding open. No one stepped out. A shape blurred past them and she recognized the redheaded man that had led them out of the building. He slipped into the vehicle and shut the door; the car swerving away from the facility, showing no interest in the two of them. She had been unconscious, restrained and blindfolded when they had first brought her in, so she had no idea where they were nor which way to go. As such, she decided to head down the dirt road, following the trail of the SUV. Throwing a glance over her shoulder at the deceptively small building – only two floors if one looked at it from the outside –, she willed it to crumble and crush every guard and scientist left inside. Turning her back on it, she picked up a brisk pace, ignoring the pain shooting up her calves. She inhaled deeply, eyes aflame with excitement. She was finally free!
Brad was seated in the comfortable armchair of his office. It was a small, wooden cabin that doubled as living quarters, the far side separated by a white curtain, behind which lay his uncomfortable little daybed. In front of the curtain, hidden underneath heaps of maps, was his old desk, currently used as a footrest. The walls on either side of the desk were lined with shelves that had once proudly displayed pictures of grinning children but now housed a variety of weapons, ranging from knives to automatic guns and including rifles, handguns, knuckle dusters and even the odd sword and machete. Two couches stood facing each other near the door, a small coffee table between them upon which lay the empty lunch tray that had yet to be taken away. It was a modest and cluttered living space, but as the only person in their camp to have his personal bathroom, he had no complaining rights.
He was of average height with broad shoulders and a body toned from years of running and fighting. His ebony hair was as dark as his skin and neatly trimmed. He sported a short beard. Chocolate colored orbs peered out from under long lashes, in a face that was all angles and confidence. Everything about him exuded authority – it had to, in order to keep so many powerful individuals in check.
He was reading one of the few books their meager library had to offer when four figures slipped inside the cabin. The sole source of light came from the reading lamp beside him, but it was enough to allow him to recognize his subordinates. Besides, he had been expecting them. Sliding the blank piece of paper he used as a bookmark between the pages of the novel, he set it on the shelving unit beside him, lazily scanning the newcomers. The tall, athletically built Noelani, with her mohawk as dark as her piercing eyes. Blaise with his bulging muscles that were more for show than actual use, shaggy auburn locks framing a strong jaw. Silent Wake with ever watchful blue eyes, whose lean build and relaxed posture belied impressive physical strength. Gale, barefoot, his fiery red hair shaved and clad in a loose, white shirt and pants elbowed his way to the front of the group, shooting him a mischievous look. Stifling a sigh, Brad braced himself for the ridiculous comment that was bound to leave the man's lips. Gale didn't disappoint.
"Hey Boss, smile for us, will ya? Can't see ya in the dark!" he announced in a boisterous voice, sporting a smile so wide, it almost reached his ears.
His statement was followed by a collective groan. "Heavens, I forgot just how much of an asshole you can be!" Noelani growled, shooting him a glare.
"Aw, babe, I knew you missed me!" Gale blew her a kiss, earning himself another nasty look.
Blaise, the last one to enter, leaned against the wall, crossing his arms. "Should've left you in there longer." he said nonchalantly, a smirk at the corner of his lips. "Maybe they could've fixed you."
Gale grabbed the front of his shirt, adopting a distraught expression. "The hurt!" he theatrically exclaimed.
"Moron!" Noelani hissed, unamused.
Wake sidestepped them, not bothering to join the ridiculous conversation, opting instead to occupy the closest couch. Brad, Gale and him had known each other since high school and as such, both were long accustomed to Gale's inappropriate brand of humor. The more he liked someone, the more they were subjected to his insulting comments or saucy one-liners. Brad loudly cleared his throat to capture their attention, effectively stopping the pointless bickering.
"Did everything go according to plan?" He was fully aware it hadn't and Noelani's guilty look as well as Blaise's sudden interest in the wooden floor only served to confirm it.
"I messed up the opening sequence." Noelani reticently admitted, her eyes avoiding his.
She didn't volunteer any more information, but then again, she didn't need to. A mix of guilt, worry and shame was radiating off her, as well as a hint of previous panic. He could imagine what had happened from the cocktail of emotions emanating from her. She was no technology specialist – Gale was their resident Technopath – and had only been chosen for the task due to her affinity with electricity. He didn't blame her and made sure to tell her so. She graced him with a small, timid smile, which he answered with a nod. They did have to deal with the issue at hand, however. He glanced at Gale, who had commandeered the second couch as well as his laptop in which he was now deeply engrossed, fingers moving so fast over the keyboard, it was hard to make them out.
"How many escaped?" Brad asked.
"Thirty-nine. Eleven have already been apprehended." Gale answered, eyes glued to his screen. The only time he was ever serious – and by extension tolerable – was when he was working.
"We sent Diana and Howard after two groups." Wake said in his smooth tenor.
Gale nodded. "They were from sub-level two like me, so they could prove useful." he sucked in a startled gasp, his eyes widening.
Brad could feel the panic rolling off him, as did the others apparently, judging from the way their attention had immediately snapped over to him. "What is it?" he asked, voice tense.
Gale tore his eyes away from the screen to lock gazes with him, swallowing hard. "We have an Obsidian and a Magenta on the loose." he finally said, voice barely above a whisper.
Brad felt his own eyes widen in shock, Noelani slapping a hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp. "Shit." was all Blaise said, voicing their collective thought.
"We need to find them." Brad said, satisfied with the evenness of his voice. "Gale, you need to locate them. Noelani, Wake, you're on recuperation duty. Blaise, contact Diana and Howard and tell them to forget about the others. I want everyone on this retrieval mission."
They all left in a hurry, Gale returning to his own better equipped cabin, while the others made preparations for the task ahead. Brad leaned back in his seat, pinching the bridge of his nose. He glanced at the yellow band wrapped around his left wrist, a permanent marker of what he was. He had always believed – like probably everyone else – that the government had permanently gotten rid of every Obsidian, deemed too dangerous to freely roam around from the very beginning.
Obsidians manifested earlier than most other ability-wielders, sometimes as early as five, and in brutal ways. He remembered the general populace's indignation when the CS had begun rounding up children, blasting them with suppressor waves and attaching negation collars around their frail necks. There had been demonstrations, riots even. Until little Luke. There had been suspicions of manifestation from the tiny six year-old and when the specialists had shown up for more in-depth testing, a terrified Luke had screamed and cried and reached for his mother, who had naturally come to his rescue. The instant their hands had touched, she'd exploded. Resistance against Obsidian raids had dwindled form that point onward. Brad wasn't as surprised to learn of the existence of the Magentas, as they remained the least understood ability-wielders. It made sense they were kept in research facilities for study, though his stomach churned at the thought of what those children were put through. After years of lockup and testing, who knew what state of mind the fugitives were in? They had no guarantees that their botched prison break hadn't released a couple of monsters with immense power into the outside world. They needed to be found, caught and then… what? How did one handle a born destroyer and a person whose ability defied human comprehension?