Previous chapter: Chapter 5
Chapter 6 (Traitor)
I eased Guudra onto the nature trail at a slow trot, belly bursting full of food. My new hammer, heavier than a boulder until Barges woke up, was hooked to the new belt my uncles had given me.
Through the towering pines, evening sunlight glinted off the ring my uncles had given me. It was crafted to look like it held a soul crystal, a decoy. Ten protein bars had been stuffed into my saddle bags along with a bedroll and some waterskins. I might have gotten more if my mother’s angry voice ringing through the shop hadn’t sent me into a rush to leave.
I trotted deeper into the underbrush and took in a deep breath of fresh, forest air: the dried from smaller trees and bushes, the pine needles and a sweet, untainted air that just wasn’t present in the village. Adjusting the straps of my backpack full of scrap metal, I patted Barges on his head—on the head of the hammer. While we have time, let’s see how many objects you can lift at once.
Barges snorted. Mentally, at least. “Of all my great powers, that is the first one you want to use?”
Second, technically. I patted Guudra on the neck. “Isn’t that right, girl?”
I know I can communicate with her like this, but animals like to hear your voice. I slowed Guudra as the woods became thicker. Even with the link between us, she would have a hard time if the underbrush got any thicker or the sky got any darker. It’s soothing.
“You have been communicating with animals all of an hour, and suddenly you are an expert?”
Shut up. Just try to draw as much of the metal plates out of my backpack as you can.
Barges groaned. “For the last time, it is not what I can do. There is no stress on me. It is what you can do. You— No, you know what. Just do what I say. Focus on the metal. Think of it like reaching out with your hand to pick up a piece or two. Moving things with your mind is easy enough, but—”
I shut out Barges’s chatter as I reached out to the metal shards in my bag, all of them, and I lofted them from the bag. One big ball of metal. Not fire, but this was still pretty awesome.
At my command, the metal spread out in a large line like a shield on both sides of me. There was enough metal scraps to cover both me and Guudra, yet it was still light enough in the bag, and doing this much didn’t seem to be a strain on my mind.
Barges chirped something, but his voice was still on mute.
I shaped the metal shards into a giant sword and slashed through the thick brush ahead, expanding the path. Two more swings, and my stomach roared. The scrap metal slipped from my grasp and splashed to the ground in a spray. I jerked on Guudra’s reins and pulled her to a stop.
My stomach grumbled again. A wave of dizziness slapped me across the face.
I tumbled to the side and landed flat on my back, breath fleeing my lungs.
Guudra snorted then leaned over to lick the entire left half of my face. And again.
I had a good coat of slobber on my face before my arms answered the call and reached up to stop another one of Guudra’s sloppy kisses. “Thank you, girl. I’m fine.” My stomach roared more, and I released Barges’s tongue. His mental tongue, at least. What happened?
“What I warned you would happen.” Barges’s voice was smug, and if he weren’t a solid piece of steel, I’d slap him upside his crystal head. “You are starving. You burned every last bit of food in your stomach because you have not practiced moving anything with your mind before. I told you to only lift only a piece or two. But no, you had to rush it. Using a ton of power because you haven’t practiced that skill any.”
Shut up. I didn’t need to hear this from a hammer. Forcing myself to stand, I stumbled over to the saddlebag and pulled out a protein bar. It felt like I hadn’t eaten in weeks. Two bars later and a third in my mouth, I floated all the metal scraps back into my backpack and climbed back into the saddle. I need to start sending out signals to the Fevered Five, so how do I do it?
“Eat more before you try it.”
“It is just like the way you pushed your feelings and thoughts into the horse, but this time, you are leaving out your natural ability to soothe and just focusing on the words. Do not think of a target; instead, focus on the area. Start small at first, expanding your quarry inch by inch as we ride deeper. You do not want to starve yourself again.”
I really wanted to smack Barges’s smart ass upside his crystal head. Instead, I stuffed another two protein bars in my mouth and choked them down with some water. Once back in the saddle and moving forward, I threw my thoughts out. Aiga wants to trade money and information that a Mr. Kude would want. All she wants is to save this young woman’s life. She assures me that Mr. Kude will want this information. That he has been searching for it. I gritted my teeth and extended the area to ten feet around me, pushing on the same message. And Farther. And farther.
Step by step, Guudra had to slow. Thicker patches of underbrush and a higher congestion of towering pines made going in a straight line impossible.
Soon, night overtook the forest, and I had to climb down to lead Guudra despite all four moons being out. Which was rare, mind you. Only happened twice a year, and bad things always happened on the nights they did.
No. That was a child’s superstition. I was an adult now. Adults didn’t believe in some superstitious horse poop. I mean shit. Horse shit. Yeah. I was an adult, using adult language.
Snap! A branch broke somewhere in the distance.
I muffled a squeal. I wasn’t scared. No matter how much my hands were trembling. Nope. Note one mine scared. I picked that emotion from my thoughts long—
Steel rasped across leather.
I screamed. “No, no, no! The reaper isn’t real! No, please no, don’t eat my guts.”
“Traitor!” a sharp voice said from the left just as fire rushed towards me from the same direction.
I created a wall of scrap metal to intercept the fire then stopped broadcasting my message and instructed Guudra to run ahead and wait for me, but to be careful. As she started to move off, I snatched the remaining protein bars and stuffed them into my mouth. So full I wanted to puke, but I held it in.
Against fire? I asked as I returned the smoldering scraps of metal to my backpack and drew Barges from my belt. Held in one hand, the two-foot-long handle of the half-a-foot, square hammerhead seemed monstrous, but it was lighter than a pickaxe.
“Draw him close. Keep the link to the metal in your backpack to block incoming missiles and either crush his skull with me or fill him full of scrap metal, but you have to be close or his fire melt the scraps before the reach him.”
Nodding, I started forward.
The ground beneath my feet rumbled, pitching me to the side.
I smacked head first into a barkless pine, and the woods around me spun. This wasn’t good. There was someone wielding earth here, too. While fire was better at a distance in most cases, earth was up close and personal. I dropped flat onto my back, the metal scraps digging into my back as a bolt of fire ripped overhead. Sweat beaded on my face.
Crunching footsteps approached.
Two trained specialists. I was dead. They were going to kill me before I even had a chance to save Igu. To even break the law.
“Take their minds.” Barges’s words reverberated in my thoughts and drew me back to the situation at hand.
No. I won’t do that. I’d kill them in fair combat before I sunk so low as to take their free will.
“Suit yourself. If that’s how you feel, focus on one at a time,” Barges said. “Deal with fire first.”
I kicked my feet up under me and charged the direction the fire had come from. The same direction as the approaching footsteps.
A skinny man, less than half my size, stepped in front of me both palms outstretched. Moonlight reflected off the metallic tattoos that wound up his arms. The tattoos that marked him as one of the Regime’s hunters. His stance and glowing brown eyes said he was the earth wielder.
Without much thought, I hurled Barges at the man’s head and leaped from the ground.
A hole opened where I had been standing.
Crack! Barges hit the man square on and dropped him to the ground.
I held my hand out as I passed, and Barges returned to my grip. That’s one down.
“Fool,” Barges said, “He wields earth. There is no way he will go down in a single shot. You need to finish him with the scrap—”
The ground reached up and grabbed my leg, jerking me from my feet. Not five feet ahead of me, a red-haired woman with glowing eyes to match pointed a finger at me. Fire rolled in on itself until it turned white hot. Red bared his teeth then said, “Die, traitor.”
I mentally pushed against the shirt of Red and against the earth holding my foot, shoving with everything I had.
Red stumbled backwards, and his beam of white fire slashed through the woods, felling several trees. The man behind grunted, but another hand reached up to bind my other leg, and both slowly snaked up my body to hold me in place. Red regained her footing, a snarl marring her supple face.
I reached into my backpack and drew out every piece of metal in there.
“For your current level, you are still too far away from both of them.” Barges made a gulping sound. “Unless you ingest our link. You will not be able to call on my powers for at least a day if you do.”
And the hammer will go back to its original weight.
“It is your only shot.”
As if it were someone else’s body, the distant calls of hunger whispered through my stomach. I drew on more and more power from Barges, and based on his urgings, I ingested the link between us, taking his essence into my body.
Barges screamed as I consumed his thoughts.
The glow of my eyes intensified.
All these bastards needed to die! Every one of them. For the sake of the planet, I would kill the humans destroying it.
I shoved the scrap metal in both directions with everything I had, at least ten times the force I was able to manage earlier.
A barrage of soft rips preceded screams and the sound of liquid battering to the dry leaves. As the metallic smell of a forge replaced the fresh, unpolluted air of the forest, silence fell.
Everything felt heavy. My head. My eyelids. My thoughts.
Six people approached me, the lead wearing shorts with a bright yellow skin. He didn’t look like any of the Regime’s hunters I had ever seen, but I’d only been out of Sanctek twice.
So, this was it. I was dead.
Darkness started to close in around me. How pathetic. I couldn’t even stay up for my own execution. I—
“So,” the yellow man said, “Aiga has a message for me, huh?”
Next chapter: Chapter 7