Kelly missed her friends. She couldn’t change that. But even if they were gone, she could still make things right. They deserved that much.
Kelly flexed her magic to stir her coffee, twisting the spoon around with a thought. The steam mixed with the smoke from her joint and floated to the window. As Kelly adjusted herself, the TV faded in. “Today,” the narrator said, “we remember St Kilda.”
Kelly sighed through a drag. Not like I can forget. Would they get the details wrong? Or censor the worst bits? A cool breeze pushed the smoke back into her face. Maybe they’ll blame me.
“On March 13, 2015, seven rangers landed on the remote archipelago of St Kilda, west of Scotland. The squad, call-sign Dragon Saffron, led by Captain Kelly Rose…”
Seeing her own picture on TV weirded Kelly out. She still had her long hair, then, and hadn’t gotten her tattoos removed. Stupid gang stuff. Tiger stripes ran along her cheeks, barely hidden by her dark side-tails. The show put up pictures of her teammates, too. Hana, Amber, and Madi. Then, of course, Ryker, Victor, and Avery. Looking at them was the hard part—even just their pictures. Kelly couldn’t make eye contact.
“…approached the abandoned settlement of Am Baile. The reason for this voyage to the most remote of the British Isles? Notorious rogue James McTavish, reported to be hiding out on the island after making off with sensitive government documents.”
Kelly tensed at McTavish’s face. He called himself the Gentleman Sword. He was metal-chosen, and used his magic to fence with four swords at once. He always smiled, and always had an eyebrow cocked, but was handsome enough to pull it off. Even in the candid, blurry photo, McTavish grinned with sharp eyes and chiseled features. You won’t survive me, Kelly thought.
“…lured Captain Rose and her squad north, to the cliffs of Conachair.”
Kelly dragged a notebook and pen over. With luck, she’d learn something about McTavish. Where he’d last been seen, maybe. She crushed her roach into the ashtray, then tied her hair back. That hair tie—the green one, Madi’s, her favourite—wouldn’t hold out much longer. The threads fettered away, scratching her fingers. As her hands moved, her thumb brushed her scar: a discoloured crag that slashed from cheekbone to ear, marking the right half of her face.
Her phone vibrated, revealing a text from Madi:
>Are you watching?
>yeah. so weird, forgot what i looked like back then
Kelly cringed at herself. She held her breath and tapped her pen against her cup.
>Yeeeeeeeah… I mean, I’m over it. But then I see myself standing and walking again and it all sort of comes back.
Kelly tightened her ponytail. Before she could answer, Madi texted again.
>Are you doing okay? Watching it, I mean
Classic Madi, Kelly thought. Chronic sweetheart.
>i’m alright. just makes me angry i guess. i miss them
A while passed without an answer, so Kelly focused herself on the TV again. They showed a dramatic reenactment, complete with shoddy special effects to replicate their magic. The actors looked all wrong. Whoever played Kelly was Chinese, not Japanese, and they whitewashed Amber. Jerks.
Kelly drew her sword. She stalked toward McTavish, backing him against a jagged outcropping of rock. The waves of St Kilda roared and swelled against the cliffs, breathing deep and spitting foam into the sky. Rain and thunder dulled her senses. Her hair had long since come undone, and now flared in the wind. Her lieutenants, Amber and Hana, stood at her flanks, with the rest of the team coming up behind them.
“Did you want me to start talking?” McTavish asked, hands in his pants pockets. His coat blew in the wind, tucked behind his wrists. Four slender swords floated around him.
“No,” Kelly said. She leaned into a forward stance, hilt up by her ear. “You’re done.”
“Am I?” McTavish grabbed one of his weapons. “You’re not in a position to threaten me.”
“You’re surrounded.” The pattern of her hilt bit her palms. “Amber?”
The woman flicked a hand. A second pistol jumped out of its holster and rose to join her first. “You’re not the only metal-chosen here, Gent.” She smirked. “And you brought a knife to a gun fight.”
“I see.” McTavish nodded. “I was wondering what you were.” He crossed his arms and urged his floating blades to circle him. “What about you, Captain? What magic are you hiding?”
Kelly breathed in through her nose. “If this all goes right, I won’t have to show you.”
A clap of thunder broke the conversation. McTavish visibly startled. Kelly wanted to laugh. She checked her right flank, where Hana stood with magic-made flames at the ready. They exchanged a nod. “Look, McTavish,” she said. “This doesn’t have to be violent. You’re a thief, not a killer.” She raised her chin. “Put down the swords and we’ll take you in. No bloodshed.”
“You’re a fool if you think I’m going to give myself in.” His voice lacked energy.
Her hair matted to her shoulders as she shrugged. “I’m an optimist.”
McTavish eyed Kelly’s lieutenants and the rest of her rangers on the back line. He twirled the blade in his hand. “I have to assume you’re metal-chosen, if you’re actually using a sword.”
“It’s just how I fight. Get off my case.”
“Captain,” Amber began, “he’s buying time. He’s obviously not going to surrender. We need to engage him before his reinforcements get here.”
Kelly sighed, blinking rain out of her eyes. “You’re right. Last chance, McTavish. Surrender or we’re taking you down by force.”
“Let’s make a deal.” He pointed one of the swords at Kelly. “I want to fight you. Swordsman to swordsman. You win, I hand myself over.” He smiled. “That way, none of your friends will get hurt.”
“I can’t trust you to honour that.”
“No, you can’t. But it’s your best shot at protecting your subordinates.”
Kelly tapped her thumb against her hilt. She cast a quick glance at her team. I have to protect them. She pressed her brows together. “Rangers ready! I’m going to engage him. Don’t count on him to honour the deal. Amber—” She looked at her friend and held her gaze for a moment. “The second he breaks this deal, shoot him. I’m giving you lethal.”
She charged. She expected a lightning strike, or buffet of wind, or something else dramatic. Just rain and the slosh of mud. All four of McTavish’s swords hammered down in front of him, trapping Kelly’s katana in a steel cross. Her sword escaped her grip as she dashed beneath the block. In her sprint, she produced a combat knife from her Kevlar. McTavish released his swords and pulled them toward him. Kelly ducked and extended her hand toward her downed katana. Get over here, she thought. The sword rose, flipped around, and soared to her open palm, hilt-first. Spinning on her heels, she threw the knife at McTavish and spun into a stance, blade forward.
He lifted a hand and threw the knife off course, his metal-magic knocking it high into the air, behind the rocks. Kelly took the moment to leap. She drew a diagonal cut, thrown from the left. McTavish pushed a palm forward and blocked with one of his own blades. She stepped right and let her strength buckle. McTavish’s blade flew forward, still full of power. Kelly, her sword pushed into an overhead guard by her opponent’s blade, slashed down from the right.
McTavish sprang left, escaping the attack by inches. He flicked one of his arms, sending his thrown blade hurtling back toward Kelly. She pivoted to face it and blocked. Before he could capitalize on the bind, Kelly shot her left hand over and grabbed his hilt. Her own magic flowed over it, freeing it from McTavish’s will. “Amber!” she shouted, tossing the sword in her lieutenant’s direction. “Don’t let him get this back.”
As she threw the blade, Kelly felt a twinge in the back of her neck. Goosebumps, spurred on by a natural magical sense for metal, alerted her to an attack from behind. She hurled herself forward and rolled. Her muddy hair fell across her face when she stood. The mud stank. Her hair stank, too, full of sweat. She bared her teeth. McTavish’s three remaining swords, guards wet and shining in the rain, threatened Kelly with their points.
“How can you stand to fight like that?” he asked. With barely a movement, he stabbed the air with two of his blades, by Kelly’s shoulder and hip. She yelped and struggled into a twirl. The swords pierced her flying hair, catching and yanking it with their basket hilts. At the end of her spin, Kelly brought her sword across like a windshield wiper, expecting a final thrust.
Metal screeched as her sword caught his, pushing it aside. Kelly reached for the hilt.
“Captain!” Madi’s voice.
Just as she registered her friend’s voice, her left arm seized. Muscles from her wrist to her shoulder tensed and burst open with pain. One of McTavish’s rapiers speared her arm. Kelly tried to growl—screamed instead. The sword she’d blocked lifted up again, spinning on the axis of her katana. The point ripped into her cheek. Everything blurred.
“Kelly, no!” Madi again.
She shook her head. Instant numbness. McTavish kept the one sword in her arm—no bleeding there. The rain washed blood over her face. Kelly slammed her teeth shut, fighting to focus her eyes. Keep it there, she thought, swelling the ambient magic in her body and urging it toward the sword in her arm. She pushed her energy against McTavish’s. Get away. She willed his magic to weaken and fracture. With that same spirit, she reached and captured the blade that struck her face. Again, she tossed it to Amber, and felt her lieutenant’s magic energy supersede her own.
“You’re getting my swords dirty,” McTavish intoned.
The third one, she thought. Where is it? Her breath weighed on her, heaving her chest. He had two swords left: one in her arm, and one unaccounted for. Wasting time. Have to tip my hand. “You’re good.” Kelly wrinkled her face in concentration, pulling McTavish’s sword from her arm. Her whole left side blazed, like her bones being pried apart. Tears joined the mess of rain and blood on her face. Once the blade was free, leaving hollow pain just as bad, she willed the weapon over to Amber.
McTavish scowled. Kelly felt him tugging at her sword with his magic. He’d never get it free. Magic weakened at a distance; his swords, far from him, could be pulled easily. Hers, though, firmly in her grasp, surrounded with her own energy, would remain with her. Putting both hands on the grip sent recoil through her shoulder. Her left hand wouldn’t respond. Shit. Fine. Just one would have to do.
She pushed her magic toward her bracers and greaves, hidden beneath her uniform. The guards on her thighs and biceps, too, and her belt. All metal, and all worn tightly to her body. “We’re ending this.” When she jumped, she moved her armour with her magic. Her stomach always dropped a little when she lifted up, hoisted like a puppet. She controlled herself in the air, spinning to add momentum to her slash.
McTavish stepped back and brought his last sword to bear, producing it from behind him. He ignored her strike and poised himself for a riposte. Kelly drifted toward the rocks and planted her feet. Her magic held her sideways. “Give up!” She pushed off, blade first, cutting through the rain.
He grimaced and dove under Kelly’s stomach. She landed in a somersault, righting herself to face him. Though she hadn’t struck him, pain and disgust covered his face. She leaped back, floating up, and shot forward, drawing an uppercut from the right. He dodged to her left, so she twisted her hand at the apex of her cut and spun the sword, attacking with another uppercut. McTavish could only back away. As he got his footing, he offered a few thrusts in response, but Kelly parried them.
The two dueled, the rain and wind roaring around them. Kelly worked McTavish in a circle, dashing across with her magic, pressuring him toward the rocks. Her vision blurred more and more, her face going numb. Her heart drummed and her breath stung.
Then McTavish made a mistake. He threw a desperate lunge, letting his sword escape his grip for added range. Kelly cleaved into it from below, hurling it into the air. Before either of them could assert control, she flew forward and tackled McTavish into the rock. She put her blade to his neck.
Hot breath made clouds in the fog. “I’m not going to kill you,” Kelly said, quiet. “Let’s end this. Neither of us is a killer.”
McTavish winced, but somehow smiled at the same time. “Aren’t we, though?”
Panic burned across her. McTavish’s rapier, high in the air, answered when she called it to her free hand. What? She stared him down. He still smiled.
Behind her, Kelly’s rangers screamed. Avery, Ryker, Victor, and—no!—Madi. Red mist traced across them. Whatever had passed through them turned around and pierced again. Madi, at the end of the line, dodged forward. She yelped and gagged as the attack slashed her lower back.
“What?” Kelly wheeled her gaze onto McTavish. Amber fired twice, spearing McTavish in the hip and stomach. He cringed and growled. Kelly cried and snarled. “What did you do?” Blood pounded through her. Grass rustled and mud squished. She heard footsteps, and the opening of Velcro packs. She spat the words again. “What did you do?”
McTavish raised a hand, and called his weapon to him. But—not his weapon. A knife. The same that Kelly threw at him when she first engaged. Her friends’ blood stained it. No. No. No. Her body didn’t answer her. Even as McTavish sank the knife into her, chilling steel twisting in her stomach, she couldn’t move.
“Kel—” Madi strained her voice. “Kel, no.”
Her phone rang. The visions of St Kilda shattered and melted away.
She blinked and snapped herself back into her apartment. Reality. Cold sweat slicked her arms and her hair. Her grip whited her hands around her phone. The display read Madi’s name. Her thumb, shaking, barely managed to hit ‘answer’. “Ah—hey, hey Mads.”
“Kel!” the girl answered. “Are you okay? You stopped answering my texts.”
She wiped her brow. “Did I? Sorry.” She swallowed. “Zoned out.”
“No kidding.” Madi’s voice washed over her like pure warmth. “It’s been an hour.”
What? “An hour?” How many times had that memory looped?
“Kel, sweetie,” Madi said. She sighed, but lovingly. “You’re such a trooper.”
Kelly pulled her bangs out of her face and dried tears. “I hate worrying you like that.”
“I worry because I care. What’s on your mind?”
“I zoned out. Saw it all again.”
Silence on the line. Madi hummed. “It wasn’t your fault, you know.”
Kelly’s throat swelled up. She forced her voice to steady. “Yeah.”
“It’ll be okay.”
“Did I miss anything? Did they say anything about him?”
“Well, uh—” Madi paused. “Sort of?”
Kelly willed her way through a sip of now-frigid coffee. “What did they say?”
“Look, Kel,” she said. “I—I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.”
“What’s going on?”
Madi sighed again, not so lovingly this time. “I adore you too much. I’m worried that you’re going to go on some kind of revenge quest to redeem yourself.”
Kelly almost laughed. “Sounds like something I might do.” She narrowed her eyes. “But there’s no way to go after McTavish. Right…?”
“No,” she answered. “No.” Madi’s voice wavered. “There was a breaking news thing after. They saw him. He’s here, in the Crush. McTavish.” A final sigh. “He’s in Peregrine City.”
/ / /
Brand’s place was sketchy. He lived by Anthem and Sawyer, in a complex even more run-down than Kelly’s. She skipped stairs on the way up, dialing Brand’s number along the way. Her lungs struggled to keep up with her. Out of shape, so out of shape. She’d sprinted down Anthem Lane, all the way from her place. Sweat showed through her t-shirt, and her jeans chafed. Come on, answer.
She paused to pant on the fourth floor. No answer from Brand. She’d just have to walk in. ne more floor. Come on, girl. Move. After giving up on calling Brand, she noticed a barrage of texts from Madi, urging caution, warning her not to go through with this. How could Madi be so passive?
A minute later, Brand’s door finally came into view. Kelly skidded to a stop and smacked the door. “Brand!” Rustling from inside, like blankets. Kelly groaned. Don’t tell me… Muffled voices: one, small and feminine, sounded worried. The other—Brand’s smooth, silvered tone—reassured the first. “Brand! Get over here!”
The door opened, revealing Ranger Brand Gidley, half-modest in a bedsheet, platinum hair a mess on his shoulders. He eyed Kelly up and down, wearing confusion on his face. “Captain,” he said. He kept the door barely wedged open. “What’s up?”
Kelly caught her breath. “Let me in. I have to talk to you about something.”
He turned, eyes narrowed. “I don’t know if—”
She shoved through, elbowing him aside. “Sorry. This is important.” The door snapped shut behind her. “It’s not like I want to barge in on you.”
A girlish squeak came from inside. Kelly half-chuckled, not expecting to recognize Brand’s latest flame. “Darwin?”
The woman, petite and blue-eyed, squared spectacles resting lopsided on her nose, blushed. “Uh, hey. Captain Rose.” Layla Darwin: a paramedic, non-chosen, UNGC support staff. They had met briefly, but never worked together. Still, Layla must have been the only UNGC operative shorter than Kelly herself, so there was no way to mistake her.
Kelly only smiled for a moment. “Look, I’m sorry to interrupt you. I—uh, I called.”
Brand strode over to grab his phone. “Ah. So you did. Sorry, Cap.” He ran a hand through his hair, cracking a boyish grin. “So, what can I do you for?”
“First of all—” she stressed the next word, “Ranger,” she said, letting herself fall into the armchair across from the couch. “You’re going to get dressed. Yes, that’s an order.”
Brand saluted her and sauntered off.
She turned to Layla. “You’re a civilian, so I can’t tell you what to do.” Her gaze fell on a pile of clothes under the table and prompted a grin. “I don’t mind, but maybe for your sake,” she said. “And for Brand’s.”
Kelly switched her attention to her phone, but still noticed the guest in her periphery. Layla slid her clothes on, popping a flannel shirt and baggy jeans over her pale little frame. She was red all the while. Cute. Meanwhile, Madi sent another text.
>Kel… if I could, I’d go find you myself. Where are you?
She tapped her foot. Fine.
>at brand’s. sorry. i know you’re over it. i’m not.
The screen darkened as Brand walked back in, pulling a shirt on. “I miss anything?” he asked, draping an arm over Layla.
“McTavish,” Kelly said.
Brand froze, then leaned forward. “Cap, if you found anything—when I signed on, I told you I would help. I promised you that. I’m standing by that.”
“He’s in the city.”
Even Layla widened her eyes. “What? The Gentleman Sword? Where? How? How do you know?”
“Madi told me.” Kelly tucked her phone away. “During that St Kilda thing on the news earlier. According to Madi, some news came on and said he was last seen in PC.”
Brand tilted his head. “According to Madi?”
Kelly looked down. “I didn’t hear them say. Zoned out.”
“Flashbacks?” Layla said. Her lips curved up. She locked eyes with Kelly, and her gaze had none of the shyness it had moments ago.
“Ah—yeah.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, uh. He was spotted in the Snarl a few weeks ago. That’s probably the only reason there’s no big panic about it, I guess.” Her knuckles whited and tensed. Tingles flowed from her stomach to her throat. “Madi thinks it’s a bad idea.”
“Why not? He paralyzed her, didn’t he?” Brand said.
Kelly repressed a shiver. “Not like her. Madi doesn’t get back at people.”
Layla rose, wandered over, and knelt by Kelly’s side. “Hey,” she said, clasping Kelly’s hands. Her tiny body exuded warmth. “Breathe, yeah?”
Kelly blinked. “Huh?” She took one of her arms back and wiped her brow. Sweat. “Shit. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I can understand what you’re feeling. I’ve been somewhere similar.” She rubbed Kelly’s arm. “Anxiety is normal. Those thoughts come back, yeah? They keep coming back.” A fairy-like smile graced her. “But you’re strong. I know that. And you’ve been strong for a year, now, and you’re just gonna keep getting stronger, yeah?”
A laugh came over her, and she closed her eyes. “I’ll be okay. I’m usually better than this.”
“The news didn’t help,” Layla said. She stood. “Remind me to give you my number before you leave, yeah? I know—I know what it’s like, what you’re going through. Not the same thing, but similar. So I’d be glad to talk you through it. Mind you, I’m a paramedic. Not a therapist.”
Brand cut in. “Are we doing this?” he said. “Going after him, I mean. If he’s in the Crush, he has to be up to something.” His baritone voice was breathy. “I’m in, Cap. I want to see this guy go down.”
“Right.” Kelly nodded. “I’m going to request permission, first. If we can go after him without hiding it, that’ll be better.”
“And if UNGC turns you down?”
Her hair bobbed to a shrug. “Doesn’t matter.” An idle hand drifted to her scar, tracing it. “He killed my friends. He ruined Madi’s life. I’ll never feel right again if I don’t do this. I have to do this.”