Previously on: The Embers successfully recruited Titan for Project Ignite.
The Beacon of the Embers stood, stance wide to keep his balance, as Sariel lowered feet-first into the Empyrean factory/holding room. Tyrene’s voice filled Rune’s ear. “Welcome back, Embers!” He exclaimed.
None of the Embers answered, lost in the thoughts that their assignment had aroused. Soon, Sariel touched down and the side-hatch swung open, several uniformed P.I.(Project Ignite) agents poured in, greeting the Embers with enthusiastic grins; Titan watched the men, only a little more than half his height, as they buzzed around him excitedly.
“I am glad to see I am welcome here.” Said Titan as the agents ushered him out the hatch and onto the catwalk; there, everyone present burst into applause. When they saw the three uniformed Embers exit Sariel, their cheers multiplied.
Clint flushed. “Is it always going to be like this?” He wondered aloud. He didn’t realize his mind was already accustoming to the reality that this was a permanent thing; Rune heard him and felt tears prick his eyes like needles, the pain of his hazy future caught up to him again.
Every negative emotion boiled in a pit of anger in his heart, just waiting for something to spark the fire beneath it. The sarsh blinked uncomfortably, looking down at the crowd of people below, cheering with glowing grins on their faces. They think us different from them, Rune pondered bitterly. They think we’re flawless and unbreakable but in reality, this has made us more fragile and flawed than before. We are still young and unstable, yet they think we will carry this burden they have laid on our shoulders.
The soldier swallowed and brushed his face, gazing wetly at the pearl of water dripping into the joints of his metal hand. He let out a long breath and composed himself as they neared Tyrene, who stood, muscular arms behind his back and an expectant look on his face.
“Embers!” He called. “You have passed the first test with minor mistakes. Congratulations. Now, it is your choice to rest and take the rest of the day off or begin your second test now.”
Clint and Keila looked to Rune, whose eyes were downcast and clouded with thought. “Rune!” Tyrene barked and the sarsh’s head snapped up. “It is your decision.”
“We will rest for a short time and then begin.” He turned away, disappearing into the rejoicing crowd; Clint and Keila watched after him with concern written on their faces.
When the two younger Embers arrived at the Barracks, Rune was fast asleep, still fully uniformed; he lay with his knees drawn to his chest and his bandaged hand held close to his heart. “I wonder what’s bothering him?” Keila mused softly, pulling a blanket over him.
Clint let out a breath. “He’s probably exhausted, and going back to a war that may have killed all his friends is probably weighing heavy on him. I know how he feels. You and I are going back to running away from Lotan and his spies while trying to keep away from the IMPs as well. I’d rather just stay here.”
Keila sighed, twirling her fingers in her braid. “Let’s try to rest.”
“Wake up, Embers! The day is wastin’ away!”
Clint woke up to Loc’s deep, accented voice, and he groaned. His pried open his heavy, crusted eyes, finding Elric’s face above him. “How are you?” The caregiver asked.
“Tired.” The young man grumbled. “And sore.”
“That much is expected with your Flares, they use your energy quick. Did you get hurt on the test at all?”
“No.” The Ember climbed to his feet, scooping up his weapons and sliding them into their designated places. “No one did.”
Elric nodded, scribbling on a clipboard. “Good, good.” He mumbled. “Do you need anything before you start the next test?”
“Water, a bathroom, and something to eat.”
“Ok, I’ll have water and food brought here, and I think you can go to the bathroom on your own.”
Loc bustled over to Rune’s sleep-contorted body, calling his name. The sarsh didn’t stir. Loc shook him gently. “Come on, mate, you’ve been sleeping for two hours!”
Keila, who was eating something Aurian had fetched her, glanced up. “He’s exhausted, staying up practically all night training and then using the rest of his energy for the test.”
Loc pursed his lips. “And yet the bloke thinks he can still do this test?”
Keila shrugged, turning back to her food.
Clint and Keila both finished their food and continued to wait patiently as Loc tried to rouse the completely drained Beacon. Finally, his eyes cracked open, dull with sleep. Loc smiled faintly. “Mate, you’ve got no respect for your own health. Did you stay up all last night training?”
There was no reply, only a rough groan. “Mate! You’ve been sleeping for two and a half hours, you gotta get up!”
“Imup, imup.” The sarsh groused. He slowly sat up, rubbing his face wearily; he winced as he touched the bruise on his cheek. Loc raised an eyebrow as he spotted Rune’s bandaged hand.
“When did that happen?” He inquired. “You didn’t hit anyone, did you?”
“Just a punching bag,” Rune answered roughly.
Loc nodded. “Let me see.”
The soldier carefully unwound his hand, hissing as the cloth pulled on the dried scabs. The tall caregiver frowned, examining it. He sighed, shaking his head; he took a few minutes to clean and re-bandage it and he nodded. “Let’s get some food in ya and we can be on our way.”
Loc took Rune to a secluded area and talked gently but honestly with him about the sarsh’s feelings on Project Ignite, careful not to spark the sarsh’s temper. He asked questions he knew Rune could never arouse on his own; the sarsh answered very few of them; he became exasperated and stopped Loc. “We need to go, Loc. No matter what I think or want, Tyrene doesn’t want to hear it.”
Loc bowed his head. “I’m sorry to hear you think that.” He murmured as the sarsh climbed to his feet and disappeared into the grass.
Clint and Keila glanced up as they heard faint footsteps; Rune was a few feet from Keila, eyes downcast. The young woman swallowed, sensing the sarsh didn’t want to be spoken to. She sidled up next to him; he barely even glanced at her. A companionable silence, laden with grief, fell over them like rain.
It lingered as they made their way back to the Empyrean docking bay; it was a black cloud that hung above them, soaking their bones with a deep sadness and fear; it made them heavy and weary. Everyone present seemed to notice it, the dark cloud that shrouded Rune’s regular aura of confidence and authority.
It was a cloud filled with the fear of death and pain, of war and ruin. It weighed on Rune’s shoulders like rain-sodden clothes, yet he strode on through the storm, as if it was not there.
Inside Sariel, He sat silently, staring blankly with thoughts storming through his head and nerves wreaking havoc in his stomach. Keila and Clint sat on either side of him, just as nervous as he. Once this test was over, the two younger Embers were going back to a life of fleeing and Rune was going back to a world of chaos. It was a bitter-sweet moment, something they dreaded and craved, and it left them silent.
Silence saturated their journey and the emotional process each Ember was going through was visible on their faces. But, as they neared their destination, District 3, Rune dragged himself from his trance, dissipating the cloud for the sake of their mission.
“The target is a frost giant named Wren,” Rune informed his team members. “standing 19 feet tall and weighing 650 pounds. He is 16 years old. Currently, a team of cryptozoologists and the national guard are holding him hostage in a top-secret facility in the middle of nowhere. This is going to be harder than walking into a room and asking for him to come with us. Questions?”
Keila squinted at the screen. “Yeah, is he unconscious or just asleep? Because, that guy is huge and we won’t be able to carry him if he doesn’t wake up.”
Rune processed her words for a moment. “We’ll figure it out if necessary.”
The Embers paced about the room, thinking over the details of the mission. Finally, they broke the quiet. “Hey, Rune?”
The voice yanked Rune violently from his thoughts and he glanced up. Clint was watching him expectantly, pointing to the screen on the center console. “The area surrounding the compound is completely wooded. How are we going to land Sariel?”
“We’ll land Sariel half a mile east of the compound, and depending on how tall the trees are, we’ll go unnoticed.”
“No, I meant because of the trees, won’t it be impossible to land?”
“... I’m sure there will be a clear spot somewhere, Clint.” The sarsh replied vaguely, lost in thought. The sarsh’s answer did not satisfy Clint, but the young man kept silent, and he stayed that way until Rune stood, announcing they were arriving.
The three Embers piled into the cockpit, peering through the visor to the forest below. Sariel stopped over a spot clear enough to land and slowly descended. Rune frowned as the metal giant continued to lower even when its feet were on the ground; he craned his neck to see down and realized the giant was sitting so its head was below the treetops.
“We’ll have to go through the side hatch,” Rune informed his teammates. They frowned simultaneously.
The sarsh waved their worry away. “There’s a ladder. Let’s go.” The soldier was the first out; he climbed out and waited, watching anxiously the two young friends clamber down. It took them quite a while to climb all the way down, but eventually, their feet touched grass and the tension left their bodies. Rune paused for a moment, allowing his companions to catch their breath before he beckoned them on.
From behind him, Rune could hear Clint whispering to Keila. The Beacon frowned, turning around. “Is there a problem?” He asked. Clint shook his head.
“I just wish Titan were here. This whole thing would be a lot easier.”
“That’s the point; that it’s harder without him. This is still a test, but he doesn’t need to be tested. He’s an android; he’ll do what he’s told and do it well.”
Clint shrugged lightly and continued jogging forward. They had no more conversations; their voices were startlingly loud in the crisp air when they reached the edge of the compound, where a tall barbed-wire fence stood stationed. Rune stepped aside, gesturing to it.
“Alright, how do we get past it?” He challenged.
Clint didn’t hesitate. “The last one of these I came across, I climbed it. That didn’t go so well, so we probably shouldn’t do that.”
Keila rolled her eyes. “That’s because we were being chased and-”
“That’s not what I asked,” Interrupted Rune. “I said how can we get past it, not how we can’t.”
“We could just cut a hole in it.” Clint said blatantly.
“That’s what I was getting at. Just be warned, it might trip an alarm in the building.”
Clint stepped forward, pulling his blade off his back. He switched it on, and it glowed red; he cut a clumsy hole and pushed away the loose piece of melted fence. He bowed dramatically, gesturing with his arm to the hole.
“Watch the hot edges, Keila,” Both the boys warned at once. The young woman laughed, stepping through.
Carefully, Rune led them across the parking lot and to the front entrance, a thick glass door. The sarsh frowned thoughtfully beneath his helmet and tugged on the door, finding it unlocked. “You’d think they’d have higher security here,” He pondered. “With a frost giant and all.”
Now it was Keila’s turn to shrug. “Won’t there be cameras in there, and shouldn’t we avoid them?”
“.. If we’re supposed to convey a message of peace, we shouldn’t try to hide. They will challenge us, but they can’t hurt us.”
“Then let’s go in! Remember after this, we’re going home!”