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The Search
Ekene had told her about a basement in seldom use, which seemed as close to privacy as she was likely to find. A flash of ginger streaked down the stairs ahead of her, lost quickly to the gloom clinging in every corner. A light swung overhead, but only highlighted old equipment and filing cabinets. The dust swirled a pattern of recent use, but the room was empty now. Natalie closed the door softly behind her.

The state of the place made her skin itch; it was a dismal sanctuary, except that the solitude was precious for what she intended. Now alone, her eyes stung for a moment before she compartmentalised the feeling, smoothing the expression from her face. A deep breath of dank air, and she turned away from dwelling on the fresh bruises of the past. She could change none of it. But she could be better prepared.

She sat against the stone wall, placed the unlit candle on the floor in front of her, frowning at it. Alvis' old warnings circled like wary predators; the advice that had likely saved her life, but also trapped her now. She'd deliberated this before, but not since leaving England. The answer then had been simple.

If she'd had control, would things at the refinery have gone differently?

Silence permeated, but for the tumbling of the kitten in the shadows. The light in the back of her mind was dim, like a sheet of glass separated her from its warmth. It was joinless, unmarred, impenetrable as it had always been, yet she knew the door existed. And she just had to find it.
The wick of the candle taunted her. In her mind it sparked a thousand shades of orange and red as the flame took, but to her narrowed gaze nothing happened. She stared until her eyes watered, until the frustration throbbed a dull ache at her temples, and she found solace in the palms of her hand.

In that brief darkness hung Azubuike's face. And all those children.

Natalie leaned back. Weary. Angry. Too afraid to close her eyes, knowing the ghosts that awaited her there. There's no time for grief. Nor regret, though it lapped at the edges of her ice fortress nonetheless. She shored up her defences, willed herself cold and unfeeling. Because sitting alone in the darkness accomplished little, and the steel core of her will - for once - won her nothing. The gift, whatever it was, wherever it came from, could not be forced.

Which meant she had to find another way.

Something to focus on eased some of the frustration, channelled it into a momentum that sustained her. Her balled fists relaxed. She rubbed her thighs, palms stinging with the sharp indents of her nails, and considered instead all the past times the gift had sparked. And the uncontrolled consequences.

The thugs who had beaten Aaron, strewn across the pavement like dolls. She'd fled England in part to escape the consequences. To empty out the constituent parts of herself, and reassemble into the facsimile of a person she was happier to be. With varying success. She'd been content at the school. Content too to know that if her gifts found an outlet, it was more likely to be a deserving one. Because even back then she'd realised she reacted in volatile situations. She reacted to danger. Or her perception of it. Kofi's arm. The explosion at the hospital. Jay's leg. Jay's health. Jay's step into the breach.

The anomaly was glaring.

Because if she was being impartial, she could see that the gift also reacted to him. At the refinery, it had felt like the intensity might melt her skin from her bones - and in part that had been through fear for Azu, for the other refugees. But it had been Jay she'd been looking at. When he'd chased down Lt. Folami her chest had constricted, but then - as now - she was too wary to pluck out her heart and examine it for the reasons why. She didn't know the man, not beyond the uniform he wore, but thinking of him unsettled her grip on reality, like a caress of déjà vu.

Pain stabbed her ankle. When she shifted, it was to find the kitten rolling in the dust, waging war on her shoelaces. Two choices, she realised, scratching it's fuzzy belly. Her finger fell into possession of its pinprick teeth. In order to learn how to use the gift, she had to be able to touch it, and right now to do that she knew of only two ways to spark the right situation. To place herself in danger, or to seek Jay's company.

The first was, perhaps, sheer stupidity, but not so difficult to negotiate. The second provoked a tangle of feelings she was inclined to handle with care. She knew unequivocally which frightened her more, which was in the end what made her decision. "Come on, Shredder. Let's go find your human."


The world had shifted by the time she emerged. Signs of her fracture erased, Natalie was industrious in finding out what had happened while she had pieced herself back together. It seemed Jacques had spun the game board. Legion Premier had been disbanded, and an army sprung from its ashes. Apparently he was done taking the bloody coin of others and had decided to instead take matters into his own hands. Her thoughts were quiet on that; she accepted the news with a grim smirk, imagining her mother spitting feathers at the news of a void contract. The wider political turmoil it must have left in its wake. Well, that, at least, she could appreciate.

News of Jay was met with a rather more carefully neutral reaction. Though she was relieved to realise he was no longer her contractually obliged protector, his absence altogether made her feel unaccountably leaden. The loss stung, and she leaned back hastily from the precipice of trying to work out why. To balm her own uncertainty, she filled up on concern and disapproval. "He can barely walk."

Would Jacques really do that? Doubts eased in the cracks. The fragile trust she had extended with her promises to him was in ruins. She hadn't seen him since the refinery - had shuttered him and his legionnaires both out in anger. Now the opportunity to ask why was lost. Would he really send Jay out injured? Apparently he had. And there was nothing she could do about it.

She hated it.

But right now she needed to focus. Filter out the confusing emotions. Pay attention to the things she could change.

Her two choices had narrowed to one.
The meeting had started without her. Natalie walked into it by accident rather than purpose, seeking cold water from the sink in her room, but slipped quietly into a seat when she absorbed the gravity of the atmosphere. A few disapproving gazes speared a note of her absence. Many eyes were red and puffy; she had not been the only one to spend the night grieving. Ayo sat in Laurene's lap, clung tight like a much younger child. Silent and unmoving while the woman rocked her gently.

The discussion encapsulated their current situation, and sought to build security from the ruins. Natalie listened quietly as all the information available to them was dissected.

Appeals spread desperate fingers across the CCD, but if public sympathies were stoked at the plight of the Sierra Leoneans, the disaster was also noted as a civil one. An internal dispute easy to turn a blind eye to. The Northbrook family poured in waves of their own money, and Eleanor Northbrook was the guiding star of the campaign, doggedly demanding the focus of the media. She was under heavy fire for it. Leading humanitarians were not supposed to act in their own self-interests.

And now Jacques Danjou had rebranded his mercenary company under the banner of a personal army.

If Africa ignited the news hubs, right now it was for the wrong reasons. The people suffering were being forgotten in the heat of gossip.

But that was not the crux of the problem. Negotiations to receive as much aid as was needed into the city was ongoing; supplies came in a trickle, spread too thinly, gone too quickly. They calculated that they could get by on what they had, if the situation remained as it was now, but it made harder work of it than necessary. People would go cold and hungry for more days between relief. Medicine would be metered out more strictly, and people would suffer for it. In short, tensions from deprivation would be rife.

But perhaps the most debilitating blow was the loss of Netlands hospital, the city's main artery. It's destruction had severely damaged the city's capacity to deal with its many injured, not just because of the loss of supplies and equipment, but the death of so many good doctors and specialists. Triage tents billowed from remaining medical facilities, but they were both hastily wrought and undermanned. There was an undercurrent of concern about the potential for the spread of disease. Such an outbreak would be devastating.

They discussed the lay of the city. Part of the embassy had been turned over to a refugee camp. In other sections of the city, public buildings had also been commandeered. As the Red Cross and other humanitarian workers pooled resources and began coordination, it became quickly apparent that Temne were being denied entry to the city. Those already here, who had somehow avoided the persecution and violence of the last few days, were encouraged to keep their heads down.

There were still many displaced souls with nowhere to go. Those with homes to retreat to had locked themselves away. Police and legionnaires quelled the street fighting. In many ways the city was eerie still. Awaiting resolution. For Wallace-Johnson to force his brand of peace uninterrupted, or for Katlego to kick in the throes of defeat. And now Danjou had thrown his hat into the ring. Uncertainty reigned.

But here, in this room, the political turmoil was but a backdrop. An unceasing current that must simply to adapted to, keeping as many afloat as possible in the process. They did not focus on how they might change the game, only how they would react to it.

Negotiation efforts would be fought more fiercely; they would return to the begging table, again and again, until they had what they needed. They would push for more medical personnel to be flown in, if such concessions could be seized, because so many doctors had died in the destruction of netlands. Quarantine areas would be decided, to help stave off the potential for such crisis before it ever had the chance to spread uncontrollably. Red Cross staff would be present at every camp. They could do little for the Temne but try and keep the peace.

That was what they planned for. It was not what they hoped for. If Jacques Danjou's plans came to fruition, the docks and airport would open and finally let the emergency aid flood in. A convoy, organised by him, was but days away. She could hear in their voices that this was what they prayed for. What they trusted in. The time between was an interim to be endured. It gave them the focus and drive that sustained them in the face of sleepless nights and grief's cool hand.

For Natalie's part, she prayed they were right.

Jacques had told her, before the refinery, that he'd gown tired of despots and warlords. Of babies torn from the arms of mothers. Of boys with guns. At the time she'd gleaned no sense that he meant to do something drastic. In hindsight the plan had been there even then, and who knew how deep the roots of it went, or what he ultimately intended. She couldn't reconcile the man who had shown such empathy with the man who had staged the tragedy of Masiaka, but perhaps only because she needed someone to blame. He'd made a mistake, and the consequences had spiralled beyond his control. If he was juggling so many damn balls, he was bound to at least drop one.

I can't be that unprepared again.

Perhaps she'd needed the calm. Of plans and hopes and a sun that would rise tomorrow. It refortified the need for the decisions she had already made, but perhaps tempered them too. There was so much more to consider. Like how unsuited she was to this job. While her colleagues had turned straight to the salvage, Natalie had licked her wounds and railed against the unfairness of it all. She ran her hands over her head, wincing at her fingers found the bruises on her scalp. One complaint gave voice to another. She ached all over. Had barely rested since St. James.

As the others dispersed to their tasks, Laurene lingered. In fact she still sat with Ayo in her arms. Perhaps because the girl was too big for someone of her frame to comfortably carry, or perhaps because, of all the others, Laurene seemed the one most visibly affected by the events at the refinery. No one had mentioned it, she noted, despite the red eyes.

They had never been close, but they had worked together now for half a year. Laurene's eyes were swollen, her pallor pale, her short hair tufted and unbrushed. But her look was sharp, and clearly she was piecing together something the others had not considered.

"Natalie. The government knows who you are, and it knows you are in Freetown. If Wallace-Johnson - or Katlego, for that matter - finds a way to use you, they will. You have the legion's protection at the embassy, and there is plenty that needs doing here."

Natalie watched the woman a moment. Allowed the words to really soak in, knowing the moment they left her lips they were right. That her hands were tied. And for a moment the frustration crested, full force. Unremitting. It crushed with an ancient weight, an unforgivingly familiar feeling. How many times must I be asked to do nothing? Her head began throbbing again. Maybe she really had bashed something loose. She closed her eyes. "There's more I can do. I can be more useful elsewhere."

"It's not yourself you'd be risking, it's all our work here. What would your mother do if she heard that Wallace-Johnson had you? She's moving mountains already. Consider that the most useful thing you can do right now is to be safe."

Trust Jacques. Trust the Legion. Simply wait. "I can't abide others taking all the risks, Laurene."

"It's not about you, though, is it. It's about her, and all the others."
She leaned her chin into Ayo's hair, kissed the girl on top of the head. "Ekene is at the camp here, running errands for the legionnaires. He could use the support of a familiar face."
She paused, gaze ducking away. The pain rippled through her. Words tight and small. "I can deal with what happened. But only if it's not in vain. I trust that Legion Premiere is doing the right thing, despite the costs. That it's all going to work out. That we'll see the future we've fought to see for generations."

Don't jeopardise that. The entreaty was clear.

[[fyi, this post takes place before Ascendancy's announcement]]
She splashed her face in the sink, let the cold water sink into her skin. The gift hovered just out of reach, like a maddening halo. A taunt she had no answer to. Did she listen to the ardent beat of her heart - banish thought of the cost, the reckless consequences; seek to appease the pain and anger of loss? Or instead heed the slow seep of Laurene's words, hooking into her brain more each minute with the grim shackles of responsibility.

She stared at her reflection, palms braced on either side of the basin. Blueish shadows smudged beneath her pale eyes. Her face was hollow and drawn. Whenever she thought she had a handle on the grief, it washed over anew, tugging at her battlements, seeking control. Maybe the guilt would stay forever. Maybe it should.

She sighed. Let the tension drop from her shoulders.

As she left, a legionnaire she didn't recognise attached himself to her shadow. Bandages capped half his head, blushed faintly with blood above his temple. He offered a ragged smile in the moment she noticed him, and tipped his head in silent greeting. She did not examine how the knot of feeling in her chest stirred, nor admit the wash of disappointment in its wake. She didn't even indulge the irritation that she should still be coddled. Instead she only glanced at his injury.

He should be resting. Probably, so should she.


Hasty shelters had been erected around the embassy grounds to accomodate the swollen numbers. The legionnaire kept his distance. She was content with that, and made no efforts to breach the silence, nor for now to even learn his name. Volunteers sorted food parcels from what supplies they had. Arranged garments and blankets. Efficiency buzzed through the camp despite the hum of desperation, and Natalie found her place as one cog among many in the heat and the dust.

Whilst working she spotted Ekene several times, flitting about like a baby sparrow, expression grim and determined through tear-smudged eyes. He cradled his arm protectively to his chest as he darted on his errands. Despite how bereft last night had been of sleep for either of them, he dredged up more energy than she felt, but it lightened her mood to see him so focused. And perhaps pacified her acceptance of rooting herself here.

When it came, hours later, the recognition brushed as delicately as butterfly wings.

Natalie exused herself, and drifted through the camp seeking its source. Confusion brushed her expression, the whisper of a memory that spoke of kinship and duty. Its meaning eluded her. She moved in a fog, lost in a world in which Jay meant more than he ought and a serpent circled her fingers. Her head throbbed dully. The epiphany taunted as cruelly as the gift did, and then faded with her footsteps. Her pale gaze sharpened. She blinked.

The young woman sat alone, a blanket strewn across her shoulders, head bowed against her knees. Shiny black braids cascaded towards the floor. A ring of desolation surrounded her form, and those sat on its periperal shunned her with turned backs and averted gazes.

Natalie crouched beside her, placing a palm against her bare arm to rouse her attention. The woman's skin seared her hand with heat. And suddenly she understood.


Ekene skidded his way over, eyes wide, teeth gritted. With his good hand he prised her touch away. He glanced up, stricken. "Her brothers left her here. Her husband did not want her."
His voice hushed, serious and urgent. "She's bad luck. Come away."

"She's just unwell."
More than that, of course, but Natalie choose her words carefully. Her palm was moist with sweat, and the heat of fever almost shimmered from the girl. She recognised what it meant, but was uncertain what to make of the discovery, or why it had called her here. There was little she could do. She was probably the safest she could be, here; they burned witches and worse in some of the villages.

Ekene's expression pinched. He did not think she understood. "Bad luck,"
he repeated insistently. Fear ghosted his wide gaze; he clearly didn't want to speak the word of what the woman was, the root of that ill luck, and the reason she had been abandoned.

Perhaps he had never questioned how they'd escaped the explosion at the hospital.

And perhaps that was for the best.

Suddenly the woman lifted her head. Black eyes slick like river stones. Her brow sheened, her cheeks flush. She began to speak in her own language. Natalie understood only a handful of words, but the miserable intonation was stark. The fear fever-sharp.

Ekene sprung back. Natalie leaned forward, intent. "You can survive this,"
she whispered. If understanding ghosted the young woman's expression in reply, Natalie missed it. Instead the girl clamped her hands over her face, muscles rigid. A thin trickle of vomit slipped through her fingers. Natalie recoiled, then reluctantly accepted the burden. "Ekene. Fetch towels and water."

"I heard them talking,"
he whispered. "They'll take her away. Please leave her, Natalie."
The fingers of his good hand wound into the fabric of her shirt, tugging her away.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Abruptly the ground vibrated. The legionnaire straightened, alert. As the shells began to fall, chaos erupted.
One of Interim-President General Wallace-Johnson's final orders was for his forces on the city's south-eastern edge to march on the Legion headquarters. No quarter given.

The brunt of his forces had been stationed there, holding the city's only land-locked border. In theory, they were so positioned to protect the city against Temne rebels, but in practice it was mostly to control the flow of refugees into the relative safety of the city. Mende citizens were generally allowed through the check points without too much hassle. Maybe a few small bribes along the way. Temne, however, had been subject to searches and confiscations, groundless arrest, hefty fines, and rape.

Using bulldozers, the Sierra Leonean soldiers had been keeping the highway clear of abandoned or burned vehicles, and the ditches on the sides of the highway were littered with crushed cars and abandoned belongings. And bodies.

By the time the General's orders reached the soldiers encamped on the city's edge, word of Legion's broad-stroke operation had already reached them. Enraged at how quickly so much of the city had been taken from them, coupled with the Temne shelling of the city, they responded to the order with perhaps more vigor then Wallace-Johnson had intended.

Five platoons, nearly three hundred Sierra Leonean soldiers, pulled off the barricades at the city's edge. Loaded into APCs and trucks, they advanced quickly through the post-shelling city. There was a brief encounter with a Freetown city police checkpoint, which managed a brief message of warning to the Legion command center in the embassy district.

Unlike the movies, when a radio operator died, you didn't usually hear it over the comms. Most people tended to drop the radio and try to defend themselves in their final seconds, so the movie-style death screams weren't heard by the Legionnaire radio operator in the old Moroccan embassy.

The word was spread quickly; Commandant Tuft was informed of the pending threat; Legionnaires still in the streets, teamed with groups of city police and other services, began to converge on the embassy district, racing to bolster the meager defenses there.

Nathalie's shadow held one hand to his ear; his Landwarriors had been destroyed, leaving him delegated to the old-fashioned radio-and-headset. The few remaining Legion officers at the re-purposed embassy were scrambling to devise a defensive plan. The power-armoured troops at the Parliament district wouldn't be able to arrive until the battle in the embassy district had begun. And with the number of wounded refugees housed there...

"Miss Grey?"
The wounded Legionnaire had stepped forward, giving Ekene a bolstering pat on the shoulder as the boy ran off, finally interrupting what semblance of free reign she held, at least briefly. "We've got hostile troops advancing from the south east."
He gestured vaguely in the direction in question.

Legionnaires and their local volunteers could be seen scrambling for the few remaining Legion SUVs in the embassy grounds. Weapons were being checked, walking wounded emerging from the make-shift field hospital. One Legionnaire, his left leg ending just below the knee, was making his way for an open-topped jeep and the waiting support weapon being crudely mounted there.

Sierra Leonean civilians, ones that had been hired on as Legion Premiere auxiliaries what seemed like ages ago, made up the brunt of the forces still guarding the Embassy district. Many wore little more then outdated flak vests, and many had been stripped of their Legion Premiere auxiliary uniforms, instead wearing their personal clothes, but the moved with a sense of pride and duty.

They would be the shield between the advancing Mende soldiers and the people of Freetown. "Commandant Tuft is relinquishing control of this camp to the Red Cross, ma'am. We will hold them back until reinforcements arrive."
The entire garrison of the embassy was barely two dozen Legionnaires, all wounded to some degree, and another three dozen auxiliaries.

The plan was simple enough; advance a few blocks south east and dig in before the Mende soldiers could reach the embassy. Buy time for the power-armoured reinforcements to arrive. He pulled his water canteen from a pouch and handed to her for the woman Natalie was fussing over, then turned to jog over to one of the waiting vehicles.
Ekene's grip on her shirt tightened, his face a rictus of fear. "It's her! It's her fault!"

Natalie untangled his hand gently. The vibrations of the distant shells chilled her, but if one were to hit the embassy there was little anyone could do to stop it. "It isn't,"
she told him firmly, but further comforts died in her throat. As he began to shake -- all pretence of childish bravery vanished -- she pulled him close instead, her chin resting on his head. "It's just the fighting. It's nowhere close."

The chaos of the camp moved around them. Cries of fear and uncertainty pierced the sanctuary she offered him, and she could feel the shallow cadence of his heart through his fragile ribcage. Her own pulse raged a deafening cry in her ears as she counted the booms, until - finally - silence.

He pulled away when the last tremors faded, dry-eyed but refusing to meet her gaze.

"Towels and water,"
she reminded him.

His gaze twitched up as he ran off. The legionnaire loomed overhead, and she stood to acknowledge him. They had barely spoken all day, a peace she had been content with, but the look on his face now shuddered a moment of blind panic in her gut. When Jay's name did not leave the soldier's lips - and she didn't really know why she'd either feared or expected it - she knew a moment's respite. Though the news he did share was no less grim.

None of these men were fit for action. Her impassive gaze travel amongst the legionnaires scrambling for the last remaining SUVs, most no more than walking wounded (and some even less than that). The Sierra Leonean auxiliaries outnumbered the trained soldiers. The Legion would be buying time with lives. It tightened in her gut, that realisation; or perhaps her helplessness in the face of such a sacrifice. She had no experience of war, nor even much in the way of training; she'd worked in education, not war-zones. But she couldn't shake the prickling feeling of responsibility.

She possessed a weapon that might change the tide, but lacked the control to implement it. Such a risk might hinder as much as help. If she could even summon it to use. Let alone convince them she was not simply a burden.


He pressed a canteen of water into her hands as he turned to jog away. The knot in her stomach grew heavier. She ought to be going with them.

"Where are they going?"
The voice rang quietly behind, and she turned to find Ekene returned already, rags in his hands instead of towels, and sans water. His eyes were wide, avidly following the Legionnaires's withdrawal. Despite their tumultuous start he'd grown used to their presence over the last few days and, like many here, drew comfort from their vigilance. Personal opinions of Jacques Danjou aside, his men were good men - always ready with a kind word or gesture, and they were loved for it.

"To protect us."
As the last of the vehicles trailed dust, Natalie turned and prised the fabric from his grasp. Her brow was pinched, the only indication of her worries. Was the attack retaliation? Or had Danjou failed? A decision hardened her gaze. She unclipped the badge from her belt and bent to pin it to Ekene's shirt. The embedded chip would monitor his location. It was the best she could promise him. "Laurene and Ayo are in our room. I need you to go and find them, Ekene. You take them and you hide. Not in the embassy. You go as far away as you can."

He stared at her, mortified by the abandonment. "Why aren't you coming?"

"I'll find you. No more questions."

He scowled at her, eyes glassy with betrayal. Then turned and ran. As the child disappeared, Natalie's attention lowered to the woman huddled on the ground. Her black eyes stared up, gaze descending as Natalie crouched back down. She took the girl's hands by the wrist, wordlessly began to pour water from the canteen to clear the vomit. Pressed the rags into her palms, then the container of water. "You should find some place safe as well."

In the camp around them her colleagues worked to assuage fears against the growing storm of panic, and she ought to have joined them. She heard their soothing words, preaching trust in their rag-tag defences. But they couldn't evacuate everyone, couldn't even arm them, and the peace and routine order of before was lost. Weeping and lyrical prayers punctuated the ache left by the Legion's departure. Even the roar of dropped shells had been better than this.

The world shimmered, unreal. Natalie forced the air in and out of her lungs. Despite the heat on her bare arms and the glare beating down on her head, her blood pumped cold. The fear was insidious, a sly invader. She pulled her hair into a knot, wincing at the sharp twinge of pain from her tender scalp, and traipsed to the edge of the embassy's grounds. Her heart beat in her throat. Within, she caressed the edges of a power she could not hold. Sat to take silent vigil of the horizon, on the steps leading to the building.

The road glistened empty.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

And wait.
As the last of the Legion vehicles rolled out the flimsy-seeming gates of the one-time Moroccan embassy, the mood among the refugees and volunteers quickly took on a panicked air. Where had they gone so suddenly, and what did it mean about the city at large?

The few remaining Legion affiliated staff did what they could to calm the crowd. Mostly Sierra Leonean volunteers, taken on as hastily trained nurses, team leaders, even cleaning staff, they had little luck in assisting the Red Cross personnel in keeping the refugees calm.

But with the end of the Temne shelling, a momentary silence seemed to have fallen across the city. In some regions, the sirens of what few emergency vehicles the city still had could be heard, but for at least the moment, the sounds of weapons fire had dropped off.

The Legionnaires and their auxiliaries pushed away from the embassy quickly. With the Legion HQ still being established in Algeria, what support they could provide was intermittent at best. Legion techs did what they could with their minimal access to computers and communications.

A location was selected for their line in the sand; a simple thumbtack stabbed into a map of Freetown. The constant stream of information out of the city, and the country at large, was being filtered through two dozen very over-worked Legion command staff in Sidi Bel Abbès, some 4,000 kms to the north.

Legion SUVs from the embassy district were the first to arrive, and wounded Legionnaires and under-trained Sierra Leonean auxiliaries spread out quickly. There was little expectation of help; the various teams from Operation Rien N'Empeche were scattered throughout the city, often still sitting on potentially dozens of Wallace-Johnson's soldiers and sympathizers, and the rest were caught up in trying to contain fires, or search for survivors in the wreckage from General Katlego's artillery.

Sapper Aberash was one of the few unwounded Legionnaires that remained at the Legion headquarters in Freetown. He stood in the street next to Lieutenant Afolayan, and the two men surveyed the street in the few remaining minutes they had before the last of Wallace-Johnson's loyal troops arrived. Plans were made, final positions sited, and then the two men quit the open street.

The battle that came next was short and brutal. The Legionnaires had little to throw at the Sierra Leonean APCs. The lone .50 cal, mounted on the roll-cage of a civilian jeep and manned by a one-legged Legionnaire, tore into the lead APC, shredding thick rubber tires and causing the vehicle to crash into a pile of rubble from a collapsed shop, hit by an artillery shell.

Sierra Leonean auxiliaries opened up from roof tops, firing down into the open bed of a troop transport. The initial surprise didn't last long though. Wallace-Johnson's troops recovered quickly; more APCs, spaced evenly along the convoy, charged forward. The crashed APC fired a smoke-screen from its multi-barrel-grenade-dischargers, two banks of four small tubes mounted to either side of the vehicle's turret. Eight smoke grenades quickly filled the street with a blinding, choking cloud.

Auxiliaries fired blindly into the smoke; Legionnaires scrambled to find new positions and exert some degree of control over the situation. Mounting 73mm automatic cannons, the Sierra Leonean APCs only had an effective range of a few hundred meters, but within that range they were devastating. As the smoke began to clear, the remaining Sierra Leonean APCs burst back into view, advancing single-file and peppering buildings and rooftops with fire.

Dismounted infantry advanced on the APC flanks. While not trained or equipped to the same standard of the Legionnaires, they were more numerous, and a far cry more capable then the auxiliaries.

They fought through the Legion line in short order. Spr Aberash went down in a mostly-looted convenience store. Wallace-Johnson's loyalists stormed through the front door, their lead three dropping to the last shells in Aberash's shotgun and an auxiliary's rifle. Momentum slowed, grenades were thrown into the building.

Lt Afolayan crashed a Legion SUV into the tires of one of the advancing loyalist APCs. Wounded in the initial firefight, he had been pulled off the line, only to be left bleeding in one of the vehicles when his would-be rescuer, a Sierra Leonean civilian, had been killed by shrapnel. The SUV destroyed two of the APC's tires, crippling it, before the next in line put a burst of 73mm rounds through the cab.

And scant minutes after it started, the loyalist troops pushed through. Although outnumbered and outgunned, the Legionnaires and their auxiliaries had grounded two of the six loyalist gun cars, and left their weight in loyalist troop wounded and dead.

At the embassy, the sounds of the battle weren't far off. A few blocks to the south and east. Ferocious, dangerously close, and short lived. Two squad cars of Sierra Leonean police officers screeched to a halt outside the flimsy embassy gates, and a handful of officers piled out to take up positions behind their vehicles. Shotguns, looted assault rifles, and flimsy bullet proof vests would do little to slow the approaching loyalist troops, but they seemed determined that more help would arrive in time.

And then the loyalist troops arrived. APCs led the way, with sections of dismounted infantry jogging in their wake, taking cover behind the armoured vehicles as they approached the embassy grounds.
The fleeing minutes encompassed an age unto themselves. A pall of silence settled over the devastated city, broken by the wail of distant sirens, and then the closer stuttering of gunfire as the battle began. Shivers ran the length of her arms despite the heat. Her thoughts were fragmentary invaders against the calm she tried to impose upon herself. What would her mother do if she died here? Would her father even notice or care? Natalie forced her eyes closed, ran her hands over her head until the breath wisping from her lips was the only thing she could hear. She reached out for the light, longing to burn, but hit the cool glass of the barrier. Again and again.

Desperation oozed into her composure. The panic pawing at her toes hooked in, inching its way up her body.

The gift had never abandoned her like this before. When she'd needed it, it had been there - a heady cascade, brilliant and brutal, even when it wasn't welcome. She'd always thought it was danger that ignited it in her like brush fire; could count every reckless situation it had flamed to life. She had been so sure this would work. The only exception to her rule had been Jay, and therein must lie her mistake. It was too late to work out why now.

She didn't even have a gun.

The scream of police sirens pierced her heart, shattering the remains of her concentration. Her pale gaze wrenched up to watch as the vehicles fanned beyond the decorative gates, a scant handful of men pooling out. Beyond them came the dark cloud of approaching cars, kicking up a swarm of dust. Gunfire punched her ears and the acrid stink of smoke looped and coiled around the dark fears in her heart. An old, familiar taste of panic dried her tongue.


It took her a moment more to realise the scent came from behind. She spun, confused at the realisation; at the same time as someone screamed from within the bowels of the embassy. Her nails raked into the concrete as she clawed herself up, horrified, and ascended the stone steps.

After the baking heat of outside it was cool and dark within. Natalie's heart beat loud in the empty hall. The air was hazy, jamming in her throat, stinging her eyes. From the far entrance-way the girl with the braids crawled out of the darkness, clutching bloody fingers to the floor tiles before her scrabbling feet found purchase and she propelled forward. Her pallor was sickly, her gait unsteady as she hurtled her way towards the open doors leading outside.

"Not that way!"
Natalie hooked her elbow to yank her back. They tumbled away, slamming into an ornate desk that had been swept to the side of the room. Arms and hands tangled as she tried to pull away, leaving a long smear of blood along Natalie's wrist. The sounds of battle beyond seemed not to reach her ears. Else she chose the lesser of evils.

Smoke plumed into the lobby, black and angry, and from its midst a figure. He clutched one sleeve to his mouth, the shoulder of his other arm red as bloody and dripping meat. Black hair buzzed close to his scalp, ebon skin stretched over high cheekbones; Natalie recognised him as one of the camp's volunteers, but found no familiarity in the severe cast to his gaze.

Natalie clawed her grip into the girl's fingers to stop her fleeing into the gunfire. Heart hammering. Time slipping away. Wariness snared her gaze as he coughed and spoke, never breaking his gaze from the woman, his boots echoing a steady march across the hall. He spoke in Mende, and the words curled in Natalie's ears, elusive. Duty. And death.

It is your duty to die.

Behind him the first flames began to lick at the door frame. Natalie realised abruptly that soon they would be trapped between the fire ahead and the soldiers behind.

The girl shuddered. Crinkled wisps of black hair floated to the ground as her burned braids began to crumble at the ends. Sweat masked her face; beads of it prickled, and ran with the tears.

Her hand jerked.

The ground rumbled, a network of light unfurling on the floor, knotting down into the earth. Suddenly the tiles burst into a gout of sharp ceramic pieces. A stinging shower of it rained down, ripping neatly through flesh. The man roared, and in the cloud-burst of pain Natalie lost her grip. The woman spun, half slipping. A shaft of light limned her surprised expression as she reached the open doors.

A burst of power shuddered out from her body, like uncoiling springs. The whoosh sent everything in a circular radius slamming back. The soldiers cramming the steps. The bloodied man behind. And Natalie.

Her head snapped back, smashing the wall. Pain burst stars. The half-healed wound split and hot blood gushed down her neck. The world shivered and blurred as she fell, catching her grip on the edge of a table. Something on it wobbled and smashed. Blood slicked her hand. Support slipped away. Suddenly she was staring into a carpet of broken tiles, fists clenched, desperately summoning the coordination to stand. Her consciousness was slipping out through all the cracks in her skin. Her knees crunched under the debris. Her ears rang.

The Light never came. But the dark did.

[[NPC channeler and Atharim man are free to use and/or kill off.]]
In high school, Jay ran like the wind. There was no track team, and that was lame so he wouldn't have been on it, but if he had, he would have won every fucking race. Football saw him run till he puked, even as quarterback. Then, in the marines, he learned a new level of pain and realized he'd never really tried to run as hard as possible for as long as possible. The mountains of California cut new muscles that he tended, built, and worked until the day came that his body needed to perform like it never had before. Today was that day.

The armor suit gave him a skeleton on which to run faster and easier than humanly possible. He felt like his boots barely touched the ground, fleeing, no, flying across dirt, hurdling cars, sailing around corners. The HUD directed his path, and aim assistance gave a chest shot to every target that thought to stand in his path. He cut a bloody fucking trail through Freetown, until the fires of the Embassy darkened the sky.

He and Jared directed their squad to plow through the blockade of enemy troops. Jared was without his spells while his helmet was on, and the order that their only wizard remove it was difficult to give. But they needed every advantage. There were hundreds of soldiers between them and the embassy - and Natalie - and if two squads of battle armored Legionnaires hell bent on decimation, they were about to shit themselves scared.
"Rip them apart, Vanders!"
Jay yelled triumphantly as they entered the battle.

Explosives took out armored cars. Fresh gunfire cleared the field, mowing down the enemy force. Jay's ammunition was used wisely, but swiftly. He swapped in a fresh magazine, and advanced. Always advance. Never stop moving.

"I'm going to look for civilians!"

He told his team otherwise busy with chasing down runaways.

Through the old gates. Around the wall. There was the bush he once found the kitten. The building he barely remembered seeing for the first time when he was brought in after Ekene hamstrung him. Blackness swallowed him. His helmet filtered fresh air through the smoke.

He entered the building carefully. HUD gave him some direction. Bodies were in the main hall. Heat trails of an explosion filtered red on the display. Two bodies lay lifeless. Bio picked up heartbeats though. So unconscious. A third was coming to his knees. Jay had the sense that this was what firemen go through, deciding which victim to tend first. In the rolling smoke he couldn't see faces, or pick out slender, feminine bodies; blonde hair.

He switched his mic on, "I'm coming to help you!"
He called in case they could hear him, but his voice was unrecognizable through the speaker, filtered and mechanic-sounding.

He dropped to his knees to peer under the blanket of smoke. Even through the cooling systems of the armored suit, the heat of fire fanned nearby.

On all fours he crawled to the first body. An African woman. He clamped onto her wrists and yanked, pulled, and stood. The armored suit helped him throw her across his shoulder, but he heaved her weight anyway.

Dumped outside in safety. He went back in again.

This time the man met him halfway inside. He roared unintelligible language and pointed a gun. Assuming he was a Mende soldier, Jay attacked, kicked at him, disarmed him, and had him on his back in a minute. He deposited the confiscated gun away, and lifted his own firearm. "Your President Wallace fucking general Johnson is dead. I put a bullet in him myself."
He fired clean. Head, chest. The pounding of the gun echoed in the vast chamber, and Jay moved on.

The third body. Small. Heart beating. Blonde hair.


Damn it! It had been her the whole time! Heart racing, he knelt beside her lifeless form. The smoke grew thicker. He couldn't see the light of day, and would not know the exits if it weren't for the HUD marking his path. There was nothing to cover her face from the smoke, so he ripped part of her shirt, (and tried not to look at what was underneath) and wrapped it across her nose. Scooping her up, he ran for fresh air.

The HUD told him battle was ongoing, but dying faster than the loyalist troops. "Vanders. Come to me if you can!"

He laid Natalie outside, blonde hair splayed in the dirt, and knelt over her, wiping ash from her face.

Only darkness shows you the light.

Jay was a good leader, and Jared had no problem being his number two. His helmet was off, which was scary, but necessary. Knowing his magic could tire him, he used it only when needed or when ordered. He had no idea if there would be emergencies.

Jared aimed, taking out enemy soldiers. Jay was getting into it and was using the armor suit to it's full potential. At his orders Jared unleashed a column of air through their ranks. Soldiers fell like bowling pins, and Jared grinned slightly at it. SWAT had prepared him for this type of thing. He moved quickly but purposefully, providing cover fire for his team as much as taking out the enemy.

He was getting warm though. The suit kept him cool as much as possible, but unlike his brothers-in-arms, he was exposed to the elements. Jared sometimes coughed a bit at the smoke and other debris in the air. It wasn’t bad enough that he wanted to spend the time figuring out a spell to filter the air, and besides his magic needed to be saved for other reasons.

A grenade flew towards them and Jared, with enhanced senses reacted quickly. Using the same air spell, Jared diverted the grenade into a group of enemies. Caught by complete surprise, the group fell as the grenade went off.

Jared’s team was acclimating well. At the very least they were taking this all into stride. Not only was the entire situation chaotic, but they had someone in their midst who could move shit with his mind and throw balls of fire. Even if they believed, it wasn’t something that was seen everyday.

His team took cover behind a destroyed vehicle and fired, taking out more of the Loyalists. The battle was moving in their favor. A comm came into Jared’s ears. Jay needed him and it sounded fairly urgent. Jared turned to one of his men.

”Where is Legionnaire Carpenter?”

The soldier hesistated for a moment as he checked his HUD before pointing in the direction. ”We’re heading there, lead the way.”
Jared ordered.

Jared’s team made their way in that direction, picking off more soldiers as they did. Enemy fire was diminishing and at this point, was barely slowing them down. Jared was covered in sweat, his hair matted to his face. Before too long, Jared saw Jay over the body of a blonde woman. She looked familiar to him, but Jared didn’t pay too much attention.

Jared could see the look in Jay’s eyes. The look that said that he cared for her. Jared continued forward as the four other Legionnaires fanned out to the cover the trio. Jared knelt down besides Jay and took inventory of the woman’s injuries.

The woman had mostly small cuts, but they were deep and bleeding. A larger gash was on the back of her head. Jared could see the rising and falling of her chest that indicated she was still alive and breathing. A quick check of her jugular vein indicated she still had a pulse.

”Still alive,”
Jared said more for Jay’s comfort than his.

The question remained unasked. Jared knew exactly what Jay’s answer would be. Jared summoned his magic and began his healing spell. Cuts began to close and disappear, not even leaving a scar.

As Jared finished, he was breathing hard. The woman was stabilized and should be fine, but he was spent. He had very little in him. ”That’s all I have for now,”
he said.

A Legionnaire handed him a canteen and Jared passed it to Jay, indicating it was for the woman. He used his own to take a deep drink. Jared wasn’t sure how much more he could do.

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