Emerging from Warehouse 3, I found Dylan pacing back and forth outside the gate, muttering nervously to himself. “Hey, Dylan,” I called in greeting. “Is everything all right?”
Dylan glanced up sharply and stared at me for a moment, as though unable to believe what he was seeing. Then he took two long strides towards me and socked me squarely on the jaw. I fell back on my butt with a muffled ‘oomph!’
“You dimwit,” roared Dylan furiously, “what the hell were you thinking, taking on that demon like that? I thought you were a goner!”
I rubbed my jaw sullenly, checking my reflection in a nearby puddle of water. It looked and felt as though a bruise was forming where Dylan had hit me – a lovely, purple, fist-shaped bruise. Perfect.
“Look, I won, didn’t I?” I retorted defensively. “You ought to have a little more faith in me, man. I can handle myself just fine in a fight, thank you very much. Quite unlike some others I could name.”
“Handle yourself, my ass,” snapped Dylan peevishly. “I saw that stunt you pulled with the wrecking ball, kid. That was some quick thinking, I’ll admit. But what if the crane hadn’t been there? What if it hadn’t been enough? What then, eh?”
Dylan was about to commence with a full-blown lecture – I could see it in his heavily scowling expression – when I was saved by the interjection of another voice. “So this is he, I take it? I hope you won’t mind if I have a few words with your apprentice, Mr. Dylan.”
I looked up at the source of the voice, to find a young woman about my age looking down at me. She was pretty, with a slim but well-endowed figure, and elfin features. Wisps of blonde hair hung over a pair of intelligent green eyes, and a pert little nose and delicate, pink lips completed the picture. She was dressed in jeans and a tight-fitting white T-shirt that emphasized the curves of her body, and her blonde tresses had been pulled back into a ponytail, revealing smooth, fair skin and a slender neck. I had to admit, the look suited her very well indeed.
“Y-Yes, can I help you?” I stammered, caught off guard by the sudden appearance of this attractive girl. I checked myself, and swore under my breath. Way to make a first impression, Shane.
“I’m Angeline,” said the girl, offering me her hand. We shook, and she hauled me to my feet with a sharp jerk. She was surprisingly strong. “And you must be Shane, I presume,” she added.
I nodded, giving her a brief smile. Dylan huffed irritably and stalked off, muttering something that sounded vaguely like “this isn’t over yet”. I deliberately ignored him, keeping my attention on the girl instead.
“Not meaning to be rude,” I said, “but wasn’t there something that you wanted to talk to me about? We’re kind of on a schedule, here.”
“As a matter of fact, there is,” Angeline replied calmly. She took a deep breath, and said, “I’d like to join you and Dylan on your quest to defeat the Lord of Darkness.”
I started in surprise. This girl knew about what we were involved in? I looked at Dylan quizzically.
“She’s got a score to settle with the Lord of Darkness, too,” explained Dylan, somewhat gruffly. “Angeline seems to be able to handle herself in a tough situation. She was the one who helped me get the evacuees organized and kept them moving,” he added.
I cleared my throat loudly and raised my hand to forestall any further comment. “Whoa there,” I said. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Angeline, it’s all well and good that you can keep a cool head in times of danger. But you’ve seen the kind of adversary we’re dealing with here. This isn’t something that a girl like you should be involved in,” I finished firmly.
Angeline didn’t reply, but instead arched an eyebrow at my words. Moments later, I received a sharp blow to the chest and was sent stumbling backwards. Angeline hadn’t moved an inch, but it felt as though an invisible fist had struck me. I landed on my rump for the second time in as many minutes.
My jaw dropped open as I realized what had just happened. “Y-Y-you’re psychic,” I stammered, stunned.
“I am indeed,” agreed Angeline, her eyes sparkling with amusement at my dumbfounded expression. “I also have the ability to read minds, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Which you were,” she added casually, smirking, “along with a persistent interest as to what lies under my shirt.”
Mortified, I flushed a deep shade of crimson and moved away several paces, muttering a hurried apology. Regaining my composure, I mulled over the possible implications of Angeline joining our party. From an objective point of view, I really needed all the help I could get. Surely it couldn’t hurt to have an extra pair of eyes watching my back in combat. It might reduce the number of sticky situations that I found myself in, and would certainly do no harm to my odds of survival. That subjective part of my brain (the one that only males seem to have) heartily seconded the idea, too.
“All right, then. Welcome to the team,” I said, offering my hand to Angeline. She shook it firmly. “But no reading of minds unless I consent to it,” I added hastily. Angeline agreed, trying hard not to smile.
“So, where’s our next destination?” she asked promptly.
“First, we’ll need to grab some supplies,” stated Dylan. “Then, we’ll need to find some means of tracking down the Lord of Darkness. I have an old contact up north that’s savvy with these things. We’ll see what he can turn up and take it from there.”
Back at Dylan’s shop, we hurried through the process of packing our supplies for the next few weeks. The dried rations and canned food were evenly split into three backpacks, one for each member of our party. Hefting my bulky baggage in both hands, I couldn’t help but feel thankful that we had recruited an additional member to the team.
Dylan then set about arming himself and Angeline. For himself, Dylan selected an elegant katana and kodachi, which he strapped across his back with practiced efficiency. Angeline opted for a slim dagger and a belt of throwing knives, which she then concealed on her person by donning an innocuous-looking pink sweater. I stuck with Aequivalere and the metal shield that I’d picked up earlier. Once we were fully equipped for the journey, we piled into Dylan’s Jaguar and headed north.
The rest of the day passed without incident. We quickly hit the interstate, moving north rapidly. There wasn’t much in the way of scenery, apart from barren plains and the occasional mountain. For the most part, we drove in silence, stopping only once along the way to stretch our legs.
By midnight, we were all exhausted by the arduous drive north, and we decided to set up camp inside an abandoned petrol kiosk, with Dylan volunteering as cook for the evening. Meanwhile, Angeline and I unpacked the camp beds and prepared them for the night.
Dinner was ready within the hour. We were all ravenous, having had nothing to eat since morning, and we tore into our food with considerable gusto. Angeline kept mostly to herself, opting to finish her meal in solitude while Dylan and I discussed swordplay. Upon observing this, I excused myself and tramped over to her, mess tin in hand.
“Hey,” I said. “How’re you doing?”
Angeline had been deep in thought, but she glanced up sharply at my approach. “I’m fine,” she replied shortly, then returned to picking at her food.
I tried again. “So, what’s your story?” I asked, keeping my tone casually friendly.
Angeline regarded me thoughtfully, as though deciding whether to brush me off or answer my question. Apparently, she decided on a compromise, because she arched an eyebrow and replied, “What do you mean, ‘story’?”
“Well, what did you do to get the Lord of Darkness mad at you? I mean, you must have done something that really pissed him off, to get locked up in a cage like that,” I persisted.
Angeline was silent for a moment. Then she replied, “I didn’t do anything. That creep desired the use of my powers, so he kidnapped me and tried to make me pledge myself to his service. When I refused, he locked me in that cage, with promises to torture me until I yielded to him.”
“That’s just sick!” I exclaimed indignantly. “What about your parents? Didn’t they try to get you out?”
“They’re dead,” Angeline said quietly. “When they refused to hand me over, the Lord of Darkness had them killed. He made me watch while he did it.”
“I… I had no idea,” I whispered. “I’m sorry, Angeline. That evil son of a...”
Angeline covered her face with her hands, and a quiet sob shook her. I realized that she was crying. She rubbed at her eyes angrily and turned aside, unwilling to let me see her in her moment of weakness. I stood to one side awkwardly, unsure of what I could possibly do for her. She looked so small, and so miserable, that I wanted nothing more than to put my arms around her and tell her that everything would be all right. But I wasn’t sure of how she would respond to that.
Instead, I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll make him pay for what he did, I promise. He’s not going to get away with that.”
Angeline nodded and took several deep breaths to steady herself. After a moment, she wiped the last of the tears from her face and looked up at me. “What about you? Why is he after you?” she asked. Her voice still sounded a little raw.
I told her about everything that had happened, starting with my uncle’s death, the fire that had caused my parents’ deaths, and my subsequent encounters with the forces of the Lord of Darkness. “That’s why I’m going to make him pay,” I finished angrily. “What he’s done to my family and home is unforgivable!”
Now it was Angeline’s turn to look apologetic. “I’m sorry to hear about what happened to your family,” she said. “I guess we’re in the same boat then, huh?”
I nodded grimly. “Believe me, that freak doesn’t stand a chance. Between the two of us, he’s going to learn that he messed with the wrong people.”
Just then, Dylan called to us from behind the stove, “Hey, you kids about done yet? We’d better get a good night’s rest. It’ll be another long day tomorrow.”
We headed over to the cooking area and helped Dylan clean up. It felt wrong, somehow, but I guess a part of me felt relieved that I’d found someone else who was in the same situation. It was as though a weight had been lifted from me – not much, but enough to make me feel just a little better.
Dylan volunteered to take first watch, so Angeline and I retired to our respective camp beds for the night. I fell asleep within minutes of hitting the bed.
For the first time in over a week, I slept peacefully, untroubled by nightmares.