Kenneth Creed felt little relief as he drove up to the outpost garage. Technically, the mission had been a success even with the Director’s orders to withdraw. Technically, they rescued both his daughter and his best friend. But too much blood had been spilled on all sides, and of his team, Ken was the only one returning to headquarters physically unscathed.
Both Thomas and Theis were gravely wounded. After being tortured for over a month, Rett was to be detained as a prisoner until they could determine if the Alfath were able to co-opt his mind. As their new, de facto leader, Caelynn chose to stay with the Alfath in hopes of leading them down a new path. And in direct defiance of the director’s orders, Lincon chose to stay with her.
Technically, the mission was a success, but this wasn’t anywhere close to a win.
Angela’s voice came over comms just as he pulled into a parking bay and powered down the motors. “Ken, we have a problem.”
“Some things never change,” he sighed and reached for the van’s comms panel to turn on the display. His vitals output flashed as the health monitor embedded in his neck reported his quickened pulse when he saw Angela’s face on the screen.
“Nice to know I’ve still got it,” she chuckled.
Ken flashed a weary smile. “Another thing that will never change. What’s up?”
“The prisoner transport carrying Thyla never made it to the Raqmu detention facility. The van’s last reported location is a heavily wooded area with no civil monitoring to confirm location or status. We need you to take a team and check it out.”
“Understood. Who’s available?”
“Two lieutenants. Both are wrapping up Commander training, so they’ve already got a few years field experience under their belts. I also have a driver so you can focus on mission prep.”
“Send me their…” Ken stopped short when he saw the profiles appear on the screen. He allowed himself a gentle smile. “You always know what I need, Angie.”
“I’ll be sure you remember that next time we bicker. Sending orders now.”
Ken skimmed through the profiles while waiting for his team to arrive. Lieutenant Indigo Turner had completed four years in language studies at Tamarisk Academy before joining Dawn’s Light. She’d been top of her class in both the Academy and in recruit training, had been an exemplary guardian in the field, and was immediately accepted to commander training. Her file noted her talent for ground magic and her plan to apply to the Order as soon as she completed commander testing.
Jason Wolfe had been recruited to Dawn’s Light shortly after completing guardian training for Region Vish, when an incident on his first assignment revealed a talent for fire magic. Like Indigo, Jason maintained top ratings throughout his training, and the two vied for — and often shared — top placement in their classes. Also like Indigo, his file noted his intent to join the Order as soon as he completed his current training.
The lift doors dinged and the two lieutenants emerged from within, accompanied by a young man who looked far too young to be a member of Dawn’s Light. Ken stepped out of the van to meet them. Indigo’s eyes widened when she saw him but both lieutenants maintained professional demeanors as they introduced themselves. Ken turned his attention to the driver.
“Sergeant Rory Briggs, sir,” the young man volunteered instantly. “I know I look fourteen, but I promise I’m old enough to drive.”
The corner of Ken’s lips ticked up slightly. “Only thing I care about right now is that you know where you’re going and can follow orders.” He ordered the team into the van.
Ken, Jason, and Indigo discussed various scenarios they may encounter upon reaching the site, but nothing prepared them for what they found. Ken ordered Rory to stop the van as soon as he saw the prisoner transport on the side of the road with the back door hanging open. A uniformed figure lay sprawled on the ground next to the van.
Rory paled. “Is… is that a body?” He stared at the still form on the ground.
“Stay in the van and keep comms open.” Ken gestured for Indigo and Jason to follow him.
The three spread out as they approached the prisoner transport. Both Jason and Indigo drew stun pistols and scanned the woods on either side of the road. Ken kept his focus on the van and his hands free as he drew energy to him. They drew closer to the transport and noted a gruesome red splatter on the windows hinting at the horror that awaited them in the driver’s seat.
“Command, we have guardians down. Thyla is missing.” Ken ordered Indigo and Jason to investigate the body on the ground while he went to the front of the transport to check inside.
“Commander Socci is dead, sir.” Indigo called over. “Looks like they got him with a beidrekka dart.”
Ken peered in the transport windows before opening the door, and closed his eyes to fight back the wave of nausea that slammed over him.
“Sir?” Jason came up behind him, took one look into the van, and dashed for the woods to avoid vomiting all over their investigation.
Indigo stepped up next to Ken and looked through the window. “Amanda Flynn.”
Ken looked at her and quirked a brow.
Indigo nodded towards the headless torso slumped against the door. “Jason and I met her yesterday when we first arrived in Raqmu. That purple braid pinned to her uniform? Her little brother gave her that for good luck.” Though Indigo’s words remained soft and mournful, a fury burned in her eyes that made Ken blink. “She was really sweet and didn’t deserve this. Nobody does.”
“Dispatching forensics and cleanup teams,” Angela informed Ken over the comms. “Do what you can to find out what happened to Thyla.”
The trio steeled themselves to continue the investigation and tugged open the passenger-side door.
“Comm panel is destroyed,” Jason noted. “But it looks like internal and external monitoring systems are still intact. I’ll see if I can access them directly.” He removed a wall panel and unclipped a tiny electronics tool kit from his belt. Within a few minutes he had the flexscreen on the sleeve of his uniform hooked into the monitoring system and was scanning the recordings.
“The van wasn’t ambushed.” Indigo scowled. “None of the transport’s defenses were deployed, there is no external damage indicative of an attack, and blood splatter indicates Amanda was killed from inside the van.”
“Lieutenant Turner, what are you suggesting?” Ken turned his gaze on her.
“Not suggesting anything, sir, just noting facts.”
“I’ll suggest it,” Jason spoke up, his voice hard. He hit a few buttons on his flexscreen to transmit the vid from the transport monitors to Ken, Indigo, and the command center in Arion Valley.
The team watched the playback showing Commander Jeff Socci ordering Amanda to pull the van over before destroying the van’s comm panel and killing her. External cameras captured him releasing Thyla and her repayment by having him shot with a poisoned dart. “You’re a half-breed,” she sneered as he lay dying. “I really have no further use for you.” They watched as she climbed into a car driven by a petite, dark-haired woman.
“Traitor got what he deserved.” Indigo didn’t try to hide the venom in her voice.
“Arion, what sort of tracking can you give me on that car?” Ken strode back towards the van, beckoning Indigo and Jason to join him.
“None, Ken.” David Evans replied. “Return to Raqmu Outpost. We’ll have to concede defeat on this one and track her down later.”
Ken started to reply, but stopped himself, took a breath, and let it out slowly. “What about Caelynn and Lincon? They believe Thyla is contained. They are in danger and should be warned she’s escaped.”
“Negative,” David’s voice was firm. “Caelynn Creed and Lincon Sparks chose to remain with the Alfath and are no longer our concern.”
“Return to Raqmu Regional and prepare to return to Arion, Paladin Creed. That is an order.” Comms went quiet as the command center closed the connection.
Ken turned back to his team to find only Indigo awaiting his orders. She nodded to where Jason had moved a short distance away to talk with Rory. The driver paled, his expression changing from worry to shock to anguish. He bowed his head and covered his face with his hands, and Jason pulled him into a hug as his shoulders started shaking.
“Rory was fond of Amanda,” Indigo explained in a low voice. “She liked him, too, but both of them were too bashful to say anything to the other.”
Ken nodded slightly and turned his gaze away to give Jason and Rory some privacy. He looked at Indigo and quirked a brow. “You’ve been in Raqmu less than two days. How do you know all this?”
The lieutenant shrugged in response. “I heard a rumor that The Order runs on gossip. Figured I’d better be prepared for when I join.”
Ken glanced back to the prisoner transport. “We can only prepare for so much, Lieutenant.”