Ken’s furious expression melted away as soon as the dining hall doors closed behind him. The other paladins were waiting for him in the corridor.
“Two days.” Rett snickered as they started down the hall. “They lasted that long? If I recall, we didn’t make it one day.”
“Six hours,” Ken replied. “… almost. But we were younger than they are. They should have more self-control.”
“Speaking of control, that was impressive manipulation of the stimjuice,” Theis spoke up. “She’s a new trainee?”
Ken nodded, his expression contemplative. “Newly promoted, just started Candidate Training yesterday.” He glanced around to address everyone. “How far along in your training were you before you had that sort of control over your default?”
“That’s the sort of trick I wanted to learn to impress the senior paladins so they’d take me on as a protégé,” Thomas replied. The others agreed that sort of control wasn’t attained until they’d been acolytes for nearly ten years.
Ken paused before the Briefing Room door. “According to the records, Commander Turner’s default is ground.”
The others grew quiet. “Inherent?” Rett asked.
Ken shrugged. “Perhaps. I’m not willing to bet on it yet. I have a niggling feeling she’s hiding something, but I’m not sure what.”
The paladins entered the room and moved to fill the tiered seats. Angela and Lee both stiffened when they saw Anne at the front, waiting to begin the briefing.
Anne spoke up as Ken entered. “This briefing pertains to the Alfath, Paladin Creed.”
Ken stood his ground. “I imagine it does, Paladin Gilbert. But the members of The Order are my responsibility. I should be aware of their missions even if I am not directly involved.”
Lee spoke up from his seat. “He’s right, Anne. He should be apprised of all our missions, even ones relating to the Alfath. He can’t fulfill his duty otherwise.”
Anne smirked and responded with a curt nod. “Very well. I’m not paid enough to argue with all of you.” She waited for Ken to take a seat, then tapped a button on a control panel. A screen behind her lit up with a news report from Drasil, and the paladins watched vid footage of an explosion at a vacant school.
Anne glanced towards Ken as she tapped the control panel again, freezing the vid on the remains of a wall with AMARRAH burned into it. “The neighborhood is slated for renovation, so the school and surrounding houses were empty. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the playground adjacent the school. Five people including three children were taken to the local med center for shrapnel wounds.”
Another tap brought up a series of still images. “There was another, similar event a few weeks ago in Region Thelos. An abandoned warehouse burned down before firefighters could respond.” She highlighted a picture of a derelict truck with red lettering painted across the side. “There were no casualties in that instance, but Amarrah left her calling card there as well.”
A muscle in Ken’s jaw twitched at her words, but he remained silent.
The other paladins shook their heads. “That’s not a calling card.” Theis spoke up. “Ms. Creed wouldn’t do something like that.”
“Regardless, someone named her at both sites, and the media is asking questions.” Anne countered. “We sent a team to Thelos to observe the local investigation. At the time, local authorities declared it an act of vandalism unrelated to the fire, and our team did not find any proof to contradict that call.”
“Proof?” Thomas interrupted. “We know the significance of Amarrah to the Alfath. We should have taken over that investigation as soon as the truck was discovered.”
“That is not your…” Anne began.
“Hell, we should have been all over The Court when it collapsed.” Thomas continued, his ire rising. “Why is the Director’s Office willfully ignoring obvious Alfath activity?”
“Hold, Thomas.” Ken commanded. He met the younger man’s eyes. “You aren’t the only one frustrated by our recent inaction, but that is a discussion we will have another time.” He turned his gaze to Anne. “You were saying…”
Anne gave Ken a single, slight nod before continuing. “The Director wants concurrent investigations into Thelos and Drasil, and has authorized Paladin Sparks’ return to duty to better facilitate the mission.” She focused fully on Ken. “I was going to ask Rett to arrange everything, but as you pointed out, you’re Head of the Order. It’s up to you to assign teams, provided…”
“Provided I do not get directly involved with the operations,” Ken finished for her. “I have not forgotten the Director’s orders. Once administrative aspects are covered, I will return to training candidates.”
“Then I leave the organizing to you, Paladin Creed.” She turned to leave as Ken made his way to the front of the room.
Lee waited until the door closed behind Anne before speaking up. “This is bullshit, Ken. We know Thyla is behind this.”
Ken shook his head slightly. “We know The Court was destroyed by a cave-in three weeks after the Raqmu operation. We now know two separate locations have been destroyed and the word Amarrah was marked at both sites. Anything more at this point is conjecture. Your mission is to find the facts we’re missing. You’ll need two field teams with operations support. Theis isn’t cleared for any sort of duty, and Rett and Thomas are not ready to return to field work. That leaves Angie and Lee to lead the teams. Take whomever you deem necessary to get the job done.”
Angela and Lee looked at one another. “I’ll take Drasil,” Angela spoke up before Lee could say anything.
He frowned slightly at his mentor. “Are you sure? They could be drawing us out.”
“I’m sure.” She nodded. “I won’t be caught off-guard this time. We know the Alfath are involved and I won’t be alone. Besides, the Thelos fire was weeks ago, so most of the work will be examining evidence and reports from the initial investigation. You’re better at picking out details in records, so are more likely to find anything that might have been missed before.”
Ken kept his gaze on Angela until she met his look and arched a brow. Yielding, he consulted his tablet before turning to Rett. “Operations? Command Six has space for both teams. Thomas can back you up, and you can pull in anyone else you wish.”
Rett nodded. “Send word to Evy to meet us there.”
Ken issued the order before looking to Theis. “I know you are sidelined, but once we leave this room, I can’t be involved at all. Are you up for being on non-official, emergency stand-by should Rett need more people in Command?”
Theis nodded. “I have a med appointment this afternoon and will talk with them about clearing me for limited duty.”
“Then I should let you all get to your missions. I’ll be in the training hall if you need me.”
“Ken,” Rett followed him to the door and lowered his voice. “Are you sure you want me running command on this? The sooner I return to full duty, the sooner the director will try to push you out as Head of the Order. You’ll be cut out completely.”
“We aren’t exactly swimming in choices,” Ken reminded him. “Besides, I think it’ll be good for you to focus on work for a while. As for Head of the Order…” Ken shook his head slightly. “I’ll uphold my oath as best as Evans will allow, but I’m tired of trying to prove my loyalty. Whenever you are ready, I will gladly step aside.” He flashed a weary smile. “I should get back to my students.”