The sound of heaving echoed back to her from the white tile of the bathroom. It was a clean one, for a motel room, and if she stopped to think about who else had used the toilet, she might throw up again. Drained, she rested her head against the wall, the tile leeching some of the heat from her face. The day had been unprecedented.
MacKenzie Joan Davenport, Soldier of Light, retired, gazed in the mirror and tried to quell the shaking in her stomach. Blond hair hung in limp sections around her face, and her blue eyes were gray at the moment, the fatigue showing around the edges. It had been almost 5 years since she retired, and pulled out of the war between Light and Dark. There was always a war, as the balance had to be actively maintained. But warriors, they came and went. Her own Jack had passed, and it had been her choice to withdraw from the field. Chancy, at best. Pointless, now.
Flipping the switch, she moved back to the main room of the motel’s suite, and froze. Her daughter slept still on the large bed, curled sideways around the pillows, her pale blond hair covering her small features. As she watched, her visitor ran clawed fingers through those soft locks, brushing the hair from Joellen’s face, gentle and tender in his motions. Her knees went to jelly, and she sank into the chair nearest her, her eyes never leaving his hands. No sword, nor hope, just her and her 4-year-old daughter at the hands of the devil.
He looked the part. Azione, red-skinned leader of a motley crew of… bad. Thieves, murderers, there were even tales that he had converted a warrior of the light to be his soldier. For all she knew, he was exactly as the stories had told him: bold, daring, devoted to the balance, and if that meant dark deeds, well, he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Azione was the most frightening of the creatures she could think of, for he followed his own code and the stories showed him to be unpredictable. He had done cruel things, it was true, but he had also gone out of his way to save lives.
They sat in silence for a time. Then, unhurried and deliberate, Azione leaned back against the headboard and met her eyes. There was mirth there, may the gods damn him. And also a kindness that made Mackenzie nervous.
“I hope you are comfortable.” Azione spoke in a mild baritone, pleasant to the ear. His accent could have been upscale in any number of languages, the sounds rounded and polished like someone who practiced speech. Mac licked her lips nervously, her eyes shifting to her daughter, and nodded. “Doubtless, you have questions.”
Questions had begun for her the moment she came home from work, to find the front door ajar and her daughter gone. The woman who watched Joellen on those days Mac had business outside the house had explained, dream-eyed and calm, that her guardian had come while Mac was out. The woman held an envelope with instructions to come here, to this motel. Alone. Terror had lanced through her, and anger. She had stayed away! From it all, sticking to her acres of land and her life and her daughter. Damn the Balance! Closing her eyes to calm herself, Mac gently sighed, and then met Azione’s gaze again.
“Many questions, of course. Why was I… invited here?” Mac tried to keep the anger out of her voice. Azione’s amusement seemed to grow, though, so perhaps she hadn’t done as well as she had hoped.
“I have need of your skills. The Balance is tilted, and must be righted. It is your duty to assist in such things.” Azione folded his long fingers at his belt, his eyes laughing at her.
“Perhaps you had not heard; I have retired. I do not fight for the Light anymore. Nor will I raise a hand for the Dark. I wish to live in peace with my daughter, as far from the battle as I can get.” Mac frowned as his smile grew.
“Oh, I had heard. Indeed, it took me a few years to find you, so well were you off the grid. I tried searching your sword, which I note you no longer have. I also spoke to several of your old acquaintances, who had no idea where you had disappeared to. As I am sure they still do not.” He had her, he meant. Foolish now to regret that decision, to separate herself from all of it. But there were many who didn’t believe retirement possible. Many who would have constantly tried to talk her back into the battle, or would have kept her up to date. Mac had hoped a clean break would truly grant her the time to raise her daughter. The isolation worked against her now.
“I have no sword, nor armor. I have no powers to offer you.” She swallowed in a dry sandpaper throat, her tongue sticking to the back of her teeth for a moment. “I gave it up, don’t you see? There was to be nothing to draw me back with. My skills are gone. I will be of no use to you.” Mac heard the desperate note in her voice and willed herself silent. Had she fallen so far, as to plead with him, beg him?
“Yes, I do understand. But still you can serve me, I promise. And tomorrow you and I shall begin, by visiting a point of Tilt, and fixing it. Don’t worry about the girl, I have arranged a sitter.” He smiled at these words, and Mac’s heart dropped. He turned back to look at her daughter, one finger tracing a path down her cheek, claw delicately touching Joellen’s fair skin. He rose then, and bowed to her. “Do get some rest. I will return in 8 hours.”
He rose then, and Azione towered about her. His horned head brushed the ceiling, and he walked toward the door with confidence. He glanced back, and smiled toothily at her. “Good night, my dear. I promise, all will be well tomorrow.” He walked through the door then, and the shadows seemed to rise up to meet him, swirling around until even the silhouette disappeared. A moment later, the guard outside the door peered around the edge, and silently closed the door.
Alone, Mackenzie rushed across the room to Joellen. Who slept on, seemingly unharmed. She had been playing with a complex collection of knots when Mac had shown up this evening, her attention wholly on her task. The guard who had let her in had instructed her to put the knot into a drawer, and in a moment Joellen had blinked and sprang up to hug her. Sick in her heart, Mac had held her. Dinner had been delivered, and they had passed the time until bed watching Nick Jr. and snuggling on the bed. Joellen had fallen asleep just a few minutes before Mac’s visit to the bathroom.
She couldn’t protect her. These last years had been magic, peaceful, happy times. And now, her past would cost Joellen. Unless… But that was stupid. Wasn’t it? After all, she would lose her daughter if she… How could she even be thinking this? Her daughter was the entire point! Her safety, her childhood, her smile… Mac felt her stomach lifting again and breathed in. Deep, deep, breath touching the calm places in her mind, she sank slowly to the floor, resting her head on the side of the bed.
It was a hard choice. For several hours, she went over the details, over the consequences, over her choices. Over and over. It might work. It might save Joellen. But it would doom her. Quietly, she gathered the meager supplies from the kitchen. Salt, a small metal pot, water, and a short silver knife. She sat for several minutes, staring at the still form in the bed. Mac would never see her grow up. But she could call for help. And that would best serve her daugher.
* * *
Dawn broke the darkness in the room. Her tears were long gone, her resolve hard like steel around her shoulders. It hurt, and yet was familiar to take up her mantle once more. Plate clanked as she shifted, and she stilled, facing the door, her steel drawn and planted before her, focus to her thoughts and mind. Power coursed through her veins, elevating her to heights she hadn’t felt in 5 years. And as the first rays of the new sun glinted off her armor, the door opened. The Warrior of Light stood, her hair tied back in her helm, her sword in her hand, her eyes hard. Azione smiled in the doorway, his eyes sweeping a lazy circuit up her body, walking a few steps boldly into the room. She met his eyes, her own hard and calculating, no tremor betraying her. She could face anything, in this armor.
After a moment, the man cleared his throat. “Well, I see our business is concluded. I do hope you will visit me again, Mrs. Davenport. Perhaps your daughter, as well.” His lazy smile was smug, and she hated him for it. She shifted, walking forward a few paces until they were shoulder to shoulder. He had manipulated her. He had used her and her daughter to correct the Balance. A dangerous deviance, created by her own hand. The night had shown her that. Her decision to walk away had left a void in the Light, and no one had stepped forward to fill it. And yet, he had no right to force her to take up the mantle again. No right, but all the power. Mackenzie hated him for it.
“You made a choice for me. Remember, because I certainly will. And next time, the Balance may shift in my favor. I will never forgive you,” Mackenzie coldly informed him, her eyes piercing and angry.
“And the girl? I would never harm a child, you know.” Azione smiled as Mac frowned at him, her grip on the sword visibly tightening.
“My child is beyond your reach, and will remain so. One day, she will take up the mantle of Warrior, and I curse you for it. Azione, master of chaos, I promise you I will repay you someday.” Anger twisted her features, and for a moment it looked as if Mackenzie would raise her sword. The Warrior hesitated, though, and without a backward glance, strode out of the room. The guard ducked inside a moment later.
“Should I pursue her, sir?”
“No need. My goal has been achieved. Let us retire for now, and I will consider our next move.” Azione stared after the warrior, no smile to light his lips. What he had done was for the Balance, but that was a fickle thing, constantly shifting and moving. He had kept a step ahead of the Balance for years. He may have reached too far, with this choice.