Stand 23-VI

Care So Much.

I almost thought I'd imagined it. Surely, I'd imagined it. There couldn't actually-

“You understand we absolutely cannot take that risk, right?”

No crap.

“On the plus side, we now have something to distract you yet again from having to face hard reality.”

Shut. Up.

If the scream had been real, Paladin didn't seem to have heard it. She charged at me again, throwing herself off the edge of the platform towards where I stood. I moved to throw myself out of the way, but my weight was off, and instead of dodging, I tripped over my own feet and tumbled roughly. I still managed to move mostly out of the way, but the edge of my foot got clipped by the passing rush, and that, uh.

Hurt.

It didn’t go smokey like the other injuries. It felt exactly like something had hit my very real foot, very very hard. Panicked and not thinking properly, I tried to get back onto my feet, to move away, putting my weight on it, which immediately made it spike with pain and collapse out from under me.

Not now, not now. Biting the inside of my cheek to fight back the pain, I stood again, distributing my weight so I actually could support myself.
Paladin was turning around behind me, somewhat awkwardly given the size of the tracks. She seemed to be heavily focused on me, now. Before she'd constantly tried to run off, but now she kept coming for me, again and again and again. I guess I'd pissed her off.

I began hobbling towards the platform, forcing myself not to look back at the thrashing noises from behind me. I could go intangible and not worry about being hit, but I was worried she'd just… lose interest? Like a cat; if you keep dangling the string and pulling it away, they'll keep on going for it, but if you just hold it out of reach they'll lose interest. Also, ghosting right now seemed to be robbing me of some of my mass. I guess the damage meant that when I let the mass go, I couldn’t get it all back. It might’ve just been a one-time thing, but I wasn’t sure I could take that risk.

I reached the edge of the platform, and hauled myself up just as Paladin slammed into the wall below me. The ground shook precariously, and I nearly lost my balance before recovering. The shaking only lasted a second, but it was immediately followed by the painfully loud groan of metal under stress.

Oh, that’s not a good sound. Paladin was bull-in-a-china-shop-ing her way around the place, and although everything had held so far, we were still suspended something like five stories off the ground, and supports could only do so much. I picked up the pace, turning the hobbling into an awkward skip-jump.

The scream had happened while Paladin was around the middle of the platform, where a supporting beam had collapsed, crushing a few vending machines and a ticket booth. I managed to make it halfway across the platform before Paladin clambered up behind me.

I spun around awkwardly, preparing to move again as she charged.

Wait, the rubble! If I dodged, she'd charge straight through the pile that the scream had come from. If someone was trapped in there when Paladin hit it…

I abandoned my preparations, and squared up.

This was going to hurt.

I skidded backwards across the ground as Paladin slammed into me, feet carving trenches out of the ground. My arms burned, the bones flaring with white-hot pain like I’d just tried to punch a solid brick wall, legs feeling like they were going to compact to half their size. I screamed, throat raw, but I didn’t fall, and slowly we ground to a halt, a few feet in front of the rubble.

Panting heavily, vision wavering, I looked up to find Paladin’s head inches from mine. Half of a tooth, attached to a bloody nub of flesh, hung in the golden light in front of me, but I was too tired to recoil in disgust. My hands were both still occupied holding her in place, so I did the only thing I could and smashed my head into hers, as hard as I could.

We both went reeling away, both of us screaming. My head spun, ringing with pain, and I leant against a large piece of rubble to steady myself.

Oh god, I think I’m going to be sick.

“You’d just vomit smoke at this point.”

Honestly, that sounds better. I took a deep breath, and managed to look up with only a minimal amount of nausea. Paladin was still reeling, but if I’d shaken it off that quickly, she probably would too, and I still needed time-

I looked down at where my hand was resting.

Yeah, that’ll do.

Paladin finally managed to get her feet back under her, a second before the chunk of rubble I threw at her smashed into her and sent her flying backwards. That should buy me a little bit of time.

I quickly surveyed the rubble, looking for- there! A sort of alcove had formed, where a few large pieces were propped up against each other. I rushed over, and bent down to look inside.

Curled up at the back was a small girl, in a large puffy jacket, mittens and a beanie. Her eyes were full of tears, and as she saw me, they widened, and a muffled scream forced its way out through the hands covering her mouth.

“Hey, hey,” I said softly, unsure. “It’s gonna be… okay?”

“Don’t make it a question!”

Look, I’m not good at this, okay? The kid just kept on crying, sniffling into her hands. She didn’t seem to be hurt, or trapped, but it wasn’t hard to imagine how terrifying all this would’ve been.

“Hey,” I repeated, a little more confidently. “It’s alright. I’m not gonna hurt you, okay?” On impulse, I pulled up my goggles. “My name’s Wisp. What’s yours?”

“...Naomi,” she whispered at last. She did seem a little less scared now.

“Naomi, huh? That’s a cute name.” I glanced over my shoulder. Paladin was getting back. “Naomi, I know it’s scary, but I’m gonna get you out of here, okay? I just need you to come out.”

She sniffled. “...a-are you… a-are you a hero?”

Sure, why not. “Yep,” I said, trying to sound confident. “It’s okay, Naomi. We’ll get you back to your parents in no time.”

Slowly, hesitantly, she began to crawl out of the space.

“That’s it,” I said encouragingly, “that’s the spirit.” Another glance over my shoulder showed Paladin getting ready to charge us. “If you could go just a little bit faster, though, that’d be-”

Paladin roared and lowered her head, and Naomi gave a start.

“Screw it.” She was close enough now that I could grab her and pull her out, as I slid my goggles back down over my eyes. “Sorry!” I said as I tucked her into the crock of my arm. “But we’re a bit short on-”

The entire station lurched alarmingly, nearly tripping me up. Naomi screamed, and honestly I could empathise.

Didn’t faze Paladin, though. I glanced desperately around, but I couldn’t see any stairs that weren’t blocked off by rubble.

Rock and a hard place.

“Naomi,” I said as I began to back up, “I need you to hold on, okay? Can you do that?”

Slowly, she nodded.

“Great,” I said. I gave what I really hoped was a confident smile, and jumped over the edge of the platform.

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