Taste of Torment Page 29

Fletcher was quiet for a minute, and I could tell his little mind was working away. “Maybe you should at least wait until after the announcement has been made. There’s a possibility that it’s something that could cause a little dispute between you, and you don’t want to be at odds with him at a time like this.”

That was a good point. “I just don’t like that something’s playing on his mind. And, yeah, it’s irritating me that I don’t know what it is. But mostly, I’m worried about him. He’s been through enough these past few weeks.” How he hadn’t snapped, considering his total lack of patience, I wasn’t sure.

“Then be here for him now. Don’t push him at a time when he needs you. You know you’re the only person he lets himself need; the only person who he wholeheartedly trusts. This is a time when you should be at each other’s side, presenting a united front and facing all these changes together and all that stuff.”

Why did he have to be right?

“You can spare the poor sod a little more time, can’t you?”

“Fine,” I grumbled.

Fletcher smiled, reaching over to pat my hand. “That’s my girl.”

At that moment, Jared appeared beside me. Speak of the randy devil…

As usual, Fletcher melted at the sight of him. With a dreamy sigh, he got to his feet. “Don’t mind me. I’ll let myself out.” He gave me a look that said Remember what I told you. “See you later.” In vampire speed, he was gone from the apartment.

Jared held out his hand. “Ready?”

Smiling, I took his hand. “Yep.” In a blink, we were at the arena. The squad was filing inside, talking loudly and laughing.

When Max glanced around the spectator area and found it empty, he turned to me. “They’ve seriously gone?”

“They left last night,” I confirmed. The entire squad whooped at that. I felt like whooping along with them. I’d missed being able to work without having someone hovering over me, noting every itty bitty thing that I did and criticising my every move. Knowing that my shadow was gone and that the bitch of the century was no longer around to flirt with Jared, I couldn’t help smiling. Life was good.

“I heard that they’d left,” began Denny, “but I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t think of anything that would make them up and go like that.”

When Jared and I exchanged a smile, Reuben narrowed his eyes. “What did you do, Coach?”

“Are they still alive?” asked David.

Affronted, I huffed. It would take more than annoying behaviour to make me lose my cool enough to kill someone. “Yes, they’re still alive.”

“Damn,” muttered Damien. The others looked equally disappointed.

“Tell me you at least maimed them or something,” pleaded Stuart. Beside him, Harvey seemed hopeful.

Jared chuckled. “It was tempting, but no, they’re both still in one piece.”

Chico stroked his goatee. “Then how did you get them to leave?”

I joined my hands behind my back. “Let’s just say that since the case will undoubtedly be dropped, there was no reason for them to stick around and observe us any longer.”

“Which means we can work you as hard as we need to,” said Jared, grinning impishly. “So let’s move on quickly from the subject of those a**holes because they’ve wasted enough of our time as it is.” The squad nodded, their expressions now determined. “Sam and I expect you to give your all tonight. Anything less is unacceptable, because there is absolutely no excuse in the world why you can’t give it to us after how average your recent training sessions have been.”

To their credit, they appeared to welcome the challenge as opposed to feel disheartened by it. But then, no doubt holding back for so long had been frustrating – a little like driving a Porsche but only being able to travel at thirty miles per hour.

From the very first minute of the training session, Jared and I worked the squad hard. We had to. It was imperative that they were at their best, because the worry that lay in the back of my mind was that if something happened to me, Jared would instantly die too, and then the squad would be alone. As such, smack bam in the middle of a particular training exercise, I interrupted with, “Did you hear that outside?” The false panic that I’d injected into my voice had them all tensing, instantly alert. “It sounded like…an explosion.” Wide-eyed, they listened intently.

Jared frowned. Baby, what are you doing?

Trust me. When the squad heard nothing and their unease melted into confusion, they glanced at each other questioningly.

“Coach, I didn’t hear anything,” said Butch.

“That’s because there was no explosion. But imagine if there was. Imagine if, while you lot are training or lounging around or playing basketball, you suddenly hear that The Hollow’s defences have been breached. Worse, a battle is now ensuing. Furthermore, Jared and I have been captured and quite possibly killed. What do you do?”

Shocked by my abrupt change in exercise, they didn’t move or speak. Interrupting their exercises for any reason wasn’t something that I usually did. But I was doing it to make a point.

“The last time the walls were attacked, we knew in advance thanks to a vision from Luther, and we were well prepared. But Luther doesn’t foresee everything. And if you think that the next vampires who attack – and vampires will eventually attack this place again one day – will do so while you’re alert and ready, you’ve got another thing coming. They’ll want to use the element of surprise and catch you off-guard. They’ll try to remove Antonio, Jared, and me from the equation first – not only because we’re powerful, but because it would affect everyone’s morale in a huge way and instil utter fear in you all. So, I’ll say it again: let’s imagine this place has been infiltrated, that you don’t have commanders now, that you need to rely on each other…what do you do?”

As I’d expected, they each cast glances at Chico, naturally looking to him for leadership. Noticing that, he straightened to his full height, accepting the responsibility. “That’s where I come in.”

Jared folded his arms across his chest. “And what is it that you’ll do, Chico?” Understanding how my mind worked, Jared now knew exactly what the purpose of all this was. “You’re now responsible for your squad’s safety and you have to lead them into battle, it’s now down to you to guide them.”

“I’d pair us up, just like how Coach told us to pair up during the last battle. Salem with Reuben, me with Damien, Stuart with Denny, David with Butch, and Max with Harvey. That way, everyone has someone looking out for them whose gift complements theirs in some way.” The rest of the squad nodded, seemingly pleased with the plan.

“You wouldn’t decide to simply charge into the battle as a whole to compensate for not having us with you?” I asked, pursing my lips.

“No, because we’ll already be shaken by you guys not being there. The worst thing to do would be to deviate from what we’ve been trained to do. We’d stick to what we know.”

I smiled. “Excellent answer.” I spoke to them all then. “We’re your commanders and we’re powerful, but we’re not invincible. If something were to happen to us, you will still be expected to fight alongside the other squads. You cannot afford to dwell or to have a moment of doubt. You need to turn any emotions you feel into fuel, and you need to protect this place and the people within it.”

“I know what it’s like to suddenly find yourself without a commander,” said Jared, beginning to slowly pace. “It happened to the squad I joined when I was first accepted into the legion. It’s scary. It’s a shock to your system. It can shake your confidence. And that’s exactly what your enemy would be counting on in that situation. No other commander would try to lead you because they wouldn’t know enough about you and your capabilities. It would mean that you guys were on your own.”

Unease snaked around the entire squad as they cast each other nervous glances.

“But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” continued Jared. “You know each other inside out. You know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. You know who the best strategist is, who is the fastest, who is the stealthiest, and who is physically the strongest – you know all of this information, and you can take advantage of it.”

“We’re going to try something a little different now.” Tapping into the energy of the earth, I built a large wall near the far end of the arena. Following that, I added a few ledges to the rear of it before springing to the top and perching myself on the edge. Jared joined me. “I want you to imagine that this wall is the entrance of a building. Commander Michaels and I have been captured and you suspect that we are being kept behind it. For all you lot know, we could in fact be dead”

“Until we knew for sure, we wouldn’t assume that you were dead,” growled Chico. “We’d do our damn best to get into that building.” The others all nodded, looking resolute.

I couldn’t help be touched by that. “The problem is that it’s well guarded. The other issue is that you’re being pursued from behind. Wouldn’t it be best to concentrate on keeping yourselves safe?”

“You wouldn’t leave us behind, and we wouldn’t leave you behind,” Salem firmly stated, and I knew he was referring to the assignment that had led to me being tainted.

“Exactly,” said Denny.

“So, then, what next?” Jared asked Chico.

“Next, I’d do what you guys would do: I’d split the squad into two. Five of us would work on getting into the building while the other five covers us. I know it would mean deviating from pairing up, but that particular situation would call for it.”

Pleased, Jared gave him a nod of respect. “How exactly would you split the squad?”

“I’d have Harvey, Reuben, Damien, David, and Butch cover Salem, Max, Denny, Stuart, and me.”

I smiled. “Good thinking, Chico. I’m going to ask you all to split up just like that now.”

Brows drawn together in confusion, they obediently divided into two groups.

“Chico, you and the four who you believe would be the best choice to invade this building are going to try to do exactly that.”

“Are you and Commander Michaels going to fend us off?” asked Stuart, getting into position in the middle of the arena with the rest of his team.

“No. Harvey, Reuben, Damien, David, and Butch are going to do that. I agree with you, Chico – they make a good defensive team. Now it’s up to you to get past them in order to save your commanders, assuming we’re still alive, that is. If any of you receive what would be classed as a ‘fatal’ hit if Reuben hadn’t weakened your gifts for the training session, you’ll be expected to sit in the spectators’ area. Harvey, I’m making you leader of your team.” He grinned at that and pulled his members aside.

As both teams engaged in a huddle, Jared and I jumped down from the wall and sat in the front row of spectator seats. The commanders had now been removed from the equation, and the squad had to think for themselves.

From where they stood in the centre of the arena, Chico’s team made the first move. Chico aimed a spray of thorns at Butch, who was covering David, the strongest link, at the top of the wall. They both ducked by squatting on one of the ledges that I’d added to the rear of the wall. Instead of retaliating, David psychically ‘zapped’ Max before he had the chance to rob their senses, taking him out. But it was no more than a minute later that a psychic hit from Salem removed Butch from Harvey’s team. Salem had obviously thought that he would then have a clear shot at David, but he’d greatly underestimated him. David did very well at using the building as cover. Jared and I had trained him never to rely on Butch, to be prepared to protect himself if the need arose, and he had clearly listened extremely well.

Each time anyone from Chico’s team came near the wall, Reuben would dash from behind it – the bloke was seriously fast – and attack, simultaneously weakening their gift. At that point, Harvey would send their ‘attackers’ flying away; never attacking from the same spot twice. Damien worked at diverting the attention of Chico’s team by making them target his astral self while he kept his physical body safe behind the wall. This then gave David a chance to eliminate those who were distracted by Damien. In no time at all, David had gotten rid of Salem and Stuart. Denny eventually snatched Reuben with his yellowy-green ooze, chucking him aside. That then left Harvey, Damien, and David against Chico, Stuart, and Denny.

Stuart repeatedly did his best to get near the wall in particle form, but Harvey always managed to send those particles swishing away. Apparently determined to get rid of Harvey, Denny took a massive chance: able to leap high distances like a copepod, he abruptly jumped to the top of the wall, where Harvey was currently situated. He wrapped himself around Harvey, and took him to the ground – eliminating them both from the exercise, but giving his own team a better chance.

Chico made a quick dash for the wall, shooting thorns at Damien’s astral self. David managed to psychically hit Chico before he could reach them, taking him out. But Stuart, still in particle form, took advantage of David being distracted by Chico and literally swished around the wall, reaching Damien before he had the chance to return to his body. Despite that there was only one of Chico’s team ‘alive’, all of them still cheered and made a huge fuss of Stuart.

I was truly impressed. They had done a lot better than I’d been expecting. They hadn’t had to work so hard in a while, and this was the first time that they had been instructed to act without any guidance from Jared or me. They had rose to the challenge, met it head-on, and given it everything they had. A commander couldn’t ask for more.

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