“It’s Confidence,” Worry reported. clutching her clipboard with nervous fingers. “She’s been missing for a week or two.”
The faces along the board table were grim.
“We’re only learning about this now?” asked Strategy.
“Yes ma’am,” Worry mumbled toward her toes. “I’ve been raising the alarm all along but Indecision was in charge of my unit last week and…”
“We get it,” Decision interrupted. “We need to assemble a team. Last known coordinates?”
“Do you remember the trip to the bookstore?” Worry asked.
The occupants of the board table groaned in unison.
“We ought to have seen this coming,” Strategy sighed. “She didn’t consult me at all before going in there.”
“I think she was trying to take action before she overthought it,” Courage said with an apologetic smile toward Strategy. “Worked, too,” she added. “She spoke with the store owner about hosting a book signing when she launches her next novel.”
“Sure,” Worry said. “Then the ghouls showed up.”
A clatter of weapons and gear hitting the floor turned everyone’s heads to the entrance. Warrior stood panting, her clothing torn and singed. Puffs of what could have been steam or smoke lifted from her back and shoulders.
“Not just ghouls,” Warrior reported. “We suspect there’s a hydra.”
Horrified silence followed this news. Warrior winked at Worry as she strode past and presented herself directly before the board table.
“We’ve been fighting ghouls of every shape and size since the event,” Warrior said. “Common ones, like Spelling and Grammar, have the strength of beasts suddenly. I fought off a ghoul this morning that chanted ‘teenage kid or teenaged kid’ in repetition.”
“This is more serious than we suspected,” Worry exclaimed.
“Why do you suspect a hydra?” Strategy asked.
“We’ve identified several voices already,” Warrior said. “The husband, of course. It’s an old argument about whether she should publish independently. In this round, he’s accusing her of being a coward.”
“I think you mean,” a voice said from the entrance, “that he’s saying she only self-published because she received one rejection and gave up on traditional publishing.”
Reason unloaded her steaming gear and joined Warrior and Worry before the board table.
“Same thing,” Warrior muttered.
“Not the same,” Reason countered. “I also don’t think it’s a direct quote. He must have said something similar and she’s obsessing on what was behind his words. The single rejection thing isn’t even true. Have you covered the store owner’s voice?”
“The store owner’s voice is spouting everything the store owner didn’t say,” Warrior continued. “‘People claiming to be writers are a dime a dozen,’ ‘the fact that we’re having this conversation tells me that you’re an amateur,’ that kind of thing.”
“She didn’t say any of that,” Truth objected, speaking up for the first time. “It was a lovely conversation. We thought the store owner was very gracious. We were grateful that she treated us so professionally.”
“That’s why we think the hydra is guarding Confidence,” Reason said. “Without Confidence, the ghouls are out of hand. If we don’t get her back soon, we’re going to have real trouble.”
“Any other heads?” Strategy asked.
“We suspect one represents every author she’s seen speak about the hardships of getting anywhere in the publishing world,” Reason said.
“You haven’t seen the hydra for yourselves?” Strategy asked.
“No ma’am,” Warrior answered with apparent agitation.
“I accept responsibility for that decision, ma’am,” Reason said. “The ghouls down that corridor are gnarly and the voices we spoke of are issuing from an area of shadows. I didn’t feel right moving in without first consulting the board for guidance.”
“Quite right,” Strategy approved.
“Nonsense,” scoffed Decision. “You have our permission to proceed.”
“Respectfully, ma’am,” Reason said, “we need reinforcements. We’re down one. Without Confidence on our team…”
“We’ll be fine,” Warrior said.
“We’ll be in trouble,” Reason finished.
All eyes turned to Truth, who sighed.
“I’m not a fighter,” she said.
“You’re our best fighter,” Reason countered, carefully avoiding Warrior’s gaze.
Truth studied her hands. “It’s been such a while since I’ve had to fight,” she said. “I truly don’t care for it.”
“You never miss,” Warrior said, surprising everyone.
Truth and Warrior gazed at each other.
“Please,” Warrior said at last.
_ _ _ _ _
The team in the dark corridor that day prepared their weapons in silence. There was no need for words. Each knew their duties. Each understood the risks. Finally, there was nothing left to prepare. Still, they waited, watching several ghouls dare to draw close.
“She’s coming,” Warrior assured.
The others nodded but said nothing. They each tried not to listen to the strength-sapping words issuing from the voices that echoed down the corridor. The lights were off in the region where the voices originated but they each had a good idea of what to expect. They’d fought hydras before and it was never pretty.
A light glimmered behind them and Warrior grinned in satisfaction. It was nearly blinding by the time Truth came into view. Her armor gleamed as if a cool sun drifted toward them. Shadows fled. The ghouls quieted and drew back hesitantly.
Truth joined the small rescue team with a solemn expression. In her presence, each of the others drew themselves to their full height. Warrior, Reason, Determination, Audacity and Hope stood in their moment of glorious wholeness before battle. They each nodded, ready to follow Truth’s lead.
“Audacity,” she said, “I want you to take the speaking authors. Determination, you’ve grappled with the husband head on other hydra. Are you up to it?”
Both Audacity and Determination nodded.
“Good. I’ll go after the heart. Reason, you take the store owner and Warrior, you’ll handle all of the ghouls. Hope, we’re relying on you to cover our backs. Anything we miss, catch it before it catches us.”
Warrior’s eyes gleamed with hungry anticipation. Reason shifted her stance. Hope smiled.
“The words these heads speak are lies, and though we all know it, lies still have the power to undermine us. If you feel yourself weaken, look to me. Understood?”
Again, nods said that the team was ready.
Truth pulled a gleaming arrow from her quiver while the team sheltered their eyes against the blazing light of unfiltered fact. Truth launched the arrow down the corridor, past the ghouls, into the heart of the shadows. A huge, multi-headed shape became visible, squirming away from the light with angry hisses and squeals.
The team launched forward, Warrior cutting through the ghouls while the others took aim at their respective heads. The fight was terrible. Warrior fought fiercely. Determination pushed past injuries that would have felled anyone else. Audacity laughed while she battled, clearly enjoying herself. Reason did her work silently and efficiently. Truth embodied the poetry of light and movement. Hope was everywhere the others were not. Together, they finally managed to conquer the howling hydra.
There, behind the destruction, lay Confidence. She was barely recognizable.
“Healer!” Reason called.
They lifted Confidence gently and brought her to a bed hastily constructed of blankets pulled from packs. A jacket transformed into a pillow for their unconscious friend. Reason helped apply field dressings to Determination’s wounds while they waited.
Soon they heard running footsteps. They each savored a deep breath as the air freshened and took on the scents of spring. Small flowers began to blossom along the corridor’s previously decrepit walls. Failed light bulbs mended themselves and filled with fireflies. Within minutes the corridor was transformed into light and fresh greens.
Health came into view with her team of healers. It was a short while later, when Confidence finally opened her eyes, that everyone finally relaxed. They were going to be okay. Incredibly, despite everything, they’d be alright. They laughed together in the bright corridor, which now resembled a forest.
“Thank you, Truth,” Confidence said, not for the first time. “I know what it means to you to put on armor.”
“I’ll always be here for you,” Truth replied, smiling serenely. “And I won’t put my armor away just yet.”
This brought a surprised silence to the celebrations.
“Why not?” Warrior asked.
“Well,” Truth said, “Confidence is going to be in danger for a while, isn’t she?”
She was met by blank stares.
“This was the introductory conversation,” Truth explained. “We have a long road ahead of us before this book gets published. And even after it’s out in the world, that doesn’t mean Confidence is safe.”
All eyes turned to Confidence, who groaned miserably.
“I’m going to request a protection detail,” she sighed.
“We aren’t going to leave your side,” Audacity assured.
Nods all around indicated the agreement of the rest of the team.
“We’re with you to the end,” added Determination.
Confidence smiled. “Well then,” she said. “Let’s do this.”