Chapter 1 - Interrupted
“Breathe,” I sent softly, just as the thin band of my palmlight buzzed against my wrist again. The third incessant buzz in as many minutes. “Just breathe,” I repeated, possibly more to myself than to Elise. “Let your senses flow.”
I closed my eyes. Tried for my own deep breath. It came like sucking air from a vacuum. A remnant of the punctured lung that’d already had two cycles to heal? Sure. Maybe. Definitely not apprehension over my buzzing palmlight and all the unwelcome scud it no doubt heralded—scud I was in no mood to think about right now.
So I sank into my extended senses, instead, doing my best to breathe. I focused on Elise. Felt the tendrils of her presence unwrapping from her physical form, stretching out slowly, tentatively.
“The stone,” I sent. “Focus on the st—”
My wrist buzzed again.
Alpha be damned.
I opened my eyes to find Elise watching me, concern evident in the depths of her startlingly blue eyes.
Had I said that out loud?
I tilted my head toward the pebble on the floor between us. “Aren’t you supposed to be focusing?”
“Kinda hard with…” She bit her lip, rethinking whatever she’d been about to say. “I can feel you too, you know.”
I dropped her gaze, focusing on the pebble. “Let’s just try again.”
“It might be important, Hal,” she said slowly. “Maybe you should—”
“Later.” I forced myself to meet her eyes, softening my tone. “This is more important, Lise. Let’s try again. Please.”
A small grin tugged at her lovely lips. “Well, since you asked so nicely…”
She was so gorgeous when she smiled like that. So gorgeous all the time, really, with her regal cheekbones and her vibrant blue eyes and her raven hair, pulled into a tight ponytail. But it was the smile that killed me—sweet, gentle, and just a touch hesitant, like she was awaiting my signal to go ahead and let me have it in full.
I wanted to give that signal—to beam it like an exploding star. Alpha save me, I wanted more than anything to forget the stupid stone and throw myself at her like any reasonable teenage guy would have. But I didn’t do any of those things. Couldn’t bring myself to rise to the heavenly invitation.
That was what really killed me.
Elise let out a breath as I looked away and gestured at the stone.
A dejected sigh? A calming breath of focus?
I felt her in my senses, closing her eyes, settling hands to knees. Breathing, breathing. Dark eyebrows knitted together, her forehead creased with concentration. She extended herself more smoothly this time. Found the stone with only a slight waver. From there, I did my best to wait patiently as the seconds ticked by. And by. And—
The stone twitched on the rug. It wasn’t much. I might not have even noticed had I not been monitoring with my extended senses. But it was something. And before I could point that out, she was already trying again.
This time it wasn’t just a twitch. The stone visibly moved—rising up on its edge, slowly, slowly. It was like watching a tingler bug ascend the Auborean Mountains. But I waited, breath held… until the stone turned its edge, lost its balance, and keeled back to the rug on its other side.
I consciously refrained from sighing.
“What?” Elise asked anyway.
“What, nothing. That was great, Lise. You’re right there. All you need to do now is control it.”
Her eyebrow took on the arch that said I was barking for a beating in our next sparring match. I held up my hands in surrender, a genuine smile threatening to spill over. Then my palmlight buzzed for the fifth time, killing that smile right where it stood.
“Why don’t you just turn it off?” she asked.
“Just… Look, let me help this time. You lift, I’ll stabilize?”
Elise frowned at my palmlight a moment longer, then nodded and settled back into her focus. I reached out as I had ten-thousand times before, not bothering to close my eyes as I fixed my mind on the stone. Elise’s brow furrowed, and a second later, there she was, her mind brushing lightly against mine.
“Easy,” I sent. “Control.”
The crease in her forehead lessened, and the stone began to slowly stand once more. I drew the faintest trickle of energy from my own body heat to keep it stable, fixing it on a steady track in my mind that would only allow it to move up or down.
Up or down.
Slowly, slowly, the stone rose from the rug.
“Gropping scudbuckets!” I cried, slamming my fists to the rug as the stone flew across the room and buried itself in the pale yellow wall with a thwap and a small puff of plastwall debris.
Elise opened her eyes and looked meaningfully between the wall and me. “You were saying? About control?”
I clenched my jaw, biting back the thoughtless retorts fighting to escape. “I know, I know. If Johnny would just stop—”
“If you wanted it to stop,” she said, giving me a look usually reserved for unruly toddlers, “you’d turn the damn thing off.”
I what? Wanted to know that Johnny was trying to reach me just so I could throw a tantrum about it? Maybe I deserved that look. I shook my head and turned toward the display on the wall.
There must be some reason he was being so tenacious today.
At a wave of my hand, the display came to life with a list of recent newsreel stories. It didn’t take long to figure out what I was looking for—or for my stomach to turn to ice.
Headline after headline, all basically the same, the first ones from a couple hours ago, when Elise and I had been tangled in our morning spar.
Oasis Under Attack by Foreign Forces.
Alpha be good and gropped.
Elise sucked in a sharp breath when she saw it. I was already on my feet somehow, looking around the room like there might be something to explain how the scud this was happening. Because foreign forces could only mean one thing.
I waved the first story to full screen, pretty sure I knew what was coming, but not quite able to believe it until the display filled with a distant shot of Oasis.
It didn’t look good.
Black smoke drifted lazily up in the morning sun, tiny figures converging on the standing defenses with inhuman leaps and bounds—too far away to make out the details, but I knew if I could’ve, it would’ve been the scaly green hides of raknoth hybrids I saw. Nothing else could move like that.
My palmlight was open and at the ready before my brain could even register what I needed to do. Instead, I just stared dumbly at the azure light in my palm. My hand was trembling.
How was this happening?
We’d warned them. Alpha damn them, after everything we’d gone through to warn them…
Too late, I tried to pull away from the memories.
Hybrids tearing through the crowd, madness in their pale red eyes, crimson blood rolling down their stubby snouts. Bodies. Civilians and legionnaires and hybrids alike. Hundreds of them. The dark stone of the Great Hall thick with their blood.
Something slid around my chest from behind. Elise’s arms, I vaguely noted. She might’ve whispered something too, but I was too lost in my thoughts to hear.
The White Tower Massacre, the newsreels had dubbed it. My very own Sanctum execution ceremony turned nightmare bloodbath. The same night Carlisle had blown the entire Great Hall and every enemy in it to dust right along with himself and his old mentor. In one stroke, he’d destroyed two of the raknoth and severed their control over The Sanctum and the Legion.
And yet here the raknoth forces were, right on the reels, attacking the third-largest Legion base on the planet. Because the world had been too frightened to listen to us. Because the wise clerics of the Sanctum and the hardened generals of the Legion couldn’t bring themselves to believe Enochia could actually be under invasion by bloodsucking aliens. Because—
“Hal,” Elise said, squeezing me tight enough to tell me it wasn’t the first time she’d said my name.
The contact pulled me back to our dull living quarters. Back to my racing pulse and painfully clenched fists. I disentangled myself from her arms, wiping off sweaty palms before remembering my palmlight.
Johnny’s messages. That’s what I’d been trying to check. I pulled them up. Eight of them, six from the past ten minutes, and two from a few hours earlier, when I’d been sparring with Elise.
<Your favorite lizards are back in town. Could be bad.>
<It’s bad. Real bad.>
<Check the reels.>
<Unless you’re either 1) actively swiving our favorite raven-haired staff twirler or 2) suffering honest-to-Alpha rage-induced heart failure at all this contact from the outside world, check the reels.>
<In which case, still check the reels.>
<Also, FEEL FREE TO REPLY ANYTIME, you ass. Alpha’s wrinklies, man, it’s not like I’m asking you to come to couples’ therapy with me…>
<Hal, I think we should consider couples’ therapy. Love, Johnny>
<P.S. THIS IS NOT A GROPPING DRILL. Check the reels.>
I stared at the messages, wanting to think his light tone meant things couldn’t actually be that bad. Definitely not the-raknoth-just-destroyed-Oasis bad. But I knew better.
If the day ever came when Johnny Wingard didn’t try to crack a joke, it probably meant we were already dead.
I swiped with shaky fingers at the translucent azure holo of my palmlight. <Saw the news. Big five there?>
Johnny’s reply came back with startling rapidity. <Only a threesome as far as we can tell. You around this afternoon?> Moments later, another message followed. <See, it’s funny because you haven’t seen the sun in over a cycle. Seriously, though. Stay put. Please.>
“What do we do?” Elise asked softly when I looked up.
“Stay put, apparently.” I looked numbly from my palmlight to the smoking outline of Oasis on the display. “They’ll route the hybrids at Oasis, and then…”
But I didn’t know what else to say. Watching those distant dark shapes because I couldn’t even bring myself to
I was half-surprised to find myself wrapping her into a tight hug. After her own flicker of surprise, she returned it readily.
“It’s okay, love,” she said softly, her breath warm against the side of my neck. “We’re okay.” She didn’t ask why my heart was hammering like I’d just escaped a roomful of hungry haga beasts. She just held me tight, cradling the back of my head, whispering comforting words.
Eventually, she pulled back to meet my eyes. “Maybe you should call Johnny. Get more details.”
“Maybe.” I kissed her forehead and glanced at my palmlight, rereading his last message. Stay put. Please. “Something tells me we’ll be talking soon anyway, whether I like it or not.”
Elise gave me one last squeeze before pulling away. “I’m gonna call my dad, make sure they’re safe.”
I didn’t argue. It wasn’t like we were going to be able to return to our training session. But before she’d even unlocked her palmlight, a soft tone chimed through the small living space.
Someone was here. One flamboyantly red-headed legionnaire, if I had to guess. I met Elise’s curious look with my grim one and gestured the wall display over to the door camera feeds.
Not one, but six men stood in cramped hallway outside our modest Legion-sponsored living quarters. We’d been hesitant to take their off-base amenities. As hesitant as they’d been to let us nominally pardoned terrorists wander off without a handy way to keep an eye on us. They’d insisted our staying here would be safer—though for them or for us, they didn’t specify. Either way, as Franco put it, if we ended up needing to disappear, better they feel overconfident rather than wary from the start.
Except now, staring at the armed men outside, I couldn’t help but think I might’ve rather had a finicky watchdog than one who knew exactly where to find me.
Of the two men who stepped forward, I was a bit surprised to see Docere Mathis, my old instructor. His ebony brow was scrunched into its perpetual scowl, and right beside him—surprise, surprise—was Johnny, who hardly looked light-of-spirit himself. That didn’t bode well.
“Should I put on tea or something?” Elise said.
Something between a sigh and derisive laugh blew out of me. “I dunno, are you feeling particularly hospitable toward the people who blew your real house to shreds last season?”
Elise frowned. “Fair point.”
I unlocked the door with my palmlight. I suppose I could’ve gotten it by hand—it wasn’t like the apartment was very big. Mathis, though, seemed to be in a hurry. He was striding in almost before I could blink, the fiery red fuzz that was Johnny’s hair marching along at his heels. Even buzzed to Legion regulations, you couldn’t miss that hair.
The other four legionnaires posted up outside to wait.
Part of me wished Franco was there. He was a good man to have around when it came to sensitive conversations, which was exactly what I was guessing we were about to have. But he was off with Phineas and James, tracking down a lead—a farmer who claimed he’d sighted the raknoth ship landing on Enochia twelve years ago.
Of course, since the raknoth had been at least unofficially outed to the public, there’d been about as many of those stories as I had hairs on my body, but we had to start somewhere if we wanted to find that ship. And we wanted to find that damn ship.
At any rate, it’d probably be another day or two before Franco returned, which unfortunately meant it was down to Elise and I to make sure this didn’t blow up.
Maybe I should have hid in the tiny pantry. But it was too late now.
I forced myself to meet Johnny’s blue-green eyes, guilt curling through me. He went straight for the throat.
“So all it takes is a major raknoth attack to get a reply these days, huh buddy?”
I opened my mouth to spit back some retort, then decided to leave it to Mathis, who was favoring Johnny with a perfectly unamused scowl.
“What?” Johnny said, spreading his hands. “You heard High General Glenbark, sir. ‘You will lubricate negotiations as you deem fit, Legionnaire Wingard.’ That was the order.” He went distant for a moment, then blinked, remembering himself. “Uh, sir.”
Mathis’ jaw was pure adamantus. “Legionnaire Wingard, you will mind your tongue or I will leave it nailed to the door right alongside you and your lubricant for the duration of this meeting. Understood?”
Johnny looked like he was waging war with his lips for a moment, but he settled and gave a passable, “Sir, yes sir.”
I watched them, caught between my desire to maintain stubborn silence and to launch into a thousand questions about what was happening and what the scud they were here for. Luckily, Elise had no such hang-ups.
“How major is major?” she asked. “What’s happening over there, and what does it have to do with us?”
Johnny opened his mouth but fell silent at Mathis’ glare. Satisfied, Mathis considered Elise warily before fixing his gaze on me.
“Citizen Raish, your presence has been requested at Haven.”
The formality of his address was a hot knife in the side—a deliberate reminder of the fact that I’d made no effort to return to Legion service once my name had been at least nominally cleared where the Legion—if not the Sanctum—was concerned.
I couldn’t even conjure a bitter smile in response. “Good to see you too, sir. Might you be able to tell me what the Legion wants with me?”
Any petty judgment he felt toward me vanished behind his professional mask. “You saw the news?”
I nodded. “Oasis under attack. But you have the numbers ten times over. I assume it’s under control.”
Mathis traded a look with Johnny. “It is indeed.”
“And it’s not our control it’s under,” Johnny said, all traces of humor gone now.
Dread crept in—the same dread I felt at nighttime when memories of red eyes and my bloody parents came to visit me in the darkness.
Mathis gave a reluctant nod, looking more tired than I’d ever seen.
“The raknoth have taken Oasis.”
Chapter 2 - Trouble in Paradise
“Well look at us,” Johnny said, wrapping his knuckles on our dingy kitchen table. “The gang, all back together again.”
Elise shot him a half-hearted frown. Johnny gave her his most disarming grin, but there were traces of pain behind the look. I was just busy trying to ignore the part of me wanting to point out that the gang was decidedly not all back together.
Not my parents. Not Carlisle. Not the hundreds of civilians and legionnaires who’d died at the White Tower because I’d been stupid enough to think I could beat the raknoth at their own game.
“Any word on Anna?” I asked quietly, maybe because I wasn’t already feeling enough pain, or maybe because some twisted part of me wanted Johnny to share in some of it.
His sister, Annabelle, had gone missing just a few days after he’d started his new post at Haven, when his family had been in transit to join him there. Dozens of transports had made the flight that day. One—the one Anna had boarded to ride with her best friend, Liza—had gone mysteriously dark mid-flight, and hadn’t been heard from since.
That’d been nearly a cycle ago. Long enough that I wasn’t expecting good news so much as praying for it. But the look on his face told me all I needed to know before he worked up the will to give a weak shake of his head.
No. The gang was most certainly not all back together.
I wished I would’ve been there for him like I should’ve. I wished a lot of things about these past twelve days. But here we were, reunited by the blunt force of disaster.
I looked from Mathis to Johnny and back again. “How the scud did this happen?”
Mathis was still busy on his palmlight, as he had been for minutes now. It kind of made me want to blow the thing’s electronics with my mind after the way they’d just barged in unannounced. Johnny leaned forward and began his disgorge before temptation got the better of me.
“Sounds like the attacking force was way bigger than anything they’d projected from what little intel we have. They must be making new hybrids somewhere, because, well…” He dropped my gaze, like he was almost embarrassed by what came next.
“How many?” I asked.
“Estimates put their numbers over two thousand,” Mathis said, closing his palmlight.
“What?” Elise said, her hand clamping onto mine underneath the table. I couldn’t say if I squeezed back or not. I was too busy trying to process.
The hybrids were savage creatures—humans who’d been, for lack of a better word, infected with raknoth genetic material. Part human, part raknoth. And from what I’d seen, I was pretty sure that balance tipped more to the scaly side with each passing day. The true raknoth, like Alton Parker, could telepathically control the creatures, but without that input, I’d never seen anything but mindless violence from them. They were as terrifying as they were strong.
And apparently there were still more than enough out there to take down a major Legion base.
“Was Parker there?” I asked.
“Alton Parker has not been seen since the night of the White Tower Massacre,” Mathis said. He tried to keep it mechanical as usual, but I saw the waver in his face. He’d been there too, after all, and even a hardsteel chomper like Mathis couldn’t live through something like that without carrying away a few scars, inside and out.
Right then, I was more worried about where that slimy bastard Parker might’ve slithered off to now that his imploding Vantage Corp had publicly given him the boot in wake of the horrific blood farming and hybrid production operation we’d unmasked. The Legion hadn’t shared all of the gritty details with the public, but it’d been more than enough.
Alpha only knew what Alton Parker was up to now.
“We think there were at least a couple of the raknoth present, though,” Johnny added. “And there were a few humans, too. Civilian clothes. Odd reports.”
“Seekers?” Elise asked.
Johnny shrugged as if to say what else?
Mathis looked like he wanted to point out that, officially, there was no such thing as Seekers.
I was about to ask why the Legion had seen fit to share even this much information with a pair of civilians when a buzz from Mathis’ palmlight stole our attention.
“She’s ready,” the docere told Johnny, sliding a holodisk onto the table with authoritative weight and fixing me with a you’d better behave scowl. “The High General wished to speak with you herself.”
That was unexpected.
What the scud was going on here?
Elise and I barely had time to trade a surprised look before the disk lit and a holo of Freya Glenbark from the shoulders up appeared beside Mathis. Even at half size and in the pale, translucent tones of holo, the new High General exerted an intimidating aura—like a lioness with her strong brow and her mane of straight, golden hair that looked as if it would stop softsteel slugs in their tracks. We all sat a little straighter. Especially Johnny.
“Citizen Raish,” she said in her precise tone, studying us with eyes that were piercing if not quite unkind. “Citizen Fields. The Legion appreciates your time in this matter.”
My fist was halfway to my chest in a reflexive salute when I caught myself. “High General Glenbark,” I said. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
A minor pain in the ass too, maybe. But an honor all the same.
I’d never met Freya Glenbark, but from what I’d heard from my dad and others, she was unquestionably one of the good guys—or good ladies, as it were. The fact that she’d managed to become the second female ever to ascend to High General—and to do it before the age of forty and in such a time of crisis—spoke volumes of her ability.
Elise echoed my sentiment with genuine respect.
“Not to be rude, sir,” I added, “but what matter is it, exactly, that the Legion appreciates our time in?”
“Have you been briefed?”
“Then I understand your confusion,” she said. “You are no doubt wondering why we haven’t simply retaken Oasis by force.”
“You have the numbers,” I said. “At least ten times over. The hybrids don’t even know how to use weapons, as far as I’ve seen. And the raknoth aren’t invulnerable. It should be a stroll in the flowers.”
“But you’re here, talking to us,” Elise said. “Which means—”
“That it’s not as simple as throwing numbers at the problem,” I finished.
“Or that you’ve already tried,” Elise added, shooting me a frown at having been cut off, “and something went wrong.”
Glenbark studied Elise, her expression unreadable.
My stomach fell as the silence stretched. Too long.
“Citizen Fields is correct,” Glenbark finally said. “Our attempt to reclaim Oasis failed an hour ago.”
I looked at Mathis and Johnny, searching for some reaction—some sign of shock or acknowledgment.
They just looked grim.
“I was getting to that part,” Johnny murmured.
“How?” was all I could manage.
“I don’t know,” Glenbark said, looking none too pleased about it. “But, given the unprecedented nature of what these raknoth did to our forces, it was brought to my attention that you might be able to offer some explanation.”
So that’s what this was about.
They’d hunted me. Called me terrorist, heretic, and enemy of Enochia. And now they wanted to pick my brain about the very thing I’d been trying to tell them all along.
“What happened?” I asked, keeping my voice as neutral as I could.
“It’s as you said. We had the numbers, the superior firepower. We had everything, and, by all conventional reasoning, every reason to move before they could dig in.”
Her composure held, but it was the first time in the conversation that she dropped her gaze. “But all of that ceased to matter when our legionnaires inexplicably broke command and turned their weapons on one another. There was no warning.”
“Sweet Alpha,” Elise murmured.
“It was bad,” Mathis agreed, his hard edges gone for the moment. “Real bad.”
Glenbark’s gaze flicked toward Johnny before returning to skewer me. “Can you tell me what happened to my people out there, Haldin?”
… was still trying to figure that out myself. The raknoth were powerful telepaths. They’d be able to mind-snatch most humans in seconds and bend them to their will as they pleased. Scud, I could do that—had done that once, I was less than proud to say. But how many men might one raknoth be able to control at once if they pushed themselves?
I had no idea.
“How many legionnaires turned?”
Glenbark studied me like she was trying to ascertain whether I might really have any idea what was happening. “Difficult to say. Things got messy quite quickly.”
That was probably an understatement. I couldn’t even imagine the chaos—the way it would feel to watch your own squad mates turning to end the life you’d trusted them with.
“At a guess,” Glenbark continued, “at least three hundred. Those who made it back reported a state of helpless paralysis. They saw events unfolding but were unable to prevent it, or control their own bodies. We’re holding them for evaluation now.”
I felt Elise’s questioning look beside me. “Could they control that many at once?”
“I don’t know.” I considered how easy it had been for me to breach an unprotected human mind. Weighed that against my memory of Al’Kundesha’s strength when we’d telepathically battled back at the Sanctuary brig. Made some laughably vague estimations. “It’s possible, I guess. Especially if they had help from a few Seekers.”
Mathis cleared his throat as if to say Great, now share with the whole class. A faint frown touched Glenbark’s brow, but she said nothing, waiting for my explanation.
Glossing over the weirder points and the fact that I too possessed these abilities, I explained the raknoth’s telepathy and the threat it posed as concisely as I could. I couldn’t help but notice the way Johnny watched me, as if he were remembering all over again that I wasn’t the tyro he’d grown up with—that I’d become something else. Something irrefutably different.
Mathis didn’t hide his skepticism as I spoke. Glenbark, for her part, listened with rapt attention. If she found any of it hard to believe, she kept it to herself.
“Fine,” she said when I’d finished. “Thank you for your candor. I only have one question left.”
“How do you protect your legionnaires?” I asked.
She nodded, betraying none of the desperation I could only imagine she might be feeling right now. I was starting to see why her fellow officers sang her praises.
“You need to get your people cloaked,” Elise said.
“Cloaked,” Glenbark repeated. “How?”
A quick mental probe toward Johnny confirmed he was still wearing the cloak Carlisle had given him. The guilt on his face as he touched the spot where it must be resting beneath his uniform suggested he was just now realizing he should have brought this up sooner.
I held up my own pendant so Glenbark could see its rune-etched surface. “This keeps my mind safe from other telepaths.”
Mathis looked like he wanted to slap the table and call bullscud but couldn’t bring himself to break discipline in front of the High General. Glenbark’s stare was intent until something interrupted her on her end. She looked off for a second, gave a curt nod, and returned her attention to me. “How does it work?”
“I’m pretty sure the only two people who knew that were…”
The words stuck in my throat, and just like that, I was back in the White Tower—howling winds whipping at me, Carlisle ahead, dying, clutching his old mentor’s face, both of them wrapped in the violet storm consuming the—
A sharp squeeze on my leg brought me back to the tiny kitchen, where Elise was watching me with that look again.
Consciously, I relaxed tight shoulders. “I think the secret was lost at the White Tower. Have you talked to the Sanctum? By all rights, their Seekers should know more about this than I do.”
A hint of disdain crept over Glenbark’s features. “The Sanctum has been… unhistorically uncommunicative since the White Tower incident. Suffice it to say, even if they were willing to admit to the existence of these fabled Seekers—which they most certainly are not—I’m left with the sinking impression that their people lack the knowledge to fix this problem.”
“And that’s supposed to make it my job?”
The words left my mouth before I gave them leave.
Mathis tensed. I half-expected him to lunge across the table. Maybe I even wanted him to.
Grop it. I wasn’t a soldier anymore, right?
Not according to official records, where I’d been dishonorably discharged somewhere right between being declared dead, being revived and branded a terrorist, and finally being sentenced to hang as a heretic.
By all rights, I was pretty sure I had good reason to be pissed right then. But somehow, all I seemed to feel was shame under Glenbark’s steady stare.
“People are dying, Citizen Raish,” she said. “And you might be able to do something about it. I pray that alone is enough that you’ll consider it.” She glanced off at another distraction and nodded at someone. “Now, I have other matters to tend to. Good day Citizen Fields, Citizen Raish.”
Her holo died before either of us could say a thing. Somehow, her disappearance only increased the weight of the shame. It sank over me like molten softsteel, bowing my head under its weight.
Johnny was the first to break the silence.
“We really do need you, broto. We’re out of our depths with this stuff, and this new High Cleric is playing coy with whatever Seekers he’s hiding.” He held his hands up, empty. “I know it sucks, but there’s no one else.”
I said nothing—didn’t know where to start.
So Mathis took his turn, speaking as if he were actually reading straight from the field orders. “High General Glenbark has instructed us to extend her invitation to join us at Haven in a special consultant capacity. By extension, Citizen Fields and her family will also be entitled to civilian quarters on base. In return, we ask that you—”
“Why’d they send you, Mathis?”
He paused from his highly official invitation.
Anger rippled somewhere deep beneath the indignation and the shame, bright and sudden. Anger at what exactly, I couldn’t say. But here was Mathis, watching me with inscrutable dark eyes.
“Why you? They just wanna remind me?”
All the times this man had called me silver spoon… Daddy’s tyro... All the times he’d reminded me just how pathetically I measured up next to Captain Martin Raish, honored hero of Sanctuary…
Elise’s hand tightened on mine, a silent reminder to keep it together. At Mathis, she forced a smile that said kindly get the scud out of here. “I think we could use a couple days to think about it, if you goodfellows wouldn’t mind…”
Johnny nodded and started to stand.
Mathis didn’t budge. “We can’t afford days, Citizen Fields. Would that we could all bury our heads in the flowers and try to forget our—”
I only whispered the words, but they gave Mathis pause all the same.
Maybe he could hear what was bubbling beneath the surface. Maybe he even understood it. I sure as scud didn’t. All I knew was that I needed them to stop telling me what I owed to the Legion. To Enochia.
As if I hadn’t paid enough already.
Mathis took a deep breath. “Raish, I need you to—”
I didn’t consciously think about channeling the energy, or focusing the will. Almost before I knew it, I was telekinetically hauling Mathis to his feet, half-tossing him out of the tiny kitchen space and toward the door.
He kept his wits enough to catch his balance, but it was the first time I’d ever seen him look surprised.
“I think you two should go,” Elise said, her hand like a hardsteel turngrip on mine.
Mathis turned those wide eyes to Johnny, designated meeting lubricant, who was frozen halfway out of his chair. Johnny looked a question at Elise, touching a finger to his own chest as if to say, Me too?
“You shouldn’t have brought backup if you wanted to talk,” Elise said.
Johnny scowled, standing the rest of the way. “I didn’t—” He glanced at Mathis. “That’s not what this was.” He focused on me, his eyes pleading. “Hal…”
I dropped his gaze. Focused on the table. I couldn’t handle this. Not now.
“Fine.” He spread his hands. “Fine. I’ll go. But I’m not done with your stubborn ass, broto.”
I kept my eyes on the table.
“Be careful out there, Johnny,” Elise said.
“You be careful in here.” He went to join Mathis. Paused at the doorway. “It doesn’t matter whose gropping job it is, Hal. Just… remember what it was all for.”
His words hit me like physical blows. My best friend, the king of cavalier lightheartedness, resorting to that tone with me. I forced myself to meet his eyes—just long enough to take in the judgment. The disappointment. Instead, all I saw in his eyes was worry, and maybe a hint of fear.
He gave me a somber nod. “Take care, buddy.”
My stomach tightened, and I looked away.
Scud, what was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I open my mouth and say something? Explain myself?
“We’ll talk about it,” Elise said, seemingly to Mathis, as she rose to show them to the door.
When they were gone, I buried my face in my hands, squeezing at my temples until the pain was sufficient to distract from my suddenly racing heart and frenetic breathing.
How in demon’s depths could they do this?
How could they be so damn incompetent as to lose Oasis and then turn around and somehow make me feel like it was my fault? Like I should be doing their job for them barely two cycles after they’d been trying to kill me and my friends?
It wasn’t fair.
I’d fought my fight. I’d bled for Enochia. Gotten good people killed.
I’d lost everything. Everything except Elise, I reminded myself as she walked back into the room. She sat beside me. Rested her head on my shoulder. For a long while, we sat there, lost in our own thoughts.
Eventually, she stirred and went to the kitchen cooler.
“You must be hungry,” she said, rummaging around. “I’ll make us something.”
I watched her through a haze of loud, guilty thoughts, all warring for position until I thought my head might simply burst.
“Lise,” I heard myself say.
She turned, still holding the cooler door open. Our eyes met and, for a moment, I lost myself in those royal blue depths. In that moment, the world condensed between us. Something snapped into focus. Something that’d been lost these past cycles.
My chair clattered to the floor behind me.
I didn’t stop when I reached her—just pinned her to the cooler door, one hand to her hip, the other cradling her cheek. Her eyes were wide at the sudden burst of life, her mouth half open in surprise.
I kissed her before either of us could think about it.
Her lips were stiff at first, hesitant, but I pushed on, driven by some wild thing inside of me whose awakening had surprised me just as much as it had clearly surprised her. We hung there for a moment, teetering awkwardly on the edge. Then she let out a delicious little sigh, and her lips grew about twenty degrees warmer as they gave way to mine.
The kiss deepened, stirring that frantic apparition inside me, crying for release. I reached for the hem of her shirt and started to pull it up. She drew a sharp breath and put a hand to my chest.
“Hal,” she said softly, searching my face. “I don’t really understand where this is coming from. Not that I’m complaining. I just need to—”
I slid a hand behind her neck and pulled her lips back to mine.
I didn’t want to talk. Didn’t want to think. But a few seconds into the kiss, Elise pulled back again. “Talk to me, love. Please.”
Something flashed inside me—red-hot and wild and ugly.
I didn’t mean to do it. I might as well have been watching a vid from behind someone else’s eyes as my fist slammed to the counter top and I heard myself growl, “I don’t wanna talk, dammit!”
Then the scuddy bastard who’d just taken me for a rage-ride bailed from the driver’s seat and left me standing there, mouth agape. Elise was watching me with shocked eyes, searching my face as if it belonged to a stranger.
A thousand apologies raced through my mind, vying for control of my tongue. Somehow, none of them got it. We just stared at each other, shocked silence stretching the moment.
Then my stomach let forth a low, mournful rumble, and Elise’s expression shifted. For a moment, I thought we might both burst out laughing.
The moment passed.
I dropped my gaze to the floor, ashamed to meet her eyes. Ashamed of everything.
“I’m sorry, Lise.”
She found my hand silently. Gave it a squeeze.
I swallowed, fighting tears, muttered another apology, and turned to leave, unsure where it was I was even going.
She didn’t try to stop me.
Chapter 3 - Dirt
It was several Divinity blocks before I was capable of enough coherent thought to realize where my feet were carrying me. At that point, I woke my palmlight and flagged down an autoskimmer. Much of a relief as it had been to escape the confines of our tiny quarters and lose myself in the bustling crowd of the city, the experience quickly soured when I started noticing the looks.
They were little more than furtive glances, most of them, but they only seemed to increase in frequency the further I went. When I heard a mother whisper something about the Demon of Divinity to her child, that was enough. I gladly stepped out of the pedestrian lanes, boarded the autoskimmer, and took to the skies in the blessed quiet of the empty cab.
My mind flitted aimlessly from one inconsequential thought to another as the city swept by below, every citizen I saw going about their business as if it were any other day. As if the world weren’t in danger of collapsing right around them.
The lucky bastards.
When we reached the southernmost edge of Divinity, the autoskimmer gave a light chirp, as if in indignation at having been forced it to leave the city limits. I pointedly ignored the inanimate console and stared instead at the rippling surface of the Red River below. It was only another ten minutes or so before my indignant autoskimmer and I were closing on the destination.
Bittersweet nostalgia crept in at the sight of the two great oaks atop the gentle hill where I’d spent so many evenings practicing with my abilities and contemplating the scudstorm that’d swept my life up whole. Beyond that were the crumbling ruins of the old temple hideout—the place Carlisle had sheltered me after I’d lost my parents to the raknoth. The place he’d trained me in the art of Shaping and helped me to find purpose again.
But where had that purpose gone?
We’d stood against the unfathomable odds. We’d done our best to stop the raknoth. And it had cost us everything.
All at once, I regretted having come here.
But the autoskimmer was already banking down for a landing in the tall grass not far from the ruins. I lingered in the cab and debated abandoning this mindless wandering and returning to Elise. Talking this thing out like a reasonable human being. She was there for me, I knew. Just like Johnny was. And Franco.
They were all there for me. And I couldn’t gropping stand it.
I couldn’t stand the way they looked at me, like some wounded animal who couldn’t take care of itself, who surely couldn’t do anything but lie around waiting to die. I couldn’t stand the thought that maybe they were right.
A pair of abrasive chirps from the console startled me from my ruminations. I looked around at our woodland surroundings, muttered a dark curse at the console, and climbed out of the autoskimmer. Probably, I should have set the vehicle on standby and eaten the extra fee to secure my return trip home. But I couldn’t seem to bring myself to do more than watch, almost daring the autoskimmer to follow its programming and return to the city for its next fare, leaving me to fend for myself with its perfectly robotic apathy.
I couldn’t really say why, but it felt good, watching that autoskimmer fly away, relishing the silence that fell in its absence. Right then, I couldn’t be troubled to care how I’d get back. Scud, maybe I’d just stay out here until someone came looking. I’d come out here to be alone. And alone, I was.
But for what?
I eyed the temple ruins for several minutes before finally deciding I wasn’t quite ready for those memories yet. Instead, I strolled aimlessly into the forest.
It was a cool afternoon. Not quite cold, but crisp. Refreshing. For a while, I tried my best to not think and simply enjoy it. After everything I’d been through, I probably should’ve been ecstatic just to be able to walk. Somehow, though, I didn’t feel the need to throw myself to my knees and shout praises and thanks be to Alpha. No. All I felt was guilt, out there on my sun-lit stroll while Oasis was burning.
Slowly, though, the woods drew me in, soothing me with the soft give of dirt beneath my boots—the crack of the occasional twig underfoot, adding its short-lived voice to the peaceful chorus of forest life around me. A faint breeze tickled my cheeks, tinged with the scent of dirt and bark. Above all, I basked in the absence of people, and the absence of their demands and their problems.
What if I did just stay out here?
It was a ridiculous thought.
But what if I did?
Carlisle had been out here for years on his own. Of course, with the raknoth hunting him for his meddling and the Sanctum hunting him as they’d covertly hunted every Shaper alive for centuries, he’d had good reason to stay holed up out here, away from civilization. But my situation wasn’t so different, was it?
The raknoth wanted me dead. I had no doubt of that. Whether or not I was still in the Sanctum’s sights following my botched execution and my pardon from the Legion was less clear. My existence was almost certainly a thorn in their side, what with the wild rumors spreading about how the Demon of Divinity had defied gravity at the gallows and escaped death from right under the Sanctum’s righteous fist.
Unsurprisingly, the Sanctum and their new High Cleric had yet to apologize for trying to hang me—yet to make any official statement at all, for that matter. I couldn’t imagine it would be good news when they did.
Public opinion, in the meanwhile, seemed about as mixed as it was incendiary. Despite our mutual agreement that no good could come of it, Elise and I hadn’t been able to completely ignore the flood of newsreel articles and vids touting me as everything from a Saint of Alpha himself, to a simple freak of nature, to a malicious shape-shifting alien, and finally to a nether-hopping Being of True Evil who required immediate and judicious execution. Again.
Suffice it to say, there were several good reasons I’d refrained from leaving the dull safety of our living quarters.
And now, in the midst of that scudstorm, the Legion decided to show up on my doorstep, asking me to dive back into their mess? Because it was their mess, wasn’t it?
I’d fought my best to stop the raknoth, even when the Legion had tried to stop me. I’d since told them everything I could about the raknoth—glossing over some of the weirder details, maybe, like Urth, the planet of humans I’d glimpsed in Al’Kundesha’s memories, and the borderline mystic origin of the sickness those humans had somehow wrought upon the raknoth, necessitating their need for human blood to survive. But I’d told the Legion everything I thought they’d believe. Certainly everything I thought could help them win the fight. And now I couldn’t even walk the streets without causing minor panic.
At what point did I get to say I’d done my job?
Once I’d lost the few people I had left?
Once I was dead?
“I didn’t ask for this,” I muttered at a particularly knobby tree.
The tree stared back in stoic silence, and I continued on.
I’d done my best, and it hadn’t been good enough. Not by a long shot. That’s all there was to it.
My dad, he’d been a hero.
Carlisle had been a hero.
Me? I was a seventeen year old kid who’d tried to beat the raknoth at their own game, and I’d gotten hundreds of good men and women killed. I wasn’t the man my dad had been. Couldn’t do the things Carlisle had been capable of. They were the ones Enochia needed. Not me.
But they were dead. And, by some sick joke of fate, I was alive.
Lost as I was in my thoughts, I was surprised to notice my wandering feet had brought me back around to the maze of ruins in front of the temple entrance. I sank to the smooth remains of some long-forgotten monument and must’ve spent a good half hour just sitting there, lost in memories of the place, good and bad. Dreading what painful recollections might await if I were to go inside.
I hadn’t been back here since before the White Tower—at first because the Legion had been holding us as polite prisoners at a remote outpost, then, I suppose, because I was scared to face the place when we’d been loosely cleared to resume our freedom. Of course, saying we were cleared might’ve been an overstatement.
Considering the targets on my head and the aid they’d just requested of me, I doubted whatever Legion eyes had been tasked with watching my movements would be receiving warm thanks when they reported I’d come out here without any discernible protection.
But grop them.
I looked back and forth between the gloomy, crumbling entrance of the temple and the warm, inviting swell of my old hilltop lookout, where I’d spent dozens of evenings contemplating the regal blaze of the Divinity skyline at sunset. It was the place where Elise had first told me she loved me.
Guilt poured into me, hot and sudden.
How in demon’s depths had I snapped at her like that?
Elise was the best part of my life—kind and loving, not to mention perfectly capable of crushing my danglers for treating her that way. I kind of wished she had.
What had I been thinking?
No matter how many ways I approached the question, I kept coming to the same embarrassing answer. I’d yelled at her because I was afraid. Afraid of what, I could barely say, but the fear was there—a cold, bottomless pit in my stomach, waiting for me to wander too close so it could trip me up and consume me whole.
I felt it coming again—the trill of incoherent panic sliding down my spine, disrupting thought and control, quickening my breath, crushing my blurry world down to a cage where I couldn’t seem to do anything but wring my sweaty hands. Even out in the open air, it was suffocating.
I closed my eyes, sinking into my extended senses. Other than Elise’s touch, it was the one thing I’d found to help. Retreating into the world around me.
Only I didn’t make it that far before a pair of terrible crimson eyes flared to life in the darkness of my mind, waiting for me.
“You have failed, Haldin,” an airy voice whispered. “You have saved nothing.”
I snapped my eyes open with a gasp, panting, heart thundering.
Around me, the ruins were serene—smooth stone baking in the gentle afternoon sun, soft breeze drifting in, pleasantly cool on my sweat-streaked back and forehead.
I checked the cloaking pendant at my chest, just to be sure.
Which meant that couldn’t have been a real projection just now—unless I happened to be missing a telepath sitting within ten yards of me.
Which also meant that it had all been in my head.
I buried my face in my hands, leaving my eyes open this time as I moved through a deep breathing exercise.
What the hell was happening to me?
I pushed the question away, focusing on the breathing. When things felt sufficiently under control, I stood, eager to busy myself with something. Anything other than sitting here, thinking myself into oblivion.
I considered calling a ride or starting the trek back to Divinity. Considered the temple entrance again. Something weighed at the back of my mind. Some sense of lingering importance, pulling me toward the temple like the faintest tug of gravity.
Had I come here for a reason? Something beyond my conscious awareness?
Probably not. Probably, I’d come here out of some desperate hope that I’d find Carlisle and my parents and everyone else, somehow miraculously alive and well, ready to all band together and save Enochia, praise be to Alpha.
Probably, I was wasting my time.
But here I was.
So I stood, brushed myself off, and headed for the temple to find out.
Chapter 4 - Ghosts
Whatever I’d been hoping to find in our old hideout, the dark, dusty silence quickly convinced me it wasn’t there. No Carlisle, waiting for me with a masterly smile and a dazzling story of how he’d escaped the blast after all. No bright display messages declaring, Attention: answers RIGHT HERE.
Nothing but the barebones accommodations that had served as both home and operations room for the better part of mine and Carlisle’s stint as the premiere enemies of Enochia.
I wandered about the room, aimlessly picking at this and that. I checked the node at Carlisle’s desk and found nothing of obvious interest. Thinking about my talk with Glenbark, I begrudgingly perused the trinkets on Carlisle’s workbench and was surprised to come up with a pair of cloaking pendants. Extras, I assumed, from the batch he’d made to cloak our band of merry terrorists before the White Tower.
I tucked the pendants into a pocket. They weren’t much—certainly not enough to counter the telepathic threat the raknoth posed to the Legion—but I was sure they’d be helpful. More helpful than anything else I was going to find here, it seemed.
After a few more minutes of absentminded tinkering, I sank to the edge of my old cot, once again feeling foolish for having come here at all. For having allowed myself to hope for anything other than an empty nest, stale fab mix, and nostalgic memories of my first days with Carlisle.
How was it that I felt wistful for the days when it had only been my parents’ murders I had to mourn?
I flopped down on the cot with a heavy sigh, feeling guilty for even thinking it, and frowned when something hard and flat dug into the back of my head through the pillow linen. I started to shift the pillow, and froze, sudden, desperate hope flooding back in.
I sat back up, heart thumping in my throat, and ripped off the pillow linen. A small lightsteel disk fell into my palm, plain and seemingly benign.
For a long moment, all I could do was stare at the tiny object.
It could be nothing. Probably was. I activated it anyway, and felt my insides leap at the sight of the single file waiting there—audio only. I thumbed the translucent icon… and gasped at the sound of Carlisle’s voice.
I’m afraid I don’t quite know where to begin—nor, I suppose, where it is I’m headed with this message. Suffice it to say, if you’re hearing this, there’s a strong chance I’m either dead or irrevocably indisposed. Of course, it’s also possible we both make it through what’s about to happen and you find this disk before I have a chance to grab it. What an embarrassment that would be.
The truth is, I’m recording this because I suspect my time on Enochia is drawing to an end.
Make no mistake, I do not say this with any intention of going gently to the pyre tonight. I will fight to the ends of my power to see the raknoth foiled and all of us home safely. But there’s a feeling I can’t escape. Something… transcendent. Ineffable.
It’s always been there—or so I’ve convinced myself—as elusive as it was inevitable. And when we spoke in our respective slumbers this morning… I don’t know how to explain it. You confirmed what I can’t help but feel I’ve somehow always known, and the shroud is truly falling now.
Cassius—my master, my oldest and dearest friend—desecrated by the raknoth, Zar’Faenor… It’s a thing of beauty and some terror, the way the smallest discovery can shift the foundations of one’s world so.
I set out twelve years ago to find my friend, to save him, knowing full well it was a fool’s errand. Just as I know now that I will see it through. Tonight, I will finish my mission. I feel it beyond my bones, as if my senses have stretched forward through time itself, and I have but to follow the path to what’s already happened.
It sounds as if I speak of fate, though I tell myself I believe in no such force. Perhaps it’s plain hypocrisy or simple delusion for me to hold to this belief when it so clearly contradicts what I feel with such certainty. I won’t claim to have the truth of the matter. I will, however, continue to take heart for the one miraculous exception.
I did not expect you in my life, Haldin Raish. Not in the least. But I am immeasurably glad I’ve found you.
After everything… After Cassius and Liandra…
Melodramatic as it will no doubt sound, I truly believe you might’ve been the one thing in this world that could have given me new purpose after all these years. And so you have.
I do not expect you to understand in full—certainly not now. Perhaps never.
Even now, I hope that I might someday explain this to you in person rather than through this message. I hope that we’ll have many years to live and train and do good for this world. Perhaps we might even convince Enochia that we are in fact not terrorists, and that the Emmútari, majestic peacekeepers of yore, should rise again. Hmm-hmm.
I hope all of these things, some more realistically than others.
But, if my suspicions should come to pass, I leave this message with the more important hope that it will help you to live on knowing that I do not regret a single decision that has led us here. I have lived most of my life for Cassius—to learn from him, to be with him, to free him from torment. I never expected anything more. And yet along you came.
As… closed off as I can be at times, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you haven’t realized the impact you’ve had. Astute as you can be from time to time, I fear you will struggle to see what I see when I look at you. So, allow me to put it plainly.
You are the best I have to offer this world.
Do not scoff at these words, Haldin. Do not dismiss them as idle praise. They are as much the selfish plea of a broken man as they are a compliment—more so, if I’m to be honest with the both of us. But, selfish or not, I hope you will remember this when the way is dark and your path uncertain.
I have faith in you, Haldin. More, I fear, than you have in yourself.
This is the only gift I have left to give. If you are hearing this, if I’ve indeed perished, then know that I will have done so gladly if it meant life for you and peace for Cassius. Know that it is not your fault. Mourn if you will, but do not for a second give in to despair.
You are the best I have to offer this world, Hal.
I couldn’t have asked for more.
I sat in silence for a long time after the recording ended, trying to process everything he’d said. Trying to process anything. It was like my brain had shut down. There was nothing. No thought or feeling. I just stared at the stone floor for what might’ve been minutes or hours. At some point, maybe more than once, my palmlight buzzed against my wrist. I only distantly noticed.
I wanted to cry. Wanted to feel something—anything other than the crushing emptiness pressing in on me from inside and out. Anything at all.
Eventually, it came—the slow, simmering heat of anger, bubbling closer and closer to the surface. Anger at the Legion for having pushed me out here, for having been too stupid to see what was right before their eyes in time to stop Al’Kundesha and everything that was happening now. Anger at the raknoth for all that they’d done—for taking my parents and Carlisle, for treating this entire world like an open storage depot of spare parts and human blood.
Anger at myself for having failed to do a damn thing about any of it.
I’d tried, people had died, and I’d shut down like an overloaded skimmer engine. I could see that now—see it with embarrassing clarity.
Recovering? Laying low? Training Elise?
I’d damn near convinced myself I’d been doing the right thing, hiding in my little hole like the wounded animal everyone thought I was. Without knowing it, I’d been doing exactly what Carlisle’s ghost had been silently begging me not to.
I’d given up. Given into despair.
I could almost feel him hanging over me, could only imagine what he would’ve thought watching earlier today as I’d shut down an honest request for help, watching now with soft disappointment as I stewed here in a steaming pile of self-indulgence, cowering from the mission he’d given his life to give me another shot at.
Anger flashed like lightning, and a chair exploded into wooden splinters against the stone wall almost before I realized I’d lashed out with telekinesis.
Carlisle had given his life for mine. Made me his legacy to Enochia. And so far, I’d used that time to waste away in our dingy Legion living quarters.
How had I ever deluded myself so far? So quickly forgotten the silent promise I’d made at Carlisle’s pyre?
Finishing what the two of us had started—that had always been the plan. I hadn’t known then how the nightmares would only get worse and worse with each passing day. Hadn’t known how the sleepless nights would degrade me, how the smallest things would trigger cold sweats and heart-pounding bursts of panic.
I hadn’t known then how badly I was broken. But I’d made a promise. And if I hadn’t found this holodisk…
It’s a thing of beauty and some terror, the way the smallest discovery can shift the foundations of one’s world so.
Yes, I’d been wronged. I’d been hunted by the very people who were asking for my help. I’d been through too much—had gropped up too completely to ever be forgiven.
But the raknoth were still out there. Good people were still dying. And Carlisle had left me here to do something about it.
The only question was where to start. The hybrids? The cloaks?
I was already reaching to call Johnny when my palmlight started buzzing. Speak of the demon.
I jabbed the connect button.
“Oh, scud,” Johnny’s voice crackled, “I didn’t really think you’d… Never mind. Listen, I just wanted to—”
“Why haven’t you found Alton Parker?”
“Oh. Well, uh, first off, hello. Secondly, they’re trying their little wrinklies off around here. You might’ve already heard something about it on the reels, but they cleaned the whole Vantage facility out. It’s a shell out there. I’m sure they’ll find Parker soon enough.”
Yesterday wouldn’t have been soon enough.
“We need to go back and burn that place to the ground.”
“I don’t think there’s really much left to burn, man. They swept through the place with… Wait, we?”
“I’m coming.” It barely even sounded like I was making this up as I went. “And unless the team that went out there was cloaked, which I’m assuming they weren’t, you probably can’t trust their operation wasn’t tampered with. They could still be making hybrids down there.”
“I… You really think so?”
“It’d hardly be the most insidious trick the raknoth had ever pulled. Call it a strong hunch. Ask if there was anything odd in the reports. Any gaps or disorientation. Maybe an accidental weapon discharge. That kind of thing.”
Johnny chewed that over in silence for a long second.
“Scud. Okay. I’ll run it up the chain, see if we can get a second look in there.”
“I need to be there.”
Hesitation. Then, “Is everything okay, buddy? Did something happen to change your mind?”
My insides tightened at the change in his voice, like he’d just remembered it was a wounded animal he was talking to, and not his old tyro broto. Had Elise messaged him when I’d stepped out?
“It’s kind of a long story,” I said slowly.
“I saw you four hours ago.”
“It’s been a long four hours.”
“Okay, broto. I just… Don’t get me wrong, Glenbark’s probably gonna be rolling on sunshine if I tell her you’re in. She wants those cloaks, man, and sweet Alpha do I wanna give that woman what she wants. It’s just that I’m not sure she’s gonna love the idea of you in the field.”
“That’s why you explain to her that anyone else she sends in is going to be vulnerable to telepathic manipulation. Unless you wanna point out that there may already be a certain red-headed legionnaire equipped for the task.”
“I need to see it with my own eyes, Johnny. It’s important to me.”
I didn’t realize how much I meant it until the words were out of my mouth. Even before the White Tower, my dreams had been haunted by the memory of the dozens of helpless victims we’d been forced to leave bleeding out on the racks beneath Vantage when Alton Parker had set his hybrids loose on us. I owed it to those people to make sure the job was done.
“Okay,” Johnny said finally. “Okay, buddy. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Hey, what’s a broto for if they can’t even convince their superiors to pull you into a potential combat situation?”
The first hint of a smile tugged my lips. “I’m sorry about earlier, Johnny.”
“Forget about it. It was a scuddy move for us to show up like that. But you know, Vantage might be an easier sell if I could bring Glenbark the news she really wants to hear.”
“I don’t know how to make the cloaks, man. I wish I did. It was something Carlisle and Cassius figured out. It might’ve been common knowledge a thousand years ago, before Sarentus had the Emmútari slaughtered, but now…”
Johnny waited a few seconds to see if I’d finish the thought. “So, glossing past that stuff about our holy prophet slaughtering people…”
“Well, I found a couple extra working pendants.” I studied the runes on mine, thinking about everything Carlisle had taught me on the branch of Shaping he’d called Expression. “And I might have an idea where to start on trying to make more. That’s about all I’ve got.”
I could almost see Johnny perking up on the other side of the call. “Well that’s a scudload better than we had five minutes ago.” He hesitated. “Look, Glenbark would probably have me skinned alive for saying this, but… you don’t have to do this, Hal. I’m honestly not sure how this plays out if we don’t get our people cloaked. Alpha, you should hear the conversations going on over here. It’s chaos for the history stacks. But I know how much scud you’ve been through.”
Maybe Elise had messaged him. Scud, maybe she’d been keeping him updated all along about my… what? Behavior? Condition?
Did I have a condition now?
Maybe, I decided, as I realized I hadn’t checked the messages I’d received since coming here. Elise was probably worried sick about me.
“I appreciate the concern, buddy,” I said, “but Glenbark was right. You both were. I have to stop these bastards.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the spirit, but I don’t think either of us was suggesting you do it with your own mystical hands.”
“No?” I wanted to argue, to dig in and insist it was all or nothing, but now probably wasn’t the time. “Sounds like you’ve been spending a lot of time with the High General.”
“Perks of being the one guy in the Legion they think you might talk to. She basically appointed me envoy to The Solemn Nation of Hal.”
“Guess that might be better than getting brigged, right?”
“Ehh,” Johnny said. “I’ll get back to you on that one in a few cycles. Preferably when this is all over and we can have a good laugh about the time the Legion put it on a scraggly-faced tyro to protect them from an army of telepathic alien invaders.”
“I’m not a tyro anymore. I have the dishonorable discharge to prove it.”
“You’re not exactly a civie either, broto.”
I gave a noncommittal grunt, scratching at my two cycles’ worth of uneven stubble. “So… you’re saying you don’t like the beard?”
“Let’s be honest, beard is probably a strong word.”
I smiled, a flicker of excitement touching my chest. For the first time since the White Tower, I was moving again, even if I didn’t quite know where yet. I hadn’t even realized how trapped I’d felt these past cycles. All I knew was that Carlisle was counting on me.
“Not to pry,” Johnny said slowly, “but you should probably talk to Elise about all this, right?”
That killed the smile nice and quick.
Of course I should talk to Elise about this. I never should have stormed out on her at all. But now that I was moving…
“I’ll call her on the way. Speaking of which, I might need a ride. I kinda… stranded myself.”
“A ride, we can handle. But she deserves a sit-down, man.”
“I know that,” I snapped. “I just…”
“You know she can take it,” he said quietly.
Of course I knew.
It wasn’t a question of fortitude. Elise was as strong as they came. Stronger than me, if my behavior over the past couple cycles was any indication. And after everything I’d put her through…
I couldn’t lie to Elise. She deserved so much more than that.
“I’ll talk to her.” I stood, looking around the room. My gaze settled on a pair of Carlisle’s old daggers. “Just send a ride who can swing me by. I’m assuming you already have my location.”
“I can pretend I don’t know what you’re talking about if that would be less awkward.”
I traced my fingers over the daggers, imagining their slender lengths piercing the crimson fire of raknoth eyes. “I’ll see you soon, buddy.”
“Good luck, broto,” Johnny said. “Just, uh… Yeah. Talk soon.”
I ended the call and closed the palmlight with a pinch and a curl of my fingers. I tucked Carlisle’s holodisk gently in my pocket, looking around the room one last time in what felt like a goodbye. Then I sheathed his daggers, strapped them to my belt, and turned for the door.
I wasn’t the best Carlisle had had to offer this world. I was damn sure about that. As sure as I was that Mathis would safely get to go to his stiff-backed pyre proclaiming that I’d never even measured up to my dad’s polished boots, much less his heroism. But, like it or not, I was what they’d left behind. Which all amounted to one thing.
I had work to do.
Chapter 5 - Civie
“Well isn’t this just a sunny trip down memory lane,” I muttered, leaning back from the small duraglass port and the view of the sprawling countryside flying by below.
“What’s that?” Johnny asked beside me.
“Nothing,” I said. Then, nodding to the wide viewport at the head of the transport, I added. “Vantage, I mean.”
The complex was easily visible a few miles ahead now. The primary research facility of Vantage Corp, alone out here, nothing but open fields all around. The place was the size of a small city and looked from the outside more like a military installment than a biological research compound—complete with perimeter wall and everything.
It was here Carlisle and I had first discovered the raknoth plot to construct an army of hybrids and assembly line style human blood farms to keep that army fed. And it was here I had a feeling they were still doing just that, though I had to admit now that it did look quite abandoned.
The fact didn’t go unnoticed.
“Someone remind me why we’re sweeping out Viper’s sloppy seconds,” someone grumbled back in the main hold.
“I think it’s ‘cause your mom was all booked, Jensen,” another called.
There was a round of chuckles and guffaws from the first squad of the fifty-first Hound Company. I wanted to roll my eyes but couldn’t help smiling at the feeling of being back around legionnaires.
Ordo Dillard, on the other hand, regarded his squad with a stern frown as he descended the stairs from the upper cabin. “We’re out here because the civie here says Viper Company couldn’t find a bova’s teet with both hands.”
Another round of chuckles, along with a few hearty agreements.
Dillard met my eyes as he continued. “Personally, I don’t give a scud what Citizen Raish thinks, but the High General says sweep, we sweep. For ours is not to ask…”
“But to serve,” the men barked back.
I did my best not to squirm beneath Dillard’s stare before he finally broke off and began issuing fireteam orders.
A trip down memory lane indeed.
“Uh, buddy?” Johnny said quietly beside me.
I looked at him, expecting a word of comfort or caution. Instead, I saw his palmlight, lit with a long, mint green message from Elise.
“Care to explain why your lady love is threatening violence to my wrinklies and asking what we’re up to?”
I opened my mouth. Closed it. Opened again, and let out a heavy sigh.
“You didn’t talk to her.”
I looked down at my hands.
“I know you stopped to see her. The eyes in the sky told me.”
I just nodded, not overly keen on sharing that I’d simply stood outside our building for fifteen minutes before finally resorting to a string of short, vague messages explaining that I’d reconsidered the Legion’s offer and that we’d talk about it soon.
I fully intended to have that talk. But I needed to do this first—to keep moving until I was sure I had enough momentum to avoid falling back into the pit of my own pathetic wallowing. I also needed to make damn sure that, if I was going to step back on the board and paint a bright red target on my chest, Elise wasn’t anywhere near me when the slugs started flying.
I’d lost enough loved ones.
“She knows what she needs to.”
“I don’t know, broto.” Johnny pointedly waved his palmlight. “The not-so-subtle threats of testicular peril kinda suggests otherwise.”
“I didn’t say she was happy about—”
“Citizen Raish,” Dillard called, snapping me back to the transport cabin, where everyone was suddenly watching me with eager intent. Dillard stepped up and offered me a civilian issue handgun to go with the bulky yellow armor that marked me as a civilian should any enemy combatants care to take pity and honor the rules of war. “Your armament, citizen. Now if you and Legionnaire Wingard could stow the storyvid drama and prepare for landing, we’d all appreciate it.”
Another round of chuckles, all directed at me.
Heat rushed to my cheeks—embarrassment, anger, and an urge to telekinetically pin Ordo Dillard to the wall all warring for dominance. The weapon was an insult more than a tool.
I should have taken it anyway.
Instead, I patted the pommel of one Carlisle’s daggers. “All set, sir.”
Dillard scowled and thrust the handgun at Johnny, grip first. “See to it your friend doesn’t die and embarrass the company, Wingard. You two are with Fireteam E.”
“Yes, sir,” Johnny said, taking the gun without hesitation and handing it to me a what were you thinking? look as Dillard moved on.
I shrugged and wordlessly tucked the handgun into my gear vest.
I’d known I wasn’t going to make many friends, muscling my way into an operation that just about everyone besides me—and maybe Johnny and General Glenbark—thought was a goat-gropping waste of time and resources. That said, butting heads with the ordo wasn’t going to do me or anyone else any favors.
Of course, Glenbark could’ve given her ordos instructions to operate on the assumption that I wasn’t just a softsteel-sipping civie, but I got the impression she wasn’t too happy about my maneuvering either. And even if she wasn’t miffed, she didn’t strike me as the type to tell her people what to think or who to respect—only what to get done.
Which meant I’d just have to compose myself and act like someone these legionnaires might actually take seriously.
The transport slowed, veering downward as we approached the perimeter wall and the large, rectangular main building at the front of the complex. It was stout in the back half and ten floors high in the front—the same ten floor rooftop where I’d fought my first raknoth, Alton Parker, ex-CEO of Vantage.
Hopefully, today would go more smoothly.
As we cleared the wall and the transport began to descend, I brought my palmlight to life, thinking to swipe a quick message to Elise. After a moment’s hesitation, I closed it again.
We’d talk soon enough.
Telling her the details probably wouldn’t worry her less anyway, nor would revealing operation details to another civilian be likely to impress anyone who might find out. Then again, if Alton Parker actually had uprooted his operation from the lab beneath Vantage, I was probably going to lose whatever credibility I might have with Glenbark anyway.
An unexplained weapon discharge. That was what had gotten under Glenbark’s skin just enough for her to humor my wild suspicions. No injuries, no other mishaps. Just a single weapon that shouldn’t have been fired, and not a single recollection as to why it had been.
Perhaps this had been a stupid move. But what else could that forgetful legionnaire have shot at?
The complex certainly looked dead out there. But these were the same raknoth who’d infiltrated the highest offices of both the Legion and the Sanctum. How hard would it have been to confound one search party?
Probably a lot less hard than moving all the equipment. Alton Parker or any other raknoth could’ve easily hopped into as many minds as need be and convinced them they’d seen nothing but an empty room where it counted.
The transport jostled to a landing.
Time to go find out, one way or another.
“You’re sure about this?” Johnny said.
I stood and patted my sad civie armor. “Just like old times.”
One of the nearby legionnaires turned a skeptical glance my way.
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “That’s kinda what I’m afraid of.”
The twenty legionnaires of first squad were already sweeping neatly and quietly down the ramp to the Vantage yard.
Johnny picked up his rifle and gave me a look. “Just don’t try to be a hero in there, okay?”
I frowned. “When did you become the worrier?”
“Right about the time it somehow became my wrinklies on Elise’s chopping block if anything happens to you.”
“So not fair,” I said, trying to grin.
I don’t think I managed more than a grimace as my mind turned to what it would do to Elise if something actually did happen to me after I’d run off like this.
At least I was more durable than normal, all bundled in fiber weave and unwieldy plate armor. A little too durable, I decided as I tromped through the main cabin on Johnny’s heels, feeling clunky. Alpha forbid I ended up needing to move fast enough to fight a raknoth.
If anyone was still listening to a word I said after this operation, I was going to have to see if the powers that be could rustle me up a good armor skin.
Ordo Dillard’s squad formed a perimeter as the other transport landed to divulge the second squad of Hound Company. For the most part, everyone pretended like Johnny and I weren’t there as they went about their business and moved in on the main entrance. Everyone, that was, except for our compatriots in Fireteam E, who eyed us—or me, at least—with skepticism, distrust, and irritation as we approached.
I eyed them back, two solid-looking men, one slender steel whip of a woman, and a heavy gunner whose burly proportions reminded me of Phineas—if Phineas had grown twenty years younger, leaned out, and then eaten another Phineas.
I considered introducing myself—unnecessary as it was—but the woman pointedly ignored my attempt at eye contact and waved the fireteam forward with a silent hand signal. Johnny and I traded a shrug and fell in with them.
Whatever they may or may not have missed, Viper Company had left the main doors unlocked.
When I’d first infiltrated Vantage, the halls inside had been sterile, all spotless glass panels and immaculately organized lab equipment. Now, the powerless facility was barren under the beams of Hound Company’s lanterns. The floors, once pristinely scrubbed, were dirty and heavily scuffed.
The place was dead. But that didn’t stop the cool tingle whispering at my back.
Someone was watching us.
Or maybe that was just the feeling of desperation creeping down my spine—some baseless hope that I hadn’t been wrong to push for this operation. I found my pendant and dialed my cloak out as far as it’d go, casting my extended senses into our surroundings, taking care not to fall behind or get in anyone’s way.
It was hard, picking out anything meaningful through the considerable interference of the thirty-plus soldiers moving through the building all around us. Scanning large areas with my extended senses wasn’t something I’d had much practice at. It was a problem not unlike dilution. The wider I threw my net, the vaguer the details got, as if I only had a finite amount of mental presence and I had to choose where to spend it.
Even so, I caught flickers here and there. Tiny life forms—rodents, maybe?—flitting about. And in the walls and the foundations, the subtlest of vibrations, so weak I was sure they’d be imperceptible to my flesh.
It was faint—not the direct, crackling buzz of power lines or running machinery, but the tingling whisper of distant electromagnetism.
“You got something?” Johnny asked quietly.
I opened my eyes—hadn’t even realized I’d closed them. Johnny was gently guiding me with a hand on the shoulder, having apparently noticed me leaving the driver’s seat, so to speak. And so had our friendly fireteam, I surmised by their suspicious stares.
“Electronics below, I think,” I muttered to Johnny, dialing my cloak in and withdrawing my extended senses.
That didn’t ease the stares.
“What’s the holdup?” Dillard asked, appearing beside us seemingly out of thin air, watching me with evident distrust. “Edwards?”
“Civie says electronics below, Ordo,” rumbled the heavy gunner—Edwards, apparently.
“However the scud he arrived at that mystical observation,” muttered one of the others.
Dillard eyed me warily, waiting for me to explain myself.
“Nothing certain yet, sir,” I said slowly. “But it feels like something’s still down there.”
That earned a round of mutters and a dark frown from Dillard.
“Let’s get to the central lifts,” he finally said.
No one argued.
By the time we reached our destination, one of Hound’s fireteams had succeeded at restoring the facility’s powers. We arrived at the fully lit atrium with the five mag lifts that had almost cost me and Carlisle our lives last time we’d been here.
Had they been repaired since then?
It seemed so. Though I doubted that meant they’d be willingly taking us all the way down to the cavernous hybrid breeding facility that was marked neither on the lift controls nor in the Vantage building plans. Still, I held my tongue as Ordo Dillard discussed the plan with Ordo Carter, his counterpart from Second Squad.
Armored as we were—and armed as they were—it was an uncomfortable squeeze to fit even five legionnaires per lift car, so we split up, one squad descending to the lowest floor to work our way up while the other squad worked their way down on the stairs, one sublevel at a time.
The Legion inspector’s passes happily granted us lift access to the “lowest” level, S5. A few moments of stomach wobbling descent later, we drew up a floor short of the actual lowest level and piled out at S5. I didn’t mind the momentary stop, though. It gave me time to process what I felt when I clicked my cloak off to enable me to reach far enough below.
Dozens just in the first few columns of breeding cylinders alone, none of them moving save for… were those humans I felt walking around down there? Yes. Three humans, and at least a couple hybrids patrolling the—
I nearly cried out as one of the hybrids’ minds quivered at my probe. I tore my senses back, flipping my cloak on and dialing it just far enough to leave our squad covered from prying minds.
Had that thing felt me?
I waited for a painfully long handful of seconds, too tense to breathe.
No alarms. No distant battle roar.
I was about ready to sigh in relief when I noticed Dillard marching my way with a look that said it was time for my next public humiliation. Instead, though, he pulled me aside and spoke in a low voice.
“Look, kid, I don’t know what your deal is or why Glenbark decided to trust you at all, but—Hey, what’s wrong with you? You need a sugar lick or something?”
I must’ve looked as shaken as I felt. “No, sir. I’m… fine.”
Dillard was less than convinced. “Kid, whatever the scud you’re playing at, if you actually have intel, now’s the time.”
Hybrids. Humans. Blood racks. Breeding chambers. All still active.
Alpha, did I have intel. I just wasn’t sure I could lay it all out without them crying demon and clapping me in restraints right there.
But grop it.
“We need to be careful,” I said, quietly enough that only he and Johnny would hear. “This facility’s live, but it feels like most of the hybrids are still in stasis down there. I pick up at least two patrolling. Three conscious humans, too. I’m not sure what they’re doing down there, but given that the raknoth could’ve bent their minds, it’s probably safest to assume they won’t be glad to see us.”
To his credit, Dillard managed to maintain a straight face throughout. No slack jaw. No laughing at me outright. He just waited until I’d finished, then looked questioningly at Johnny, who nodded almost apologetically.
Maybe Glenbark actually had told him to listen to me.
Dillard turned back to me, frown darkening. “You… feel all of this?”
I nodded, not really sure what I could say to make it sound less strange. Even more quietly, lest any of the dagger-staring squad overhear, I added, “Sir, if I might make a recommendation. I think we’re going to be wanting Ordo Carter’s squad down here sooner than later.”
Dillard studied me for a long moment, betraying nothing.
“How do we access this alleged facility?” he finally asked.
I inclined my head in the direction of the lifts. “May I?”
Dillard watched me a second longer, then nodded, looking about as happy as a wet haga beast. I reached out and telekinetically thumbed the S4 button in one of the empty lifts. The doors slid shut, drawing several startled looks and a few half-raised weapons.
“It’s okay guys,” Johnny said.
I waited until I felt the lift stop at the floor above, then I reached for the doors ahead, disconnected their catches, and slid them apart with telekinesis, revealing the open lift shaft.
“Ta-da,” Johnny said to the silent room, where several legionnaires were now staring at me like… well, like I truly was the Demon of Divinity.
There were mumbles and whispers. Beside me, Dillard gave a quiet command into his earpiece then held up a closed fist for silence. It fell like a heavy blanket, thick enough that Dillard’s boot falls seemed painfully loud as he walked over and leaned in to look down the open shaft.
He looked for longer than seemed necessary, then finally turned and spoke quietly to the closest fireteam, who quickly began pulling rappelling gear from their packs. Half the men tensed as I padded over to join them.
Dillard only gave me a raised finger to wait before striding over to the nearby stairwell. I could feel the first of Carter’s crew descending a floor above. When they reached the door, Dillard met Ordo Carter and pulled him aside. He talked too quietly for anyone to hear. Gestured toward the open lift shaft then to me.
Look what Raish found.
Carter looked at me like I was a bothersome piece of refuse he’d only just noticed before turning back to Dillard.
Who put the apostate civie in charge?
The look quickened my pulse, but I held my tongue and stood still until Dillard and Carter broke and started moving about, issuing quiet orders.
At that point, I couldn’t
“Permission to go down first, sir. I can keep things under control if it gets ugly.”
Dillard pegged me with a look that was serious if not quite reprimanding. “I appreciate your showing us the way, Raish, but please, step aside and let us do our job.”
Anger stirred in my chest.
I’d faced more hybrids than all of Hound Company combined—here at Vantage alone, for starters, but also at Sanctuary, and then again at the White Tower.
As quick as the thought came, I flashed back to the heart of the battle in the Great Hall. Inhuman roars. Corpses piling around me, civilians and legionnaires alike. Some fighting, some running for their lives. All of them dying. Dying because of me. Dying because—
“It’s okay, Hal,” Johnny’s voice snapped me back to the lift lobby.
My hands were shaking on the pommels of Carlisle’s daggers. I squeezed to steady them.
“These guys know what they’re doing,” Johnny added, laying a hand on my shoulder.
Did he see how close I’d just come? Did he feel me shaking now?
I didn’t need extended senses to feel the dozens of eyes watching me.
I nodded to Dillard. “Yes, sir.”
The room itself seemed to let out a relieved breath as Dillard made to move on. In a quieter voice, just for the three of us, I added, “I just assumed you’d want me protecting your people from what happened at the Oasis counterstrike.”
Dillard froze. “Are you playing games with me, Raish?”
I held his merciless stare without flinching. “You want me at the front of your squad, Ordo. No games.”
Our staring contest stretched until I thought Johnny might burst beside me. Then Dillard swept on, gesturing to his men. “Fireteam E. Suppressors on. Down the shaft. Mara and Davis on point. Lock it up, Hounds.”
It took me a second to register that Fireteam E meant us.
Carter’s squad was already in motion, a couple legionnaires taking another lift up a floor while others pried open the shaft door and prepared more lines to climb down. I scooted forward with Johnny, who looked as surprised as I felt, while two of our team, the steel whip of a woman and one of the smaller guys—Mara and Davis, I guessed—clipped onto their lines and disappeared into the lift shaft. Heavy gunner Edwards and our remaining team member went next.
Which left me and Johnny.
I’d telekinetically caught myself from enough falls by now that I was halfway into the open shaft before Johnny caught me, clipped on to his line, and pointedly indicated I should do the same. I took the cue and went through the unnecessary tedium of hooking in and rappelling down the shaft beside him.
“Waste of time,” I muttered when it was just the two of us.
“You’re already freaking people out enough, buddy. Would it kill you to keep your head down?”
“Maybe not. Might kill them, though.”
He gave a noncommittal harrumph. We touched down and unclipped from the line.
I made quick work of the door mechanisms barring our way into the lab and reached out further to give the lab another quick sweep, trying to avoid touching the hybrid minds enough to risk another reaction.
“Scud,” I mumbled, pulling back. “Three hybrids now. Two on our level to the right and left, one down below, by the humans.” I looked at Johnny. “We need a third shooter.”
He took a step toward the door and froze at a look from our steely-eyed lioness.
“Edwards,” she said, quiet and calm. “Look sharp.”
Edwards shot Johnny a kindly wink. “Yes, Ordo Mara.”
“Cut the scud,” she hissed, then muttered something under her breath about gropping children.
It seemed less than wise to press the issue.
“I’ve got the door when you’re ready,” I said.
Mara, Davis, and Edwards lined up and called their targets, only partially letting on how ridiculous they felt taking targets from a kid acting like he could see through walls. I voiced a quiet reminder to shoot for the head, earning myself a couple glares, then I gave them a countdown and pushed the doors apart with telekinesis.
The hum of running machinery poured into the shaft from the vast lab space. Three suppressors coughed. Mara’s and Davis’ hybrids dropped to the left and right. Below, Edwards’ mark didn’t.
Not that it was Edwards’ fault.
The creature had thrown itself behind cover as if it’d been expecting us. I reached out and yanked it into the air with telekinesis. It took more energy than I’d expected—maybe because working over distance degraded my efficiency, or maybe because the thing was heavier than most of its kind.
Johnny’s rifle coughed twice, and the hybrid went slack in my long-range grip, two neat holes in its head.
I lowered the hybrid. In addition to being rather heavy, it looked different than the other two—it’s hide darker, thicker-looking. And maybe it was my imagination, but I thought its eyes had glowed more deeply crimson than its brethren as well. It probably didn’t matter right now.
“Hostiles down,” Mara murmured into her earpiece.
Below, the three humans hadn’t even bothered looking up from their work consoles when the shooting had started. That couldn’t be good.
“We need to stop whatever those people are doing,” I said, starting forward.
Mara reached back and planted a hand on my chest without turning.
“Do it,” Dillard’s voice came through the comms.
Above, two more fireteams were already descending to join us.
Mara withdrew her hand with a scowl. “Affirmative, Ordo.”
“You guys have restraints?” I asked.
“Good.” I squeezed around Edwards and into cavernous room that had haunted my nightmares ever since my first visit. “Because I think we might need them.”
Chapter 6 - Sprung
If the hybrid breeding facility beneath Vantage was every bit as disturbing as I remembered, then the blood racks were almost certainly worse.
“Holy scud,” Johnny murmured beside me.
I knew what he meant.
The room was enormous—so enormous that most of its extent was lost to darkness outside the lighting near the lifts. The faint green glow coming from the rows of large cylindrical tanks along the walls, though, showed that the room stretched on for at least a couple hundred yards. But no one seemed to be noticing that.
Their attention was fixed firmly on the ground floor below, where rows and rows of cold gray blood racks were stretched out like some sick collection of pristine trophies—each one affixed to an array of tubes and connectors. Each one occupied by a pale, unmoving body.
“Holy scud,” Johnny repeated, his voice weaker this time.
The air reeked of pungent chemicals, underlaid by the sweet, sickly smell of decay. I shifted my gaze to the rows of tanks on the walls. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. And inside each of those tanks, a fledgling hybrid in the making.
“Sweet Alpha,” someone whispered behind us.
Edwards. He’d gone pale and looked like he might throw up. Beside him, Mara’s face had finally given in to open shock as she took in the horrors.
I felt for them. They’d probably be having nightmares tonight. Long after that, as well, if they were anything like me. But right now, we needed to know what the people below were doing at their respective consoles.
The three workers wore identical blue gowns. Two women and a man. None of them had so much as shot us a curious glance yet.
“Hey,” I called, hurrying down the mesh metal steps to the ground floor.
“We’re here to help,” I called, drawing past the first row of blood racks. “But whatever you’re doing, you need to stop for a minute.”
One of the women paused momentarily, her hands curling into tense claws over her workstation. She started to glance my way as I neared, then thought better of it and resumed her work.
“Stop!” I said.
Gently as I could, I pulled her away from her console. She reached for the console, but the attempt was only half-hearted, like she didn’t intend to fight me so much as she’d simply forgotten she was obstructed.
“A little help, guys?” I called.
Johnny and the rest of our fireteam had frozen at the blood racks, their faces all shades of ghostly white as they stared mesmerized at pale bodies and the blood lines slowly draining them dry. On the catwalk above, legionnaires were filing into the room from the lift shaft, many of them having similar reactions.
“Johnny,” I called.
He snapped to, as did Mara, and Edwards a second later. They hurried over, preparing restraints for our three… rescues? Hostiles?
I wasn’t sure yet.
“Help… me,” mumbled the woman I was holding, still reaching for her console.
“You’re okay,” I said, holding fast against her weak struggles. “You’re safe now.”
“What in demons’ depths is this place?” Dillard’s voice crackled over the comms.
I glanced at my palmlight to see he’d opened a private line with me.
“This is where they’ve been building their army this whole time, sir,” I said quietly. “And harvesting the blood supply to feed them. We take this place down and we might be able to keep Oasis under siege. Starve them out.”
“A valiant proposition,” called a voice from above. “Though I’m afraid you’d be disappointed were you to try it.”
That voice curled my stomach into knots. I’d heard it before, in this very room. I followed the sound to the second level of catwalks, back where the cavernous room was still engulfed in shadow. I was squinting at a faint silhouette when one of Dillard’s men found the lighting controls.
Floodlights snapped on throughout the gigantic room with a series of cracking pops, and there he was, nearly fifty feet above.
Alton Parker, the suave demon in a charcoal business suit.
Only he didn’t look so suave now, I realized at a second glance. He looked ragged. Wild. His hair was disheveled, his sleeves balled up to the elbows, the lightsteel of the catwalk railing bent where he gripped onto it.
Somehow, it was far more terrifying than the composed monster I’d expected.
Johnny and Mara already had their rifles trained on him, Edwards easily holding the other two floundering rescues away from their consoles in his burly arms. Behind and above, boots were pounding down the steps and along the catwalks—more legionnaires getting into position.
Alton Parker hardly seemed to notice any of it. He just continued kneading the metal railing like a piece of doe, rambling to himself in apparent agitation. I could only pick out a few phrases—something about too many moving pieces and sticking to the plan.
“Idiots,” he growled at the end of his stream, snapping the railing clean in two. “Cursed void, you mangy idiots!”
“Fireteams B and C,” Dillard’s voice crackled through the battle channel, “seize that maniac, and be careful about it.”
“No!” I called. Or started to, before the trembling woman in my arms bucked against my hold, jolting my attention back to the ground floor. She began whimpering like a desperate pup, her struggles growing more urgent.
“You really should let those poor people get back to work, Raish,” Alton called, suddenly seeming to remember we were there. “I was quite thorough in my instructions. I imagine they’ll be ready to chew their own hands off soon if they think it’ll help.”
As if in response to his words, the woman struggled even harder against my arms. Beside us, Edwards nearly lost his balance as his two charges likewise struggled.
Something was wrong.
I looked around and saw a few legionnaires sweeping in to help us with our unruly workers, and several more fireteams already hastily planting explosives among the rows of hybrid cylinders as Fireteams B and C moved into position to come at Parker from both sides.
None of it eased the dread in my gut. Something was wrong. I felt it in my pounding heart and in the struggles of the blond worker gnashing her teeth and trying to catch me with a wild elbow.
“Parker!” I yelled, not really knowing what the plan was, only that I had to stop him.
But it was already too late. I saw it in the way he stood to his full height above, his eyes blazing to life with crimson demon fire. “Do you remember your last visit, Haldin?”
Horrible understanding hit me. I whipped around to the closest workstation just as it chimed with an alert.
<Rows B, C - Reanimation Complete. Drainage Commencing.>
“Scud,” I heard myself whisper. Then, at a yell, “Dillard! He’s waking the—”
But my voice was lost to the rapid-fire series of sharp clacks sounding down the lines of chambers on either side of the room. A choir of rumbling motors filled the air. Fluid levels began draining.
A few feet away, another console gave an identical chime.
“Fall back!” I looked wildly around for Dillard, panic gripping my chest. “Get them back to the lifts, Dillard! He’s waking them all up!”
His voice sounded in my ear. “Control yourself, Raish. The explosives are almos—”
“We’ve got live civilians hooked up down here!” I snapped. “We need to come back with more men.”
In the darkness above, Alton Parker began to laugh.
“Shoot that son of a bitch!” I cried.
But I wasn’t in charge. No one did a damn thing. Not until Parker cocked back and hurled a piece of the broken railing at the approaching Fireteam B. That was all Mara needed.
She opened fire, followed almost immediately by Johnny and Davis, their rifles all coughing tight bursts. Above, B and C teams added their own fire, but Alton was already in motion. He covered a good forty feet of catwalk in one leap, nearly landing on Fireteam C, then he grabbed one of the shocked legionnaires by the armored utility vest and jumped again.
The gunfire died down through the room as Alton sailed another fifty yards, slammed down to ground floor permacrete, and took off at an inhuman sprint with his legionnaire human shield bouncing wildly over his shoulder.
Then the first hybrid chambers popped opened, and things got messy fast.
Eager howls filled the chemical-stained air. I dragged the frantic blond woman along, crying for everyone to fall back and rally at the lifts. I wasn’t sure anyone was listening. Hybrids dropped from catwalks on both sides, a few at first, then more. And more.
I was drawing my paltry excuse for a handgun when one landed right in front of me. Johnny put two sofsteel slugs in its head. Another dropped from above, straight for Edwards and his struggling lab worker. I threw my senses out and yanked them both several feet backward with telekinesis.
Edwards landed on wobbly feet after the surprise ride, then got his heavy rifle under control enough to fire a burst from the hip. It punched a gory hole straight through the hybrid’s bare chest, and the creature collapsed with a wet gurgle.
“Heads!” I snapped over the battle comms. “Shoot the heads!”
Johnny scooted to my side, picking off one hybrid after another. I took a medium range shot at one emerging from its chamber, but my blonde cargo bucked at the wrong moment and threw my aim.
Around us, legionnaires were falling back to the tune of Dillard’s orders barked over the comms—keeping their scud together to an admirable degree, considering the situation.
We moved with the flow, Edwards dishing off his wily lab worker to Davis so he could better hold point beside Mara.
“Hal, above!” Johnny cried.
I followed his aim in time to see three hybrids leap from the upper catwalk for Mara and Edwards.
No time to warn them.
I cast my will like a fisherman’s net and opened myself to the energy cells in my pack. The three hybrids yanked to a halt in midair. Liquid lightning crackled through my body, driving out my breath and spotting my vision, but I held on.
Mara, wide-eyed, caught on faster than slack-jawed Edwards. She darted backward, barking at him to do the same, and opened fire. Edwards unfroze, and when I released my hold a second later, the three hybrids were dead before they hit the ground.
As intense as the channeling had been, the sudden drop back to nothing hit me even harder. My head swam, my vision dipping darker before starting to recover. I was out of shape. Catching eight hundred pounds of hybrid wasn’t an easy feat by any stretch, but it’d clearly been too long since I’d pushed myself.
Something smacked my back. I turned to see Johnny saying something and frantically waving. My ears were rushing. He was trying to get me moving.
A hybrid was closing on his turned back.
I twisted, pulling my unwilling blond passenger into Johnny and releasing her to draw one of Carlisle’s daggers. The hybrid was almost on him, arms outstretched, eyes shimmering red—far too occupied to react when I stepped past Johnny and buried my blade in its left eye.
The hybrid fell.
We pushed on for the steps, Johnny handing back our passenger so he could take up his rifle again.
Most of the legionnaires had already made it to the lifts. I reached out to telekinetically hurl a few more hybrids away from Mara and Edwards. We reached the top of the stairs, and one of the legionnaires relieved me of my blonde charge, freeing me up to move to the railing and cover the few legionnaires still retreating.
The outpouring of waking hybrids seemed to be stabilizing, if not quite slowing. At least half of the chambers remained closed, holding their occupants in stasis, which seemed a small miracle.
But that still left more than enough coming for us.
Several dozen of the growling creatures pushed after us, some leaping up from the ground floor, others dropping down from upper catwalk, all driving us toward the lift doors, where our escape was critically bottlenecked.
No, I realized. Not just bottlenecked. Simply not happening.
At a second glance, I understood why.
Only two of the five lift cars stood open and waiting, the ones from the shafts we’d rappelled down apparently inoperable thanks to their breached shaft doors or maybe some collision detection sensors picking up our lines. Either way, Dillard and Carter had arrived at the same conclusion I promptly drew.
Retreat wasn’t happening.
Not without heavy casualties.
We’d already lost a few legionnaires to the hybrids, but that still left far too many to fit into two lift cars. There was also the two open shafts, but ascending those manually would be a single-file bloodbath with a couple companies’ worth of hybrids at our backs. There were less than a hundred hybrids still standing, and under Dillard’s command, Hound Company was quickly organizing into a strong defensive formation—funneling the bulk of the hybrids into multiple lines of overlapping fire, two fireteams working to the catwalk above to provide additional cover.
Holding the line was our best bet of getting everyone out of here alive. Assuming the rest of the hybrids didn’t start waking up from stasis, at least. So I followed Johnny in rallying with our fireteam and settled in for the fight.
Fireteam E had already dropped an additional four hybrids—one by Edwards’ heavy rifle, two by Mara’s sharpshooting, and one by my telekinetically-propelled dagger—when the ceiling amps clicked to life and Alton Parker’s voice boomed down.
“Much as I’ve enjoyed reliving old memories, I have facilities to run, and imbeciles to manage.” At the far end of the room, I could just make out his tiny shape, red eyes aglow, his legionnaire hostage still draped over one shoulder. “Best of luck protecting your own monkeys, Haldin.”
With that, he gave a wave and disappeared into a mag lift.
I rounded on the lifts behind us, mind racing. If Alton was running… if there was a chance I could catch him alone… I looked and found Dillard already glancing my way, along with the couple legionnaires around him who weren’t actively gunning down hybrids.
“He’s headed for the roof,” I called.
“Don’t think about it, Raish,” he snapped as I pushed my way over to him.
“I can stop him, Ordo.”
I wasn’t all that confident about that—or even about the headed for the roof part, really—but I must’ve at least sounded the part, because Dillard actually hesitated. He took the time to add a few bursts to Hound Company’s thunderous kill zone before turning a troubled scowl back on me.
“No. Too dangerous.” He turned away to fire again and bark a few commands to his squad. I thought about doing the same.
Maybe he was right. I couldn’t leave Hound Company down here. Not when they were only here because I’d driven for it.
But I also couldn’t let Alton Parker get away, and down here, with Hound Company firmly dug in and the hybrid tide slowing… would I even make much difference? I wasn’t sure, about that or about what I should do.
So instead I asked myself: what would Carlisle do? He’d left me in his place, right? So what would he do if it were him here?
I was already turning for the lifts when Dillard rounded back on me.
“You want to help, Raish? Get your ass back in line and—Hey!”
I was almost as surprised as Dillard sounded to find myself dodging past his reach and darting for one of the open lifts. They had it under control down here. I believed that. But up there… Parker get away. I couldn’t let him.
One legionnaire tried to stop me at the lift doors, but I twisted outside his grab with the help of a light telekinetic nudge. As an afterthought, I tugged off my cloaking pendant and tossed it at him when he turned to give chase. “Tell Dillard to keep that with him.”
His moment of surprised indecision was all I needed to slip into the lift car and jab the door controls. The door started sliding shut, and I was about to let out a tense breath when something slammed into it, halting its progress.
Johnny appeared a second later, prying his way into the lift car with red cheeks to match his hair. “What the scud are you thinking, Hal?”
“What are you thinking?” I shot back, jamming the button for the tenth floor button as soon as he scooted through and hoping my rooftop getaway assumption wasn’t faulty.
The lift’s rapid upward acceleration didn’t settle my churning stomach any more than did the open defiance twisting across Johnny’s face.
“I’m thinking you’re not going alone, you crazy bastard.”
“You’re also defying orders.”
“What orders?” A very Johnny grin split his face. “Dillard told you to stop, not me. The way I see it, I’m pursuing a rogue civie.” The grin died. “And a dangerous softsteel sipping one at that.”
He looked upward as if he could see through the steel, straight up to the fight we might be walking into, then he busied himself with reloading his rifle and sidearm. I followed his lead.
“So,” he said, slamming a fresh feeder home, “did you have a plan, orrr…?”
I paused mid-reload to look at him, and suddenly all I could see was Alton Parker standing over his broken body, sneering at me with those glowing red eyes. Just as Al’Kundesha had done when he’d murdered my parents. Just as Zar’Faenor had looked at me when he’d plunged his scaly fist through Carlisle’s intestines.
Cold dread quenched hot, tingling nerves, filling me with an equally cold certainty. I slid a fresh slug feeder into my handgun.
The lift began to slow.
I’m pretty sure he saw what I was about to do, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t face Alton with Johnny at my side.
“Stay safe, buddy,” I said. Then I darted out of the lift car and into the richly adorned executive floor.
Johnny lunged for the door after me, but I caught him with telekinesis and pinned him to the back of the lift.
He struggled as I reached in and pressed every button from the fifth floor down. “Dammit, man, don’t do this! Hal… Hal!”
I let the lift doors close, listening to Johnny cursing my name until he disappeared from view. He was going to be furious with me. But at least he’d be alive. It was enough for now.
I drew my mental defenses tighter, sweeping out with my senses.
I didn’t have to look far. The presence of a raknoth mind was unmistakable, like a roaring bonfire in the dead of night. I withdrew, tightening my defenses further before he could try to get in my head. I’d forgotten just how damned powerful the raknoth felt in my senses—how powerful they were in mind and body. It was more than a little terrifying.
But Alton Parker had to be stopped.
For Enochia. For Elise.
My fingers clenched, the crack of knuckles crisp in the eerie silence.
For Carlisle. For my parents.
Holding that thought firmly in mind, I started for the stairwell that would take me to the monster.
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