Let's not play games. I've got some chapters for you, and boy am I excited to share 'em!
NOTE: These chapters are unedited. There WILL be typos. Mistakes. Possibly even a missing sentence or two somewhere. Don't worry, I'll try to make sure this is all handled by the final draft!
OTHER NOTE: Seeing as we're all ravenous fans of my work here (… right? Riiiight?), I thought you might enjoy joining the team and weighing in on the early cover artwork to help me decide which direction to proceed with my illustrator.
Just click on the post below, check out the sketches, and let me know in the comments what you like and/or don't like! (You can even just comment with the # you like if you don't wanna be chatty 🙂
And if not, no worries. Enjoy the chapters below!
Now let me tell you (the beginning of) a story…
Chapter 1 – Apostate’s Folly
For ours is not to ask, but to serve.
That’s what they’d always told us, at least. Which is why I didn’t ask when I once again found myself hunkered down behind a slug-riddled skimmer, gritting my teeth as another good twenty or thirty softsteel slugs smashed into the vehicle’s rigid polymer plating. I just squinted against the sunlight, gauging distances and angles, counting rough numbers in my head.
Then I spun from cover and dropped two of the rebel bastards in the space of one breath.
The rifle kicked in my hands. Two red-garbed forms dropped.
The rest opened fire.
I was already back behind the skimmer, adjusting my grip on the rifle, wondering if I could shift forward and manage a clear shot from the hood. The loud clang of a slug ricocheting from that direction said no.
For now, they had me pinned.
So I dropped back down to sit out another wave of angry softsteel, studying the patterns of brilliant sunlight that poured through the cracks between the sprawling towers of the city.
Notwithstanding the half-dozen men trying to kill us, it was actually quite the beautiful day. And besides, it wasn’t like these particular apostates were much of a real threat.
Still, no excuse to be anything less than perfect. Through discipline, divinity, after all.
No sooner had the mantra run through my head than a throat cleared beside me, and I looked over to find Johnny closing down the mint green message display of his palmlight with a quick curl of his fingers. He sighed and scooped his own rifle up from the ground—the very antithesis of discipline. When he spoke, his tone was nonchalant, as if we weren’t sitting there amidst a hail of apostate gunfire.
“But seriously, man, he’s definitely up to something. And can you blame him? Kublich’s servitor is stupid hot. I mean, have you seen the swells she’s packing underneath—”
He went still, mouth still hanging open, frowning up at the tiny explosions of debris where slugs were still pelting into the permacrete wall we sat facing.
“Underneath Kublich’s… files?” Johnny shot a sidelong glance at me and cleared his throat again. “I mean, uh, lovely lady. Great servitor, I’m sure.”
“My father is not—”
Something crashed just over our heads, and what little glass remained of the skimmer’s last window rained down between us. For a second, we both tensed. But the incoming fire was slowing down. Another few shots, and it died completely.
They were waiting.
And so was Johnny, who was watching me expectantly with those blue-green eyes that made the color of his hair—very obviously red, even trimmed to Legion regulations as it was—stand out that much more.
“My father is not running around with the High Generals’ servitor,” I hissed. “He . . . He wouldn’t do that to my mom.”
The skeptical arch of Johnny’s fiery-red eyebrow let me know just how naive I sounded. But it was true, dammit. It had to be.
And besides, we had more pressing issues.
Except now Johnny was laying his rifle in his lap. Holding my gaze all the while, he pointedly raised his hands up in front of his chest and made a series of emphatic squeezing motions, as if cupping handfuls of imaginary—and bountiful—bosoms. He cocked his head, his expression warring between an apology and a sophomoric, Right? Riiiiight?!
“You’re an idiot,” I sighed, shaking my head. “And you’re gonna get us killed.”
Johnny affected his best offended face. “C’mon, broto.”
He turned to peek around the rear of the skimmer. The storm of gunfire renewed almost immediately, and Johnny quickly scooted back into place beside me.
He shrugged it off.
I fixed him with a glare.
“Okay,” he sighed, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you, buddy. Now let’s go bag us some blasphemers!”
“Johnny, wait!” I cried, but he was already in motion.
He bounced to his feet and made for the next skimmer down the walkway with a sloppy diving roll. Sloppy as it was, though, and rough as the landing looked, Johnny was back up in no time, shooting me a grinning thumbs-up from behind his new cover as a fresh blaze of gunfire kicked up dust and debris all around him.
Such an idiot.
But that idiot was my friend, and my friend needed some cover.
With the apostates focused on Johnny, I was clear to pop over the slug-riddled skimmer hood and drop two more of them. The rest quickly turned their fire back on me, and I ducked for cover. Before I even had time to give him the sign, Johnny capitalized on the opening, leaning out to take down another apostate while they were focused on me.
He could be a lot for some people to handle, but Johnny was damn reliable in his own way. And a crack shot to boot—I had to admit that much.
I skirted away from Johnny’s position and around the front end of my skimmer, trying to get a clear angle at the remaining hostiles. The sound of Johnny’s taunts and jeers followed me all the way as he applied liberal blindfire to keep our enemies’ attention fixed on him.
I got in position and leaned out long enough to take down another man.
Two more left.
Off to the right, Johnny emerged from cover with a cocky assuredness that made my stomach fall.
“Johnny!” I snapped.
He wasn’t listening.
His first burst cut our enemies down to one. The second burst never came.
Instead, Johnny jerked back, the gray fabric over his left shoulder staining dark with blood. He tried to raise his rifle one-handed, but two more shots punched into his chest. He fell to his knees, clutching at his belly, dark blood running from his mouth.
“Dammit,” I growled.
Every damn time.
I stowed my anger and gunned down the last apostate with cold precision. Then I strode back around the skimmer toward Johnny and his slowly growing patch of bloody permacrete.
Nothing moved along the sun-soaked street. Nothing but the smoke winding up from the piles of burning debris our grenades had birthed at the beginning of the engagement.
They’d been twelve at the start. The magic number. Now they were zero—the other magic number. In the wake of the cacophonous gunfire of the past few minutes, the silence that hung in the air was particularly somber and profound, broken only by the sounds of my boots on the pavement and the crunch of shattered glass underfoot.
I came to the spot where Johnny lay unmoving on the sidewalk and stopped, staring down at the bloody exit wounds on his back.
“You’re an idiot,” I finally said.
The sound of Johnny’s laughter rolled into my ears, though the body on the ground remained perfectly still. The effect was rather unsettling.
I straightened the fingers of my left hand to wake my palmlight and keyed a command on the azure holodisplay that appeared across my palm. The world of the sunny street momentarily flickered then rapidly disintegrated into the dark, empty space of the sim’s default state. Johnny—or his projection, rather—stood a few paces from where his simulated death throes had occurred, shaking his head.
“Man,” he said, “those death animations are just too creepy… Gets me every time!”
“That’s only because you get yourself killed every time,” I pointed out.
Johnny shrugged. “We can’t all be as good as the mighty Haldin Raish, can we?” He extended his hands toward me in a gesture of mock reverence. “Ladies and goodfellows, the shining new star of Sanctuary. The son of the honorable Lieutenant Martin Raish and—”
“All right, all right.” I cut him off with a raised hand, resisting the urge to remind him that, even in our personal hours, these stunts of his still cost him points in the eyes of the Legion. “Just don’t pull that crap at drills or they’re gonna give you the boot and hand you over to The Sanctum. Then it’ll be nothing but mops, candles, and praise be to Alpha for you.”
Johnny made a face of mock horror, and we shared a small chuckle.
His expression sobered to a serious look that I saw him wear only on rare occasions.
“Seriously, though, Hal,” he said softly, “I know you don’t wanna hear it, but this thing with your dad . . . it doesn’t look good.” He dropped my gaze. “I’m sorry, man. I’m just trying to be a good friend, here.”
I consciously unclenched my jaw and relaxed the toes that had flexed tight against the soles of my combat boots. He was right. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t even want to think about it—let alone discuss it.
“I know,” I said finally, doing my best to shut out the stream of unsettling possibilities rushing through my mind. “I just . . . I really don’t think he could do that. To my mom, or otherwise.”
“You’re probably right,” Johnny said, though I could tell he couldn’t quite convince himself. He glanced at his palmlight and wrinkled his nose. “Anyhow, guess we better call it quits for now. Show’s starting soon.”
I grimaced. “Praise be to Alpha. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“That you will, my friend,” Johnny said, finger poised over his palmlight. “Try not to suffocate under all those heavy thoughts of yours before then.”
I thudded my chest in a sarcastic salute, and he killed the connection, vanishing from sight and leaving me alone in the open, plain gray space of the sim room.
For a minute, I stood there considering what he’d said.
My father had been behaving oddly for the past several weeks, there was no question about that. He’d always been a busy man, of course. Being a Lieutenant and a Alpha-blessed hero of the Legion came with a full schedule. But lately, it’d been excessive. The hours he put in were never-ending. When he did manage to make it home for dinner, he looked disgruntled—his eyes bloodshot, his boots unpolished.
Worse, I’d stumbled onto more than one whispered argument between him and my mom of late—which, while not completely unheard of, was absolutely not the norm.
Something was up. But an affair?
I didn’t buy it—wouldn’t buy it until I had damn good reason to.
For the time being, I turned my thoughts to steeling my stomach, hung my practice rifle and sim mask on the wall, and headed down the hallway for the living room, preparing myself for the evening’s morose show.
I found my mom nestled up in the living room with her tablet and stylus.
“Writing?” I asked, settling down on the opposite end of the couch.
She looked up from under her neat brunette bangs and favored me with a warm smile. “An optimistic use of the word, but”—she frowned down at her tablet—“I suppose so, yes.”
I only ever used that word when it was just me and my mom. To his face, it was always Father, or Lieutenant. Not because he demanded it. It had always just felt right that way.
“No Dad,” Mom confirmed with a little shrug of her eyebrows. “He should be home soon, though,” she added with a glance at her tablet. “He’ll want to watch.”
On that note, we both turned to the thin screen adhered to the opposite wall, which was already tuned to the WAN’s live feed. The shot rotated through multiple angles of the Great Hall of the White Tower as the good citizens of Divinity filed in, preparing to dutifully witness the execution of one Andre Kovaks for his crimes against Enochia, as decreed by The Sanctum.
The poor bastard.
Not that I didn’t think Kovaks was a criminal. The evidence against him didn’t leave room for argument there.
Amongst other things, he’d committed half a dozen different break-ins, most of them involving offices belonging to Enochia’s premier biotech giant, Vantage Corp. On the last one, he’d been apprehended trying to steal something directly from Vantage’s main lab facility. How in Alpha’s good grace Kovaks had gotten past the place’s fortress of a perimeter, I could only guess, but the fact that he’d badly injured a few of Vantage’s private security force hadn’t helped matters for him.
No, it wasn’t that Kovaks was innocent. It was just that he was clearly mad as a softsteel sipper.
The Sanctum had branded him a terrorist and sentenced him to die for his heresy. Personally, I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t simply a room at the medica and the ear of an attentive soothsayer he needed.
I hadn’t had time to follow the story completely, but the base had been alive with chatter these past days, and I’d at least caught the replay of the broadcast where they’d aired the audio log they’d found during Kovaks’ arrest.
From what I’d heard, the guy clearly believed some serious corruption had penetrated the ranks of the Legion, and even The Sanctum. Maybe as high up as the High Cleric himself.
It was almost certainly bullscud, of course. But at least Kovaks had sounded marginally lucid up to that point. If he’d ended it there, I might’ve even found his claims half concerning. But instead, he’d smoothly continued on to the wild stories about malicious aliens infiltrating Enochia and how The Sanctum and the Legion were going to take over the world and trample the peoples underfoot.
At that point, I’d had to laugh.
Maybe Kovaks had missed the part where The Sanctum and the Legion already had taken over Enochia. He’d definitely missed the part where our service in the Legion—and the service of those before us—had been the very thing that kept the world peacefully spinning along for the past thousand years.
And as for the alien invasion thing… well, that part didn’t really seem to merit response.
So was Kovaks crazy?
Sure. Dangerous, even.
But did any of that mean he deserved to die for being delusional?
The warmth of my mom’s hand finding mine informed me my moral dilemma did not go unnoticed. I gave her a weak smile and focused back on the screen.
At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what I thought. For mine was not to ask, but to serve. Even if those words did make my skin crawl at times. But that didn’t matter either. Because, once The Sanctum spoke, it didn’t matter what anyone thought.
Who were we to question the will of Alpha?
I shot a furtive glance at my mom and saw some shadow of my doubts mirrored on her face. She was wearing that soft frown she got sometimes when she thought I wasn’t looking—the one my father always seemed to meet with a significant look or a hushed whisper.
That frown made me nervous in a way I’d never really understood.
But before I could dwell on it, she turned to me, jostling me out of my rumination, and gave my hand a reassuring pat. “Alpha is wise, sweetie.”
I made a face. “I’m less than three months from being a full legionnaire, Mom. I think we might have to drop the sweeties.”
She cracked a smile and was about to protest when a gentle tone chirped from the entryway behind us, announcing my father’s return. When he strode into the living room, he looked exhausted.
“Come,” my mom said, swinging her legs off the couch and patting the vacated cushion between us. “Sit, Love. You look exhausted.”
For a second, he considered the armchair to the right of the couch, but then he came, plopped down between us, and started working on the stiff muscles above his prosthetic leg with strong thumbs. My mom, as she usually did, took over for him, and he let out a contented sigh.
“Easy, guys,” I said, squirming further onto my side of the couch. “We’re about to watch a man be executed, remember?”
I’d meant the comment to be light, joking, but of course it wasn’t. We were about to watch a man being executed. Remember?
Praise be to Alpha.
Our collective attention shifted to the screen, where the WAN’s darling field reporter, Barbara Sanders, was discussing the details of Kovaks’ case and the mood in the White Tower as they awaited the High Cleric’s arrival in the Great Hall. It was a grim task, but she handled it with respect. Behind her, down on the main floor of the hall, hundreds of people had amassed now. Legion soldiers and officers. Sanctum clerics and acolytes. Praetors. Civilians of all vocations. Everyone come to bear witness.
“Did you try the new sim build yet?” my father asked.
I couldn’t tell if he was legitimately interested or just trying to disperse the cloud I’d accidentally cast over the room.
“Yeah. Johnny and I just cleared it.”
He watched me expectantly.
“Okay, Johnny went demons to the wind and I cleaned up after he got himself shot.”
That put a dark frown on my mom’s face.
My father tried mirroring her frown but didn’t quite succeed at extinguishing the amusement in his eyes. “That sounds more believable.” He sobered. “Johnny needs to be more careful, Hal. You both do. You won’t be tyros much longer. Someday, maybe soon, those won’t be simulated slugs flying at the two of you.”
The sentiment did nothing to alleviate the shadow on my mom’s face.
Much as she supported our service to the Legion, I knew there was a part of her that detested the thought of us risking our lives for peace. A part that yearned for a world where the peace of Enochia could be maintained in a manner devoid of violence. Which was fair enough, I supposed, as applause in the Great Hall drew our attention back to the screen.
But that just wasn’t the world Alpha had built for us.
In the growing thunder of claps and cheers, Barbara Sanders gave her last few kind words for the peace of Andre Kovaks’ spirit, her dark eyes somber and sincere beneath her dark curls. Then she signed off, and the feed switched to a view of the High Cleric emerging at the top of the Great Hall’s gigantic four-tiered dais.
The ancient man looked frail in his pristine ceremonial robes of white and gold. Kind of ironic, seeing as he probably had more power at his fingertips than any other man or woman on Enochia.
Two tiers below him was an equally ancient-looking gallows—the same gallows that had been used throughout the centuries of The Sanctum’s reign, or so they said. Andre Kovaks stood atop the worn wood, adorned in black ceremonial robes that were emblazoned across the chest with a great red serpent.
Beneath shaggy dark hair and a grizzled beard, he looked haggard, his eyes wild. He was shouting something, but the feed’s audio must have been coming directly from a voicer up on the High Cleric’s dais. Kovaks shouted on in futility, his words nothing more than silent, frantic animations of his lips, until the feed cut to a close-up of the wizened head of The Sanctum.
In a calm, thin voice, the High Cleric began.
The words, for the most part, were familiar ones. He spoke of the importance of structure and stability on Enochia. The essentialness of duty and, above all else, of faith.
Familiar words, sure. Especially for a Legion family like us. But Alpha’s wrinklies, did the High Cleric know how to drive them home.
My parents watched attentively beside me, my father leaning ever-so-slightly forward until the High Cleric finished his spiel and, as was custom, granted Kovaks leave to deliver any last words. Kovaks had a lot of them. And most of it was every bit as loopy as his alien invasion conspiracy theories had been.
I turned to exchange a look of disbelief with my father only to find him even more riveted to the screen than he’d been during the High Cleric’s speech. Something about his expression struck me as odd. But, given the outlandishness of Kovaks’ current display, maybe it shouldn’t have.
The High Cleric allowed Kovaks’ frenzied ramblings to continue for ten seconds or so before he cut the feed to himself.
“Alpha grant you peace, Andre Kovaks,” he said, extending a hand toward the hangman.
Kovaks didn’t die neatly. Sometimes they don’t. But a minute later, he hung limply from the tight rope all the same, his sway slowly diminishing alongside whatever life was left in his unconscious body.
It didn’t sit right in my stomach. It never did.
But ours was not to ask.
I turned to my father, the man who’d taken me to observe my first Sanctum execution when I was only twelve. Who believed so completely in the Legion and his service to Alpha that I’d heard it told around Sanctuary he actually gave thanks when Alpha allowed him to sacrifice his leg to save the lives of his old fireteam.
Except I didn’t see that belief now—that resolute certainty that it was divine justice that had just been served.
All I saw was unease. And doubt.
“I think…” he said slowly, standing from the couch. He took a few steps toward his study before seeming to remember we were there. “I need to get some work done before supper. You two go ahead if you’re hungry.”
I traded a surprised look with my mom.
“All is right, love,” she replied, though her hazel eyes were full of concern as he tromped off down the hallway.
I watched him go in silence, Kovaks’ limp body swaying in my mind’s eye as I wondered what the hell the madman had done or said for his execution to have shaken my father’s rock-steady foundations like that.
Something was most certainly up.
And, despite the immortal wisdom of Johnny Wingard, I was pretty sure it wasn’t something as simple as an affair.
Chapter 2 – Hotshot
The thinly-matted training floor slammed into my back at just the right angle to drive the air from my lungs in a sharp whoosh. A familiar sensation gripped me, like someone had opened my chest cavity to vacuum and shocked my diaphragm into paralysis.
“That’s twice today, Tyro,” a gruff voice barked. “You got something you want to share with the class, or did you just get bored making everyone else look like a bucket of softsteel-sipping goat groppers?”
I looked around the permacrete lot, taking in the glances flitting my way from indignant tyros and satisfied doceres alike. My eyes found Johnny’s, and he shot me a wink. Finally, I looked up to meet the drill instructor’s stern gaze. Mathis’ reaction to my sorry excuse for sparring this morning was understandable—and, honestly, probably kind compared to what most of the other doceres would have to say.
But that didn’t stop a gout of irritation from flaming up in my oxygen-deprived chest.
“I didn’t sleep well last night,” I grumbled as best I could with my shocked diaphragm as I rose to my feet to face him again.
It was true. I hadn’t slept so well last night. But he didn’t need to know more than that.
He didn’t need to know about my concerns for my father, or my wriggling uncertainty about whether what I’d witnessed last night could really be called justice. He definitely didn’t need to know that the same thoughts that had troubled my sleep had continued tugging at the edges of my mind all morning.
“Apologies, Docere Mathis,” I added. “It won’t happen a third time.”
It was only then I noticed that even some of the patrolmen walking the top of Sanctuary’s massive perimeter wall had paused to look down at the spectacle of Martin Raish’s boy yet again failing to live up to his father’s heroic deeds.
Heat crept into my face.
The patrolmen were a fair distance away, but I knew they had zoom toggles in their helmet displays.
Perks of being an officer’s son. Everyone was always waiting to see you fall on your ass. Waiting to receive that overdue confirmation that you are in fact an incompetent silver spoon whose only real accomplishment was being born to the right parents.
Mathis extended his open palm to me in invitation for another bout. “Daddy’s boots are going to be awfully big for those flowers you call feet if that’s all you got, Tyro.”
The scuddy bastard.
A part of me wanted to sucker punch him right then and there, demons to the wind with the consequences. The rest just wanted to scream that I knew I was never going to live up to my father’s name and to sink into the permacrete and escape the watching eyes. But neither was really an option.
So, I squared up with Mathis and tried to pull my head on straight.
At just under six feet tall and a lean hundred-and-seventy pounds, the docere had physically outclassed me up until a few months ago. Now that our training was beginning to fill out some of the height I’d gained in my last growth spurt, though, Mathis’ physical superiority over me was slowly diminishing.
Now, his main advantages were experience and skill, and I was fairly confident I was closing the gap on the latter as well.
I was never going to be Lieutenant Martin Raish. That much had been made abundantly clear to me pretty much since I’d learned to walk. But at least I might be able to put Mathis on his scudspout ass and regain a scrap of my wounded dignity.
I slapped my palm to his in the customary gesture.
Mathis surged forward without hesitation, eager to teach me yet another listen in humility.
I turned his right jab aside and aimed a kick at his ribs. Mathis twisted, catching my kick at the knee with his right arm as he stepped in to deliver an elbow strike with his left. I snaked an arm up, shielding my head and going for a grab around the back of his neck in one motion.
Mathis stepped in further and hooked his right leg behind my left before I could do anything more than clutch on for balance. He punched me in the gut and tried to twist me into a hip throw before I could recover.
For one long second, our balances battled for position like a boulder teetering on the edge. But Mathis’ feet were planted in a sturdy base, and mine were caught flat and nearly in-line with my shoulders, forcing me to fight the strength of his legs with the strength of my torso.
It wasn’t a fight I was going to win.
But I would’ve rather eaten scud than let him take me down a third time.
So I abandoned my lifeline grip on his neck to grab his chin and drive his face skyward. At the same time, I rotated in, forfeiting my balance and dropping my weight onto the leg Mathis was so insistently trying to trip me with.
The move wasn’t exactly regulation, but it worked. Mathis’ right leg buckled under my weight, and in his surprise, I managed to scramble into position behind him. I got his throat in the crook of my arm—the first half of a solid chokehold—before victor’s pride took over and I decided a chokehold wasn’t good enough.
Instead, I yanked the dull, springy polymer practice knife from the sheath at the back of my belt and planted the tip behind Mathis’ clavicle, right above one of the major kill points.
Mathis stilled. I tensed, half-expecting him to hit me with a concealed stunner or something. But, finally, he reached down and tapped the mat.
I immediately released him and stood, moving around to his front to offer my hand.
“Well look who decided to wake up and come to drills.” Mathis kept his expression carefully neutral as he rose to his feet without my aid.
He glanced down at his palmlight then around at the several dozen pairs of combatants who hurriedly looked away from us to resume their own contests.
Mathis shook his head, a hint of irritation finally bleeding onto his face. “That’ll do for the sorry lot of you scud sippers.” He called. “Maybe tomorrow one of you can pull your heads out of your asses long enough to give an old man a break and give Tyro Raish here a proper match.”
It almost would’ve sounded like praise if I hadn’t recognized the comment for what it was—a double-edged sword, half compliment to me, half incitement to the festering dislike several of the tyros (and the doceres, for that matter) harbored for me.
I tried to enjoy my brief moment of victory, but, soon enough, my thoughts rebelled and drifted back to Kovaks’ execution and my father’s erratic behavior.
After morning drills, Johnny and I filed into our customary seats at the back of the sleek lecture hall where we studied everything from military history and small unit tactics to the more standard hard and soft sciences that every kid, Legion and civilian alike, studied through their teens.
Normally, I actually kind of enjoyed class. And according to my marks, I was even a decent student to boot.
Today, though, I couldn’t have even told the instructor what he’d been talking about over the two-hour lecture, outside of that it had something to do with communications systems. And that much I knew only because it was written in big block letters at the head of the lecture materials I’d pulled up on my tablet.
An hour later, Johnny and I sat in our usual corner of the mess hall, mechanically shoveling down highly nutritious, highly bland foodstuff before afternoon drills and lessons. That I barely remembered having arrived or left our live weapons training session just prior probably should’ve been more alarming, but the fact that I hadn’t been yelled at by any doceres told me my years of Legion training must’ve carried me through the mental fog on passable autopilot.
Why was this whole thing bothering me so much?
“I mean, I get it,” Johnny was saying from somewhere far away. “The comms bunker can backdoor its way into basically every device on Enochia. That could be big if the scud really hits the turbines. Like if our dearly departed Kovaks hadn’t been totally gropping crazy, for instance.”
The mention of Kovaks snapped my attention fully back to Johnny. “What did you say?”
He studied me, clearly sensing something was up. “I’m just saying that they didn’t need to spend two whole hours telling us about it.”
“Alpha’s wrinklies, man, where have you been off to all day?” He looked around the room, craning his neck as if looking for the source of my inattentiveness. “I didn’t miss a hot new piece of tyro swell walking around, did I?”
I rested my face in my hands and couldn’t help but smile.
Johnny Wingard, loyal friend and relentless—if fruitless—swell hound.
Then again, the fruitless part wasn’t necessarily Johnny’s fault. We didn’t exactly have a plethora of available candidates to choose from in Sanctuary. As tyros, relationships with our fellow trainees were forbidden. Once we became full legionnaires, they were merely heavily frowned upon, with plenty of complicated regulations to boot. And outside of the few non-tyro girls our age in Sanctuary, it wasn’t like we got out to go scope the scene in Divinity very often either.
“Huh…” Johnny’s voice broke into the stream of my deliberately benign thoughts. I looked up and realized he was still glancing around the mess hall. “Hey, you ever seen that guy before?”
I followed his gaze through the throng, searching. It didn’t take long to spot who he was talking about. Civilians always stood out on base, both in dress and in behavior, but this guy…
There was something odd about him, though I couldn’t quite say what it was. Gray hair, though he couldn’t have been more than mid-thirties. Plain clothing of dull tones, not quite ragged, but not far off. Mostly, he just looked unassuming. Almost too unassuming.
As I watched, his brow wrinkled, his pace slowing by a fraction.
Then he looked straight at me.
His eyes were pale, almost colorless. They searched my face for all of two seconds before he gave what looked like a forced smile and continued on.
I watched him slide smoothly through the crowd and vanish. “That was weird.”
When I finally turned back to Johnny, he just shrugged. “Hey, you’re a good looking dude, as far as you non-gingers go, at least.”
“Mmm,” I grunted in non-reply, glancing back to where the gray-haired man had disappeared.
“What’s up, buddy?”
I turned back to find Johnny watching me expectantly.
“Come on,” he said, wiggling his fingers in a gesture of invitation. “Never mind the mysterious stranger. Tell Uncle Johnny what ails you this fine day.”
“Cheeky gingers, for starters,” I grumbled.
He just beamed and plopped his chin down on his bridged fingers, waiting for more.
“I dunno, man.” I shook my head, my thoughts returning to the matter at hand. “It’s just… What if there’s more to the story?”
“Forgive me for missing the Hal express, but which story are we talking about again?”
Johnny frowned at me, then his eyebrows slid up as understanding dawned on him. “You don’t think… Andre Kovaks was a crazy person, broto. Full on lunatic. Mad. Loopy. Nu—”
“I know,” I said, holding up a hand to stop him. “I know, I know.” I blew out a breath and studied the bustling mess hall with a scowl. “But the whole thing was kind of… I dunno, off, don’t you think?”
Johnny considered that for a few seconds.
He’d agree with me. He had to. Executions did happen, but they weren’t overly common these days—ceremonial executions in the Great Hall of the High Cleric himself even less so. Normally, the latter were reserved for people who’d done something truly horrendous, like actively trying to sabotage The Sanctum or the Legion.
“I guess it seemed a little heavy-handed,” Johnny finally said. “Guy probably could have used help, but sweet Alpha, Hal, he was spouting off against The Sanctum. He accused the High Cleric. Are you surprised they wanted to make a point with him? Let that kind of thing go, and all of a sudden we’re sliding back into the dark ages, with a dozen nations spilling blood for a shot at the driver’s seat. That doesn’t sound like a good time to me.”
I pursed my lips, considering his words. It was far from the first time we’d had this discussion, or ones very like it, at least.
It wasn’t that we didn’t believe in our mission. Like every other soul in Sanctuary, we were devoted to the Legion. To Alpha. To keeping the peace of Enochia. All of it.
It was just that I was a touch inept at the whole not to ask, but to serve thing, and Johnny was one of the few people on base willing to entertain my nonsense.
Entertain as he might, though, even when we found ourselves thinking a situation like Kovaks might’ve been handled better, I knew Johnny tended toward the mentality of, Hey, as long as it’s better than the alternative…
But the lesser of two evils could still be pretty damn evil, right?
Sweet Alpha, I was being paranoid. Blowing this Kovaks thing out of proportion.
I had to be.
At the end of the day, The Sanctum and the Legion were doing what they thought best for Enochia. I believed that, even if I didn’t always agree with their ruling on what that ‘best’ was.
“Brighten up, man,” Johnny said. “Hey, if a month down the road it turns out Kovaks was right and we find ourselves fighting a bunch of invading, blood sucking aliens, you get to have the most satisfying ‘I told you so’ in human history. That’s something, right?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah. Something. Totally, broto.”
Johnny’s recoil probably would’ve escaped a stranger’s notice, but it was enough to tell me my words had come out harsher than I’d intended.
“I’m sorry, man,” I added, dropping his gaze. “I’m just driving myself crazy thinking about the way my dad’s been acting and everything.”
“Hey,” Johnny said, his expression serious, “if I didn’t have you and your heavy thoughts around to drag me down, I’d be liable to float away on a happy cloud.”
“That doesn’t make me sound like the best friend.”
“Oooh,” Johnny said, wrinkling his nose. “Friend is kind of a strong word, don’t you think? Let’s not get carried away, man.”
“Oh, grop you,” I said, smiling despite myself.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he replied, waggling his eyebrows.
I shook my head and checked the time on my palmlight. When I looked back up, Johnny’s expression had sobered.
“You could always ask him, you know. Old Lieutenant Martin is a pretty reasonable guy, as far as CO fathers go.”
I nodded slowly, playing out how that conversation might go for about the twenty-thousandth time in my head.
“Or,” Johnny said, splaying his hands, “orrr you could run away from your problems and come move in with us. Problem solved. Or, you know, not. But that’s kind of the point, right?”
“Tempting,” I said, “but I might have to wait until tomorrow to run away. We’re having Kublich over for supper tonight.”
“As in the High General of the Legion? That Kublich?”
I inclined my head. “I believe that’s the one. What?” I added at Johnny’s awestruck expression. “It’s not like this is the first time it’s ever happened.”
It was Johnny’s turn to shake his head at me. “What’s it like, living up there in your white tower?”
I looked pointedly in the rough direction of the distant heart of Divinity. “Probably not as nice as living in their White Tower.”
Johnny tilted his head in concession. “Fair point. So what’s the occasion, then? Business? Pleasure? Are they gonna go ahead and just promote you straight to captain when we graduate next month, demons to the wind with regulations?”
I shrugged. “No idea. My mom only told me this morning. Might just be a social call.”
“Well,” Johnny said, leaning forward, “whatever’s going on, let’s just hope the good General doesn’t bring that foxy little secretary of his.”
The thought didn’t improve my focus for the remainder of the day.
Every other tyro in Sanctuary—and most of the legionnaires, at that—would have jumped at the chance to lick the High General’s boots in person for an entire evening.
I was dreading it.
Adrian Kublich was a nice enough man, I guess, but I wasn’t in any mood today to play politics and dance the dance. Plus, for some reason I’d never quite been able to distinguish, Kublich had always kind of given me the creeps.
Maybe my position as a Lieutenant’s son actually had spoiled me.
Still, all I really wanted to do was find out what was scratching at my father’s brain, because now it was scratching at mine too. So I decided I was going to listen to Johnny for once and talk to him after dinner.
I’d never confronted him like that. Something told me it wouldn’t be a fun conversation. But I needed to know—for my own sanity and for my mom’s sake.
One way or another, I was going to find out what the hell was going on with him tonight.
Chapter 3 – Meat and Gravy
“This pie is to die for, Klara,” High General Adrian Kublich said from across the dining room table as his fork descended for another bite.
I couldn’t disagree. The meat and gravy pie was delicious, as usual. But something about the way Kublich looked at my mom while he said it made my stomach squirm.
My mom smiled, inclining her head at the compliment, but she didn’t say anything.
“How’s your work coming along?” Kublich added. “I imagine you’ve had a productive month with Martin running around, as busy as he’s been.”
Was it my imagination, or did my father tense at that?
I know I did, though maybe for different reasons.
Kublich didn’t seem to notice our reactions as my mom put on a thin smile and said, “It’s going quite well, thank you. I’m just putting the finishing touches on a bit of an anthology.”
“Hmm,” Kublich said, raising his wine glass in cheers. “I look forward to reading it.”
Having spent enough time watching my mom interact with people about her writing, I’d pretty much come to interpret those six words as polite-speak for, That’s great, but I don’t really care.
Then again, the High General wasn’t really one for idle scudspouting, so who knew?
“And what about you, Haldin?” Kublich said, yanking my attention back to the table. “How goes the training?”
“Good, sir,” I said reflexively. Then, feeling like that was a weak answer, I added, “Getting better all the time.”
Great. Much better.
But it was a loaded question anyway.
If he had the slightest inclination to know how my training was going, he could have performance reports and assessments about my abilities, psyche, and a dozen other things all with a few swipes of a finger. One peak at my file, and he could probably know more about me and my training than I could tell him if I talked all night.
“Word around base is that you made a bit of a spectacle of Docere Mathis this morning,” he said, his expression unreadable.
Ah. So that’s where this was going.
My parents turned to me, each bearing their own brand of frown.
“I…” I swallowed. “Yes, sir. I acted… beyond what was required.” He kept staring. It made me feel hollow, despite the fact that I was decidedly full of the meat pie that had seemed so delicious until only a moment ago. “I will apologize to Docere Mathis, sir. Formally. And it won’t happen again.”
“What did you do?” my father asked, glancing between me and Kublich.
“It was nothing,” Kublich said, his mouth finally breaking into a small smile. “Haldin is simply outgrowing our ability to challenge him, I fear.”
Why did that smile make me feel like I was about to be eaten?
Whatever it was, I did my best to keep my eyes on the food and avoid Kublich’s gaze for the rest of the meal.
After we’d finished supping, Kublich retreated to my father’s study to discuss classified business with him.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” I asked my mom as I helped load the dishes into the hydrocycler.
Under her bangs, her eyebrows shrugged as she loaded the dish I’d just handed her. “You know the drill. Classified means classified.”
Something about the way she said it…
She held out her hand for the next dish, then turned to look at me when it didn’t come.
I searched her face, the white serving dish in my hand all but forgotten.
“Are you guys…” My mouth went on strike when I tried to push the rest of the words out.
“Sweetie,” she said, pulling the dish from my hands and setting it aside so she could grab my wet hands in hers. “Of course we are. Dad’s just been… Well, I don’t know exactly what he’s been. He’s worried about something. Something he can’t talk about. That’s why we’ve been… tense. But we’ll get past it. He’ll fix whatever it is.” A small smile pulled at her lips. “He always does.”
I was surprised to feel the light hint of tears not far off. I couldn’t even say why. Just something about the look on her face. “Promise?”
Her smile sweetened, and she reached her wet hands to the back of my head and pulled me down to plant a warm kiss on my forehead. “Promise.” She stepped back and waved her hands in a shooing motion. “Now you go relax. Watch a vid or something. Whatever the kids are doing for fun these days.”
I smiled. “Yeah, I’m not sure you want me doing what the kids are doing these days, Mom.”
Her smile grew as she shooed me again, and mine did the same as I turned to head for my room.
I thought about messaging Johnny to see if he wanted to fire up a sim, but then I saw my bed and the big, inviting screen on the opposite wall and thought I might just take my mom’s directions to heart.
Why not kick back and watch a vid?
Outside of Sanctuary’s thick walls, in the loud, bustling city of Divinity, kids my age were living it up. While we ran combat drills, they played sports. While we practiced small unit tactics, they went on dates. While we slept, I’d heard tell that some snuck out and did all the things their parents told them not to. Some even threw parties, which had always kind of seemed like their way of flipping the middle finger to the authorities and to people like me, who spent their lives in service to make sure their kids would likewise be able to flip the middle finger to ours.
But maybe I was just a little judgmental toward the undisciplined madness that was civilian life.
Either way, I decided all was right with me taking the evening to relax. I was excelling in the eyes of the Legion, and even to the High General himself, apparently. My parents were going to be okay. And, demons to the wind, I was allowed to casually watch a vid if I damn well pleased.
Plus, it’d probably help take my mind off things for a little while.
Eager energy bubbling through my chest at my little act of defiance, I waved the screen on my wall to life and began navigating through menus with little flicks of my fingers.
It took me all of two minutes to realize I had no idea what to watch.
I sighed, the excitement draining, and flicked on my palmlight, reaching for Johnny’s name. “So much for—”
A pair of loud thumps sounded from elsewhere in the house, burning all thoughts of vids and leisure from my mind.
No. Not thumps.
Gunshots. Distorted and dulled by thick walls.
I swallowed, and it stuck in my parched throat.
Thick walls like the ones in my father’s study.
I was already on my feet, though I didn’t remember deciding to move. I tore the door open and bounded down the hall. A crash from the living room goaded my legs to move faster.
Then a horrible wail filled the air, clawing at my insides, and my step faltered.
My mom’s voice. There was no mistaking it.
She cried out again—a scream that ended abruptly with a sickening wet noise that reached down inside me and broke something.
I fell forward into a dazed run.
She was dead.
Something about the sound told me that even before I came barreling out of the hallway. But I refused to listen.
I stumbled into the dim living room, straight into a nightmare darker than anything I could have imagined.
It was odd, the way the first things my mind registered were the inconsequential details. The couch, uprooted and overturned. The blue ceramic vase, shattered, its pieces strewn across the neutral tones of the big soft rug in the center of the room.
The fresh spots of dark crimson staining that rug.
My knees buckled. I caught myself on the wall. I was going to be sick.
Feet thrashed next to the dark stains. Blood. It was blood.
My eyes traced upward, unable to stop, my stupor too complete to do anything but stare.
My mom’s dress was soaked across the front with her blood. A dark figure held her, arms wrapped tight around her from behind, face pressed against her throat, where a soft crimson glow illuminated the tide of dark blood.
Her attacker shifted at the sound of my entry, looking up and—
My mind went blank. I couldn’t move.
It wasn’t possible.
Where the thing’s eyes should’ve been, it stared back at me with twin orbs of demon fire. They pulsed crimson, lighting the dark rivulets of my mom’s blood still running down the thing’s chin.
I tried to scream. Tried to charge the demon. To save my mom.
It was like my brain had been disconnected from my body. Like those impossible glowing eyes had cast some dark sorcery upon me.
I strained with everything I had, and I couldn’t move a damn muscle.
“Haldin,” it said. “I was hoping you’d join us.”
That was Kublich’s voice.
Deeper and somehow rougher, maybe. But it was his. And behind those glowing crimson eyes and the bloody fangs the demon bared in a grin, that was Kublich’s face.
Impossible. It was impossible.
And yet it was his ruby tunic on the creature clutching my mom’s bloody body. His High General’s insignia.
My stupefied gaze dropped back to my mom, my mouth hanging open in a silent cry.
Her body was so broken, so limp, her head dangling against the Kublich-thing’s arms at an unnatural angle. Her legs kicked weakly, the last bits of her life ebbing away before my eyes.
I met her frightened eyes just before she died.
The haze hung heavy in my mind. I wanted to scream but couldn’t move. I was trapped in that moment. It stretched, independent of time, the image of the fire-eyed demon holding my mom’s broken, bloody body carving its way deep into my brain.
A thud to the left, and my father stumbled into the room, leaning heavily against the wall for support. His dark shirt hid the details of his injury, but judging from the trail of blood he left on the white wall, he was hurt, and badly. Still, his hand barely wavered as he raised his sidearm and fired three shots into Kublich’s back.
In the confines of the living room, the shots were painfully loud. Kublich staggered forward as the slugs tore into him. But he handled it too well, recovered too quickly.
Armor. He had to be wearing armor.
Kublich turned away from me to face my father with a low, guttural growl. He tossed my mom aside as if she were no more heavy or important than a sack of potatoes.
I reached out helplessly, the knots in my stomach tightening as her body tumbled over the couch and thudded to the floor in an undignified mess of slack limbs.
“Martin,” Kublich said calmly, starting toward my father. “You see the price of your meddling? I—”
Another crack of thunder from my father’s sidearm, and Kublich’s head snapped violently back as if the shot had found his forehead.
I waited for him to fall dead to the floor.
He just gave his head a little shake and reached up to rub at his forehead. I could’ve sworn his skin was turning green. If my eyes could even be trusted anymore. The small, dark object Kublich flicked to the rug at his feet told me they couldn’t.
It was a crumpled softsteel slug. The one my father had just shot him in the head with.
“HAL, RUN!” my father roared.
I barely registered the words.
My mind couldn’t work through the haze—the impossibility of everything that was happening. Adrian Kublich, the damned High General of the Legion, had just murdered my mother, survived a direct gunshot to the head, and was now stalking toward my father. My father who was screaming at me to run.
But I still couldn’t move. Except…
My hand. Still raised toward my mom’s body.
Whatever force had been restraining me was gone.
By the time the thought fully registered, I was already charging. Not toward the entryway, but straight for Kublich’s turned back.
Run? Leave my father behind with this… this monster?
I was going to strangle the Alpha-damned demon with my bare hands.
But before I could close the distance and tackle him down, Kublich sprang forward, crossing the room with alarming speed, and clamped a clawed hand around my father’s throat.
“NO!” I screamed, reaching helplessly out for the second time. Too late.
The demon with Kublich’s face turned its fiery eyes to me and sneered as it broke my father’s neck.
After that, things became a blur.
I’d like to say that I threw myself at Kublich. That I gouged those burning red eyes from their sockets. But the part of my adrenaline-soaked brain that had watched him survive a gunshot to the head and break my dad’s neck with one hand told me to run for my life. And I listened.
I was halfway down the entryway hall when my legs locked, that same full-body paralysis taking abrupt hold of me.
I hit the floor hard, air exploding from my lungs.
“You cannot run, Haldin,” he called from the living room.
I tried to fight, cold dread seeping through me.
Footsteps approached from behind. “Such a pity your father had to—”
A scream erupted from my throat, and my hands smashed into the floor as the paralysis abruptly vanished. Behind, Kublich growled low in his throat, far too close.
No time to think.
I planted my hands and feet, launched halfway into a sprint for the door… and froze on wobbly feet.
Someone was striding toward me from the open front door.
The strange civilian from the mess hall.
Even in my panic, I recognized him. But he didn’t look unassuming anymore.
The air crackled around him with some intangible energy, sweeping at his hair and clothes. He raised a hand, palm out, and a nebulous light breathed into existence there, intensifying from faint to threatening before I so much as had time to wonder what in damnation was happening.
I didn’t understand.
But the growl and the footsteps closing on my back told me I didn’t have time to understand.
Kublich behind. The stranger ahead.
I was dead.
Except the stranger’s eyes weren’t focused on me.
I tensed to throw myself into a mad sprint past him.
Before I could, his pale eyes caught mine, and he flicked his head almost calmly to the side, radiant palm held at the ready.
I didn’t have time to ask questions. I dove to the ground, out of the line of fire, and hit the floor with a hard thud.
The hallway erupted like an entire crate of detonating snap flares and thumpers.
Blinding white light. A sonorous crack like thunder.
A violent rush of air smacked into me, my vision too bleached from whatever had just happened to see anything but vague outlines. I felt more than heard the enormous crash behind—the monster, I hoped, blasted back into the living room by the stranger’s… whatever.
It didn’t matter.
I had to get out.
I tried for my feet, shaking my head in a futile attempt to restore my sight and clear the steady ringing in my ears. I’d made it to my knees when something grabbed my shoulder. I lashed out blindly, but a deft hand turned aside my wild defense.
There was time only to scream a wordless challenge.
Then something pressed against the side of my head, and the world went black.
Chapter 4 – Rude Awakenings
I woke at the dinner table.
But that wasn’t right. Why wasn’t that right?
I couldn’t recall. But, as I looked over at my parents, I was sure that something was wrong.
Everything in the room glowed white and pristine. The walls, the table linens. Even our clothes. Kublich sat across the table, smiling amicably over his wine glass. I frowned at the sight of him. There was something there, some muffled unpleasant feeling that—
I gasped as images flashed through my awareness, too fast to comprehend. There was blood. I was sure of that. Blood and darkness. And, in the darkness, for the briefest instant, a pair of fiery red—
No, a voice said in my head. No, everything is fine.
Was that my voice?
It didn’t matter. It was clearly right. We were all laughing and chatting at the table. Everyone seemed perfectly happy.
At the sound of the doorbell, I hopped up from my chair and walked down the hall to greet our guest. Before I reached the door, though, it burst open on a powerful gust of wind.
Total, utter darkness filled the doorway, so thick it might’ve had physical substance. Smoky tendrils of it began to creep in past the threshold, and in their wake came a man with gray hair and pale eyes, wreathed in darkness. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn’t place it.
Then his eyes came alive with red fire that blazed against the darkness, and cohesive thought fled my mind. His skin shifted sickly green as he reached for me with a clawed hand.
I turned to run.
The hallway leading back to the dining room and the safety of my parents seemed to stretch longer as I ran, the end an ever-distant speck in my vision. A choir of growls and howling wind filled the hall around me. I ran faster—as fast as my gelatinous legs could manage, sure that every moment would be my last.
After what felt like ages of failing to draw any closer to the end, I looked up to find I’d somehow reached my destination.
Something was wrong, though. The pristine white glow of the room beyond had faded, replaced by an ominously pulsing scarlet. Silence hung heavy in the air, all the thicker after the cacophony that’d filled the hall moments before.
I stood there on the threshold, suddenly afraid to enter.
One step. Then another. I entered the dining room to find my parents and Kublich all slumped forward in their chairs. Horror gripped at my chest. They were covered in blood, tar black against their white clothes in the red glow of the room.
The man with gray hair and a cloak of swirling shadows stood behind them, his face split in a smile full of glistening fangs. It was only then I realized that the scarlet glow pulsing through the room was coming from his eyes.
He started toward me, murder in those fiery eyes, and—
I sprang awake only to be met with a hard blow to the head.
Darkness. Complete, constricting darkness.
I pawed frantically around, head throbbing, desperate to fend off the next blow.
Except one wasn’t coming, I realized as my probing hands found the ceiling my head had struck. I was quite alone in a space not much larger than my huddled body. No room to extend my legs, to sit up. Only darkness, and a low, steady hum. I flicked my fingers straight. Nothing. My palmlight was gone.
Panic tried to take me then, darkness pressing in, squeezing my lungs tight. Tighter than the walls of my new prison.
I closed my eyes—not that it made a difference. I wiped cold sweat from my brow and tried to calm my rapid breathing. Control. I needed to get myself under control and figure this thing out.
At least my hands and legs weren’t bound. That was something.
But where in damnation was I? And how did I get there?
I focused in on the steady hum permeating the cramped darkness.
A skimmer engine?
It was the best guess I had. Which meant I was probably in a skimmer trunk, bound for Alpha knew where with Alpha knew who.
The floor shifted beneath me, and my stomach informed me of a definite change in velocity and direction.
Definitely a skimmer.
And if I was in a skimmer trunk…
I swallowed, panic making another bid for control as I felt around in the darkness to confirm what I already knew deep down.
Unless I found some magical way to force the latch from the inside—which wasn’t happening without tools—I was stuck here until whoever was driving decided to let me out.
“Grop,” I heard myself whisper.
My voice sounded strange in the dark space. Maybe I was just losing it. And for good reason.
Mom. Dad. The thing that had attacked them.
Ragged breaths came faster, terrible sights flashing through my memory, hot tears pressing at my eyes.
The demon that had killed them.
A cold hand wrenched at my stomach, seeking to push its contents back up. I rolled over, fighting the nausea. The darkness closed in on me. My heart pounded like a wild animal demon-bent on escaping my chest.
My parents were dead. And I was probably about to join them.
Anger and fear and desperation all spilled out of my throat in a strangled, wordless cry. I beat at the unyielding trunk hatch in the dark, self-control fleeing me.
The skimmer might have slowed when the driver heard my outburst. I barely noticed. I just kept slamming my fist against the hatch.
“Open, you piece of scud!”
It wasn’t my finest moment, screaming at a locked trunk hatch in the dark. But any shame and self-pity I might have wallowed in vanished when the hatch popped open.
For a long second, I stared dumbly at the bobbing trunk door and the lines of nighttime skimmer traffic and towering building lights rushing by beyond.
I was free.
No. No time for that.
I was free. And I needed to move my ass.
The skimmer was already slowing down. Luckily, we were down with the street-level traffic and not up in one of the skylanes. We were still moving a good thirty or forty miles per hour, but there wasn’t anything to be done about it.
I turned to face the front of the skimmer and leapt backward and to the right.
Indignant buzzers sounded from the skimmers behind. I had a brief moment to appreciate just how fast I was flying through the air toward the hard pavement.
Then I hit the ground and found out in excruciating detail just how unforgiving that pavement was.
I rolled as best I could, hoping to disperse the violent deceleration and clear the traffic lane at the same time. It was a sloppy roll, and only partially successful at either goal. But I lived.
If that had been that, I would’ve laid there on the cool permacrete for hours and allowed myself to wallow. Instead, the sight of my captor’s skimmer pulling out of traffic to slow to a halt ahead had me on my feet and moving before my body even had time to fully process how much pain it was in.
I plunged into a nearby alley at a limping run, only allowing myself a glance backward as I neared the end of the narrow space. No sign of anyone following me. But I wasn’t about to take that as permission to slow.
The next street over was all pedestrian traffic—civilians of Divinity, all made up in sleek, flowing garments, on their way out to fancy suppers and shows at the clubs. My dark pants and green long sleeve shirt didn’t blend in perfectly with the fashionable crowd, but at least I wasn’t wearing my crisp gray tyro uniform.
I threw myself into the stream, weaving through civilians as best I could, trying to refrain from shoving people around and painting a big Over here! sign to anyone who might be trailing me through the crowd. Two blocks later, past the flowing lanes of foot traffic, I ducked left into another alleyway, this one wider than the last and lined with several boxy blue dumpsters.
I hurried along the dim alleyway, intending to cut through and keep running until I couldn’t anymore. My body had other plans.
About halfway down the stretch, it all hit without warning—the full blast of everything the shock and the adrenaline had been holding at bay since I’d stumbled into that bloody living room nightmare.
I slumped down against the wall in the small space between two dumpsters, tucked my face against my knees, and tried to catch my breath against the plethora of throbbing aches I’d gained in my hasty skimmer escape.
Think. I just needed to think. Figure it out.
For the moment, I was in the clear. No one would see me here, nestled between the dumpsters just like another one of Divinity’s homeless.
No. I wasn’t like one of Divinity’s homeless right now.
I was one.
That Kublich-creature—demon, whatever it was—had wanted me dead.
Had it really been Kublich?
I couldn’t begin to comprehend how that was possible.
Either way, I couldn’t go back right now. Not while that thing was probably looking to finish the job.
So where did I go?
I called my parents. That was the obvious, reflexive answer. I called my parents, and I asked them what to do, how to make it better.
Only I couldn’t. I’d never be able to do that again.
Hot tears spilled over, their wet trails warm down my cheeks one moment and cool the next in the growing chill of the night air. It was nothing compared to the chill deep in my chest—the one that had nothing to do with my surroundings.
“They’re gone,” I whispered. It didn’t sound right—couldn’t be right. “Mom,” I said. “Dad.”
Silence pressed in around me, the low din of the distant crowds like a mocking call, only highlighting the hollow ache at my core.
A shudder racked through me. I pressed my face to my knees even tighter. “Please,” I whispered. “Please, please.”
I’m not sure who I was talking to—what I was even asking for—but the words came out all the same. Memories looped unbidden through my mind. The gut-wrenching crack of the Kublich demon breaking my dad’s neck. The slack lifelessness of my mom’s body on the living room floor.
It was too much.
I clenched my jaw, hands curling into fists, and only barely contained the wordless scream I wanted to belt into the empty alleyway. I looked up at the building across the alleyway, tall and sturdy. A housing tower, from the look of it.
There’d be dozens of families in that building. They’d be supping right now. Or maybe gathering around to watch the evening feeds—content, completely oblivious to the tragedy sitting almost literally on their doorstep.
It was sick. It didn’t feel real. A few sobbing huffs escaped me. I glared up at the high-rise, bitter rage eating at my insides. I wanted to hit something—needed to release some of whatever it was that was building inside of me.
I started pulling myself to my feet. I needed to do something. Anything. Maybe I could find a public node and get a message to Johnny.
Would that even be safe?
If someone had enough resources—say, a freakish monstrosity parading as the High General of the Legion—was there really anywhere I could go? Anything I could do that wouldn’t be leaving a trail for him to find me?
I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do.
“Gropping scudbucket of a—”
I froze, boot still cocked to kick the dumpster beside me, and listened.
Voices. Low and serious. And coming closer. Decidedly detached from the din of the crowd, now.
It was probably nothing, right? A few civilians on their way to—
“—can feel him nearby,” one of them was saying in a smooth voice as they drew closer. “Be ready.”
My heart thudded straight into overdrive, fresh adrenaline lacing its electric fingers through my senses as I pressed myself flat to the wall.
Were they talking about me?
Of course they were.
But were they really? I didn’t even know who they were. It could still just be a few guys looking for their hound for all I knew.
Their boot falls were heavy, precise—uncomfortably reminiscent of those of marching soldiers. I didn’t even know if that was good or bad news.
By sheer force of will, I resisted the urge to peak around the dumpster. My instincts told me I was in danger, and right now, that was all I had to go by.
I needed to move. But there was nowhere to go. Nowhere but down the alley, right in plain sight of the five or six men who may or may not be armed and looking for me.
I was on the verge of bolting for it anyway when the group halted nearby. The abrupt absence of boot falls was jarring in my tense state.
I held my breath, waiting. One of them murmured something, too quiet to hear. I crouched there, cowering like a damn cornered animal, not even able to hear what my looming enemies were saying.
The anger flickered back to life, loosening the tension in my chest, fixing itself at a new target. I was trying to reign in the wild urge to round the corner and do something that would only worsen my situation when they finally broke the silence.
“Come on out, kid,” a voice called—the same smooth voice that’d spoken a few moments earlier. “No need to hide with the garbage anymore.”
Well that settled the question of who they were looking for.
And whoever they were, something about the guy’s tone told me they weren’t here to give me a warm blanket and a hug.