Author’s Note – This chapter contains depictions of violence that might be distressing to some readers.
For her, it began in fire.
The wail of the fire alarm struggled mightily amid the chaos. Oaths of vengeance mingled with cries of terror and pain, the report of machine guns along with a low, rhythmic buzzing and the clatter of dozens of feet against the linoleum swarmed together to create an almost impenetrable din. Acrid smoke slithered down the hallway, writhing its tendrils into every corner and obliterating visibility. The odor of the fumes dominated all else, a sickening combination of burned wood, plastic and even flesh. With sight, sound and smell useless, Myrna Dardanus relied on the only two things left to her; Her husband, whose hand she clenched as they weaved their way through the darkness, and her faith.
They would survive.
Rumors of the attack circulated in the training grotto for days, but most dismissed them without a second thought. Rumblings in the past came to nothing, and if anything the human scientists treated them with ever greater kindness. It became a topic for gossip at the evening meals, the warnings dismissed with laughter and few paid any attention to their contingency plans. Most of their comrades mocked Myrna and Rand for taking even the most basic precautions. The two kangaroo anthrids had been sparring alongside a few others when the alarm was raised.
The warning preceded the attack by only a handful of minutes. Officially, the security team that stormed the training grotto was known as the Asset Discovery and Disposal Task Force, but everyone called them the Adders. Armed with automatic weapons and particle beam sabers, they poured in dozens at a time. At least half the anthrids who lived in the grotto never made it out, and Myrna couldn’t guess at how many survived to the satellite labs they now scrambled through.
“Just a little further love, I’m certain of it.” Rand’s voice, even raised, remained measured. “Before you know it, we’ll be seeing a real sun.”
“Careful the homs don’t hear you,” another, harsher voice called out from beside them .”They get bonuses for picking off the hopeful ones.”
Macaire, she thought. If his mouth hasn’t killed him before, I’m not surprised the humans couldn’t get the job done.
“Always the optimist.” He might’ve said more, had a burst of machine gun fire not silenced any further banter. Rand weaved to the side, Myrna followed his lead. The pair jumped in unison and bounded off the wall. Bullets ripped through brick and plaster, spitting shrapnel as they passed. The report of a second round thundered, and they dodged one again. Just ahead, something veered past them and slammed hard into the wall. A yelp of pain, then nothing more. Her foot grazed something as they ran past, and she narrowly kept her balance. She tried not to think about she struck.
“To the right!” Macaire cried out. They’d been given the layout to the labs by sympathizers, and a plan from the last students of their great teacher, Bede. They would proceed to the western exit, where they’d meet up with a battalion under the command of one of the students, Michael Pendragon. Myrna mocked Macaire for practicing the escape route in a blindfold. Anything that can go wrong will, in about six different ways, he’d said. She owed him an apology when they escaped.
Gunfire screamed out once more. Rand grunted, stumbled, but quickly recovered. For a moment, however, Myrna could hear nothing else but the incessant pounding of her own heart. Rand now drew ragged breaths, and she could feel his stride weaken. Where was he hit? Even if she asked, he’d lie. The vice-like grip on her hand loosened. She responded by tightening her own, digging claws into his flesh.
“Just a little further, remember?”
SPIA had already taken away so much from them. She refused to lose Rand to them as well..
The sounds of another skirmish echoed from behind, cries of human and anthrid audible through the discharge of weapons. Help had arrived to divert the Adders that trailed them.
“They’re holding ’em off, let’s go!” Another change of direction came from Macaire a split second later. “Left!”
As they turned, it appeared in front of them like the beacon of a lighthouse. The sun’s rays streamed into the hallway from a door at the end of the corridor. It looked impossibly far at first, but with each second the exit grew larger. Vague details of the outside world suggested themselves, and she saw perhaps a half dozen of her fellow anthrids drawing closer to it. One was almost there…
Three more Adders emerged from a side door just ahead. The lead escapee never saw them. The men unleashed hail of gunfire, and the anthrid crumpled to the ground, mere feet away from freedom. One of the troops continued to fire at targets ahead, while the other two trained their weapons on the two kangaroo anthrids.
A pale blue light crackled, and small sparks of electricity illuminated Myrna’s free hand. A split second later, two arcs of electricity flew between her open palm and the two soldiers. The pair slammed hard into the wall then slid to the ground. But with the sudden crack of thunder, the lead Adder spun around to face them. Myrna needed at least a few seconds to ready another strike. He took only a second to aim his gun.
Macaire, thank Bede, reacted faster. The antelope hybrid flew past them, slammed his horns into the Adder’s chest and pierced the armor.
Now undeterred, they kept running. She could only hope Macaire would fall in behind them.
As they approached their portal to the outside, Myrna’s ears perked at a sound behind them. The muffled, mournful cry sent chills down her spine. Perhaps Rand didn’t hear, or everything they’d experienced made him numb to it. Over her shoulder, she saw others running, but none of them made the sound. The pale green and red glows of the beam weapons of more Adders glowed at the far end of the hallway, too far to have caused it. It was as they’d almost crossed the threshold, she saw a figured huddled in a receded door, perhaps a quarter of the way back down the hallway. She could have sworn they held something in their arms.
She dwelt on it so much that at first she never heard the cheers of her fellow anthrids, or the change of the floor from tile to concrete. Only a few feet later, when her bare feet felt grass, real grass brush against them did she finally look ahead of her. A blue sky stretched out endlessly before them, not yet marred by the smoke clouds from the carnage behind them. She felt Rand’s hand rest on her shoulder, and she spun around to face him with a sudden sense of dread.
Blood trickled down his arm from the shoulder, streaking his tan fur. He’d only been grazed in the escape! Macaire stood beside him, a crooked smile on his face. One of the his horns was severed near the base, but he too showed no signs of major injury. And behind them! Hundreds of anthrids– no, they were Emejre now, just as Bede wanted. A handful tended to the injured, with other grouped near the exit. In the middle of the crowd stood a massive bull, powerfully built and at least eight feet tall, shouting orders. The silver furred wolf beside him gave up a few feet in height, yet carried himself with such poise and grace that he commanded more respect.. She knew in an instant he must be Michael Pendragon.
“You three!” He walked over to them. “Are any of you injured?”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” Rand replied.
The wolf looked at his shoulder. “All the same, go to the Healers. We’ll need everyone at full strength to fortify our position here, as well as push back the attackers inside.”
They discussed strategy further, but Myrna quickly tuned them out. Instead, the weeping rang in her ears. She’d seen something in that alcove, something hiding from the chaos around it. Perhaps it had been her imagination, the panic turning her mind against. No, she’d heard it! And she’d seen something in the corner. No, it had to be someone. Whoever they were, they weren’t by themselves, either…
Rand’s hand slid across hers, which had drifted down across her abdomen.
“Did you hear it too?”
“As we were leaving,” she said. “Someone… there was someone there with a child, I’m sure of it.”
“That’s impossible,” Rand said. “The Porters took the children out first, that was always the plan.”
“I know what I heard!” She balled her fists. “They’re in there alone, in danger. We have to do something.”
Rand bit his lower lip, hard enough to draw blood. “There’s nothing we can do. If we go back–”
She never let him finish the thought. Even though he’d tried to pull her into an embrace, Myrna twisted free of his grasp and broke into a sprint. Rand and Macaire both screamed at her, but she didn’t even try to make out the words. She veered back toward the lab, side stepping the latest evacuees who emerged.
An Adder charged out the door as she approached, leveling his gun at her. She snarled and drove her shoulder hard into his chest. He toppled backward as the gun spiraled out of his hands and clattered onto the floor. Myrna trampled over him, then was swallowed back into the darkness. She didn’t hesitate, as she could only think of the child and their caretaker, alone in the chaos. Faith delivered her from the flames once, it would do so again. We’ll all survive, she swore to herself. They won’t steal another child.
The hall fell strangely quiet as she ran back to the doorway she’d seen before. As she drew closer, an all too familiar putrid smell reached her, the unmistakable scent of blood in the air. A sliver of light peeked out, and she threw the door open and stepped inside.
It turned out to be a small supply closet, filled with mops and brooms, racks of cleaning supplies and a tall pile of towels and SPIA coveralls. There, huddled against the back corner, was the figure she’d seen before. When her eyes adjusted and she could finally make out the figure, she froze. It wasn’t an Emejre but a human, unmistakable in the silver lab coat. He was an older man, with graying hair and thick glasses. To her surprise, he smiled when he saw her.
“I was beginning to think… none of you would… show up…” He spoke haltingly, gasping for air. Red streaked down the lab coat on his right side. Even at a glance, she could tell bullets caused the wounds. She swallowed hard. A sympathizer, one whose kindness led his own people to turn their weapons on him.
“There are Healers outside,” she said. “If we can get to them–”
“No time,” the man said. “At least… not for me. Come on out, dear child. She’s… a friend.”
The pile she’d seen in the corner shifted, and a small face peered out, from the human then to Myrna.
“Are you sure?” her tiny voice asked.
“Of course,” he said. “She’s going to get you out of here first. Then she’ll come back for me, won’t you dear?”
“Yes.” The words hurt as they came out.
The child scrambled out from her makeshift hiding place. She was younger than Myrna expected, perhaps eight or nine at the oldest. She’d not yet grown into her ears or her long tail, which she almost tripped over as she walked closer. “It’s safe outside?”
“Yes, there are a lot of us out there. I’ll protect you. My name is Myrna, what’s yours?”
“Designation VA–” she started.
“Alexis,” the old man said. “I always said… if I had a daughter… that would be her name.” He closed his eyes. “Go with Myrna, little one.”
The kangaroo scooped Alexis up, holding her with one arm while leaving her right free. She might need it to defend them. The child peered back at the human. Tears had started to stream down her face.
“I’m not dumb,” she whispered. “I… I love you, Uncle Tommy.”
The old man managed to smile once more. “That, my little Lexy, made it all worthwhile.”
With that, the child buried her face into Myrna’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” Myrna said quietly.
“I should be… thanking you,” he said, then held up his index and middle fingers, the two crossed over one another. “Good tomorrow, Myrna.”
She returned the gesture with her free hand. “Good tomorrow, my friend.”
Slowly, she opened the door back into the hallway. Distant sound of battle echoed down the corridor, but it looked clear back to the exit. Making sure Alexis was secured, she dashed into the hallway. Her legs ached from the strain, but she pushed herself faster than before. She could see the field outside and the crowds of Emejre that greeted her before.
The Adder appeared out of nowhere. Perhaps the same one she’d knocked down before, she’d never know for certain. She flung her arm forward, sparks starting to swarm over her palm. She released the blast as she ran past, just as the Adder activated his beam weapon. Dueling flashes of blue and red illuminated blinded her briefly, but she heard the human crash against the ground… along with a second, fainter sound.
She felt nothing but Alexis as she crossed the threshold, then the cool grass under her feet, before they slipped out from under her and she tumbled to the ground. She wrenched her body as she fell, taking the full brunt of the fall while keeping Alexis upright and free from harm until the pair skidded to a stop. Pain never set in, she could only feel the child safely held in her arm.
She’d kept her promise.
Rand bolted to her side, with Macaire and Michael right on his heels. The wolf waved frantically behind them.
“I need Healers immediately!” he cried.
“I told you,” she said, and looked to Rand. Somehow, she even managed a slight chuckle. “I told you I heard her in there.”
“Her name’s Alexis.” She gently nuzzled her cheek against the child’s hair. “Alexis, this is Rand. He’ll keep you safe until I’m better.”
When Alexis sat up, she looked briefly into Myrna’s eyes, then turned to Rand. Without any hesitation, she threw her arms around him in a tight hug. Seeing the two of them together, a sense of peace passed over her. Somehow, she knew a greater power led her back into the lab, to find the girl. It felt like destiny.
Only then did she finally look to her right, to see the pair of healers crouched down and tending to her feverishly, with their glowing hands pressed against her shoulder, where her arm had once been.
For him, it began in ice.
Haze Toshiro last walked this courtyard a scant few months ago, before it became nothing but ash and cinder. He could still see the leader of the cloister in his mind, a heavyset fellow of some canine ancestry with short ears, a white patch around the eye of an otherwise brown, jowly face and one of the warmest smiles the bull had ever seen. They’d walked the grounds for a time, sipping an exquisite oolong tea while engaged in pleasant philosophical debate. Brother Hanfield remained a pacifist even in the face of growing tensions, and boasted how the Tundra Caste could survive without any contact with the outside world. Haze found the policy of peaceful isolation naive, but a few hours in Hanfield’s company would make anyone enamored with the idea.
Haze and his Red Dragon Caste soldiers buried Brother Hanfield and at least two dozen of his followers shortly after they arrived to answer the distress call. They dug extra graves, for the ones they’d yet to find. A few of his troops doused the flames and did their best to curtail the catastrophic damage, for all the good it would do. No one would return to this site except to mourn. The buildings were either gone or beyond repair, the grounds a makeshift cemetery and memorial for those who lost their lives.
He slammed a massive fist into one of the remaining wood beams in front of his, splintering it instantly. The acrid smell of the pyre reached him from the distance. It did little to sooth the pain or abate his anger, but at least the murderers did not escape. His soldiers dealt with them, and showed them no quarter. The honored dead of the cloister would be remembered. The names and fates of their killers would remain forever unknown as the Red Dragons spread their ashes to the wind. A fitting price to pay, but one that did little for the victims of the surprise attack.
Suprirse. Haze snorted. He’d seen it all that day in the courtyard with Brother Hanfield, of course. As the sun warmed a cloudless day and the residents grilled, Haze could smell death lingering in the air. Children laughed and played in the courtyard, dashing around them and even between his massive legs, but Haze heard their cries of terror. Instead of the beautiful mural on the wall of the main dormitory, he saw the building engulfed in flames.
“It’s a lovely view from here, isn’t it?” Hanfield asked as they shook hands atop a small hill that overlooked the grounds. Even as he flashed that memorable smile, he knew that he would one day heap dirt upon his broken body in a grave on that very spot.
He knew it would happen, but not when. Never when. The curse of the Seer, they called it, to see the future in every agonizing detail, save the most important.
“But of that day and that hour knoweth no man,” he whispered.
He turned to Hanfield’s grave, marked by a tattered banner with the Tundra Caste’s insignia, a stylized lotus flower, streaming in front of it. Haze dropped to one knee and folded his arms across his chest to say a silent prayer for the fallen. As always, he begged forgiveness for being unable to do more to prevent the tragedy. Rarely did his visions portend anything joyous, and the dozen assaults he’d foreseen since that first day in the Western Battalion did nothing to lessen this blow. Unable to prevent them, he could only react as things fell into a predictable pattern. There would be the usual calls for retaliation. A few of his men would defect to more violent splinter groups, perhaps even one day attacking humans who lived on the Reservation or even those making a living on the Coronado Perimeter. The cycle of violence would continue. One day, it might lead to all out war.
If it did, he knew he’d not live to see it. As with all his Seer brethren, each vision ended with a glimpse of his own death. Unlike the others, Haze took a strange comfort in the knowledge. All stories needed an ending.
It took the footsteps longer than he expected. Even without the vision, he would’ve known the soldier who approached him. The gravel crunched beneath his hoofed feet at regular intervals, moving with a military precision the others lacked. Haze gave him a moment to catch his breath before he rose a hand into the air. The time had come to let the curtain rise on the final act of this particular drama.
“You found tracks, Commander Hendricks. Five Emejre, perhaps six, with evidence one was badly injured.”
“All due respect,” Macaire said, “It still creeps me the hell out when you do that.”
“I assure you, Hell would be far more terrifying than my predictive powers.”
“Point taken. I’ve seen my fair share of it, after all.”
“As have we all.” Haze waited a moment, mulling over his options. “Contact both the Hope Street Shelter and the Dovecote. Though I suspect the refugees will feel safest among their own Caste, we would do well to speak with them. Their attackers were not, shall we say, particularly forthcoming with information. We still need to know if this was an isolated incident, or part of a larger campaign. There’s also the fact this damage took more than humans armed with conventional weapons.”
“I’ll get the word back to the Lair,” Macaire said. “Though I can’t guarantee who’s gonna act on it at this point.”
“Some things go beyond politics, whether with the rival Castes, or within our own. The word will get out.” Haze finally rose back to his feet. “Furthermore, you found something else, didn’t you?”
“Starting to think you know better than me, boss.”
They walked away from the courtyard, into the skeletal remains of one of the cloister’s buildings. In a past life it had been a rec center or gym, but probably served as the central hub of the community. Save the back wall, it had burned down to the very framework. The twisted remains of wrought iron tables and chairs encircled an empty Olympic length pool, with only a small puddle of water left at its deepest point. Curious, Haze thought, that they left this. With a little work, it might have provided a fine shelter.
Then they neared the back wall, and Haze realized they’d not emptied it after all.
Cold started to seep into his fur before he even saw the structure. It spanned almost the entire length of the back wall, ten feet tall and perhaps three or four times as much in length. While the flames had consumed much of the building, fragments of wall remained closer to the strange shape, with the closest sections only showing a few scorch marks. Its crystalline surface was smoothed to a polish, save a few scuff marks. A handful of bullets peppered the ground below, smashed flat. A lone bullet wedged into the crystal itself, but he saw no entry point, nor a trail carved out behind it..
“It goes back a good twenty feet,” Macaire said, and rubbed one of his broken horns. “You figure it’s gotta be ice, right? But it’s not like any ice I ever seen. You don’t want to–”
Haze opened his hand and pressed it against the surface.
A lifetime ago, Haze worked as a lab assistant and sometimes dealt with dry ice. It felt similar, at least at first. Then the cold violently asserted itself, stabbing into his hand and snaking up his wrist and into his forearm. Just as he thought to move his hand away, the feeling dissipated. Then, before his very eyes, the ice beneath his palm melted to create a divot on the surface of the crystal. Water trickled along the surface and pooled on the ground below. Only then did Haze pull his hand away. The tip of his index finger had already turned black, with the rest of the skin taking on a bluish-white tone.
“That’s what I said.”
“No doubt with a number of more colorful metaphors.”
“Should’ve heard the kid who touched it first, and he don’t have your cop out healing factor to make it right.”
Haze flexed his fingers. Color had returned to most of the skin, and the skin on the frostbitten finger started to flake away, with a pristine layer beneath. “I take it your sent for help?”
“The Porter got here with bells on, they took him home and got him patched up.” The antelope frowned, side eying the strange structure. “If it’s ice, it shoulda melted by now, right? This here, this just ain’t natural.”
“Precisely.” Haze turned back to the ice wall. “It’s because you couldn’t maintain this from a distance, isn’t it? In order to protect the others, you needed to remain behind.”
Macaire glanced from side to side before looking back at Haze.“Who’re you talking to?”
“The one who created this wall, of course.” Haze bowed his head and lowered his voice. “Their tracks lead away from here, though I fear they were the only ones to survive. They owe their lives to your courage. Those who attacked your home have paid for their actions.” He paused, then added, “You are among friends now.”
At first, nothing happened, but Haze still grabbed Macaire by the shoulder and backed away. The water trickled at first, but gained speed until a makeshift waterfall formed where the crystalline shape once stood.. Some of it rushing back into the pool it once occupied, while some flowed back into the alleyway behind them. It left a lone figure in the now exposed door frame. He collapsed to his knees as the water receded.
Haze dashed over and knelt beside him. The Emejre boy was barely a teenager, a tall, gawky polar bear hybrid in the blue and white robes of the Tundra Caste. That robe, along with his white fur, remained impossibly dry despite the deluge around him. He gasped for air and shivered, then looked up, his pale blue eyes bloodshot.
“The others… you’re certain?”
“I cannot speak to their fate, but I believe they at least escaped their attackers.”
“But no one else?”
Haze lowered his head and closed his eyes. “I fear not..”
The boy nodded. He fought valiantly to keep his expression neutral, but his lower lip quivered.
“My name is Haze Toshiro, a General of the Red Dragon Caste. My soldiers and I are here to help in any way we can. What’s your name, child?”
“Dante,” he replied. His voice wavered, but he kept his tears at bay. “Dante Ansara.”
“We’ll do all we can to find your fellow Castemates, Dante. I swear it on my honor.”
“And the people who attacked? You said…” He trailed off.
“They won’t hurt anyone ever again.”
“They… they said they were doing this for revenge. But we never hurt them… we never…”
“Vengeance makes little sense,” Haze replied, and rested an arm gently across his shoulders. “And it’s often the most peaceful who suffer the most from it.”
Dante remained silent for a few seconds, trying to regain his breath. “.. did they have to die?”
“Are you kidding?” Macaire spat at the ground. “The homs are always gonna–”
“Stand down, Macaire. The boy’s been through enough already today.” Haze took in a deep breath before he spoke. “The Red Dragon Caste is sworn to be the shield for all Emejre, but we cannot hesitate to also draw our swords when necessary.”
“I have many questions for you, but they can wait. For now, you need time to recover, and to grieve those that you’ve lost.”Haze rose once more, and offered a hand to the bear. He took it and rose shakily to his feet.
“Commander Hendricks, I trust you and your men to handle the rest of the recovery operation here. I will take Mr. Ansara back to the Lair to meet with our healers.”
“And what then?” Dante asked, as he looked around the shattered remains of his cloister. “This was my home.”
“I’m sure there are other cloisters that would take you in.” He hesitated a moment before he added, “Of course, if you wish, there would be a place for you among the Red Dragons as well. But we can discuss those options later.”
Not that it mattered, of course. Haze Toshiro already knew his answer.
Chapter One <– | –> Chapter Three(coming January 31st)