Warren smirked at the orphanage’s masters from the rafters. He was nearly invisible perched in the shadows. The only way it could have gotten any better was if his skin was as black as his hair. Oh well. The two men sat enjoying their evening game of cards, thinking they had locked away all the children in their rooms. Warren’s grin deepened. Lifting a bucket of decaying fish, Warren showered the men in rot. Shouts filled the air, Warren giggled. Scrambling across the beams, he leapt to the rope he had secured and lowered several minutes ago. His eight-year-old hands slapped the rope, and he soared out of the open window, then rolled across dewy grass. Chilled air entered his lungs.
He stared beyond the stone wall surrounding the main training center he’d flown from. Star-speckled sky and waving fields of green extended as far as he could see. What’s out there, anyway?
The door behind him banged open. Masters Byrum and Klimik stomped out, both smelling like a bad trip to the ocean. Master Klimik started after Warren, who dashed for the training center. To his left, a rope had been lowered for his escape. Leaping, he caught hold of the cable which zipped him up into the air and through the window where his cheering rebel cohorts pulled him in. Warren grinned as he turned back to the window. Master Byrum and Klimik pounded on the door that Vallerie had already locked behind them.
Rejoining his friends, Warren celebrated. Cassidy and Samuel howled congratulations. Even Emron seemed pleased with the results of their latest attack.
“Come on, the pantry is unguarded,” Warren said.
Thrilled hollars followed him down the hall and into the stone and tile kitchen. Warren inhaled deeply. Food! Their last venture failed, resulting in the loss of eating privileges for four days. That was two days ago. Vallerie rejoined the band, and they began dividing the spoils. Warren stuffed a roll in his mouth, sweetness bathing his tongue. He deserved this. As he began loading his arms, a door burst open. “Scatter!” Warren shouted.
Children scrambled, but this time Warren couldn’t escape. Master Byrum caught him. He tried to wiggle free, but only managed to drop his reward. The burly instructor hauled Warren to a small brick hut. Master Byrum tossed Warren inside and slammed the door, leaving Warren alone.
Warren sat up in the darkness. The longest they had left him was a few hours. They’d be back.
Warren woke up unsure of how much time had passed. His stomach growled. Groping around in the darkness for the door, he found the handle and tugged at it.
Nothing. Sitting in the dirt, he waited. Someone would be back soon.
Hours passed, and Warren started to worry. What if they’d forgotten him? They wouldn’t have, right? The air warmed, telling Warren it was day. Someone will be back soon. Warren closed his eyes and fell back to sleep. A stabbing pain woke him, and he flailed in the darkness, fearing attack. After he regained his breath, he realized the pain was just hunger. Warren cleared his dry throat. He tried the door again. Still nothing.
When no one answered, he cried out a little louder. Silence. Had they abandoned him? He screamed and cried, but no one ever came. As the air cooled, he realized he’d been in the cell all day with nothing to eat or drink. He had to relieve himself earlier and couldn’t escape the smell. No one was coming. Warren cried against the door and begged for mercy. He pleaded for hours, screaming until his throat went raw.
“I’m sorry…” Warren whimpered, leaning his head against the door.
The door whipped open, and Warren collapsed to the ground, gulping fresh air. The starlit night burned his eyes. Standing above him was Master Byrum.
Warren pushed himself up on shaky legs and followed Master Byrum back to the training center where he was ordered to bathe and then sent to bed. The mattress under him was hardly softer than the ground he’d slept on the night before, but he had a warm blanket and a lumpy pillow he could shape to his head.
Someone shook him. Warren clenched his eyes tighter.
“Warren,” Cassidy whispered.
Warren growled at his friend.
Cassidy slapped him.
“Hey!” He sat up, ready to tackle Cassidy to the ground and give him a beating.
“Hey yourself.” Cassidy held up scrawny hands. “Before you kill me you need to know something.”
Warren scowled. “What?”
“I listened in on Master Byrum and Master Rennalls. It was Master Byrum’s idea to leave you in there so long. And that’s not all. He and the other masters dragged everyone out there to listen to you.”
Fire crackled inside Warren.
“Follow me. I’ll need your help,” He kicked off his covers.
Together they began setting the groundwork for his revenge. He would not be made a fool.
The next morning, Master Byrum entered the room, barking out the morning orders.
“You know, you don’t have to yell. Some of us’ll go deaf,” Cassidy said.
“Quiet!” Master Byrum shouted.
“Make me.” Cassidy jumped onto his bed and began singing.
Warren cringed at the off-tune wailing. The other boys in the room laughed at Cassidy’s ridiculous display.
Master Byrum stomped toward Cassidy. Warren slashed through his belt with a knife he and Cassidy had stolen from the weapons vault the night before. The boys laughed harder as their flabbergasted master grappled for his pants. Spinning toward Warren, Master Byrum reached for his neck. Warren scampered through the door. Hopping onto the stair railing, he slid to the ground level and stuck his tongue out at Master Byrum.
Master Byrum chased after Warren, infuriated, and tumbled down the steps, landing at Warren’s feet. Oil streaked the master’s worn clothing. Warren whooped as the other children peered from their rooms to see what had happened. The other masters surrounded him, but he didn’t care—he’d won!
Turning to Master Byrum, Warren froze. What’s he waiting for? Warren nudged him with his foot. His smile faded. Master Byrum’s head was turned pretty far.
“Hey,” Warren tried to laugh.
One of the other masters pushed past Warren and knelt by Master Byrum. “... he’s dead.”
Warren’s limbs trembled. What had he done?
Master Klimik yanked Warren across the compound to the Headmaster’s quarters. He pushed Warren into a chair in the large office then left. Warren didn’t get up, he didn’t look for an escape route, and he didn’t try to make any traps. He just stared through his lap at the image he couldn’t stop seeing—Master Byrum lying on the floor, neck askew.
Headmaster Ruben entered and towered behind the desk. Warren tried to lift his head, but his muscles refused to move. How could he ever look at anyone ever again? He could feel the eyes on him, filled with disgust. The two sat for what felt like three whole seasons until Warren finally couldn’t handle wondering what the Headmaster was thinking any longer. Forcing his head up, a blank expression met him. Warren searched them for anger, sadness, repulse, anything, but only saw two brown spheres waiting for him to speak.
“I…” Warren started, then the weight hit him.
He’d killed Master Byrum. He could starve the rest of his life and it wouldn’t be enough. Warren bowed his head and sobbed. What kind of monster am I? He wished he hadn’t been born. These masters raised him, and he d killed one.
A hand touched his shoulder.
The Headmaster stood before him with eyes that beckoned him to speak.
“It was an accident, Headmaster. I didn’t mean it,” Warren croaked.
The Headmaster continued to stare at him, waiting for the whole story. Warren gave it, sparing none of his faults. When he finished, the Headmaster returned to his seat, blue and gold mage robes flowing with his movements.
“Are you going to kick me out?”
The Headmaster dipped his quill in some ink and began writing. What was he doing? Was he writing some sort of letter of sale? Maybe it wasn’t even related to
Warren, maybe he was waiting for the other masters to take Warren away. Both fear and curiosity bound Warren to his chair. Nearly half an hour later, the Headmaster rotated the page and slid to Warren. Reaching up to the desk, Warren pulled the parchment to his lap. It was titled: A Soldier’s Oath.
“I don’t understand.”
“Eventually,” the Headmaster said.
“Eventually, you will not stay here.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“You will sign that document. It is a contract to serve the people. You will continue your training here and eventually enter the world to save it. You won’t return after that. You will either succeed, atoning for your sin, or you will die and be pardoned thenceforth.” The Headmaster handed Warren the quill.
Warren stared at the page. Why give him a second chance?
“You only get one chance to change, if you fail, even once, you’ll be tried for murder.”
Warren gulped and scribbled his name at the bottom of the page.
“Your full name.”
“I don’t have one.”
“Think, you know it. You’ve just forgotten.”
Warren thought hard, and a name came to mind.
“General Northwright, sir?” Commander Dowser said.
Warren blinked. He stood with his commanders in Fortitude’s war room. All eyes were on him. “We strike at dawn.”.
“Yes, General,” His officers agreed and departed.
Warren ran a hand through his hair; it had only taken a year for it to speckle with gray, and now fifteen years later, it was completely silver. Warren clenched his hands into fists. He would succeed for Master Byrum’s sake.
The Rouge Child
You Know You Love Me
“Your objective is to retrieve the artifact from the enemy without destroying it.” Master Klimik gave Cassidy a pointed look. Cassidy smiled and blinked sweetly as though he hadn’t the faintest idea what he meant. “You will also be guarding your own artifact. If it is stolen you will fail. You have twenty-four hours to retrieve the enemy’s relic and return to your camp with it starting—now.”
The class split into two teams of fifteen. Most everyone scurried about like they were preparing for war, but not Cassidy.
Cassidy stood and stretched. “You know they could at least not make these games sound so dreary.”
“They’re prepping us for the real world,” Brayon scoffed.
“We’re kids, we should be out having fun not wasting time with stupid drills,” Cassidy grumbled.
“Stupid, or not, let’s just get it done,” Warren said joining them.
Finally, Cassidy relented. And followed Warren to their mock war-room. Of the fourteen with him he really only expected Warren, Brayon, and Emron to be of much use. The others were fine, but boring. Those three though, they knew how to make things interesting.
“All right, their biggest strength is Vallerie, if you find her take her down,” Warren said, studying the map of the training grounds. What good is looking at the map gonna do? It’s not like we can see the other team’s base.
“Like she’ll let herself be seen,” Samuel muttered.
“Brayon, I want you to take Emron, Barclay, Allric, Terrwyn, Atarah and scout out this area here.” Warren continued without acknowledging Samuel’s comment. “If you find their base hold position gather some information on their defenses then send Terrwyn back with a report.”
“Sir,” Brayon nodded, taking his team into the forest.
“Zoella, Greyson, Nullan, Zander, Drace do the same over here.” The team nodded then left.
“Cassidy, Oswin, Thayer, we’re setting up a parameter around the artifact,” Warren said.
“Guard duty?” Cassidy groaned.
“I want you up high. I want you to watch for Vallerie,” Warren explained.
Cassidy swallowed, that was the one thing he’d hoped Warren would overlook.
“Are you sure? I could be useful on a search team.”
“They’ve already left, and you’ve got the best vision, hearing and archery skills of any of anyone here. If anyone is going to catch her it’ll be you.”
Cassidy opened his mouth then shut it. If he argued more he’d give himself away.
As Oswin and Thayer moved out to their positions Warren moved closer to Cassidy.
“Besides, it's not like you can keep your eyes off her anyway,” He smirked.
“You—but I—how did—no, no you’re wrong. I don’t like her. She’s just, um—”
Warren chuckled evilly as he strode away.
Cassidy reluctantly picked up his quiver and skulked to the tree where he built a perch a few weeks prior. If he’d known he’d be the one sitting up there he would have secured the boards a little better. One wobbled as he put weight on it. This is idiotic. Cassidy settled into the branches and waited. Warren selected this tree as an outpost because it provided the best line of sight through the forest and the best view of the most likely path intruders would take to try and breach their base. To Cassidy it didn’t really matter though, the whole exercise was ridiculous, they were supposed to be training to fight monsters, why bother with war games like this? The Darkness didn’t have bases with artifacts, prisoners, or valuables. It just materialized wherever it wanted.
Cassidy twirled an arrow between his fingers. This sucks. At least on a patrol he’d be able to move, though he doubted he’d see any action. Their training ground was twenty miles of forest, running into anyone on the other team was unlikely. Which meant it would be several hours before he even had a possibility of seeing anyone. Cassidy exhaled a hot breath. This sucks.
Something disturbed the brush one hundred yards from him. Finally. Cassidy’s legs were numb and his back ached from sitting for six hours in the tree.
A hint of brown leather peaked from behind a tree. Gotcha, Cassidy drew his bow. The blunt tip wouldn’t pierce armor, but it’d leave a pretty bruise. Thwack! Cassidy loosed the arrow and it tagged his target in the shoulder. Two more figures appeared near the first one and scurried into the forest with their “wounded” companion.
Cassidy smirked as he let another two arrows fly and find their marks. The two scouts that had come to help their friend “died” instantly, one with an arrow to the heart, the other with an arrow to the back of the head, Cassidy was pretty sure that was Bridger and he'd bragged about winning this little game too loudly the other day.
Though the swift take down satisfied him he was disappointed it ended so quickly. Now he’d have to sit here for another fourteen hours, bored out of his brains. He yawned. It would be a while before anyone else showed up, a short nap wouldn’t hurt anything.
“Cassidy!” Warren shouted.
Cassidy flailed forgetting his unstable location. His heart leapt into his throat as he suddenly found himself falling through the air. Hard earth slapped his back as he hit the ground. Ow.
“After her Cassidy!” Warren barked.
Cassidy surveyed the now dark forest. To his right he glimpsed a dark figure dashing through the forest. He snatched his bow from the ground and stumbled to his feet.
The chase was on. Branches whizzed by and leaves slapped his cheeks. A grin plastered over his face, she’d made a mistake running this way. He’d catch her this time. Cassidy leapt on top of a fallen tree and drew his bow. Gotcha. He released. His arrow hit the artifact from Vallerie’s hand. She skidded to a stop at the edge of a cliff and spun around. She drew a pair of daggers and screamed as she sprinted back toward him and the artifact.
Not so fast, Cassidy shot a dagger from her hand and reached for another arrow. His fingers waved through empty air. NO. The rest of his arrows must have fallen out when he fell from the tree. Suddenly, she hurled her second dagger through the air at him. Cassidy yelped as the blade sliced his sleeve. For a moment he paused. A cornered beast is the most dangerous. She had nowhere to go, and that was her last weapon. Cassidy lunged forward and snatched the artifact from the ground. Vallerie halted and glared at him.
“Don’t be like that.” Cassidy said.
Fierce emerald green eyes glared at him. Wow. Every time she’d ever looked at him was always the same—every sane thought left his mind.
“What?” She asked hostility in her voice.
“I win,” Cassidy declared.
Vallerie’s lip twitched upward revealing devious dimples.
“You think so?” she said, raising her fists.
Cassidy exhaled a small laugh, then stepped in closer leaving barely an inch between them. Her breath on his lips sent static through his body.
“Admit it you love me,” Cassidy said.
Her mouth parted, but nothing came out. He knew it. He’d chased her for years, he showed off, he bragged, he’d done everything to get her attention, but nothing seemed to impress her. He’d caught her. She was faster and cleverer than anyone he’d ever met, but now he’d caught her.
“Cass, I…” She glanced to his lips.
Cassidy leaned forward and closed his eyes.
Something sharp poked his neck. Vallerie held a throwing knife at his throat. The dreamy expression on her face had vanished, now she seemed slightly apologetic, but mostly conniving.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She took the artifact him and backed towards the cliff.
“What are you doing?” Cassidy asked.
Vallerie flashed a dimpled grin his way then jumped off the cliff.
“Val!” Cassidy ran to the edge to see her making her way down a set of wooden stairs along the cliff face.
Halfway down she paused and looked back.
“Catch me again and I just might,” She called then continued her escape.
Cassidy grinned. He’d catch her again.
I hate hospitals. I really hate abandoned hospitals. I really, really hate idoitic scientists who steal government funded serums and hide in abandoned hospitals.
“Anything over there, Brina?” Mark radioed.
“Unless rat infested debris as ‘something’, then no.” I panned my flashlight over the floor.
Mark chuckled into the radio before changing channels.
Honestly, why do these places always look so filthy? Paperwork and medical supplies huddled along the edges of the hallway like beggars in alleyways. You would think a place scrubbed and sanitized to the point of perfection would be left like that.
Whatever the reason for the mess, it didn’t matter. We needed to find Dr. Nutcase and bring him back for interrogation.
Something disturbed the refuse behind me. Gun raised, I spun around. A rat scurried out of the beam of my light. The sooner we found the idiot scientist, the better. These places always creeped me out.
Dr. Nutcase—real name Dr. Declan Iverson—had disappeared with a case of unstable serums almost a full month ago. It wasn’t until yesterday the FBI got word that he had been sighted near an abandoned hospital in North Dakota.
If it were up to me, I’d make the scientist go through as rigorous a background and psych check as us agents do. Just because we handle a gun doesn’t mean we’re a greater risk to society.
I searched the sixth room in my hallway. Nothing but a turned over gerny and tattered drapes. Sighing, I continued onward. Already, we’d spent three hours picking through rooms trying to locate the doctor.
“Dryaden’s got something in autopsy,” Mark said.
“Copy, I’m on my way.” I started back down the hall to the main foyer where I started.
I got lost twice while trying to navigate to the basement—another reason I hate hospitals.
The autopsy room was surprisingly large. I always assumed that the deceased’s family would have claimed the body, but I guess there were enough John Does out there to warrant six tables. Lennox clacked away on a beat up laptop at one of the tables.
Dryaden, Thayer, Rhett, and Mark stood near the back left corner. My hand tightened into a fist. I wanted to be ready to punch Dr. Nutcase in the face the second he gave me a legal reason to.
Mark glanced at me. His expression seemed unnerved. I unclenched my fist. Something was wrong. I’ve known Mark for ten years, he doesn’t get unnerved.
As I approached I understood why. A corpse slumped in the corner of the wall. Its skin was shriveled and tanned. My jaw nearly dropped as I looked closer. I could see muscles under the skin. It was like the body had a thin layer of dried brown glue over it, thin enough that I could see through it. The badge on the dead man’s lab coat read Dr. Declan Iverson. There goes any chance at interrogation.
“What happened?” I asked, turning to Dryaden.
“Don’t know.” He shrugged.
I raised an eyebrow and glanced at Mark. He was our commander; if anyone had any ideas, he would.
“Lennox is gaining access to his laptop. If he used the serum, his notes would be there,” Mark said.
“The serum wasn’t with the body?” I asked.
“We found the empty case under one of the tables. We haven’t found any of the vials yet.” Rhett nodded to the middle tables.
I turned back to the body. He was seen yesterday, so why was his body so disfigured?
“I got it,” Lennox said, turning the laptop to Mark.
There appeared to be at least twenty video recordings. Had he really been able to experiment so much?
Lennox started the first video.
“...October 20th 2031 Dr. Iverson conducting psychi-regeneration experiment on first human subject. Subject is calcasion male, 6ft tall 210lbs, 31 years old at the time of expiration, which was six months ago. Has been kept on ice for experimentation during incubation period..."
Dr. Iverson held a vial of clear liquid in front of the camera.
“...Serum Kelvin is prepped. Injecting into the ventral forearm vein…”
Dr. Iverson waited for a few moments after injecting the serum. He checked for a pulse at the corpse’s wrist, then again at the neck.
“...subject shows no signs of regained life. Need more evidence to form hypothesis. End of experiment one.”
The video’s played one after another, each one seemed to fail. The doctor theorized that the serum was failing because the subjects had been dead too long, and in some cases, had to be transported over large distances to this facility. Facility? That was what he had called it. He was truly insane to call this a facility.
“...Conclusion, serum Kelvin requires a fresher host to function…”
Dr Iverson looked straight into the camera. Madness lurked behind his glasses.
The feed ended.
The next video started and another corpse was laid out on the table. A woman, maybe in her twenties.
“...October 29th 2031. Dr. Iverson conducting psychi-regeneration experiment on twelfth human subject. Subject is calcausion female, 5ft 5in tall, 130lbs, appx 20 years old at the time of expiration which was within the hour…”
There was blood on Dr. Iverson’s cheek. I clenched my jaw. Pervy murderer. I glanced at his corpse in the corner. He got what he deserved.
“...Serum Kelvin is prepped. Injecting into the ventral forearm vein…come on...come on..."
Dr. Iverson checked for a pulse at the corpse’s wrist, then again at the neck. Defeated, he hung his head.
“...experiment 12 has failed. Hypothesis: serum Kelvin requires a live host to function…”
Dr. Iverson rolled up his sleeve.
“...The serum will work…”
He injected himself. The skin on his arm shrived and browned. He screamed and flailed, knocking the laptop to the ground.
The transmission ended.
“At least we know how he died,” Thayer said.
“Where’s the girl?” Mark asked, his voice somber.
We all stared at each other realizing Dr. Iverson died before he moved her body.
“Owens! Do you copy?” Heldrin radioed.
“I’m here what’s wrong?” Mark replied.
“Mayday, mayday! Respond!” Gun fire sounded in the background.
“What’s happening? Where are you?!” Mark demanded.
The radio cut out.
“Heldrin?” Mark barked. “Heldrin, respond!”
“Lennox, get a copy of that footage. Thayer, Rhett, and Brina, rifles ready. We’re going up there.” Mark lead the way to the door.
Heldrin and his team were searching the top levels of the hospital when he’d radioed for help. Heldrin’s transponder showed he was still at the top floor. I groaned internally as I looked up the seven flights of stairs we would be climbing.
As expected, I hated every step of those stairs. At least they were solid concrete.
I followed in position behind Mark as we entered the top floor.
I wasn’t surprised to see ripped tarps and broken windows in the lobby. What I hadn’t expected were the bodies. Six of them.
“What the hell...” Mark said as we approached.
My blood ran cold. The body armor and weapons definitely belonged to Heldrin and his team, but their bodies…they were disfigured beyond recognition. It would’ve been one thing if they were ripped apart and bloody, but this—this was worse. All of their features were missing, it was like looking at a mannequin with pale human skin stretched over it.
“What happened to them?” Rhett‘s voice was quieter than usual.
“Like I’d know,” Mark trailed off examining one of the bodies.
A crash sounded in another room.
In an instant, we had our weapons ready and we surrounded the doorway. My heart pounded in my ears. Mark nodded then kicked the door in and rushed in. Rhett and I swooped in at his sides. A small dust cloud rose from were a piece of the ceiling had shattered on the ground.
Rhett cursed quietly.
“I don’t like this. Let’s gather the evidence and head back down to Lennox,” Mark ordered.
After taking some photos and skin samples, as well as Heldrin’s team’s IDs, we started back down the stairs.
Mark tugged open the rusty door at the bottom of the stair rail. Suddenly I realized it didn’t screech the way it had before.
“Hu,” I mumbled, but I couldn’t hear my own voice.
Mark and Rhett didn’t respond to me.
“Hey, wait a second,” I said. Again I heard nothing.
Neither of them stopped.
Had I gone deaf? I grabbed Mark’s arm. He jumped as I touched him.
“Something’s wrong.” I panicked.
Mark said something, but I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t hear anything for that matter. Mark blinked and felt at his throat. Rhett seemed equally confused. None of us could hear.
Then a soft sound started in the distance. Footsteps? A sound like a dozen bare feet on the cool hospital tile started toward us. Mark and Rhett seemed to notice them as well.
I glimpsed movement at the end of the hall behind Mark. My heart threatened to stop when a pale figure rounded the corner at the end of the long hallway. Its movements were jerky, further startling me as an empty void opened up in my chest. Away. We had to get away! Instinctively, I grabbed Mark and Rhett and hauled them back into the stairway and slammed the door.
What was that thing? Nothing normal, that I was certain of.
Something poked my shoulder. I peered up at Mark. His mouth moved, but not a sound was made, so I held up my hand, stopping him.
I peeked through the narrow window in the door. Six human- shaped figures shuffled down the hall. Just like Heldrin, they had no faces or distinct features. I shivered. Was this the result of Dr. Nutcase’s experiments? It seemed like the only explanation. The creatures shambled on unsteady feet down the hall.
The creatures stopped moving.
I ducked back behind the door. Had they seen us? After a few moments, I dared to look again.
The creatures were gone.
My confusion only lasted a moment. The flash of gunfire from autopsy lit the hallway.
Mark and Rhett ran out into the hall and I...I froze. These things had killed an entire squad of highly trained agents already, so what were we supposed to do that they didn’t? I’d spent years with those men; we’d saved each other's lives dozens of times over. They wouldn’t’ve gone down easily.
I watched as Mark and Rhett fired into the autopsy room. Two pale figures leapt out and tackled them both. I covered my mouth trying not to scream, not that I would’ve known if I did.
Horror filled me as I watched my friend’s faces be sucked from their bodies and transferred onto the pale humanoids. Eventually Rhett and Mark stopped struggling. Eventually they lay as still as everything sounded.
And as if nothing had happened, the creatures stood up and resumed their shuffle down the hall. The two that had stolen Mark and Rhett’s face were soon joined by one that had Lennox’s face, and the other two that were still faceless.
I slumped against the wall, silently crying. Those men were my best friends. They taught me everything I knew and I watched them die. I hid and watched them die. A part of me knew that if I’d gone out I would’ve died too, but that part of me was a small whisper compared to the screaming guilt I felt.
I sat in the stairway waiting to die, too, for what felt like hours.
Suddenly the silence broke. My own breaths sounded like thunder compared to the utter silence from before. Why can I hear again? I peeked out again and noticed the hallway was empty save the bodies on the floor. I have to get out of here.
Tentatively, I cracked the door open. It squealed so loudly I thought everything in the entire hospital had heard it. Heart pounding, I ran to Mark and Rhett.
Both of their faces were gone. Stifling a scream, I collected their IDs and crept into autopsy. Lennox’s body was there. He still had the flashdrive in his hand. I grabbed it and threw a hateful glance to where Dr. Pyscho was. He wasn’t there anymore. Where had he gone? It didn’t matter.
I snuck back through the hospital, constantly listening for the moment when all sound would stop. It never came.
I escaped into the cold North Dakota air and ran to our cars, then drove away with no destination in mind. I didn’t stop until I was out of gas. I slumped against the steering wheel and sobbed.
I really, really hate hospitals.
The First World
Initially, we thought the large magic conduit was a holy temple, that we dedicated our religion to worshiping. But, there are few who believe in it now. This is my account of the Xellic’s fall from grace.
The beacon provides us with immense magical power, which we use as a symbol of our faith. Great rending Xellics display their gifts from the ones on high by defending our people with mighty fury. Conjuring Xellics form our homes with astonishing strokes of magic. Mending Xellics repair the broken, and heal our sick with outstanding grace and beauty. And then there were the Lexicocerchiers,their divinity is the most splendid of all. They wielded magic more masterfully than all the common Xellics combined. To witness their works was a once in a lifespan opportunity.
In the months preceding the collapse I entered the ranks of the high monks allowing me to observe Revelation councils between the great Lexicocerchiers. As a monk my talents were devoted solely to religious study and teaching of holy prophecies. Being able to witness their creation was an honor beyond comprehension.
Which is why it brings me great sorrow to speak of the last council held before the collapse. I never had the privilege of speaking to either of the high Lexichiers Gilixsur and Nexillen, but simply being in their presence sent a chilling hum through my exoskeleton. So much power and knowledge radiated from them that had I not trained so close to the Beacon I doubt I would have been able to stand near them.
During the last council of Revelation Lexichier Nexillen made a horrifying proposition. I knew of the studies he and Gilixsur had performed to lock entities in stasis, and I approved of its use in defense of our cities, but Lexichier Nexillen had made a...horrific discovery. He proposed using an enhanced version of stasis to drain and absorb another’s magic entirely. It was unnatural. His arguments made sense. There were threats we could not contend with, there were those who would continually use the beacon’s gift as a tool for wickedness and they needed to be stopped. But this? This was beyond any of our laws and beliefs.
I...I could not stand with him that day. There were others who agreed such power mustn’t be used, but not all. After that day there were no more councils. Tensions rose throughout the realm. My brother and sister monks and I tried our best to bring peace and restore the shattered faith of our people, but it was in vain. So long as Lexicheir Nexillen and his followers persisted peace could not bloom.
[three months later]
Powerseekers. How could they abuse such gifts? Nexillen ’s armies have attacked the sacred temple. They seek to claim its power. Do they not remember the beacon cannot be controlled? Do they not recall that it is only through the beacon that all life is sustained? They have forgotten all our teachings.
As I make this record Gilixsur and the faithful fight against Nexillen in the holy chamber. I shudder to think of the defilement of such a sacred space this war has caused. I—
Something erupted at the top of the temple. Terrified that Nexillen had defeated our defenses I raced up the tower. I had never entered the sacred room, but there was war waging at the conduit and I would not let Nexillen destroy all that our faith had built.
What I found was astonishing. A doorway unlike any other to a strange land. The plane was...chaotic. Fire raged on red earth, storm clouds ruled the skies. There were no signs of life, how could there be? A temporary truce was aligned until we understood the meaning of this Chaos Realm.
That was what we decided to call it. Study of the doorway itself revealed that it is composed entirely of magic, though no soul had the power to create such an extraordinary magical construction. To the bare eye it appeared to be an archway to a new realm, however a highly concentrated barrier between our realm and this place prevents the two from merging. We understand it to be a completely different world than our own, that conclusion was fairly simple to deduce. Further inspection revealed that while magic streams are present in the new realm, they are too weak to support life.
After these discoveries were made it became clear that the only way to gain any further knowledge was to enter the realm.
We should have destroyed the gate. Moments after four Genercercheirs entered they were slain by towering beasts with dark skin. Then the real nightmare began. They entered our realm. We should have died, but those things...stopped. A large beast studied us for a matter of moments before speaking in our tongue.
Their God, paganistic as it was, called itself Atax-zauul and declared that even though it and the rest of the Tyuials could raze our realm to its core, that they would not. Not that day at least. And returned to its hellish home. I still do not understand how these muscular red giants survive in such a vile place, but my account must return to the war that resumed not long after Atax-zauul and his monstrosities retreated.
...The war is over. I rejoice at its conclusion, but mourn the many losses that wrought. A horrid part of me wishes the monsters of the Chaos Realm had destroyed us all, at least then I would not have witnessed the final fall of my kind. There were hardly any who stayed true to the teachings my brothers and sisters told even among Gilixsur ’s people. New and false religions formed and my fellow monks and I could not stop their spread.
Why has the great construct allowed such things to happen? Great is our downfall and deep is our sorrow. As I walk the streets there isn’t a single Xellic that hasn’t been affected by hunger and sorrow. Maybe now they are prepared to listen again. Maybe…
The Right Partner
Fortitude wasn’t as pretty as Methril. No sweet-smelling flowers in window sills, no ornate tapestries hanging over doors, no salt from the ocean lingering in the air. Vallerie sighed and let the carriage curtain drop back into place.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be so…big,” Samuel remarked.
Big was what Fortitude was. The outer wall seemed to touch the sky, and inside—inside were buildings that dwarfed Methril’s tallest towers. Even the housing district was enormous. Hundreds of multi-story tall homes clustered along the street’s edge like people at a parade, making Vallerie feel like an ant in the line of carriages.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t be,” Vallerie agreed, leaning back against her seat.
Samuel tipped his head to the side.
“It would require thousands to monitor the streets, and all these tall buildings would make it easy to get lost,” Vallerie elaborated.
Samuel nodded. “True. It is the capital of North Maridon so I always imagined it would be something spectacular.”
Vallerie smiled, even though spectacular wasn’t the word she would have used.
“You look wonderful,” Sam commented with a dreamy expression.
“Thank you.” Vallerie’s smile deepened as a flurry of emotions twirled in her stomach.
Of all their training exercises, this had to be her favorite. They were en route to the Fortitude castle, where they would practice diplomatic and social policy. Namely, attending a royal ball. Normally they wouldn’t have been allowed to attend until they turned seventeen, but Headmaster Ruben had the age requirement waived as this was a training routine. An act that Vallerie couldn’t be more grateful for. She missed the pretty dresses and rules of lady conduct. The last ten years of combat, survival, and leadership training had nearly stripped her of everything her dad had taught her. Somber coldness creeped into her chest. She wished he was here now. He would have loved to see her sixteen years old, auburn hair styled in the latest Methril up-do, and wearing a traditional navy blue Methril ball gown.
Vallerie glanced at Sam. What would her father have thought of him? He was handsome in a matching navy dress coat and polished boots. The dark outfit contrasted with his gold vest and blond hair. Vallerie bit her lip a little as he made eye contact with her. He had some of the warmest brown eyes she’d ever seen.
The carriage pulled to a halt.
“I guess we’re here,” Samuel said, moving to exit the cart.
Vallerie took a deep breath, setting the nerves buzzing in her chest as she waited for Sam to open the door on her side. Then the door opened.
“Ma’am,” Sam said, extending his hand to her.
“Thank you sir.” Vallerie laid her palm in his and exited the carriage.
Even knowing the size of the rest of the city, the sheer enormity of the castle before her made her pause. Facets of stone and pillars large enough to fit a barge inside stretched into the evening sky. Thick windows rose along the walls with the smallest panels standing triple her height.
“Shall we?” Sam asked.
His warm grin stole her attention for a moment. She allowed him to guide her to the massive gates with floods of other guests pouring inside.
Even before they’d entered the melody of the king’s orchestra reached her ears. She longed to be swaying to those prefect beats, but restrained herself. It wasn’t proper to dance outside the ballroom.
“Introductions?” A man at the gate asked Samuel.
“Sir Samuel Verdant and Lady Vallerie Davelos, guests of Headmaster Ruben Voldon,” Samuel stated.
The man nodded and gestured them inside the castle.
The ballroom ceiling stretched hundreds of feet above them with dozens of crystal chandeliers hanging from its upper reaches in well cultivated rows. But most importantly was the enormous gold ring inlay of the marble floor marking off the dance from the rest of the room. Vallerie stepped that direction the same time Sam stepped to their left.
“Sorry. Would you care to dance first?” Sam apologized.
Vallerie’s cheeks grew warm.
“You’re right we should mingle with the nobles first,” Vallerie said ignoring the cold pit in her stomach.
The next hour was unbearable. The novelty of curtsying and polite conversation lost its charm after meeting the third couple. More than that, one of Vallerie’s favorite arrangements was played, and she didn’t get to dance to a single note. Vallerie smiled politely as the most recent nobel they were speaking with excused himself.
“This is exciting,” Samuel whispered.
“Mmhm,” Vallerie agreed enviously, watching a woman in pink spin on her toes.
“I supposed we should finish the dance requirement before our feet get too tired,” he said.
Vallerie lifted her eyes to his. Cultural dances were not Samuel’s strong suit, so she understood his resistance to the idea, but after spending an hour engaging in the same bland conversations she tugged him towards the ring. The timing was perfect too. One song had just ended, and another was beginning. There were various rules with different countries when entering a ball, but in North Maridon couples formed into skill-set rings. The best dancers spun in the center of the dance floor with those of lesser skill surrounding them in tiers of dance quality. It was the male partner’s responsibility to observe each other and determine whether or not they out performed a couple in a higher skill ring. If both parties agreed they would trade places. In the center of the tier was a single couple whose movements were far more graceful than any others. Vallerie always dreamed of being in the center ring. For now she needed to focus on getting into the second ring. In this evening’s ball there were five rings. They could make it.
Samuel’s brow knit as he tried to keep pace with her. Reluctantly, she slowed. He just needed a little time to get the rhythm. Five minutes turned into ten, ten into twenty, twenty into thirty, and they still hadn’t advanced a single tier. Just relax, Vallerie reminded herself. It was foolish of her to think warriors like them would ever enter the third or fourth ring.
“Quite a party,” A smug voice commented behind her.
Vallerie couldn’t stop herself from pursing her lips in irritation as she turned around.
Cassidy stood with a hand in his pocket, wavy hair barely slicked back, and a drink in his other hand. He wasn’t as tall as Samuel or as decent, but Vallerie couldn’t deny that while she was infuriated by him, she was also…attracted to him.
“Cassidy,” Samuel said curtly.
“Sammy boy,” Cassidy greeted without looking his way.
His playful hazel eyes were locked on Vallerie.
“I didn’t expect it to get any more interesting until I noticed a few hooded men behind the orchestra. Wonder what circus talents they will be displaying tonight,” Cassidy continued.
“There wasn’t any entertainment scheduled,” Samuel replied.
Cassidy raised an eyebrow as he took a sip from his glass. “Well, not like it's our problem. We were expressly ordered to have a good time.”
“That’s not our objective and you know it,” Samuel reprimanded.
“Could have fooled me,” Cassidy shrugged.
He tossed a wink Vallerie’s way and meandered back into the crowds.
Samuel shook his head. “He gives all of us a bad name.”
Vallerie opened her mouth, but stopped herself. What was she supposed to say? Cassidy was a troublemaker, but he was also the most vibrant man she’d ever met.
“What do you think he meant about the hooded figures?” Sam asked.
“No idea,” Vallerie sighed.
For a few moments Samuel eyed the orchestra stands, then shook his head. “Shall we return to our dance?”
Vallerie grinned and curtsied.
Even though Samuel wasn’t the best dancer she still found herself having a good time. So when he abruptly stopped, she was caught off guard.
“I think I see someone,” he said urgently.
Vallerie turned to where he was looking. Scanning the crowds she tried to identify what had set him on edge.
“I don’t see anything,” Vallerie admitted.
“Wait here.” He started off into the waves of people, leaving her dumbfounded on the edge of the dancing ring.
What was she supposed to do? She couldn’t keep dancing without a partner, and mingling with the other ladies of the court was equally unfavorable.
“You’re welcome,” Cassidy said.
Vallerie turned to her right, about to scold him for making Samuel paranoid and for ruining her dance, but stopped. His hair was properly slicked back, his previously lackluster appearance was sharper somehow, but she couldn’t quite place it.
“May I?” Cassidy bowed and extended his hand toward her.
That’s what his plan was? A furious part of her wanted to slap his hand away, but the intrigued part of her won.
“One dance,” She agreed.
“That’s all I need.”
The next arrangement started. Vallerie suppressed a grin. This song in particular allowed for exceptionally complex movements, and from what she’d seen during their classes, Cassidy would fail miserably. The next thing she knew, they were spinning together. She dared him into a hand over hand twirl, and he matched her. Surprised she pushed further. Every challenge she threw at him, he met with incredible precision. She tossed him back, and he performed one of the most beautiful pirouettes she’d ever seen before seamlessly returning to her arms.
“How?” Vallerie asked in frustration.
Cassidy gained a wicked grin. “Being an ex-prince has its benefits.”
Of course! Before coming to the orphanage Cassidy was the son of king Archnamos in Brackenwood. It was only fitting that he’d had the best teachers available.
“He’s not right for you, you know,” Cassidy whispered in her ear.
“And you are?” Vallerie huffed back.
Vallerie hesitated. The pure certainty in his voice was alarming.
“Careful, we’ve almost caught the center,” Cassidy warned.
She hadn’t realized it yet, but they had advanced to the fourth ring.
“You know how to fly?” Cassidy asked.
“Of course I do.”
Cassidy grinned at her. His dimpled cheeks made her heart race. Before she could catch her breath Cassidy spun her out. Like a bird taking flight, she returned to him and sprung into the air with an extra spin. Cassidy caught her by the waist. For a moment she truly felt like she was flying, Cassidy spun with her above his head so flawlessly she barely noticed him pivoting beneath her.
She glanced at the innermost couple. A man and a woman in their forties. The man nodded respectfully to Cassidy and stepped back into the fourth circle with his partner. Suddenly, she was the center dancer. She couldn’t believe it. She studied the faces of the members of the fourth ring. Each one wore disbelief like porcelain masks. Vallerie met Cassidy’s eyes. For the first time since they’d met he didn’t have even the slightest hint of sarcasm in his eyes. He looked into her eyes as if he were looking into her heart, and begging her to do the same. She felt vulnerable and invasive…and somehow like they’d done this before. Like she knew the depth of his soul. Like she was…home. Cassidy dipped her, but didn’t come back up with the next beat.
“I would never have left you,” He said.
It was a statement, a condemnation, and a promise all at the same time. And Vallerie knew each was true. He righted her and the song ended. He bowed to her before retreating back into the crowds.
Vallerie stood frozen the entire time. Her heart throbbed in a way she’d never known before, in a way she never wanted to stop. When Samuel returned to her side she knew she’d never feel that with him. She caught a glimpse of Cassidy standing with Warren and Emron in the back of the room. For a moment he didn’t look any different than he normally did. Goofy and roguish as ever, but when he glanced her way, she knew it had been real, and it was only the beginning.