Mom always tells me when I find myself in life to never waver from it. For finding myself is as rare as any gem or pearl on this planet and on any planets among the stars.
It can rise you up to the beautiful sunset. It can drop you in the ashy cremains. And it can make you kill in cold blood.
For finding myself will drive me to do the impossible.
For finding myself will risk it all.
Thank the stars, I finally found it.
Seeing the building with my own two eyes is completely different from viewing it on the grainy satellite map, but there it is, hiding under a mossy hill, in an amusement park no less. It’s the perfect camouflage for any research facility. I almost missed it myself.
Breaking in should be a piece of cake.
A screeching howl pierces the air, echoing across the terrain, multiplying. The frightening sounds scare off hundreds of gulls perched in the surrounding trees, leaving us with an eerie silence in the drift of this cold, humid breeze.
My sixth sense goes off. Like an alarm, a faint ting buzzes in the back of my head, picking it up from the north. I zoom the binoculars in on the carnival rides.
The wolf demons step out of the shadows, their glowing cat-like eyes a beacon in the darkness and obsidian fur spiked up like sharp needles, ready to attack. They crawl over broken swings and fading plastic tracks. Stop on a pint-sized Ferris wheel. They sniff the air, searching for their prey—for us.
This isn’t normal. There are twice as many demons than I predicted, almost like someone purposely drew them to this site. But it’ll be fine. Gio’s got this. I just need to concentrate on getting inside, then find my missing birth record, that’s it.
I unzip the canvas bag and prepare the sniper rifle, setting it up on the curved thick windows of this fallen skyscraper. The suction cups self-tighten to the glass, aiming the gun at just the right angle for me to see the entire vicinity below; the open field and overgrown vines and trees and the demons pointy nose.
Thunder roars in the distance, sending faint trembles up my body. I’m surprised this skyscraper’s windows remained intact after collapsing nearly a century ago. I must be lucky. Let’s just hope my luck hasn’t run out.
White noise hums into my earpiece connection, easing my mind and preparing me to fight. Gio’s deep voice comes in so crystal clear, I can hear the frown on his face. “Hey, are we really going to do this?”
I pull down the black neck warmer and tap my earphone to respond. “When have we ever backed down from a mission because of some demons?”
“Some?” he scoffs. “I’m counting fifty-six. That’s not just some, Ava—it’s suicidal.”
I wish he was standing next to me, so I could slap him on the arm and yank down on his messy bun. We do not fear death. We do not run from it. We face it straight on. Instead, I have to settle with glaring at him from afar.
He’s positioned on a short rickety building, barely standing on four legs. With his tall frame, crouching does little to hide him from the demons, but that doesn’t stop him from returning my glare. Sometimes I just want to pluck those blueberry eyes from his pretty face.
“Yesterday, you promised you’d help me,” I say. “This is what we’ve been searching for. My birth record has to be in there.” He stays silent. “Gio, I can finally fix myself.”
“Dude, chill out. Of course, I’ll help you.” A sly grin forms on his conniving lips. “I’m just saying that my pay’s been raised from lunch to dinner.”
You can't be serious. “I thought the whole point of you being my guardian was to have my back. Not force me to fill your stomach, Sloth.”
“Then consider it part of my duty as your older brother, Pipsqueak.”
We’re only a month apart, yet even during the most critical times, he never fails to remind me how he’s older, thus somehow wiser. He forgets we’ve been together since infancy—since the moment Mom adopted me—but at this point, there’s no use arguing with him. I need his help.
Out of frustration, I rip my glove off and feel the dandelion seeds blow between my fingers. The wind comes from the east, no foul smell or tastes apparent. I’m not picking up anything unusual either, except the wolf demons nearby.
But this wind, it’s not great for bullets.
Lightning crashes mere yards away, sending vibrations up my arms in trembles. I grip the sniper rifle and let myself be engulfed by the beauty of nature’s destruction. It’s begging to be ripped apart at long last and be swallowed back into the Earth. Just like this entire metropolitan city behind me.
What remains of this once thriving metropolitan have now crumbled into ruins and become relics of our scarred history. Skyscrapers are stacked like fallen blocks off a tumble tower, with new trees and ivory sprouting from their carcasses. It stretches on for miles into the horizon towards what used to be the Pacific Ocean.
I can see and feel it from here, the pink tinted barrier of the wall we’re never allowed to approach, the mayhem that caused all this destruction. It keeps out the water and wildlife and those of us left on Earth forever. The giant crater is a heavy reminder of how much we’ve lost in order to grow. It’s amazing the human race survived.
Someone who’s not part of the Interstellar War probably thinks this is Primordials doing—our enemy in the stars—and they’d be wrong. This is what happens when humans are corrupt, they go to war with each other, but that was more than eighty years ago. Things have changed since then. Humans have evolved. And we have found immortality.
I get into position. Cocked and loaded, the sniper rifle ready to go, with one finger to my ear and the other stretched out by the trigger. My right eye focuses through the scope at a wolf demon. Its hair spikes up, prowling towards us. “I’m ready whenever you are.”
Rustling noise comes over the connection as the slick sound of a sword rings in my ears. Gio begins our lucky chant. “May the stars be on your back.”
“And on your fight.”
“And on your shoes, as you take flight.”
“Let’s kill us some demons.” Squinting my left eye closed, I focus on the creatures and wait for the wind to die down.
I only have fifteen seconds before they find me. Fifteen seconds to kill as many demons as possible and give Gio a head start. Their sense of smell and perception are high, considering they’re a plague trying to kill off the rest of the human race.
My breathing slows, harmonizing with the humid air. The Earth’s soft whispers caress my skin, tangling my hair until the wind stills with what nature ability I have left to control. This is it. Everything is riding on this mission.
It’s taken me two years to get to this point. I’ve been having to rely solely on my weapon and the abilities I can still muster up. I thought by now I’d find the missing files on my creation, but everywhere I’ve searched has led me to a dead end, until now.
There is no other option. I have to get inside. I need to find out what’s wrong with me before I end up losing control again and kill my own brother next time.
Breathe in, breathe out… Breathe in, breathe out…
I pull the trigger. The bullet flies straight on target and pierces into its skull. The wolf demon explodes into dust, giving me enough camouflage to shoot off two more bullets. A few more go down in a similar fashion. Thirteen. Aiming further away, I let off a few more shots. The demons burst into ink or ash. Their naiveness always surprises me.
Gio teleports to an open spot on the field. His arm sparks into flames, an inferno consumes the curve of his scimitar sword. He hones in on the demons distracted by bullets and slices down a handful at a time with the blast of his fire ability. Ten.
The wolves catch sight of him.
They growl, snapping at him, with their poisonous claws outstretched in savagery. A spider demon crawls its way out of the tree, body as big as the trunk. Its mouth drips venom onto the bark, ripping away the last of what holds the tree up. Seven. I shoot the sucker down, it splats like a bug hitting the windshield. Saving Gio but not in time for the tree.
“Timber,” I say into the earphone.
Gio moves without looking back. He ends up closer to the laboratory, but he’s not out of the woods yet. “Dude, was that a spider demon? Please, tell me that wasn’t a spider demon.” He visually shivers through my scope. “Why didn’t you say anything?!”
“Because I knew you’d react like this.”
A wolf demon runs up behind him, leaping into the air, mouth open towards his neck. Four. I pull the trigger. The bullet pierces through the air and cuts his cheek as it goes into the demon’s jaw. Just a few more seconds left.
“You almost shot my head off!” he screams through the mic.
“I saved your head from being clawed off.” A bullet flies out of my barrel, killing a demon for the umpteenth time. “You can thank me later.”
I glance back. Snarl huffs of mangy mutts survey the skyscraper mounds and decaying wasteland of glass tubes and hover cars. Their paws slip and scratch at the vine covering not far behind. They’ll spot me soon.
One. My sixth sense picks up ten surrounding the area, less than I anticipated. A howl breaks out. My time is up. Ditching the rifle, I take off running, feeling the demons hot on my trail. The pound of their paws breaks up the dirt and moss, shake the building from its slumber.
The drop of the skyscraper closes in. I take a deep breath and jump.
My side hits the surface with a thud. The aches barely register as I’m sliding down the thick glass with ease of my slick combat uniform, hoping to the stars it remains intact. The wind whips my hair back, gloves help navigate me down the front of the steep skyscraper’s walls. Wolf demons bark and howl below.
They run at me. I start running towards them.
The glass cracks with each step as my hand stretches out by my side. A warm pulse circuits from the core of my body to the center of my right palm. Energy flows deep from within me and sparks to life, calling forth my own personal weapon. The only weapon I will ever wield since that’s what I was created for.
The reason they call me Earth’s Savior.
Darker than night, its sleek metal pole appears in my grip. Reminiscent of a Bō and light as a feather, the length stretches out nearly as tall, if not, taller than me. And out by my side, its own energy surges with mine. We’re becoming one mind.
I break the Bō in half, shifting the two poles into two separate blades. Edges sharp, just in time for me to speed my footing up. My shoes go from running to gliding in seconds. An ability that allows me to skate above the surface, slowing everything down I pass by. I’m a leopard ready to strike and this open field has become my hunting ground.
My blade cuts down the first wolf without a fight. Dust explodes into the air. I cut three more demons down in my quick footing. The ones after are harder to kill. They stand in my path to the laboratory, sharp fangs exposed through their growls.
I don’t stop. I don’t hesitate in my footsteps. My swords slice through the next four before they even have a chance; bulldozing and dodging through the mass of what demons remain scattered about. There isn’t time to fight. My sole focus is on the door just up ahead. Its lush vines are within sight.
A large mud hand swipes at my head, catching me off guard. I duck the attack and skid to a stop, piles of grassy dirt digs into the tips of my shoes. Giant glob demons rise out of the ground, covering their molten lava in clumps of mud and grass. With each step, they scorch the land, leaving a trail of sludge behind. This must be the reinforcements.
I aim for a mutts neck, decapitating it with one blade, stabbing the other through the roof of its mouth. They turn to ash, but not soon after, two more appear. I don’t have time for this. Sidestepping around, I take them down one after the other until what’s left is a glob demon standing in my path.
The glob demon roars fearsome cries from its slimy mouth, between the smoke and soot, it hakes the Earth’s crust and trees surrounding us. Lava for eyes, its body drops sizzling sludge between us, melting the overgrown grass with each step. Gulps of frost burn my throat raw. I concentrate on breathing through my mouth for fear of passing out from this demons putrid smell.
A booming sound erupts from the sky. Hot flames pierce from the heavens. I only have seconds before it strikes. If I could teleport, this would be simple to dodge, but unlike everyone else, I wasn’t built that way.
But I’ll be damned if I let some demon mutts stop me from getting inside.
The glob demon roars, swiping its giant muddy hand at me. I duck and run around, barely reaching a nearby tree. Scorching flames hit the trunk. They ravage the land, burning nature up. It’s god awful hot like I’m baking under the summer sun.
I take a chance and peak between branches and leaves. One by one, globs and wolves alike, burst into dust, exploding fat goo across plants and burnt wild grass, until it sizzles, evaporating into the air with all the rest. The hunt is deadly, it’s real, yet the easiest enemy to fight against compared to Primordial.
I glance over at Gio. He’s breathing heavily, hunched far over. He’s used too much energy with that last attack and he didn’t kill them all. This isn’t good. He’ll be done soon and won't be able to use any of his abilities. I need to get to that door fast. Then at least he can rest inside where it’s safe.
Growling, a wolf demon chomps at his arm. He sidesteps away, but more pour of the shadows. His blade sparks to life, glowing faintly and less threatening than before. It’s going to simmer out. There are too many demons. They're overwhelming him.
He’s not going to make it.
Clenching my jaw, I glide faster and faster, shifting the staff back into its Bō form. Demons swipe their paws out. They attempt to scratch me, hoping I’d succumb to their poisonous claws. I cut them all down, trying to buy Gio more time. I’m almost there. Just a few feet ahead.
Thick, green vines interlope together, keeping the door securely locked shut, surrounded by dirt trying to topple over from its hilltop. I morph the Bō into a sword. It takes three swings to cut them down, giving me enough space to access the control panel.
Rust chews away at the metal casing, showing that after twenty years, even this laboratory is succumbing to the climate change faster than our scientists predicted. An image flickers on. The UFE’s logo sits etched across the cracked touch screen, identical to the patch on the top right of my sleeve.
Its outlined image is iridescent of what the Earth looks like today. The shifted landmarks. The clear bite-sized chunk missing, exactly where the Pacific Ocean used to be. I sometimes find myself daydreaming the war never existed, but then I remind myself, I would never have been born.
My wristwatch lights up, trying to connect with the system. If my research is correct, then I have to go through three steps. First being that I have the rank needed for authorization.
A ping goes off, flashing a check mark across the screen.
My sixth sense picks up Gio appearing behind me. “Is it working?” he asks between heavy breaths.
“Yeah, I’m unlocking it now.” I rip my glove off. He tells me to hurry it up as if I can move any faster than the system will let me.
Swiftly, I place my palm on the screen, praying to the stars it picks up my prints after sitting abandoned for so long. A strip of blue light scans down my palm. Tingles press into my skin until the scanning has stopped. Another ping goes off with a message appearing on the screen: Welcome to the AVA Projects Facility, General Avalyn Concerto.
It fades away, showcasing the silhouette of a bird in flight and the words Aegis Vitale Armament. Protection of Life by Arms. It’s the logo stitched into all my team’s uniform. Seeing it on the screen reconfirms my birth wasn’t natural. Just like the multiple sword marks dented into the door from the rebellion of those who rejected my creation.
Too many people died while bringing me into this world. I can’t let their deaths go in vain.
Numbers pop up onto the screen. It wants a passcode and I know exactly what it is. With this last step, I'll finally find out what I am and where I come from. And why I lost control.
I’m swift to type in the seven-digit code, but once I press the last number, it blares out a dull, annoying error sound. Thinking I switched a number around, I type it in, again. Error. I look at my wristwatch this time, knowing I saved the code in my notes. Typing it, again. Error.
My fist hits the door. “You have gotta be freakin’ kidding me!”
After everything I’ve gone through these past months. The past two years. This fight. I just can’t believe I’m this close and I can’t get inside.
Maybe I wrote it down wrong? No, that’s not right. I triple checked the records. They matched my numbers exactly. So that must mean someone deliberately changed the passcode and didn’t update the records. And I know exactly who would do such a thing: The Council. They’ve had it out for me since the moment I was born.
Gio calls out my name, but he’s too late.
A dark shadow covers my own, showcasing the mounds of dirt and tar of a glob demon. It stands as tall as any thriving tree. It’s so close, the smell of sour spoiled milk fills the space between us. Disgusting. Acid rides at my throat, trying to force its way up. I morph my weapon into a sword, but I’m too slow to react.
It’s giant paw heads straight for my head.
I’m pushed away by a hand. My body slams into the steel door. The force rings my ears up and dilutes my tongue with bloody iron from biting it on impact. Great, just great. It’ll heal in a matter of seconds, thanks to our healing abilities, but the act feels like the cherry on top. I wouldn’t have hit the damn door in the first place if I opened it.
And who the hell pushed me?
Marc’s back faces me, strong and lean, he tenses up and unsheathes his longsword from his back. He slices down the glob demon in one fell swoop, showing perfection in his flawless attack. He didn’t even use the short sword on his waist, as expected of my perfect Corps General. Such a show-off.
The glob demon liquefies onto the ground. Marc flinches, grabbing his arm as he falls to one knee. Oh, no. “Wait! Don’t mess with it,” I call out, running to his side.
Sweat’s already accumulating across his forehead. Black hair sticks to his skin. He clenches his teeth from the searing pain. This isn’t good. My hands frantically search through the many pockets on my uniform, looking for the antidote.
It takes only twenty seconds for the demon's virus to completely paralyze him. It won’t kill him, but it’ll leave him vulnerable for the demons to rip him apart. Or leave him severely sick for a month tops, a luxury we don’t have.
And I can’t bear to see him like that.
Once I find it, I press the needle into his wound. The burned, rotting flesh fizzles under my touch, healing in a matter of seconds after the serum takes effect. Rage, worry, protectiveness: they all consume me. I should’ve been more careful. Instead, I let my guard down. I let Marc get hurt, and this is the worst feeling of all.
A low chuckle appears behind us. “Well, what do we have here? Looks like you guys found yourself in some deep shit,” Josh says this with the best intentions.
Lieutenant General Joshua Dubois, the second show off on my team. His dirty blonde Mohawk is exceptionally tall today, it’s almost razor sharp like the blade of his ax, glinting under the afternoon sun. The smile on his face just proves this secret mission is going to hurt us in the long run. Because Josh is our trainer, he seeks for any excuse to push us over the edge.
He swings the battle ax off his broad shoulders, flexing his muscles with the pop of his neck. “You take the Pipsqueak home. I’m gonna stay and have some fun.”
“And this is why they thought it was okay to come out here.” Marc pushes his specs up by the bridge. “This is dangerous. This isn’t supposed to be fun. They could have—”
“Whoa, lighten up. If you’re that worried about the Commander reprimanding me, then dock it as a last minute training session.” He waves off.
The ground shakes beneath my shoes. A tall glob demon heads our way, moving faster than its round size should allow. Josh’s hickory eyes gleam with mischief at the new challenge before him, cracking his knuckles in preparation for a good fight.
“Gio’s going to regret coming out here soon enough. Right after I run his ass into the ground,” he says, louder for everyone to hear, including the demons nearby.
I don’t get a chance to see how Gio’s doing before Marc grabs my shoulder. He teleports us away in an instant. The Ligurian Sea first greets us with its salty fragrance when we arrive. I take in a deep breath, welcoming myself back home to these colossal sized window walls.
They expand to each side, creating what looks like a giant cluster of flower bulbs reflecting the forest surrounding us. Each outer pod houses a unit for the high ranking officers and their families—my team included—with a second energized barrier protecting us in case the demons make it past the city barrier.
The Capitol City is one of eleven City Bases left on the planet. Nine have fallen so far since the Interstellar War began. We've been lucky most say. I think Primordial left this city standing for a reason, and soon our luck will run out.
Marc’s grip relaxes on my shoulder. The longer he holds on, the further his warmth seeps into my uniform. It’s soothing, like my own personal heater calling me to squeeze my arms around, but I don’t get that chance today. He’s letting go before I can make a move.
Late afternoon shadows dance across the damp grass, scattering brown, red, and a few yellow leaves. This small meadow hides us from the active gardeners, who are moving diligently with their duties today. Unusual for them.
I stand up, refusing to meet Marc’s smoldering eyes. I know they show disappointment. I know he’s angry with me, but I thought this could be avoided. He wasn’t supposed to be back for another three days.
“What were you thinking?” Marc says, desperation clear in his tone. “Do you know how dangerous that was? What if you were seriously injured?”
“I had it under control.”
“You almost had your head swatted off. There's no healing from that!”
“I would’ve dodged it.” He looks at me like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You know I’m great at avoiding attacks. So don’t you dare stand here and tell me I'm not.”
“That still doesn't excuse you for leaving the Capitol without permission. For chasing after information that’s not there.” He stops to take a steady breath. “You need to stop taking chances when you fight. What if you lost your footing? What if you—”
Of course that’s what he most worried about. I brush him off and walk away, further into the trees, and back towards our rooms. This is our special place where we come to relax and reminisce, tell tales of what each other missed, and yet, here we are fighting in it.
“What if, what? I sensed them, Marc. I could see them with my own two eyes,” I say.
He follows my footsteps, catching up to me in no time with his long legs. “You can’t always rely on your sensing. You need to use your brain.”
“You act like I’m not using my brain at all.”
“I’m only saying instincts can take you so far,” he says. I walk off faster. “Ava, wait…”
His words die as soon as the side door opens. And here I thought the gardeners were busy, the hallways are worse. Everyone’s hustling about. They’re cleaning the halls, painting fresh coats of bluish gray, and weeding out the gardens in the far off center atrium. The cracked marble flooring has never shined so brilliantly before.
I glance back. Marc’s far behind, blocked between groups of workers. Barely anyone notices me as I continue weaving around people, back on towards my home with only a couple stopping to salute. For once, I’m thankful my presence is being overlooked. I’m not in the mood to put up a happy act today.
Soldiers run past, popping up here and there at random. I step aside to let them pass through. More are being commanded to attend stations. It sounds like they’re tightening the security protocol, although I’m not sure if it can be any higher than the hundred of soldiers already stationed around this building. What is going on?
I’m finally nearing the hallway to our doors when Marc pops up. I crash into him and he doesn't hesitate to pull me into the utility closet. With a click of the lock, the automatic light comes on overhead, displaying shadows across stray cleaning gadgets and cluttered shelves and his face as he leans in.
He presses his palms on either side of me, making sure I’m trapped against the door, so I have nowhere left to run. But I’m always running.
Being this close, my heart speeds up. He’s been gone so long I forgot what it feels like. I can’t help but gaze into those fake chocolate eyes and be mesmerized by how beautiful he is beneath those red-rimmed specs. His hair is getting shaggy and almost too long. Any longer and he’ll be mistaken for a woman.
“We weren't done talking yet,” he says. It’s hard not to be captured by his intense gaze, and by his alluring scent of wildflowers.
I try my best to hold myself together. I won’t let him have the upper hand. “I shouldn’t be sneaking out. I need to stop using my instincts. Noted.”
He lets out a long, exasperated sigh before pushing a strand of hair behind my ear. The act is so intimate, it has my cheeks warming up. “It’s okay to use your instincts. You just need to stop being so reckless. At this rate, you're going to get yourself killed. And I can't do anything about it. I can't always be there to help you. You know this.”
I prod his chest, hoping to move him back without actually pushing him away. He steps closer, a smile tugging at the corner of his tight lips. “You say you can't help me, but that doesn't mean you won't,” I say.
A melodious tone cuts through the crisp air of silence. Marc swipes the standard issued phone from his back pocket, the glow illuminating his sun-kissed face before he answers the call. And waits.
“Yes, I brought her home safe and sound. We’re just outside our housing unit.” There’s a long pause before he continues. “I’ll bring her over right now.”
As swiftly as he took out the phone, and cool as the growing temperature in this closet, he slides it back into his pocket, ending this entire moment. And as perfect as he is, he fixes his perfectly messy hair and perfectly well-kept uniform. It’s sometimes annoying how perfect he can be.
“The Council has summoned you.”