Ipseity (Gods + Reapers, #1)

 

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Epigraph

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.

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1 | Chasing Devils

Thank the stars, I finally found it.

Seeing it with my own two eyes is completely different from viewing it on the grainy satellite map, but there it is, hiding under a man-made hill, in an amusement park no less. It’s the perfect camouflage for a research facility. I almost missed it myself.

Breaking in should be a piece of cake.

A gust of cool air threatens to push me off. My grip tightens on the edge of the skyscraper, hoping the demons don’t spot me. This building is so old, half of its sunken into the Earth. With all these glass windows, I’m surprised it hasn’t disintegrated, yet, after falling over a century ago.

It’s a wonder the human race survived.

I zoom the binoculars in, focusing on a cluster of demons. They prowl like a pack through the abandoned park, crawling over broken swings and fading metal tracks. While two other wolf demons scout fallen pint-sized Ferris wheel, dripping acid on broken glass tubes that used to protect our ancestors from a once polluted sky.

They stop and sniff the air, searching for their prey. For us.

As the fall wind picks up, my ponytail flicks off to the side and into the approaching grey clouds. I pull out a handful of dried leaves from my pouch and crush them in my palm. Their brown flakes float through the park, covering my scent, as thunder roars in the distance.

We’re running out of time.

White noise hums into my earpiece connection, easing my frantic mind and preparing me to fight. “Hey, are we really going to do this?” Gio’s deep voice comes in so crystal clear, I can almost hear the frown on his face.

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 were 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. This is has to be it. My birth record has to be in there, I swear to the stars—”

“Dude, chill. 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, but even during the most critical times, he never fails to remind me how he’s older. 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. A cold, dry breeze comes from the east, no foul smell or taste apparent. My ability of sixth sense isn’t picking up anything unusual either, except the faint ting of demons nearby.

But this breeze, it’s not great for bullets.

Lightning crashes mere yards away, sending vibrations up my arms in trembles. My other hand grips the rusted edge tighter and let myself be engulfed by the beauty of nature’s destruction. It’s wanting to rip apart at long last and be swallowed back into the dirt. Just like this entire metropolitan city behind me.

Their mounds are stacked against each other like fallen blocks off a tumble tower, with new trees and ivory sprouting from their metal. 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. 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.

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 rifles 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. It’s 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 to 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 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 what abilities I can still muster up. I thought by now I’d find the missing files on my creation, but everywhere I’ve searched led me to a dead end.

But this laboratory is one of few where I was created. There has to be information in there. I have to get inside. I need to find out what’s wrong with me before I end up killing 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 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 cut his cheek as it goes into the demons 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 fallen skyscrapers and decaying wasteland of glass tubes and hover cars. Their paws slip and scratch at the moss covered mounds 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 break 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 buildings side. 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, it’s 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 flying like a bird set free from her cage.

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 on my footsteps. My swords slice through the next four before they even have a chance; bulldozing, dodging, through the mass of what demons remains scattered about. There isn’t time to fight. My sole focus is on the door just up ahead. It’s lush vines are within sight.

A giant hand swipes at my head, catching me off guard. I duck the attack and skid to a stop, grassy dirt digging into the tips of my shoes. Glob demons, filled to the core with clumps of mud, stomp from behind the remaining wolves. This must be their reinforcement.

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. Side stepping around, I take them down one after the other, until what’s left is the glob demon standing in my path.

It roars fearsome cries from his slimy mouth, between the smoke and soot, shaking the Earth’s crust. Stones for eyes, drops of tar melt the ground with each step closer. 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 pierces 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 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. It’s 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. 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.

Unfortunately for him, his attack didn’t kill them all. He's back to fighting the demons as the continue pouring out of the shadows. It’s overwhelming him. If only I could help.

I take off, 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 dodge them all. I’m almost there. Just a few feet ahead.

A monstrous mouth chomps towards my head.

I side step away, blocking the wolf demons attack. It gnaws on my Bō like a dog chewing scraps of bone. Sparks crawl through my arm, the weapons pain inflicting itself onto me. Swiping the pistol off my waist, I aim between its yellow cat-like eyes and shoot it point blank in the head.

I take off. 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. The exact same 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 wrist watch 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 breathes.

“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 that 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 of my team’s uniform. Seeing it on the screen reconfirms that 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 wrist watch 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 all this. 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 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 second, 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, his muscles tense up as he unsheathes his long sword 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 demons 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, which is 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 those herculean 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 grounds 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 passed 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 bit of yellow leaves. This small meadow hides us from the active gardeners, who are moving diligently with their duties today. Very 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, and he has every right to be. I left the Capitol grounds without permission, without telling him I was going on a dangerous mission.

“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 grey, 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 inside 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. I can’t help but gaze into those fake chocolate eyes and be mesmerized by how beautiful he really 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 wild flowers.

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.

He doesn’t respond because he knows it’s true. He’s always been there for me in the past, the present, and I know he’ll be there in the future. I have to hope he will be, or I’ll start feeling lost in this world, again.

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 always 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.”

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2 | The Council of Seven Elders

We arrive at the Control Center in a matter of seconds. My eyes are forced to re-adjust to the bright lights reflecting glares off the plain faced, duplicate doors, lining up and down the corridor. It’s a preventative measure in case Primordial infiltrates the Capitol Building during a ground attack.

Not a very useful one as the prims could easily blow the building to smithereens.

Marc inputs the passcode. Very few people are scouring the area, which means all their attention is on the public parts of this building. Maybe we’re having a last minute celebration.

I wouldn’t put it passed the Council when we should be concentrating on the war.

They seem to forget the abilities we have today originate from Primordials own DNA. How our scientists could only extract the lesser abilities from the prim’s ground troops, and not the upper class of their world since they don’t enter the battlefield.

At least the we were able to obtain the idea of immortality. I’m certain that’s why the Council sits on their high horses, thinking they’ll never die.

But even immortals can die. They’re just harder to kill.

Heavy deadbolts unlock one at a time, gliding out of their sockets without a sound as their tail ends swirl back into place. The door slides into the wall, replacing the silence of the hallway with the loud choruses of chatter and movements.

Everyone is bustling about, shifting from one monitor to the next. Reports are being typed on their tablets, while giant screens display the remaining eleven City Bases and communicators for those stationed in space. Their glass edges touch each other, making the room more enclosed and a tight knit quarters.

There’s only one time I’ve seen this place desolate. A memory I’d rather forget.

In the back of the hexagonal room sits a round desk, completely swept clean with only a tablet resting on the oak slate. The logo of our last nation is stretched out across the front, painted on by hand, with the words, The United Federation of Earth, circling it.

Gregory sits back in his black leather chair fit for the Chief Commander, hands twined together in contemplation. His salt and pepper hair blends well into the background, hiding him beneath the shadows of his dark uniform and the dimmed lighting above.

He’s the closest I have to a father figure. Mom can only fill so many roles, and the places she couldn’t, Gregory stepped in. At a young age, he trained me, taught me how to use a sword, and how to kill. Most say I’m lucky to have him in my life, few pity me, because sometimes, he can be a heartless man.

As we approach, Gregory stands up from the desk and grins. Aged wrinkles form around his face from the melancholy eyes to the corners of his scarred lip. I forget how old he is sometimes, especially when he smiles. It always has this youthful warmth.

“It seems like every time we meet lately, you’re always getting into trouble with the Council,” he says, having that savory whisky feel to it.

Placing my hands on my hips, I try appearing confident. “I get in trouble just for leaving the Capitol. Being the General, I shouldn’t have that kind of limitation set on me.”

His large hand cups my cheek. It’s gentle and makes me feel like a child. “Give it time, my dear. In a few more years, you won’t have to worry about such a thing.”

I don't let my thoughts wander on his statement. Questioning my commander is an emotion I’ve learned to control over the years with him. Sometimes it’s better to remain ignorant when it comes to these kinds of dealings.

“Where’s Joshua?” he asks both of us, more so towards Marc.

Marc glances my way before saying, “He’s training Gio out in the ruins.”

Gregory hums, rubbing his chin in contemplation. “I’d hoped he would attend today’s summoning, but I should have known that was asking for too much from him.”

Like everyone else in this war, Josh has lost loved ones. He grew up an orphan, living in the dorms with his older sister. But after a mission to sneak into Primordial failed, her whole unit was killed. The prims sent body parts back one after the other.

Yet, it didn’t stop the Council from sending more people in.

Gregory directs us through the only door leading further into a dark tunnel. Dim lights flicker on overhead. It’s too quiet as we stride down the hallway. Every time we come through here, it brings back memories of my tests. When the scientists tried to find out why my body is so special and what is wrong with me. But they found nothing.

Three abilities. That’s all the human body can sustain before going catatonic. The first ability being teleportation, then the second being immortality, which comes with healing abilities and stops our aging process—this doesn’t start occurring until age seventeen. Lastly, comes the general ability. Whatever you chose from the selection of shots, or inherited from one of your parents, that is what you’re stuck with for the rest of your eternal life.

For me, it’s different. I was created from scratch and born in a laboratory. The scientists chose my abilities carefully. Picking ones that will enhance my combat skills and not interfere with my weapon. If they had lived through the rebellion, then maybe there would be more of me. One’s that aren’t broken.

But as it stands, I'm the only living human who has more than three abilities.

The door opens, screams fill the corridor. The room smells of sweat and bleach. I can taste it on my tongue. Blood splatters onto one of many rooms we pass by. Every inch we make towards the next room over.

Their pleads for help die on our ears as they're being tortured. It sends shivers through my bones. Everytime I walk through here, there’s always a traitor being interrogated. Testing my loyalty. Making sure I know this is what will happen to me next if I fail again.

Marc knocks my hand with his. An encouraging gesture, trying to get me back to my senses and keep me out of my head. Giving him a small smile, my pinky finger wraps around his. It’s so slender, matching the feminine appeal of his looks. And feels rebellious, touching him this close when we could be caught at any time.

Gregory stops at a set of iron doors, fastened with impenetrable metal that weighs far more than any door should. As if they weren’t heavy enough to paralyse me, the groans and harsh grinding metal penetrates my ears as they open. The Council believes these doors will protect them from the outside world, forgetting our enemies come from space and some close by.

We're greeted by darkness. A cold chill wafts from the black abyss. I let Marc’s finger go to step around Gregory. Back when I was a child, I tripped the very first time I entered this room, but today, I enter with confidence, knowing exactly where I need to step and stand on their center stage.

Beams of soft light flash up from the floor, encircling me around this sunken podium. They create a barrier between us, blocking out my abilities to make sure they’re safe. They may not be bleeding me in this room, but it might as well be considered another form of interrogation.

One by one, their faces become undisguised by the darkness and illuminate from their personal high thrones. As Gregory and Marc stand off to the side, the Councilor sitting at the center throne strikes down three times on his armrest. The mallet shakes as he speaks my title with crude distaste. “Earth’s Savior, do you hold truth to the pledge of the UFE?”

I can barely make out his white hair and wrinkles, but the gown of the Head Councilor shows enough. He prides himself in mimicking a king’s attire from when monarchy existed in his British realm.

“And to the Council of Seven Elders, I do.” I give a modest bow, too modest in my opinion.

They’re only on the Council because they were in political high power at the time of Earth’s collapse and the beginning of the interstellar war. Because of this, they’ve been around too long. Because of this, they should just retire.

“How have you fared, Earth’s Savior?” An older woman with a tinge of sophistication in her words comes from the left second pew. The times I’ve seen her, she reminds me of a venomous snake, slinking around under traditional medieval clothing a queen would wear.

I hold my head up high. Show no weaknesses, as Mom always says. “I’m great. Could be warmer, but great.”

A lower voice softly chuckles off to the right, sounding more like a young man in his late thirties than a wise elder who’s been around for over a hundred years. “Do not try to play us for fools, girl. You know why we’ve summoned you here.”

“I believe I don’t, sir.” It’s better to lie, then get into trouble for something else.

He takes the tablet out from his side. Light glows up his youthful face, making his dirty brown eyes appear cold and dead. They’re nearly as black as the turban wrapped around his head and the UFE military uniform he wears.

With the swipe of an index finger, a list visibly scrolls through the screen. “Recklessly endangering your guardian. Using your guardian for personal gains. Attempting to break into an abandoned facility deemed unsafe. Killing demons outside jurisdiction. Using weapon on said demons without notice. Leaving the Capitol without authorization.”

The young man stops, resting his eyes on mine. “And these demerits are just for today. Would you like me to read more?” he asks, his challenging smile tempting me to do so.

“I think we get the picture,” the Head Councilor murmurs, waving the air with disinterest. “What say you, Earth’s Savior?”

They know why I went. They know I’m searching for my birth record. But they don’t care. They just want to see me quiver under their hands, and I won’t let them have that satisfaction. “I say Gio is also my brother, so that shouldn’t count against me.”

“Do not mock us, girl!”

“She won’t even attempt to apologize for her wrongdoings anymore.”

“She lacks discipline. Traitorous. Failure of this nation!”

“When is she not failing?”

“With discipline comes perfection, and with perfection comes the key to great success.”

“If you wanted perfection, then we should’ve created a robot instead.”

“It would’ve been much more resourceful to use robots like the Martians.”

“That name is forbidden from this room!”

“Oh, get over yourself.”

“Silence!” The older woman stands tall with regalia emitting from her confident posture. She slinks over towards the lights, her gown dragging across the cracked tile flooring. She gazes down at me with such menace, I swallow when our eyes meet.

“Since it seems our punishments have gone for naught, we have decided to take a different route with things and assign you two new guardians to replace the first one. Maybe this will finally teach you what discipline really means.”

A monitor clicks on. The Council members are finally exposed, showing their various shades of skin as they wash out from the blinding light behind me. My instincts tell me not to turn around, but out of curiosity I look. I shouldn’t have looked.

A pair of fake chocolate eyes stare back at me. Their black hair, their sunless skin, and the way their mouths curve up the corner of their sharp cheekbones into a slight mischievous smile; everything about these two pictures are identical in every way possible. I almost believe it’s a fluke. That maybe the Council is trying to play a joke on me because there’s just no way this can be true.

My new guardians are identical twins. And they’re Marc’s cousins. No.

“We have renegotiated terms with Amaranthine and have come to an agreement. These two boys, Prince Samyr and Prince Mikaela, will be your new guardians. We hope for the safety of our planet and our continued alliance, you will cooperate.”

After Mars abandoned us, Amaranthine’s the only planet to come to our aid during this time of war. They’re an old race, older than Earth’s creation, which holds many traditional values and conservative views. Including a royal bloodline.

The amas also have the ability to use koto, a type of magical ability we can only see and will never possess. Which they've made efforts to keep secluded to their gene pool. It’s a distinct trait that will help us win the war against Primordial. So I can understand why they want them as my guardians, but even so, this doesn’t change my opinions about this decision.

This is absurd. I tighten my fist, trying to ease away the painful memories wanting to resurface. “I refuse. I don’t need any more guardians. I especially don’t need any ama princes as my guardians. Gio is enough.”

“You say this when our very own Corps General is their Crown Prince.”

That doesn’t matter. We grew up together. Marc was there when it happened. He has more combat experience to deal with the situation if it happens, again. They can’t just bring in new guardians and expect it to all go away. There has to be a way to stop this.

“Unless there’s perhaps another reason why you’re turning them away,” she says, knowing full well there is. They all do.

I stare each of them down, finding the look of anticipation on their faces. They’re expecting me to rebel. To throw a fit and hopefully lose control. Anything to give them an excuse to be rid of me.

“Tell us why you don’t want them here.” The Head Councilor leans forward in his chair, staring me down with those eyes full of hate. “Say it!”

My body flinches. I’d rather be beaten and drained of my blood, then be in this room. I just have to remind myself they want to see me break down. They want me to cower. So I stand tall, and you can tell they don’t like my confidence, but as Mom says, do not waver, even if you're in the wrong.

“Because I killed my first guardian, what if I lose control of my abilities and kill them, too?” I say, meeting every council members filthy brown eyes.

“But that’s not the reason why you’re being punished,” the young man says, drumming his fingers on the armrest. “What you mean to say is: what if I disobey my orders—again.”

The older woman lowly chuckles. “We have discussed those possibilities during our meeting, and it was agreed upon that since they’re at a lower ranking for the throne, there will be no repercussions. But they also trust in their abilities and believe nothing will happen.”

And,” the Head Councilor drawls, “they're sixteen. Adult men on their planet already. They are perfectly capable of making their own decisions. If they decide not to help you, then so be it. They will receive no punishment for it. Now is anything else we can answer or are we done here?”

So they don’t have the ability to heal, yet, which means they haven’t started their transition into immortality. That’s even worse. Damn. It doesn’t matter what I throw at these old geezers, they’ve already had a meeting with Amaranthine. They settled everything before I can even have a say in the decision. Typical.

The Head Councilor clears his throat. A grimy cough. “If there are no other further questions, then you are dismissed. Gregory will update you on all your guardians information and prepare you for their arrival tomorrow afternoon.”

My hands shoots out in front of me. All manners are out the door at this point. “If they're not seventeen then they don’t have healing abilities, yet. They could be killed in an instant. How are these boys going to be my guardians when they could easily die?!”

“Then you'll just have to protect them.”

“But that contradicts everything I’ve just said. I'm not supposed to be protecting anyone. Especially not my guardians. I'm supposed to be saving the Earth!”

“And you have nothing to show for it!”

He slams the mallet down on the armrest. I unfortunately jump and show a glimpse of weakness. “Do not forget who brought you into this world, Earth’s Savior. We could easily take you out of it. We own your life. You have no say in the matter. This decision is set and will be effective immediately tomorrow. Do not tempt me to change your punishment!”

“Maybe she needs a reminder of what happens when you disobey.” The older woman leers at me with her thick layer of red lipstick as she finally sits down. Just those mere words send cold shivers through my body and fists next to my side.

I suck in my pride and bow for them once more. “That won’t be necessary.”

I can’t see them, but I can feel all their eyes staring down at me, judging me for everything I’m worth. An object. A broken piece of property. Those are the only words I ever hear come from their mouths. Never praises nor a job well done. They ignore everything right I am doing and only focus on the bad. And no matter how much I tell myself their opinions don’t matter, it still gets to me more than I would like to admit.

“Good. You are dismissed.”

I head out the door before seeing if Gregory or Marc follows behind. My fate has been sealed. Two new guardians. Two more princes. Twins just to make it worse.

She said these twins will replace my first guardian, but no one can replace him. Junipea was my best friend, like a brother, a comrade, and now his death weighs heavy on my shoulders. I will never forget it. The day he died in my arms. The moment my sword pierced through him. His eyes as the life left them. I can see it all, clear as day.

His death will always haunt me.

“Ava! Wait up,” Marc yells from outside the Council’s doorway. I’m already heading out of the interrogation room and into the dark hallway. I just need to get away from that room, away from here, away from those people, and clear my mind. Put my wall back up.

He catches my wrist, stopping me mid-step before entering the Control Center. “I didn’t know they were going to be your new guardians.”

I take a deep breath. “I know. You would’ve told me right?” I ask, but I’m not sure if he would’ve, truthfully. Sometimes he likes to keep secrets because he knows I can detect when someone’s lying. It’s a formidable ability I’ve come to loath.

His hand tightens like he's afraid to let go. He gives me a pitiful expression. I hate that look. “Ava, if I had known they wouldn’t be coming here. It’s too dangerous for them. They shouldn’t be apart of this war.” He sighs. “I don’t know what my grandfather is thinking.”

The need to hug Marc just overwhelms me. I wrap my arm around his torso, soon embracing him as he holds me close. His warmth really is relaxing. The idea this will eventually end has tears welling up in the corner of my eyes. But I keep them back. Crying won’t change anything. It won’t bring Junipea back.

Marc rests his chin on my head, pressing his lips into my hair. “I’ll go home and have a talk with my grandfather, but it might take me more than a day. You know, he isn’t one to be easily persuaded.”

“That’s fine. I’ll just lock myself in my room until you get back,” I mumble against his chest, attempting to laugh. It comes out forced.

His soft chuckles ease away the pain. “You should at least try to get along with them. They’re my cousins after all.”

I want to say I will, I’ll try the best I can, but the words won’t leave my mouth. It’s hard to even think along those lines because they shouldn’t be coming here. They could get hurt and I don’t want to lose another guardian because of the choices I make. I can’t let that happen, again. I need to find that birth record, and fast.

“Take me home.”

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3 | Invasion

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4 | An Infliction

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5 | Winter Flowers

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6 | Fool's Gold

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7 | Wolf's Den

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8 | A Piano Melody

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9 | It's Only A Dream

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10 | Polenta

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11 | Upside Down

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12 | Stressed Out

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~

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