Ten years after our escape from the laboratory, I think I can be forgiven for forgetting that we were ever being hunted. After all, there has never been any sign of the people after us getting close to finding us.
Those ten years were even quite enjoyable. They gave lie to the doubts and fears I harbored that day. It took a while to settle in, and it still ticks me off that I have to see Thelyron’s face every single day, but Akasha’s presence more than makes up for that.
Really, the only dark cloud hanging over our heads has been Akasha’s disease getting progressively worse with time. I harass Thelyron constantly to push him to find a cure before it’s too late, but this incompetent bastard still has nothing to show for it even after a decade of effort.
I can see it’s eating him inside. As well it should.
I curse him under my breath as I leave the clearing where I’ve just concluded my training session. I head toward Fushia Village. It’s a bit of a walk away, on the opposite side of the mountain from where I am. I purposely chose an isolated place to conduct my training, distant from both our house and Fushia Village. It’s good neighborly behavior not to disturb others with one’s own personal matters, after all.
I stroll through the woods covering the mountain, brushing off a small pink tree leaf that the wind gently dropped on my shoulder, and mentally draw up a list of the necessities we need.
“Salt, honey, olive oil. I think we’re fine on foodstuffs otherwise. Maybe paper and ink? Oh, and I promised Akasha I’d bring her some new books…”
Since we’re basically living in the middle of nowhere, and I can’t go on days- or weeks-long trips just to buy everyday supplies, I have an agreement with a trader in the village. I pay him handsomely to bring me everything I want from as far away as required. It’s not like we lack money, in any case. My cultivation may not be the highest in the world, but it’s well sufficient to deal with some easy bounties or perform the few odd jobs that sometimes come my way from here and there.
It also helps that I was lucky enough to be born with some very powerful runes in my dantian – another reason why it’s a good idea to keep my training private.
When I enter the village, a few gazes turn toward me. After so long, I’m no longer met with the suspicious and wary eyes one would turn toward an outsider, but it took a long time to get to that point. Isolated communities like Fushia Village don’t take too kindly to strangers suddenly showing up and settling down on their lands. It helped a lot that we elected to build our house outside the village, I think, and over time, with repeated contacts and shows of good faith, I was eventually accepted. The same can’t be said about Thelyron – the villagers mostly think he’s crazy – and, unfortunately, Akasha, who the villagers don’t even know exists.
Well, even when it comes to me, the only reason I could even get to that point was that I’ve been hiding my long ears under a voluminous, wide-brimmed straw hat since day one.
They all think I’m human.
I head directly to the trader’s house and knock on his door. His is probably the largest house of all, except for the village leader’s – I hesitate to call him a mayor, since it’s such a little settlement – and most definitely the most luxurious. Our long-standing, mutually beneficial partnership didn’t do him any disfavors.
It doesn’t take long until the door opens to reveal a rather corpulent middle-aged fellow with a thin wisp of a beard that does precisely nothing to conceal his double chin.
“Nerys, welcome.” He gives me a cordial nod. “Need something?”
“Hello, Eltris. I do. Do you have paper to write it down?”
Eltris nods again, more businesslike this time, and ushers me inside. “Come in. You came at just the right time. I was planning to set up another caravan in the near future.”
Eltris leads me to his study. He turns away from the large desk and the shelves full of paper records behind it and instead takes a seat around a low table on the side of the room. I sit opposite him. Broad windows facing down the mountain slope and the vast plains beyond provide light to the room.
Eltris retrieves a roll of paper and a pen out of a small compartment in the table between us. He gently flicks the pen a few times to ensure the ink contained inside properly reaches the tip, then returns his attention to me.
“So. Go ahead, Nerys.”
I purse my lips in thought. “Here’s what I need…”
It takes a while for me to list everything I want, then to haggle him down to a reasonable price. It wasn’t an easy task. Eltris is a shrewd businessman. He’d most likely prosper even more if he operated in a larger settlement than Fushia Village, but I don’t think he’s ever seriously considered the idea of leaving.
He loves this little village too much for that.
Finally, however, we do reach an agreement, and I leave his house.
It’s fairly late in the day, now, but the sun still shines brightly overhead. I close my eyes for a moment and appreciate its warmth and the background hum of voices coming from the village.
I’m rudely interrupted in this moment of peace when a heavy hand encased in a metal gauntlet suddenly grabs my shoulder. Reflexively, I slap the hand away and spin around to face the intruder.
Intruders, plural, as it turns out.
“Who are you?” I ask them, taking a wary step back. “What do you want?”
Two soldiers in simple, practical armor are standing before me. They’re both towers of muscle and steel, and the expressions on their faces don’t look friendly at all. They stick out like a sore thumb, in peaceful little Fushia. This place hasn’t produced any worthy soldiers for generations, let alone seen war or battle. It’s as peaceful and un-soldier-like as it could possibly be.
“Take that off,” the soldier on the left says with a rough, gravelly voice, pointing at the straw hat perched atop my head.
I blink. “What?”
“I said take off the hat, woman,” he growls, his tone full of threat. “Don’t make me repeat myself again, or you won’t like what follows.” He clenches his hand into a fist, as if to punctuate his sentence. I can see the calluses on his palm and knuckles; he’s a man who knows how to fight.
I narrow my eyes and regard them closely.
What is this about? And who are these two?
I could somehow believe it if the two soldiers accosting me were two drunk deserters down on their luck, looking to take advantage of some naive and easily intimidated village girl. But these two…
Their cultivation is at least equal to mine. They wouldn’t come out to the middle of nowhere for no reason at all. And it’s doubtful they’d hassle a girl in the street like this. To ask her to remove her hat, of all things?
No, their demand definitely isn’t random. Out of all the villages on Caldera, they just happened to pick Fushia? Out of all the inhabitants in this village, they just happened to pick me? And then just happened to ask me to do the one thing that would reveal my species?
My indecision seems to have lasted too long for the impatient soldier’s taste.
He suddenly takes a step forward and reaches for my hat. His friend stands by his side, his hand placed meaningfully on the pommel of his sheathed sword, wordlessly telling me to behave myself, or else.
His hand is only halfway to the brim of my hat when a sudden thunderclap resounds through the mountain. It comes from up the mountain. It comes from…
My eyes widen in realization.
A heavy stone of dread abruptly weighs down the pit of my stomach.
The eyes of the soldier in front of me reflexively flick up and behind me, toward the origin of the blast. This time, there is no hesitation in my movements. I reach behind me to the back of my belt and draw my hunting knife. At the same time, my body becomes light as a feather as the force of gravity essentially ceases to affect me. Almost weightless, my arm flies forward. The soldier is as competent as his appearance suggests. Even though I take him by surprise, he still recoils, trying to lean out of my reach, and draws his sword, all in one smooth, fluid motion.
But his own body suddenly turns heavy, like he’s carrying an entire mountain on his shoulders.
…This is an exaggeration. My magic isn’t that powerful.
But it’s more than enough to slow him down. A man like that, a veteran warrior, is as familiar with the act of drawing his sword as he is with the act of breathing. When his sword suddenly becomes so much heavier than usual, his entire pace is thrown off.
Just as my hunting knife pricks into his throat, gravity reasserts its hold over me – and over my knife. With such a hefty weight pushing it forward, the blade sinks effortlessly into the man’s throat. His eyes bulge. Blood wells up in his throat and overflows from between his lips. I twist the blade and widen the wound.
A sudden impact crashes into my side and sends me flying all the way to the other side of the street. I slam violently into the wall of Eltris’s house, eliciting a sick, painful crunch from the bone of my left arm.
The other soldier kicked me away.
He kneels over his fallen comrade, sword in hand.
But his friend isn’t moving. His death was too quick. My knife went too deep. They both underestimated me too much.
Though, I suppose they achieved what they came here to do.
My hat fell to the side when I was flung away. Freed from their disguise, my ears are revealed, pointing up- and backward, long enough to reach past my skull. There’s no way anyone would mistake those for a human’s.
I can see the shock on the faces of Fushia Village’s inhabitants who were attracted by the commotion. I don’t know what they’re most shocked about: the explosion that rang through the mountain, that I’m an elf, or that I just murdered a man in the street.
But at the moment, they’re the least of my concerns.
My head whips around, and my eyes trail up the mountain slope. A cloud of dust rests over the area where our house used to stand.
No, no, no, no, no…
Did soldiers attack our house? Is Akasha uninjured? Did this bastard Thelyron return from the forest in time to protect her from whatever happened? How did they find us?
I need to hurry back and help!
The moment I get to my feet, ignoring the pain from my broken left arm, the surviving soldier also stands up, glaring at me hatefully.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he says with a surprisingly soft voice.
For a short moment, a heavy silence falls between us as we stare at each other. Then, the two of us burst into motion simultaneously.
We both want to end this quickly, me to reach Akasha even a second quicker, he to avenge his fallen friend. But in the scant few seconds it takes for us to reach each other, I know that I’m in a pretty bad situation. This guy is at least as strong as me, and I’m already injured. I dropped my knife when he kicked me flying, while he’s got a sharp blade in hand. Armor covers his body, while I’m dressed in a simple tunic. I have potent magic at my disposal, but it’s not useful as a direct attacking tool — at least not yet. With my other rune at my disposal, I’m confident I can survive this man’s attacks, but it’ll also prevent me from attacking him.
But I have no time to waste. I need to end this in one blow.
I can’t trust Thelyron. For all I know, he might try to sell Akasha off to these soldiers so that he can get out of this scot-free himself. No, I’m the only one who can help her.
And I will.
Even if I have to sacrifice flesh to cut bone.
The moment we reach each other, a wave of qi rises up, and the muscles on the soldier’s arm suddenly swell. Veins twist and bulge like snakes writhing under his skin. With his other arm remaining in a normal state, his whole body seems unbalanced. But despite its ugliness, the spell is undeniably effective.
His sword thrusts forward like a lightning bolt. It’s unavoidable and inescapable, so I don’t even try.
The soldier’s sword stabs into my belly in a clean blow, piercing all the way out through my back. I grit my teeth against the pain. And the moment a vindictive, triumphant glow shines in the soldier’s eyes, I throw myself forward while his blade is still inside me.
Surprised that I’m still moving at him, he fails to respond in time. He recoils, and I follow him, pushing him down. He falls onto his back with me on top of him. The point of my elbow comes down onto his throat, just as a terrible pulse of gravity, as strong as I can muster, slams down onto the two of us.
With a small strangled gasp, I crush the soldier’s throat. His eyes bulge out almost comically. His mouth opens wide, his tongue lolling out as if to taste the air denied to his lungs. With a surge of panic and pain, he shoves me away. With his concentration broken by his imminent suffocation, his magic is already fading out from his body, but the remnants of it still linger, and his simple push sends me flying again.
I crash down into the dirt once more. My fall tweaks the sword still lodged inside my body.
I have to clench my teeth over a scream. My breath comes out in short bursts through my nose. I lie down on the ground for a second or two, trying to press down around the edges of my wound in a futile effort to stem the flow of blood.
As the immediate spike of pain slowly fades back into more of a deep, burning ache – still horribly painful but not quite as debilitating – I laboriously make my way to my knees and look at my enemy.
He’s still writhing on the ground, but his face is now a shade of dark purple, and his limbs’ flailings are getting more and more disordered, more and more listless.
Eventually, he stops moving. The hands that were clutching at his crushed throat fall lifelessly, and the only sound in Fushia Village seems to be that of my strained breathing.
I cast another spell on myself and force my trembling legs into supporting my reduced weight. I slowly stand up. The effort seems to worsen the pain shooting up through my entire abdomen, but I grit my teeth and ignore it, though my face twists into an ugly grimace.
I look down at the sword stabbed into me, then at our house up the mountain. It hasn’t been long but the dust cloud has already settled down. The house is gone.
I have to hurry!
But I can’t run with this thing inside me. Under the gazes of the frightened inhabitants of Fushia Village, none of whom dare to approach, my trembling fingers coil around the sword’s hilt.
Normally, it would be the height of foolishness to remove it. It’s just asking to bleed out even faster. Suicide. But I don’t have a choice. I can’t do anything like this, and Akasha can’t wait.
I need to go now!
Without giving me time to think about it any longer, my fingers tighten their grip, and I whip the sword out of myself in a spurt of bright red blood.
“Aaaaaagh! Nnnnnh…! Haaa, haaa, haaa…”
My whole body is coated in cold sweat and shaking uncontrollably. One of my arms dangles uselessly at my side, broken, while my other hand is so devoid of strength it feels like the sword is going to drop out of my fingers any second. My head is aching, my vision flashing white.
But there’s no time!
“Fuuuuu… Let’s go…!”
Ignoring my injuries, I start running. Out of Fushia Village and up the mountain. I’m not fast, and a long trail of blood follows me, marking my steps. If reinforcements for the two soldiers I killed arrive in the village, they won’t have any trouble knowing where to find me; right now, a 3-year-old child could track me down.
I don’t know how long it takes me. I don’t know how many times during the trip I wonder if I’m going to fall to my knees and bleed to death right on the spot. But eventually, I reach the small clearing where our house was built, on an overhang overlooking the mountain slope.
Only ruins are left.
Akasha is nowhere to be seen.
Neither is Thelyron.
No, no, no! She has to be here somewhere. Maybe she managed to hide in the ruins ?
Panic starts to creep into my thoughts, though conversely, the pain in my belly seems to lessen with each passing second, as if I am becoming numb to it. I don’t rejoice over this. Instead, I stab the sword into the ground, then grab at my injury with my freed hand. My bloodied fingers dig into my own flesh.
The agony is indescribable. But it wakes me up.
I take back the sword, then, with blurry eyes, try to find some tracks on the ground that could lead me to Akasha or to whoever may have taken her away.
Mindlessly, I follow the first set of tracks I find. It doesn’t even occur to me to try and identify the tracks, or even count them. It doesn’t occur to me that these may be the tracks Thelyron left when he went out this morning, or that these may be the tracks left by a group of people – perhaps too many for me to deal with in my current state.
I simply follow, staggering forward, pushing my body despite its worsening state. I don’t even know where I’m going. I’ve lost too much blood. My reflection in the sword’s blade is white as a sheet, her lips pale and bloodless. The owner of this face looks like she’s going to drop down at any moment. And she won’t be getting back up again.
But I don’t drop down.
I push through the underbrush for what seems like a century.
I don’t know how exactly I manage to follow those tracks so accurately.
But eventually, I find my quarry.
By this time, the sun has set. Night has fallen.
I reach an encampment, at the foot of the mountain, on the other side from Fushia Village and the house our little family occupied. The camp isn’t big, just a few tents around a campfire at the very edge of the forest, where it becomes sparser and meets the vast plains surrounding the mountain.
Three more soldiers are sitting near the campfire, presumably waiting for the return of the two I killed – or of other teams I may not know about. Two of them are clad in the same armor as the two I met in Fushia Village, while the third is dressed in civilian clothes, though of a make incomparably finer than those worn by the villagers.
Thelyron is there, too, that useless bastard. He’s awake, but incapable of movement. He’s lying on the ground, gagged and tied like a hog. He’s been severely beaten. His face is bruised and bloody, his lips swollen, his teeth broken. He looks even more pitiful than he did that fateful day, ten years ago.
And Akasha is lying next to him. Her dress is dirty, but she appears unharmed. Her face looks a little pale. Contrary to Thelyron, though, she’s unconscious.
Ah, there you are!
I’m coming for you! Don’t worry! I’m here! I’m here!
At this point, I am far past the point of tactical thinking – or even of plain thinking at all. A sudden surge of strength flows into my body. I stand up straight, my legs strong and steady, and burst through the foliage and into the camp.
The sound of my arrival startles the three soldiers, and they all turn to face me. Thelyron’s swollen eyes also widen when he catches sight of me. He starts frantically shaking his head and struggling against his bonds, but there’s no way he can free himself.
Upon seeing me, the two armored soldiers flinch and take an involuntary step back, as if daunted. Only the one in civilian garb looks at me with a solemn look on his face.
I stop before them, then point my blade toward their prisoners behind them.
“You have something of mine.” I expected my voice to sound weak from the blood loss and exhaustion, but instead, it just sounds… insane. So full of hostility and hatred it’s almost unintelligible. Like the growl of a rabid, cornered beast.
The two armored soldiers look at the third. He glances over his shoulder at his captives. “Which one? Him? Or Her?”
“You can do whatever you want with him.” I point the blade at Thelyron. “But the girl goes back with me,” I say with finality and take a step forward.
The man, likely the leader of the group, stares at me silently for a moment. “Why her? Surely, you’re aware of what she is, Miss Nerys. Would you truly sacrifice a real person for the benefit of a simple clone? Or is it because she is a clone of you, born from your flesh? Does that inspire some measure of sympathy in you?”
“How about you stop spewing whatever garbage is in that filthy mouth of yours, you worthless maggot?” I growl. “There’s only one thing you need to know right now. You give me the girl, or I remove every single bone in your body, one by one.”
The man seems to hesitate. He glances back at Akasha again. His distraction would be a good opportunity to attack him, but his two subordinates are still staring at me warily, their hands on their swords.
I need just a chance…
“I think that, if someone built such a copy of me,” the leader mutters slowly, “I would… hunt it down and kill it. Knowing a clone of me exists somewhere would be too unnerving, even though it isn’t perfectly identical to me. It would attack my identity as a person, if that makes any sense at all. To live alongside that clone and even care for it like family…” He shakes his head. “That would be impossible for me. I am not such a good man, unfortunately.”
“Does it look like I care about what you think or what you are?” I take a step forward. The two armored soldiers tense up, even though I must look like a mere gust of wind could topple me. “If you’re not going to give her back, then I will take her.”
I slowly step toward my enemies, my fingers tightening around my stolen sword in a white-knuckled grip.
The man stares at me. A thoughtful frown slowly makes its way onto his face. When I’m only a few steps away from him, he closes his eyes and shakes his head sadly. “No. I’m afraid not.”
A wall of solid wind slams into me and sends me flying back into the forest. I crash into a tree, the only sound in my ears that of more of my bones breaking.
I lie on the ground, stunned, coating the fallen leaves and the dirt with my blood. Slowly, laboriously, I roll myself over onto my belly. All pain is forgotten. I can’t feel my fingers anymore, but I know they’re still tightly locked in a death grip around the hilt of my sword. I prop myself onto it and make my way to my feet.
Swaying, I turn around to face my enemies again, glaring at them, burning their faces into my mind. I stagger toward them, my feet dragging along the ground.
“I… will slaughter… every single one of you… Your families… Your friends… Every single person who’s ever known you… who’s ever spoken your names… I will pile their skulls into a mountain…”
“Stay down, Miss Nerys,” the worthless piece of shit says.
This time, the wind comes from above me and slaps me against the ground again like a flyswatter crushing a bug. My legs are broken. The sword is still in my hand, but now, my sword arm too is broken.
I ignore this and try to crawl toward Akasha.
I’m coming! I’m here! Everything’s going to be fine!
The man sighs.
The next blast of wind drives me into the ground again, blowing a crater all around me. My mouth opens to call for Akasha, but only blood gurgles out of it in a steady stream. My sight shrinks to a narrow, darkening tunnel.
I can’t see Akasha anymore.
The man steps up to the edge of the crater. The two soldiers are standing behind him, looking down at me.
“Lord Karim, we’re supposed to bring her back alive,” one of them warns, his tone disturbed and uneasy.
The man in civilian clothes, Karim, is silent for what seems like several minutes. Then, he sighs again and nods. He raises his hand in front of him, then sweeps his arm to the side. The sound of a gust of wind resounds through the forest again.
But this time, I’m not its target.
A sharp whisper slicing through the air is the only warning the two soldiers get before their heads are separated from their shoulders and fall to the ground. Small geysers of blood shoot up from the stumps until the two headless bodies topple to the ground. Without even time to realize what happened, to scream for help, to defend themselves, the two of them die.
Karim ignores them and slowly climbs down the slope of the crater, making his way to me. He stops next to me and looks down at me.
“Miss Nerys, I hope you can still hear me. Although I can give you a head start today, know that I will have to hunt you down again as soon as I report that you’ve escaped. I suggest you quickly grow stronger, because I will not show such mercy again, the next time we meet.” He pauses for a moment, perhaps expecting a response, but I’m in no state to give one. Eventually, he continues. “My name is Karim. I captured Professor Thelyron and your… sister… by order of Wayland Adkins, the Emperor of mankind on Caldera. He… is a man unimaginably more powerful than I am. As you are right now, there is no way you could possibly be of any threat to him whatsoever.”
Abruptly, he kneels down close to my face and gently fixes my hair, though that’s probably the least of the issues with my current appearance. His touch only inspires utter disgust in me. If I had the strength left to spit in his face, I would.
“I’m sorry, Miss Nerys. I wish you good luck.”
Then, his hand touches my forehead, and the world goes black.
When I wake up again, the sun is high in the sky.
My body feels fine. All my injuries healed miraculously while I slept, though my clothes and body are still caked with dried blood.
But this fact barely registers in my mind.
I grab the sword lying next to me and scramble out of the crater, almost tripping over my own feet in my hurry. I sprint toward the encampment I saw last night.
But… it’s already gone.
Except for the charcoal remains of an abandoned campfire, there’s nothing here. The tents are gone, the corpses of the two soldiers are gone. The man named Karim is gone. Thelyron’s gone.
And Akasha’s gone.
Stunned, I stand before the place where I saw her lying last night.
No, this can’t be real. This can’t be happening.
Slowly, through the rising veil of panic obscuring my thoughts, Karim’s words echo in my mind again. Wayland Adkins. Emperor of mankind.
I take a deep breath.
The emperor of mankind resides in Alsomn, thousands of kilometers away.
With a cry of frustration and anger and rage and pain and fear, I again cast a spell on myself to reduce my own weight and start running west, sword in hand, as fast as my feet will carry me. The low-hanging branches of the trees slash against my cheeks until I burst out of the treeline and reach the empty plains.
Unimaginably powerful? No threat to him whatsoever?
I don’t give a fuck!
Anybody who dares to touch my sister, no matter who they are, no matter what their circumstances, no matter what their reasons…