IT IS SAID that long ago, humanity was thriving. At the peak of existence, people had machines, things with fast and powerful minds that obeyed their masters, which made humans extraordinary too. They made themselves too powerful, too great. They became scared of the beings they had created, scared of themselves. Scared, and jealous. Thus, they destroyed themselves. Now, humanity must try to survive and build itself again, but be vastly more careful.
That is what the books on display read, and that is what the new Leaders say. Some think that perhaps humanity must be kinder, more accepting of itself as well. But no one dares to say that, because that mindset is the minority. And speaking against the Leaders would just cause more distrust and instability—they are powerful and society doesn’t have the strength to function without someone telling them what to do. That, and they have been keeping the Others safe.
The Others who, despite their superior design, were unable to defeat or even defend against the millions of terrified, angry people. The identification alone conveys just how hated and ostracized they are. It is one of the more neutral ones than the stubbornly dark drawings and writings in the books.
Pulled out of her reverie by the soft sound at her feet, the girl looked away from the History and down at the sleek blackness curling around her legs. The cat seemed to smirk at her, snorting at the girl for thinking during her break. For an animal, Kaya was smart enough to probably be thinking just that.
“Silly. Haven’t got much time, I’m waiting for the brothers. Probably in the next room, so mind yourself,” Arriel stated bluntly to the cat. Bored, she simply watched the cat circle around her once before leaping around the room, climbing on anything she could fit her paws-or claws-into. The large wooden door opening with a crack didn’t startle her in the least, as she probably felt it coming. That was why Arriel had taken her in and continued to treasure her, because she was smart, clever, and difficult to trick. The girl was the apprentice to the cat. She also loved the girl in return, and was very protective of her. While that might seem adorable to anyone who didn’t know Kaya or Arriel, Arriel knew the sleek, beautiful cat was not one to be messed with.
“Hello, darling,” came Ferce’s calm, deep voice in front of Arriel. The man, tall with a trimmed frame and slicked black hair striking war with his bright green eyes, looked the picture of power. Yet Arriel admired him, for he demanded respect and held his power firmly without being cruel. After all, he and his two siblings had taken in and protected seven Others into their camp and home; they were young, scared, and orphaned. And no other camp would ever show such kindness. Arriel was among them, and was granted protection and shelter from these three people—who were obeyed by everyone—despite how she had little to offer them. So, today, she was continuing to serve them, to try to repay them. Ferce had a job for her.
“You’re eager, so I’ll just ignore small talk, then,” he smirked kindly. “This one is rather delicate, my dear, and rather tricky. You can’t simply walk in, throw names, and drag a person back with their hands tied and head bowed. For we haven’t got anything against this person—he’s done nothing really wrong, only refused to listen. In this, however, he has endangered many innocent humans. It requires more skill and stealth. Although I do trust you and the little animal will have no trouble there,” he smiled. Arriel nodded confidently, she could get in and out of anywhere.
“Now it gets difficult. He is one of you, a hybrid, in fact,” this, Arriel took a step back, her plain demeanor cracked by her shock. Few Others were supposed to exist anymore, they were all to have been either rounded up and killed or pulled out secretly and taken to the Leaders to hide. And hybrids…she couldn’t remember ever hearing about one nowadays—they were mentioned in the History, but they’d been recorded to never have survived much more than a few years.
“We’ve known of him for some time, but haven’t been able to find him very well. Perhaps,” he said with humor cracking his voice, “a pretty girl like yourself could help negotiate, if he can be contacted. But I’m not sending you for your face, rather I wish for you to…unfortunately, it has come to action. He is living in exile and we know we have a better life for him here. Better resources for him, and he is useful for us, as any Others are as well. Come, do we ever force you into anything you do not wish to do? This mission too, you may turn down.” Arriel shook her head immediately; they had always been good to her. She couldn’t go against their wishes, not after all they’d done. “We just need to have him here so we may speak civilly, and convince him to stay with us.
“So, your task is to take him and bring him to us so that I and my brothers may negotiate with him. Do not kill him, and please harm him as little as you can—although I do not believe I needed to tell you that, as you have always been smart. Accepted?” He folded his hands loosely in front of him and tilted his head, waiting for her to answer. Arriel thought for a moment: the Leaders had always been fair and kind to her, she wanted to repay them in any way she could, and an endangered Other refusing them was foolish. He must just be scared, since they are in charge of Star Edge…and full, pure humans. She nodded, and Ferce smiled.
“Wonderful, your usual team is ready and waiting. Leave immediately. I wish you luck, darling, and thank you so very much.” He smiled and kissed the top of her head lightly, before turning and walking back into the room behind the large wooden doors. Arriel turned and slipped through a smaller door on the other side of the room, taking the shortcut through the Leaders’ fort to her room.
She had a tiny bedroom with a small bed, its mattress and blankets thin but she’d grown up on them, and little set of drawers with a mirror on top. There was a window next to the bed with thick, dark curtains, so she could peek out but quickly hide from passersby. The room was in order, almost as if no one lived in it, but that was just how Arriel liked it. There was a tiny washing room off to the side with a tub, toilet, and sink. The sink was always plugged and used more as a bowl to hold the water, since the only running water anyone had was for sewage.
She filled her leather pack with some extra clothes, a bottle of clean water, and some food preserves–her team usually carried more also–as well as a smooth, lightweight rock. She checked her worn boots to make sure her two knives were still in them, and she attached a tiny, jagged rock she’d sharpened into a dagger-like knife at her wrist inside her sleeve and a long, slim knife with a white bone handle at her hip. She didn’t usually kill with them, they were more for protection, or to seem a greater threat. Her things packed and her long, tangled brown hair tied up, she walked quickly to the courtyard to meet the very people she was closest to.
The team was led by Nicotey, and Arriel trusted him with an intensity rare in this world. Six years older than her, he was incredibly protective over her, but also over any of his allies or who was under his command. Although he was known to have that compassionate side, Arriel also had no doubt that he would kill even children if it meant ensuring the safety of those he cared for. And he would kill infants if that ensured the safety of his Lemora, the secret woman only Arriel knew about. She only knew because she had managed to follow him to her one day, and after that it was obvious just how much he adored the Feeler. Arriel approved of her because she had never used her power on him, so their feelings were credible. She didn’t understand why Lemora refused to come forward and accept the Leaders’ help, but at Nicotey’s clenched jaw, she let it be. It wasn’t her place.
Sky was only two years older than Arriel, but still with just enough experience. Both he and his twin, Day, were quiet and highly disciplined. Though she knew little about them because of this—and she wasn’t one to judge anyway, seeing as few knew more than her name—Arriel was comfortable in that they were both fiercely loyal.
The last member of their team was Gerred, who was older than Sky but had joined them last. He and Nicotey were the most friendly to Arriel. She enjoyed his company because of his humor: he could make anyone chuckle about the most ordinary things. Until it came down to business, then he would become one of the smartest, most terrifying people any unfortunate person ever crossed.
Luckily, Nicotey knew the whereabouts of the boy as of the last three days. There was a good chance he had moved on, but he couldn’t be far. They set out of the crumbled, makeshift city on foot, since outside it there was so little human life that it was pointless to take horses only to have them lost in the forest. She and the men were strong, they could cover enough distance anyway. On the way there she fell into step behind Nicotey, next to Gerred, who spoke to her about their target.
“Very little, actually, the hybrid has managed to keep a low profile. But we do know he ain’t alone—duh. Two brothers, older, look out for him, protect him. Oh, but don’t let that fool you—word is, the Leaders have had such trouble with it because anyone they sent, they either severely beat or kill. So they can fight.” Arriel nodded, not discouraged by the lack of detail. She didn’t need to know details, she just needed to get this done. She scratched Kaya’s head softly, soothing her to sleep so she would stop squirming so restlessly in the bag.
One thing did stick to her, however, and shot a quick bolt of unsteadiness through her spine. The Leaders had been contacting him before? Ferce hadn’t said so, he’d said that they had had trouble finding the hybrid. Her Leader had probably misspoken, since, as Gerred claimed, the attempts at discussion were unsuccessful.
“Also, apparently your age. The fortune, yea?” Gerred nudged her, smirking. For some odd reason, Gerred had latched onto the idea of Arriel—harsh and deadly by very design—having a mate. For a man, he did have a lot of fantasies and knew quite a few stories. “Oh, come on, it’s only because I and the rest of us here don’t like seeing pretty ones all alone. And if another Other is coming to stay with the Leaders—and us—then who knows? Nature only got altered so much,” he snickered. The idea, and how he of all people presented it, was hilarious.
“Ridiculous. If I ever want that, I’ll make sure I tell you first,” Arriel said evenly, priding herself on keeping the annoyance out of her tone. It was stupidity, these little fantasies of his. She wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing—no one was as compassionate as Nicotey, or as tame an Other as Lemora. Since her birth, she was far too strong and dangerous for humans; and she had little patience or need for other people anyway.
“Ah, but we are off getting a male. Could be it, and you could not even know. Just, dearest girl, if you first lay eyes on the hybrid and are stopped at the immediate love, please don’t let that be in the middle of a fight where we need you to help us, or you have to watch your own neck?” The words could barely leave his chest, he was laughing so much.
“I swear you must have no idea what you say,” Arriel deadpanned, and sped up to Nicotey, who thankfully only snorted before continuing to walk in comfortable silence.
Eventually the curiosity get the better of her, Arriel whipped around to face Gerred, letting him see the scowl plain on her face. “And do you know any of their names?”
Gerred smirked proudly, “No, I suppose that is another thing you will have to find out while…talking.” Turning back around, Arriel entered the forest, welcoming the seriousness of the dense trees.
KYR MOVED QUICKLY, his long legs striding over or around overgrown tree roots and hidden rocks deftly. They had stayed too long in one place, he knew it without his brothers telling him, and as a result someone had seen them. He wasn’t sure who, and if they were even a threat, but Rossen and Annar being their overprotective selves weren’t leaving room for any doubt. Kyr grimaced at their intensity, but kept up the pace fairly comfortably.
That was the way his brothers were now, since it had all happened. Their father had smuggled toddler Kyr, the prized and now practically mythical subject, home with him, and the brothers had known that he was unique–and with a seductive prize on his head. From what they had told him, however, the Leaders of what was left of civilized humanity didn’t want him dead—actually, they wanted him very much alive. After Blackwater was surprised and the small camp killed or scattered, however, Kyr wasn’t so sure about how merciful they all were. So, he and his brothers had run as fast as they could, and ever since had been wandering the old California state alone, hiding him. He felt guilty about that, the other three could have gone to another camp and maybe made themselves safer homes if he was gone, dead, with the camp that had attacked them, or even if they just didn’t care so much.
Then again, his brothers had their own reasons beyond him. He looked at Annar, the oldest, and saw the ever-present shadow of responsibility—and guilt—for what had happened to their parents, to their camp, and to the girl he had there. Kyr bit back a grimace at his reminiscing. She’d been pregnant with his child, and he had loved them both with his whole heart, anyone could just see how excited he was. Rare, in this world now. They were both lost in the chaos. Kyr knew that Annar carried that as his fault for not protecting them, and he burned for a chance at revenge. But mostly, Annar exercised his guilt through taking the greatest possible care of Kyr that he could, which his little brother was grateful for.
Rossen, Annar’s twin, was the exact opposite. He channeled his grief over the loss of their family only into bloodlust—he wanted nothing more than to kill the exact people who had caused them this. He urged Kyr to exercise his gifts more, but none of them knew exactly how to. They had no other references, Kyr had been the only one in their camp. Perhaps the twins never really saw it, but Kyr knew that the man knew more than he would tell them. At the time, it was for the best–no need to be more distrusted than he already was–but it would have been useful now.
As for Daynte, a kid even younger than Kyr, he was a vague friend of Kyr’s who had managed to also escape the camp. The brothers had found him a few days after and let him come, but recently Rossen had grown more suspicious about him—Daynte shifted in and out of attention, of vigor, a lot. Not to mention physically disappearing, the brothers waking up to find his mat empty and cold, but then the boy to come around a tree.
Annar stopped and swore next to him. Kyr looked up out of his thoughts and realized they had just stepped out of the tree line and onto rocks. The flat, grey surface extended only for a couple miles before dropping into the cliffs. They were out of the forest, which meant out of easy cover.
“We could just skirt around it, keep in trees. Haven’t seen any person in a few days, maybe it’s secure a while,” Kyr suggested.
“I just got a bad feeling. Not even sure if it’s about these cliffs. Just feel the need to be extra secure…but yes, yours sounds best.” This, he liked about his brother—Annar was in charge and his protector, but he still remembered that Kyr wasn’t a baby and could think for himself. So, he talked to him as an equal.
He turned back into the trees, going only a yard or two in before continuing, always keeping the rocks on his left. Kyr noticed that was away from the last camp they’d seen. Usually, they actually stayed somewhat close to them, so that occasionally they could steal some resources or overhear the social and political status of the rest of humanity. That was what his brothers listened for, but Kyr kept his own curiosities to himself.