Book: Burn the Night
Burn the Night
New Arilion Knights Book Two
Copyright © 2018 by Archimedes Books. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons— living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
If you think this book is awesome at all it’s only because I have a pack of rabid ARC Wolves, a wonderful editor and a talented cover artist. Thank you for your help.
Editor - Beth
Cover Illustrator - Jamie
Kiki and Ian, thank you for trusting me. I promise you, your faith is well placed. I won’t let you down.
Hungry for More Arilion Knights?
A Note For You
As soon as he stepped out of the black vehicle with windows so dark Emma wondered how anyone could see out of them, she knew she was in trouble.
He wore a military uniform with so many medals on his chest, Emma wasn’t sure how the fabric was able to support the load at all. She looked down on him from the second story window of her room as he crossed her lawn to the front door.
Did you really think you were going to keep an alien invasion under wraps from the government? Emma asked herself. You knew this was coming sooner or later. Just be glad Dad’s already gone to work. He doesn’t need to be involved in this. He’s done enough for you. He’s done everything for you. It’s up to you to protect him now.
Three solid knocks on the door below echoed inward to Emma’s house. She looked down on the vambraces on her forearms that were now as much a part of her as her own fingers or toes. Instead of removing the lightly glowing purple pieces of armor, Emma donned a thick black hoodie. With the sleeves rolled down over the vambraces, they hid the glow of the armor nicely.
The knock came again. Still not hurried or too loud, just deliberate, as if it were saying, “Open up, Emma. I know you’re in there.”
“Easy, easy, let him do all the talking. You don’t know how much he does or doesn’t know,” Emma whispered to herself out loud as she descended the stairs. “No reason to freak out, not yet at least. That might come later.”
Emma reached the ground floor that led from the kitchen to the front door. She hesitated before her hand touched the doorknob. “Who is it?”
It sounded like a dumb question, even in her own mind. She knew exactly who it was. She had seen the man walk up her lawn. Truth be told, she was just buying time, any time to think of a better plan than playing dumb.
“Miss Jackson, my name is General Fox.” The man’s voice was strong without being unfriendly. “I’d just like to talk with you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not really supposed to answer the door to strangers.” Emma played the kid card. Even though she was sixteen, it still came in handy when she needed it. “Maybe you should go.”
“If I went now, I could come back later, but then your father might be home,” General Fox answered. “If we have this conversation in front of him, it’s going to be a lot more complicated for all of us. I’d rather not do complicated at the moment.”
Emma’s mouth was dry. She worked up enough saliva to finally swallow. She understood everything General Fox wasn’t saying. Her father knew nothing of her being Earth’s Arilion Knight or the Academy or her reintroduction to her alien mother, for that matter.
Emma turned the deadbolt on her door. It clicked with a sound that told her things were about to change. She slowly opened the barrier between herself and General Fox.
“So, yeah, I guess now would be a good time to talk after all. I’m old enough to talk—to talk to strangers.” Emma tried to keep the stutter out of her voice that came with anxiety, but it was no use. “What can I do for you, General?”
General Fox smiled at Emma. He was tall with a square jaw and short haircut that looked as though not a single strand of his dark hair was out of place. He extended his right hand. “I know trust has to be earned. I hope in time we’ll get there.”
“Soooooo…” Emma accepted the offered hand, her own palm enveloped by that of the much larger man. “Is this where you bring in the guys with the biohazard suits and we quarantine the place?”
“You’ve watched ET too, huh?” General Fox gave her hand a brief squeeze before releasing. “No, no things are quite different these days. I’m part of a secret government task force, codename Project Nebula. We’re in charge of a sphere that allows us to travel throughout galaxies and the universe itself. On our travels, one of our own was selected as the Arilion Knight of a planet called Atmos. We’re still learning all we can, but one thing is clear. We’re stronger together than we are alone.”
“There’s—there’s another Arilion? Here? Here on Earth?” Emma asked, forgetting her own plan to play dumb and see what the general knew. “Who? Who is he?”
“His name is Frank Wolffe, and I’m sure he’d love to meet you.” General Fox grinned, understanding he had broken through at least the initial wall Emma had in place. “In part, that’s why I’m here.”
Emma’s mind was going wild with ideas and possibilities of training and fighting alongside another Arilion Knight. Thus far, she had been instructed by fearsome warriors from several species, but not one of them an Arilion.
These thoughts were crashing through Emma’s mind when the familiar face of her next-door neighbor, Miss Starling, appeared around General Fox’s shoulder. Miss Starling was widely known as the neighborhood snoop.
She wore a fluffy pink robe open at the top to show off what she imagined every male wanted to see. In her right hand, she held a wine glass of orange juice that Emma guessed was infused with a healthy dose of alcohol.
General Fox noticed Emma staring around him. He turned to take in the woman. If he was startled to see her, he didn’t show it.
“Ma’am.” General Fox nodded toward Miss Starling.
“Oh, he has manners too.” Miss Starling batted her long fake eyelashes. She smoothed her bleached blonde hair with her free hand. “I love a man in uniform. Emma, you didn’t tell me we were going to have company today.”
“Uh, that’s because I had no idea he was coming.” Emma scrunched her brows, stuck in the constant debate when Miss Starling came around of being annoyed and amused. “What, did you say ‘we’? He didn’t come to visit both of us. Just me.”
“Yes, yes.” The elderly woman dismissed whatever Emma was saying with an outstretched hand that looked more like a claw, thanks to her overly long acrylic nails. She turned back to the general. “Anyway, I wanted to invite you over for a liquid breakfast. Maybe a mimosa or two to take off the edge?”
“I need to keep my edge,” General Fox politely declined. “Besides, it’s o-eight hundred hours. A bit too early to be indulging.”
“Oh, it’s nine am somewhere.” Miss Starling winked at the general. “Well, I’ll be right next door when you’re done doing whatever it is that you’re doing here. What is it that you’re doing here?”
“Just a house call. Emma showed interest in joining the armed forces after graduating high school,” General Fox said with a smile. He turned back to Emma. “Emma, you were just inviting me inside so we can talk about your future in the military.”
General Fox pivoted so fast with the lie he had constructed, Emma was caught off guard.
“Uh, right, I’m joining the military?” Emma said in a tone that asked more than told. General Fox gave her an upturned eyebrow. “I mean, yes, please come in and sign me up.”
“Okay, well, I’ll just be next door when you’re finished.” Miss Starling winked at General Fox. “Don’t be long.”
General Fox followed Emma into her home. Emma smiled at Miss Starling and closed the door behind him.
“Is she always like that?” General Fox asked with an amused smile on his lips. “I don’t know whether to be flattered or to grab my sidearm.”
“That?” Emma raised her eyebrows. “That was nothing. You should see how hard she hits on my dad. Sometimes I feel like I need to get some pepper spray or a taser for him.”
“How old is she?” General Fox asked, watching through the window as Miss Starling made her way back across the lawn to her home.
“Can’t be sure exactly.” Emma took a moment to think. “All I know is she was telling me stories of how she was a little girl and electricity was invented, soooo…”
Emma let her voice trail off as she realized this could all still be a trap of some kind. One of her teachers in the Academy in particular, Drown, was always drilling her with the idea to trust no one. That everyone was a potential enemy no matter how they posed themselves.
Emma created distance between herself and General Fox just in case. The vambraces on her forearms sensed her fight or flight instinct and burned brighter under her dark sweater.
General Fox took a step back as if he sensed what Emma was thinking. He pointed to a chair at the kitchen table. “May I?”
“Yes, sorry.” Emma relaxed herself, taking a long breath. “Please, take a seat. How did you find me anyway?”
“In this day and age, it’s harder than ever to keep a secret,” General Fox said, taking a seat at the kitchen table. He crossed his legs and relaxed into his chair. “When you fought the Shay on the beach of California, our satellite picked up the whole thing. We did some research and consulted with an ally we have who is well-versed in the goings-on in the universe. She told us everything we didn’t know.”
Emma slowly nodded along with the general’s words. “And now you want me to come and fight for the government? Or Project Nebula?”
“Not exactly.” General Fox shook his head. “We don’t want to stop what you or the Academy are doing. We’d rather partner with you and the alliance that already exists within the Academy. We believe our goals for a safe universe are the same. We’d like to come alongside the Academy and help in any way we can. We can offer our own technology, the Arilion Knights that are already training in our branch of the military, and more.”
The pieces of the puzzle began to fit in place for Emma as she put together what the general was getting at.
“You want me to set up a meeting for you,” Emma said, crossing her arms over her chest. She lifted an eyebrow. “You want me to be the bridge that fills the gap between The Academy and Project Nebula.”
“I told you I was going to be honest with you so we can begin to build trust,” General Fox said, staring at Emma, right into her eyes. His stare was unnerving but not intimidating. “Like it or not, you bear a very heavy mantle being the Arilion Knight of Earth. It’s on you, Emma, to be the warrior Earth needs you to be. From everything I’ve read about you, from everything I’ve heard, you have it in you to be everything you need to be. All we want to do is come alongside and offer our support.”
“This is some pretty heavy stuff.” Emma blew air out between her lips. “I mean, I’m still learning how to drive. I don’t even have a job.”
“This is your job now,” General Fox interrupted her. “We can start off slow. The first step would be to set up a meeting between me and the leaders at the Academy. We can move forward from there.”
“Yeah, well you have to meet my mom first.” Emma cringed at the idea of her warrior alien mother speaking with the general. “Then we can get you in front of the Academy and then you’ll still have to convince the Alliance you want to help.”
“‘The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step’,” General Fox said. “And eventually, Emma, we need to tell your father. You shouldn’t have to sneak around. Being honest with him will free your time as well.”
Emma felt a hole in her stomach open. She felt sick. Telling her father was something she wanted more than anything but what came with the truth would be painful for him. He would have to find out that the woman he loved was not only an alien all along, but she had lied to him, that she had left him and worse. Emma knew all of this and hadn’t told him either.
“What’s that?” General Fox turned in his seat. He tilted his head to the ground as if he were talking via some internal comm Emma couldn’t see. “Yes, when? We’re on our way.”
General Fox stood from his seat looking down at Emma with regret. “Emma, Earth is going to need you sooner than we anticipated.”
“What do you mean?” Emma asked, confused. “What happened to ‘the first step was setting up a meeting’?”
“That was the plan until right now,” General Fox assured her as he made for the door. “We’ve been monitoring a situation here on Earth, hoping to address it at a later date with your help. Time doesn’t seem to be on our side anymore and things have accelerated. We need your help now.”
“What are we talking about?” Emma remembered the battle on the beach when she had turned back the Shay invasion. She was stronger now after another month of training but still not where she needed to be. “Are the Shay back?”
“No, not the Shay; a new threat.” General Fox opened the door, ushering Emma outside. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll explain everything.”
Emma’s sense of duty drove her to follow the general out the door without further question. Her foot had just crested the threshold of her house when the air behind General Fox shimmered.
A moment later, her mother, Tistan Duel, appeared on her porch. The teleportation technology at her disposal would allow her to teleport from the Academy to Earth in the matter of seconds.
General Fox reacted to the threat immediately. He pulled his side arm from a holder at his back. Emma had missed the weapon due to the fact that it was hidden under his coat. He had his weapon pointed at Tistan Duel’s head a moment later.
Not to be outdone, the Halyna warrior batted away the handgun with her left hand, drawing one of the two long swords that rested in sheaths on her back.
“No, wait!” Emma yelled at her mother and General Fox, hoping her warning would be enough. The combatants were moving too quickly to be able to stop them with words.
General Fox moved with surprising speed for a man of his age, side-stepped the blade, and put a boot into Tistan’s midsection. Tistan grunted but absorbed the impact, only taking a step back into the house before pivoting. She slashed low with her sword.
General Fox lifted his foot off the ground to ignore the strike. Tistan rose up quickly from her hunched position, She sent a strike to the general’s forehead before he could level his weapon at her again. A thin line of blood came from a small graze by his right eye.
Tires screeched as two blacked out SUVs converged on Emma’s home. Doors opened. A flood of heavily armed Marines began taking up positions around General Fox and Tistan Duel.
Emma realized she had to do something quickly before her mother killed someone or weapons began discharging in her neighborhood.
“Stop!” Emma channeled the power in her vambraces, constructing gloves over her hands that started at her fingertips and traveled down to her elbows. Using her advanced speed, she moved to stand between General Fox and her mother. With her right hand, she held the blade to Tistan’s green sword. She grabbed General Fox’s handgun with her left hand, obstructing the barrel.
A dozen heavily armed Marines had taken up positions with large assault rifles Emma could only guess at. They ranged from crouched positions to a few assuming a stance on a single knee. Every one of them waited on the order from the general.
The scene was still for a moment as Emma turned from first her mother and then the general, imploring them to cease their attacks. “This isn’t right. We’re on the same side. Stop before someone does something they can’t take back.”
Tistan stared at the general with malice in her eyes. Despite this, she relaxed her stance and took a step back.
General Fox did the same, looking over to his men and giving them a signal with his hand that Emma guessed meant “stand down.”
The Marines covering her front yard lowered their weapons, but it was clear they were ready to move back into action at a moment’s notice.
“We’re not done,” Tistan said as Emma released the hold on her sword as well as General Fox’s weapon. “How dare you put my daughter in harm’s way. She’s not ready yet.”
“She will be.” General Fox holstered his weapon, ignoring the thin line of blood that fell down the right side of his face. “We aren’t sending her in alone.”
“The Vilmar are beyond her power at this time.” Tistan sheathed her blade. It looked like the act actually disappointed her. “She needs more training.”
“So you know.” General Fox held Tistan’s stare. “How long have you known they were operating here on Earth?”
Emma’s mouth was open as she pivoted back and forth between her mother and the general. It seemed like she was the only one out of the loop on this.
What the heck? Is everyone keeping secrets from me? Emma thought, trying to keep up with the events taking place around her. Why am I always the last one to find these things out?
“Ummm, hi, guys. I’m here too.” Emma couldn’t keep her frustration pent up anymore. “What are we talking about? Who’s here? What are Vilmar?”
“The Vilmar.” Tristan breathed a deep sigh as if she were having to physically extract every word coming out of her mouth. “They’re an alien race that’s been operating here on Earth. They’re inconsequential at this moment.”
“Inconsequential?” General Fox frowned as he repeated the word. “People are disappearing in the city of Los Angeles every night. This is an alien incursion, a declaration of war as far as we’re concerned.”
“You seem to have enough warriors at your disposal.” Tistan took a moment to look over the gathered Marines. “Next time you come for me, you should bring more men.”
“This isn’t helpful,” Emma chided her mother. “Now someone please start from the beginning. Explain to me what a Vilmar is and what they’re doing here.”
“I can explain on the way,” General Fox said, eyeing Tistan. Before the orange-skinned warrior could protest again, he added, “You’re welcome to come with us as long as you promise to keep your sword in its sheath.”
“If it’s a threat against Earth, I need to go,” Emma said, allowing her purple gloves to dissipate. “I’ve been chosen as the Arilion Knight of Earth for a reason. If I just sit this one out, why am I a knight at all?”
Tistan clenched and unclenched her jaw so hard Emma could see her facial muscles twinge. “All right; let’s go.”
General Fox nodded in agreement, already heading down Emma’s lawn to speak to his men.
Tistan pulled the hood of her cloak up and over her face to hide her orange skin. It was still morning, just after most people on Emma’s street had gone to work for the day. Lucky for her, only a few of her neighbors were there to witness the events. Miss Starling was the only one to actually come out of her house.
“Oh, oh my, is it my lucky day?” The elderly woman winked at the group of Marines now disbanding from Emma’s lawn. “Why, General Fox, you didn’t tell me you had so many young and strapping men at your command. I do declare, I feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
“We’ll have to take a rain check, ma’am,” General Fox said, trying to be polite. He turned back to his men, issuing commands. “I’ll travel in the sedan with Emma and Tistan. Anspach one and two will follow and rendezvous at the predetermined location. Eyes open and weapons ready. Oohrah, Marines!”
“Oohrah!” the men answered their commander, already running to obey.
“If you would?” General Fox motioned to Tistan and Emma to follow him to the sedan he had arrived in that morning. “Please.”
Emma and her mother followed the general to his sedan. A wide-eyed Miss Starling looked on, trying to crane her neck and get a better look at Tistan past her cloak.
Her hands were the only thing that were visible in the morning light. They were colored a dull orange like the rest of her body. Miss Starling stared at Tistan’s hands so hard Emma thought she was going to bore holes through her mother’s palms.
The elderly woman upended her mimosa on her own front lawn, muttering something about drinking too much as she made her way back inside the house.
Emma took a seat in the back of General Fox’s sedan with her mother. The interior of his car was also black. He took a seat in the front passenger side, motioning to the driver. “Laloyd, take us to the area of the city where you spotted the disturbance, please.”
Immediately, Emma understood there was something unique about their driver. First, he was much too large to be a human. Second, and she had to lean forward to make sure she was seeing this correctly, he had green scales traveling up his neck before they were hidden by a large baseball cap that hid most of his face.
“Oh right, you got it, General Fox,” Laloyd answered. “Wow, this is so cool to be a part of. I just want you to know I had your back when the Halyna were going to try and decapitate you. I know you could hold your own and you told me to stay in the car, but I was ready to move. I’m not much of a fighter, but I can throw a mean kick to the groin when I have to.”
Laloyd spoke like he had just ingested a double dose of caffeine. He bordered on manic as he chattered away.
“A Draconian,” Tistan sneered. “I should have known you would have brought help with you.”
Laloyd pulled into the street, turning back to address Tistan and Emma for the first time. His face reminded Emma of a lizard. Memories of the lizard-like Shay touched at her memory, but there was no denying this species was different and especially Laloyd. Laloyd’s reptilian eyes twinkled with something like honest joy. Two short horns sprouted from his forehead, making it difficult for the front of his hat to stay balanced. A snout came forward with sharp teeth and a green hue covered his face.
Emma might have been startled had she not already been introduced to her fair share of alien species while at the Academy.
“I just want to say I’m a big fan of yours.” Laloyd looked at Emma and turned his lips up in what she guessed was a smile. “I’ve been able to work with a few other Arilion Knights. I just want to say you, more than the other two, have so much potential to grow starting off as an Arilion at such a young age. Don’t tell Frank or Sava I said that, though.”
“Uh, thanks.” Emma couldn’t help but smile back at the grinning Draconian, even though she was still trying to figure out if she knew what he meant exactly.
“Eyes on the road, Draconian,” Tistan told Laloyd, who was still looking back at them. “We don’t want to have spared one another’s lives just to lose it on the way to meet the Vilmar.”
“Oh right, right, good thinking, Tistan.” Laloyd turned his head forward.
“Laloyd is helping us with technology as we figure out how to traverse this brave new universe,” General Fox explained. “The Draconians have technology that far surpasses ours as part of our own alliance. They are an invaluable partner.”
“Mmm, right.” Emma tried her best to sound interested while a nagging question pulled at the back of her mind. “So is anyone going to tell me what the Vilmar are or am I just going into this blind?”
Emma caught Laloyd look through the rearview mirror at her with pained eyes full of fear. As soon as he realized she was looking back at him, he moved his gaze back to the road.
“They’re monsters, Emma,” Tistan said. In a very like-Tistan way, she didn’t sugar coat the facts. “They’re the very worst kind of monsters.”
“Are you trying to freak me out?” Emma said, staring back at her mother past the deep black hood she wore. “Is this like one of those moments where you’re making it sound like the worst case scenario, so when I actually fight them, it’s not that bad?”
“No, Emma.” Tistan removed her hood so she could better see her daughter. “The Vilmar are known for their lust for blood and their ability to turn others to do their bidding. They’re fast, strong, and have the ability to heal quickly. They can be killed eventually by inflicting many wounds, but the fastest way to make sure one stays down for good is to remove their heads from their bodies.”
Emma was still trying to process the words coming out of her mother’s mouth when General Fox turned around in his seat. He handed Emma a flat smart pad to look over.
“Thanks to Laloyd, we have a means to recognize and track alien signatures on Earth. Most aliens are here hiding doing their own thing, trying to lay low for whatever reason.” General Fox shook his head as he looked down at the smart pad in Emma’s hands. “Not the Vilmar. They’re killing and recruiting the homeless populace of Los Angeles. By our count, they’ve already consumed hundreds, maybe even turned that many already.”
Emma looked down at an aerial view of the city of Los Angeles. The view of the city showed red groupings scattered all over the landscape like a case of pimples. A cluster of dark red patches was condensed around the garment district in downtown Los Angeles.
“What do you mean by ‘turned’?” Emma asked, not sure she wanted to know the answer to her question.
Laloyd maneuvered through the morning traffic, taking them deeper into the city of Los Angeles. He kept his eyes on the road this time but shook his head as he answered.
“The Vilmar have the ability to control a host, something akin to a symbiotic relationship,” Laloyd explained. “They can turn humans and other species into their slaves basically.”
“Swipe the screen,” General Fox instructed, looking down at the smart pad Emma held in her hands. “We have images of what they look like as well.”
Emma obeyed, dragging her right pointer finger across the screen. She immediately regretted the decision. She came face to face with what looked like in her mind was a vampire.
The Vilmar was tall and lanky with a sunken face and fangs. Pale skin covered its face and long black fingernails made it look like the definition of sinister.
“What the…” Emma allowed her voice to trail off. “You need to call a priest or that guy from The Exorcist or something. These are freaking vampires!”
“Who?” Tistan looked at her daughter, confused.
“What?” Laloyd looked back at her via the rearview mirror.
“You know, vampires.” Emma looked to General Fox for help. “Suck your blood, don’t go out during the day, stake to the heart, and all that good stuff.”
“They do share some similarities to the legends we call vampires,” General Fox agreed. “I wish some daylight or stakes would help us here, but they can walk in both daylight and nighttime. As far as we know, stakes and holy water don’t do anything. These are aliens. Our first course of action is to talk them down and bring them in, but if they refuse, and we have every reason to believe they will, they need to be put down.”
First you’re in space trying not to throw up after being teleported to the Academy, Emma thought to herself. Now you’re hunting freaking vampires in Los Angeles with your mom and the government.
“Do you know how many Vilmar have nested in your city?” Tistan asked the back of General Fox’s head. “Any more information you have will be useful to us.”
“We don’t know for certain,” General Fox answered her without turning around. “Laloyd did a rough estimation that, according to the numbers found dead, there has to be at least one, maybe two at the most.”
“So you have no idea.” Tistan rolled her eyes. “Why was this not found sooner? Even if you weren’t equipped with the Draconian technology before, your city officials had to have been aware of the missing populace.”
“The Vilmar are targeting our homeless population,” General Fox informed her. “Alarms aren’t exactly being raised when the homeless begin to disappear from the streets.”
“That’s horrible,” Emma said out loud, more voicing her thoughts than making a statement. “They already have it bad enough and now they’re being preyed on by vampires.”
“Vilmar, but, yes I know what you mean,” General Fox corrected. “You should know that I meant every word of what I said to you at your house. You have our full support, and even though this mission is taking place sooner than what we wanted, we still have every intention of partnering with the Academy and the Alliance and helping you in your training.”
“One decapitation at a time,” Tistan interjected from her seat. “Let’s see what the Vilmar have in store for us before we begin setting up meetings for you with those in power.”
General Fox didn’t say anything, but from her seat behind Laloyd, Emma could see the general clench his right hand, which rested on top of his left knee. Working with her mother and the general was going to take a small miracle.
“Emma, can you scroll back to the image of the city?” Tistan said, looking over at the smart pad sitting in Emma’s lap. “I want to get a better lay of the land.”
Emma obeyed, swiping back to the image on the screen that showed the aerial view of the garment district in downtown Los Angeles.
“Tistan,” General Fox said in a commanding voice. “If you’re thinking of teleporting there by yourself, let me tell you we can—”
Before the general could even finish his thought, Tistan had locked coordinates on the teleportation band she wore on her left wrist. She grabbed Emma around the shoulders. A moment later, they were standing on a street corner in downtown Los Angeles.
Emma felt her stomach roll, but she was getting used to teleporting by now. Before, she would have fallen to her knees, retching her last meal. Now her stomach protested, but she was able to keep herself together.
They stood on a street corner in the bustling downtown area of Los Angeles’ garment district. In all four directions, business warehouses had been transformed into stores that rolled their wares onto the sidewalk to lure in shoppers.
A diverse mix of races and people intermingled with one another as they haggled for the best prices on everything from boots to jackets.
It seemed their arrival hadn’t gone unnoticed. A few people pointed and shouted in surprise. One elderly Asian man in particular stared dumbly at Tistan as she maneuvered her hood once again to cover her features. The elderly man had an ice cream cone in his hand that stopped halfway to his mouth, now long forgotten.
“This is all in your head,” Tistan told the man as she began walking down the street in the crowd. “You should go get yourself checked out by a mental physician.”
“Do you think we should have gone with them?” Emma asked her mother as she moved to keep pace with her. “I mean, they’re the government. They wanted to help.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t use your own teleportation device sooner.” Tistan looked down at the band Emma wore on her own wrist. “I would have.”
“What?” Emma shook her head like her mother was crazy. “You know the Alliance told me it was strictly only for teleporting to the Academy and back or for emergencies. I’m not supposed to use it just whenever I want.”
“You’re right. I guess after the Alliance disavowed me, I’ve been a bit bitter.” Tistan spat the words. “You were right not to use it, but you didn’t have to. I used mine instead.”
Emma thought about her mother’s words. Ever since the Alliance had learned that Tistan was aiding Emma in her training at the Academy, they had released Tistan from her rank in the Alliance. Her mother had taken a job at the Academy as head of security, but she knew her mother still harbored a grudge against the Alliance.
Mother and daughter continued their journey in silence. Emma remembered her training at the Academy. She made sure she remained aware of her surroundings at all times. The white noise of vendors shouting their wares and traffic drowned out most anything else.
Looks were still directed at her mother as those not engrossed in their phones or examining the wares of the garment district noticed the tall hooded woman walk with purpose down the sidewalk.
Emma’s stomach grumbled, the walls of her mouth gathering moisture as a street vendor selling tacos came into sight.
No focus, Emma told herself. Kill the alien vampires first, then tacos.
Tistan came to such a harsh halt in front of her that Emma nearly ran into her mother. Emma followed her mother’s gaze to an open storefront across the street. The store looked like any other. A few racks of clothes out front to catch the eye of potential buyers and an open door leading inside the shop.
Upon further inspection, Emma realized the storefront sold wedding dresses. Something pulled at her deep inside, some predisposition to like things with silk and lace.
Raised by her father, Emma was free to like anything she wanted to. For the most part, she had chosen to follow her father’s lead. She was more of a football and muscle car fan than one to go all googly eyed over a wedding dress.
Maybe it was being beside a mother she had never known while at the same time in the proximity of something so savagely feminine that she felt this innate draw to the dark side.
“Emma, did you hear anything I just said?” Tistan asked, looking down at her daughter with concern in her eyes. “Are you well?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine,” Emma lied. “What’s the plan? Are you sure this is the right place? I mean, last time I looked, neither aliens or vampires or alien vampire hybrids owned wedding dress shops.”
“This is where General Fox’s intelligence pointed.” Tistan motioned with her chin toward the shop. “It would be smart for the Vilmar to hide in plain sight. They are known for their cunning and tactics. I’ll take point. You watch my back.”
“I should be the one doing this,” Emma said. She was surprised to hear the conviction in her own voice. “I’m the Arilion Knight of Earth. I was chosen to protect it.”
“Yes, but you’re still learning.” Tistan had already begun moving across the street. “You’ve only had two months of training. It will take years of practice for you to master your abilities.”
Before Emma could argue, her mother was halfway across the street. Not using a crosswalk or lights, a white sedan screeched on its brakes as Tistan crossed right in front of its path. The vehicle came inches from hitting her mother.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!” the car’s middle-aged male driver yelled from out of his rolled-down window. A thick Mexican accent laced every word. He stuck his head out to continue his tirade. “What’s you problem, lady!?”
Tistan stopped and turned to face the man. She raised both her clenched fists and slammed them down on his car’s hood so hard her palms left indentations in the metal.
“If you continue to scream, you’ll be my problem,” Tistan snarled, reaching for one of her sword handles that poked over the top of her shoulders. “In fact, I think this world would be better if I cut that tongue from your mouth, human.”
“Wow, wow, wow.” Emma ran into the street, grabbing her mother’s arm. She waved away the driver, who had sunk back into his car and gone a pale white color. “Sorry about that; she’s on a sugar high all those coco puffs this morning. I don’t know how they can claim it’s part of a complete breakfast.”
Emma pulled her mother to the other side of the street. The entire time, Tistan’s eyes never left the frightened driver. She used her right pointer and middle finger to motion to her eyes and then back at the driver.
“Hey, you can’t be doing that here,” Emma said, releasing her mother’s arm as the two women crested the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.
“I wasn’t going to cut out his tongue,” Tistan reassured her daughter in a voice that made it sound like everything was okay. “I was just going to rough him up a bit, maybe take an ear or an eye.”
“I hope you’re joking,” Emma said to her mother.
“We’ll never know now,” Tistan responded as the white sedan pulled away. She looked at the store they stood in front of, moving her right hand to the hilt of the sword once more. “Let’s go.”
As much as Emma thought she should be the one taking the lead inside the shop, she realized arguing with her headstrong mother wasn’t going to get her anywhere.
The inside of the store had a high ceiling and plenty of light to put Emma at ease. Unlike the tomb she was expecting to enter, the store was cheerfully decorated with pictures of flowers and cathedrals on the walls.
The musty scent of hundreds, maybe thousands of wedding dresses filled the room. Rows upon rows and racks upon racks lined the majority of the room. Mannequins were set up at intervals displaying wedding dresses that ranged from sleeveless with a plunging neckline to more conservative and layered.
A man stood behind a waist-high counter to the right rear of the store. A closed door stood across from him on the left.
“Welcome, welcome,” the man said in perfect English. “How may I help you today?”
If the man was one of these Vilmar, Emma couldn’t tell. He was older with square glasses. His bald head, narrow shoulders, and average height didn’t exactly scream threatening to Emma. Still, she remembered what her mother said. The Vilmar were masters at strategy. If someone did want to lure Emma into a sense of security, this was the perfect way to do so.
Emma clenched her fists, feeling the warmth brought on by her power. In a moment, she could use her vambraces to summon a shield or sword. Other items she was less familiar with could be brought to life as well.
“We’re not here for dresses,” Tistan said, stalking toward the man. Her right hand clenched the handle on one of her weapons. “I’ve seen your kind before. You’re nothing more than a turned human. I would like to speak to your mistress or master.”
The man ran a thin tongue over his lips, blinking up at Tistan as if he didn’t understand what she was saying.
“Do you understand me?” Tistan finally made it to the counter where the man stood waiting. “Where is your master? Is he here?”
Emma was half afraid they were in the wrong place, half too worried about what her mother was about to do to this man at the moment to care.
Motion behind Emma drew her attention to the entrance they just came through. Dozens of men and woman of all sizes and ages walked into the room. They didn’t seem to be in any apparent hurry. They moved as one, filing into the store until the entrance was clogged with bodies. One of them closed and secured the door behind them.
The look in their eyes as they stared at Emma and Tistan was unnerving. Their eyes were open, however they looked dazed, as if they weren’t actually seeing anything at all. They looked as though they were under some kind of spell.
“I think we’re in the right place,” Emma said as the horde of newcomers began slowly moving toward them and forming a circle around the pair. “I don’t think they’re all here looking for wedding dresses.”
The older man behind the counter smiled before motioning to the door that stood on the other side of the room. It slowly began to open. A dark figure stepped into the room. He was thin and tall, just like the pictures of the Vilmar Emma had seen on General Fox’s smart pad.
Oh, why didn’t we wait for backup? Emma kicked herself in her mind. A dozen Marines would come in handy right about now.
The man stood behind the circle of people who had entered the store and now surrounded Emma and Tistan. His dark eyebrows and eyelashes contrasted his pale skin and grey eyes. When he spoke, the fangs on his upper teeth were unmistakable.
“I wondered when you would come,” he said with the slightest hint of an alien accent. “I hoped you would come. An Arilion Knight. I heard your kind have made a reemergence in the universe. Your order was only legend to me until now.”
Tistan ignored the Vilmar’s cordial welcome and unsheathed both her weapons. The blades on her slender swords that reminded Emma of katanas glowed with a green sheen. The weapons she used were more than just metal swords. They were coated in what Tistan had described to her was something like a magical liquid that heated the blades and allowed them to cut through other weapons like a warm knife through cold butter.
Emma tried to keep her cool. This was much harder than she had anticipated while being surrounded by two dozen men and women with dead eyes. Still she refrained from constructing her own weapons, just for now.
“Your presence is new to me as well,” Emma said, her words slow and deliberate. The last thing she wanted to do now was start to stutter. It was a problem that came from years of being nervous around others that had begun from being bullied in school. “What are you doing on Earth?”
“I’m glad you can see the reason in having a conversation instead of immediately resorting to violence,” the Vilmar said with a smile as he looked at Tistan’s weapons. He stepped forward to take a place at the front of the gathered circle of his turned humans.
Emma was able to get a better look at him. He was dressed nicely, in an expensive-looking black suit. A gold chain hung down his neck and stood out against the black button-up shirt underneath his jacket.
“My name is Desmond Delshire. I’m just a traveler looking for a new home,” the Vilmar said, glancing over at Tistan again. “Much like the Halyna here.”
“I’m nothing like you.” Tistan bent her knees, ready to spring. She tossed her head back, removing her hood. “I’m not changing the DNA in humans, turning them to fulfill my greater plan.”
“Oh, that’s what you think I’m doing?” Desmond chuckled with laughter as he shook his head from side to side. The sound made Emma cringe inside. It was empty, devoid of any actual mirth whatsoever. “I’ve only turned those who have come to me. I’ve only taken the ones the humans have cast to the side like trash. I’ve given them better lives.”
The gathered group of men and woman didn’t look like homeless to Emma at all. Each one of them was clean, groomed, and wore normal, everyday clothes from new jeans to clean polos. Besides the glazed-over look in their eyes, they seemed to be like anyone else.
Emma did a double take as she recognized a face in the crowd. To her right was the elderly Asian man who had been eating his ice cream when Emma and her mother first teleported into the garment district. He looked at Emma now like a trained animal waiting for the cue from its master.
“This isn’t a life at all,” Emma said, moving her gaze back to Desmond. “If you really think that, you’re just lying to yourself.”
“They have food, shelter, clothing; they’re clean and healthy,” Desmond said, opening his arms to take in those gathered in the store. “We don’t have to be enemies. We can come to an understanding. I’ll lay low while I’m on Earth and just take those your society doesn’t want anyway. Agreements such as these have worked on other planets.”
“I think I’ve heard enough.” Emma brought a purple sword to her right hand. Unlike her mother’s katana-shaped weapons, her blade was heavier. Similar to a long sword, it could be held in a single palm or as a double-handed weapon. “Leave my planet or turn yourself in. Those are your two options.”
“I wish we could have been friends.” Desmond drew back into the crowd of the humans he had turned around him. He gave a signal with his right hand. “Good-bye, Arilion Knight.”
The next instant, the lights in the store went out. The only window in the store was next to the front door. A pair of Desmond’s turned threw dark drapes over the window, plunging the room into inky blackness.
Fear rose in Emma’s heart as she pressed her back to her mother’s. She held her sword in front of her with two hands. Fear, however, wasn’t the only thing rising in Emma. Deep inside her, the will to live, the will to fight the bullies of the world that preyed on the weak rose as well.
The only light now came from the dull green glow of Tistan’s blades as well as the purple light of Emma’s vambraces and weapon.
The gathered group of turned around them seemed to snap out of their daze at once. Instead of their stoic stance, they now crouched low, their dead eyes full of bloodlust and rage where emptiness lived a moment ago. They moved around looking for an opening to attack like a pride of lions ready to pounce on their cornered prey.
“Remember, severing their heads from their bodies is the fastest way to put them down,” Tistan said, still pressing her back to her daughter. “Hold your training close and you’ll be fine.”
“We really need to start practicing constructing guns,” Emma shouted back over the growling sound coming from the turned. Along with her sword, Emma also constructed a purple bodysuit of thin armor that would protect her from any offensive blow the turned would be able to muster. As far as Emma could tell, they didn’t carry any weapons with them.
One second they were staring down the turned in the light of their blades, the next all hell broke loose in the wedding dress store. As if the coven of turned were given the green light, all of a sudden, they swarmed Emma and Tistan in one mob.
The elderly man they had talked to first that stood behind the counter sprang forward, leaping first on the counter and then into the air in a flying attack. He moved like a trained gymnast half his age.
Emma saw him coming from the corner of her left eye. At the same time, she had three more turned charging her head on.
And this is why I don’t come to bridal stores, Emma thought to herself as she moved to engage.
Emma dispatched the first three attackers, charging forward with a wide swipe from her sword that moved from right to left in an upward arc. In this way, she hoped to take out all three charging turned in front of her and pivot all the way through to meet the elderly shopkeeper who descended on her like a trained chimp.
Emma swung hard, channeling strength into her arms. Her long sword cut through the torso of her first attacker, the chest of her second, and the head of the third. Before she could finish her stroke and turn to the man leaping at her from above, one of Tistan’s green blades swiped up and opened a wound on the man’s face from the bottom of his chin to the crown of his head.
His forward momentum still carried him straight at the two women, but instead of a manic grin and eager eyes, his body was limp. Emma pushed hard off her mother’s back with her own, opening a space for the dead shopkeeper to sail through before slamming into yet another turned who charged forward.
Emma struck out over and over again with her purple blade. The proximity they fought in was so close Emma used the pommel of her sword to crack against a skull and placed a booted foot in the sternum of another turned who lunged at her.
It was like she was stuck in some kind of nightmare. The glow of her armor and sword lit a dozen hungry faces that lunged at her with mania in their eyes.
“Down!” Tistan shouted.
Emma didn’t even have to think about what to do; she just reacted. Immediately, Emma went to a knee and ducked. Her mother rolled over her back with her own kicking out at the same time and catching a turned square in the face with a heavy boot.
“The drapes,” Tistan shouted as she slashed her way forward.
“I’m on it.” Emma allowed her sword to dissipate. She constructed a helmet over her face and took off like a running back on the way to a game winning touchdown.
Hands and teeth reached out for her from every corner. Instead of trying to fight them off, Emma rushed forward, making her way to the drapes. The turned hung off her like children. In vain, they tried to bite and then claw at her, but her constructed purple uniform held under their onslaught.
Emma reached the drapes, ripping them off the rod they were attached to. Instantly, the room was filled with brilliant midday light. She squinted in the sunshine, giving her pupils time to dilate and compensate for the amount of light.
The turned on her were more annoying at this point than anything else. Emma shook them off, striking out with her fist and legs, breaking bones as she went. One turned in particular was trying to bite at her left leg.
Emma leaned down and lifted the man, pressing his back to her chest. She placed him in a headlock. He struggled like his life depended on it, but his strength, even as a turned, was no match for Emma.
She poured her will to fight into her vambraces, which gave her all the strength she needed. As long as her will to fight and win was alive, her vambraces could construct whatever she wanted as well as give her all the strength and speed she required.
A moment later, the turned in her arms went still. His limp frame dragged against her body, a sure sign the lack of oxygen to his brain had rendered him unconscious. Instead of holding on longer and risk killing him, Emma let him drop to the ground.
Emma kicked herself for not asking sooner if the result of being turned was reversible. The bodies around her screamed that it was way too late to be thinking about that now.
The store was littered with bodies. Blood soaked the tile floor and poured from a dozen wounded turned. Tistan stood over one who was trying to crawl on her hands and knees to the rear door Desmond had escaped through. She lifted a green katana over the turned’s head.
“Wait,” Emma said, allowing her helmet to deconstruct. “Is what Desmond did to them irreversible? Is there a way they can be normal again?”
“Nope,” Tistan said without sympathy in her voice. She plunged her blade down through the woman’s head below her. “Once the Vilmar get their hands on a host, they can control them. Even when they’re not controlled the turned need to feed. That means more blood, more victims. There’s no bringing them back.”
Emma’s guilt doubled for feeling a sense of relief. She had to get better at this Arilion Knight thing and fast. What if the turned had been able to be saved? She would have already killed half a dozen of them.
“This is your first real battle, isn’t it?” Tistan said as she went through the Vilmar corpses one by one and made sure they were dead. “You did well.”
“There was the fight with the Shay on the beach,” Emma said numbly as she looked at the carnage at her feet. “But this—this wasn’t like that.”
“Stay focused,” Tistan warned as she moved over to the door that Desmond had escaped through. “The fight is just beginning.”
Emma nodded. She took a deep breath, calming the sick feeling that grew in her stomach.
You had to do it; it was self-defense, Emma told herself in her head as she forced herself to look at the dead bodies. Doing this is saving hundreds, maybe thousands of other lives.
Emma knew everything she was telling herself was true. Still, it didn’t mask the regret she felt at ending life. On one hand, she knew she would get used to it the more she did it; on the other hand, should she ever want to get used to it?
These questions would have to wait as Tistan disappeared through the brown wooden door in the rear of the shop. Emma took a deep cleansing breath before following her mother. She had to be careful where to place her feet as the bodies and the slick floor made a morbid obstacle course for her to traverse.
When Emma finally reached the door, she discovered that instead of an extra room, a flight of stairs led upward to another level. Tistan’s glowing green swords lit the way for her as she used them for light in the dark passage.
“Why does it always have to be dark?” Emma muttered to herself. “Vampires aren’t bad enough? They have to turn out all the lights?”
Emma brought a glowing purple sword to her hand again. The contrast felt comfortable in the present moment. Emma knew it was just a weapon, powerless without her; still, it felt familiar in a way that she needed right now.
Deep inside, Emma felt the will to fight grow. It was still a new feeling for her. Only a few short months ago, she was the stuttering high schooler with no friends, the victim of bullying by pretty much everyone in her school.
Now she was the Arilion Knight of Earth. A wild sense of power, the will to be everything she could be had been growing in her, like a bear woken from a deep hibernation. Emma knew she was different now. The thought terrified and thrilled her at once.
Even now, while she crested the steps to reach her mother, who stood at the top of the stairs, an excited tingle of anticipation raced up and down her arms.
“It’s over,” Tistan said to someone as she stood on the last step and turned to address the dark room. “Let’s be done with your games. Today, you die.”
Emma joined her mother as she reached the top step. She turned to look deeper into the dark room. As far as she could tell, the room was long with wooden floorboards. Windows lined either wall but were covered over with paper so no sunlight could come in.
On the far side of the room, a large window covered the wall. The window was also covered with newspaper and tape with the exception of a single pane about a foot in length and height. Golden sunlight spilled into the room in a beam of glorious illumination.
Desmond lounged in a leather chair with his black dress shoes propped up on an ancient-looking wooden table. It was difficult to make out much past his figure in the lighting.
“You are so naïve,” Desmond huffed as though the conversation was boring to him. “You think you’ve won and this story is over, but in actuality, it is only beginning.”
Desmond pulled something from his pocket.
Emma tensed, shifting her sword to her left hand and constructing a much shorter blade meant for throwing in her right. She was still becoming proficient with throwing knives under Drown’s tutelage at the Academy. The distance between where she stood and where Desmond sat had to be at least ten yards. If she was perfect, she could make the throw.
Instead of any kind of weapon, Desmond pulled out a square black something from the inside of his breast pocket. He tapped the screen a few times, lighting up his face, then placed it on the table in front of him.
The phone began to play “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. The familiar sound filled the room.
“There.” Desmond waved them forward. “Now that you’ve gotten some of that blood lust out of your veins, let’s talk.”
“We have nothing to talk to you about,” Emma said, remembering the people she had just brutally murdered because Desmond had turned them into monsters. “You took everything from those people. You’re coming with us. If you refuse, we will kill you.”
“The Arilion Knight has bark with her bite.” Desmond twirled his right pointer finger in the air around him as if he were conducting the music. “Honestly, I’ve never killed an Arilion Knight. No one alive today has to my knowledge. I wonder if an Arilion can become a turned? Imagine that? An Arilion Knight working for me and doing my every bidding.”
Desmond jumped to his feet like he was struck with a lightning bolt. “Yes, I love it! That’s what we’re going to do.”
“Enough of this mindless chatter!” Tistan roared, unable to keep her temper any longer. “You die, now!”
Tistan sprinted forward, hurling one of her own glowing swords at Desmond. He was beyond fast, or maybe it was the lighting in the room that played with Emma’s eyes, but he looked like a blur of black motion.
Desmond moved to the side, allowing the weapon to spiral past him and shatter a section of the covered window pane behind him. The sound of cracking glass filled the room as brilliant light traversed the chamber’s every corner.
Emma had been still long enough.
Tistan was already in front of Desmond, trading blows with the Vilmar.
Emma allowed the throwing knife in her hand to dissipate, instead placing both her hands on the pommel of her long sword. She threw herself into the fight as she and her mother slashed out with their purple and green blades.
Tistan was a trained warrior and Emma as an Arilion Knight was no pushover herself; still, they failed over and over again to land a hit on Desmond. He moved so quickly it was impossible to try and strike him where he stood. He stepped back at the right moment, ducked and sidestepped while he had to, avoiding every strike Tistan and Emma sent. What was worse he wore a sick smile on his lips that told Emma he was just playing with them.
Tistan came down on the crown of his head with a two-handed strike. Desmond caught the pommel of her sword right hand before sending a forward kick into her gut that threw her across the room.
Emma used the momentary distraction to gather herself and form her own attack. She feinted forward, making sure Desmond thought she was going for a straight strike with her sword. He turned in a circle, allowing her weapon to hit nothing but air. His fist came down on her face with so much force it felt like being hit with a sledgehammer.
Emma’s vision went blurry as unconsciousness came for her.
No, not yet, not yet Emma, Emma screamed in her head as she shook her head to clear the cobwebs of the coming concussion.
Desmond struck her again. Emma managed to construct a helmet over her head before his fist collided with her face. Her timing was just off. Desmond saw her helmet and pulled back on the force of his punch so as to not injure his own hand. The force from his blow was still enough to send her to her knees.
“Did you think it would be that easy?” Desmond asked from above her. “You were fighting turned before and newly turned at that. They were nothing more than babes. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into here. I’ve experimented on others. Others that are so much stronger than what you have seen here today.”
Desmond lifted a foot to bring down on Emma’s head.
Instead of his foot crashing down on her face, Desmond jerked to his right as Tistan pounced on him with her remaining green sword. Her blade cut a shallow line across his left cheek. A thin sheet of black blood gushed down his cheek.
Desmond grabbed Tistan around both of her wrists with each of his own hands. Tistan was moving noticeably slower after Desmond had kicked her across the room and into the wall.
The Vilmar pinned Tistan’s hands to her sides and lifted her off the ground.
Tistan screamed in pain as he crushed her wrists in his hands. Her right hand still holding her blade was forced to open and release her grip. The green katana fell to the ground with a thud.
“You’re going to pay with your life for making me bleed this day, Halyna,” Desmond screamed at her as he held her in place.
A snap from Tistan’s right wrist brought another scream to her lips. As much as it was filled with pain, her roar held anger and rage inside.
Emma worked her way to her hands and knees. Seeing the amount of pain her mother was in gave her all the will to fight she needed. Her vambraces grew in brilliance as they glowed with the rage of her fighting spirit.
Instead of acting out in pure emotion, Emma formed a plan. As soon as the thoughts came to her she reacted. With her right hand Emma formed a purple net she threw forward as hard as she could. The construct hit Desmond covering him in thick purple ropes and weighted corners. Desmond lost his hold on Tistan, who kicked away. She landed on her back in a heap.
Desmond was in the process of ripping free from the construct when Emma moved again. She formed massive hulk-like fist constructs over her own actual fists. With every ounce of strength she could muster, she began pounding Desmond over and over again as he tried to free himself from the net.
Tistan struggled to her knees as Emma watched from the corner of her peripheral vision. There was nothing she could do for her mother now. The best thing she could focus on at the moment was taking Desmond out of the fight.
The will and energy needed to hold the net in place as Desmond sought to rip free, as well as hold her helmet and continue to pound on Desmond with the massive fists was beyond taxing.
Sweat poured down her face and her back as she struck the Vilmar over and over again. Her attack was succeeding in keeping the Vilmar at bay, but it wasn’t going to take Desmond out of the fight for good. The amount of energy the vambraces were sapping from Emma was going to run her dry in the matter of minutes. The fight needed to end now.
Emma allowed her massive fists to deconstruct. She took a step back, placing her in a position with her back to the wall and stairway she had come up with her mother.
Desmond finally succeeded in freeing himself from the net that disappeared a moment later. He was bleeding not just from his cheek but from his nose. His right eye was already beginning to swell.
“Impressive, yet nowhere near what you needed to accomplish to take out one of my kind,” Desmond straightened his suit jacket and dusted off his sleeves. “Your mother is out of the fight unless she’s going to try and kick me to death. Her wrists are shattered.”
Tistan ground her teeth, focusing past the pain as she fought her way back to her feet. True to Desmond’s words, her hands lay limp at her sides.
“So tell me how much do you have left in that little body of yours?” Desmond asked Emma with a smile. “How much longer can you fight?”
“Long enough.” Emma constructed a hose in her arms that she held at her hip. She braced her feet against the wood, preparing herself for what she was about to do.
“Really? Really?” Desmond looked at her like a disappointed teacher. “You’re going to spray me to death?”
“Not to death,” Emma corrected him. “Just out of this building and maybe off this block.”
Emma allowed the energy she channeled into the hose to build while they were talking. At once, she unleashed the beam of purple power right into the center of Desmond’s chest. For the first time that day, she caught Desmond off guard.
It was clear the Vilmar wasn’t expecting much from her at this point in the fight. He had anticipated her energy would be running low, that the ability for her to construct an effective attack was nonexistent. He was wrong.
Emma hit Desmond dead center in his chest. Her attack was so strong it lifted Desmond off his feet, sending him flying backwards into what was left of the glass window. One of Tistan’s katanas had already shattered a sizeable hole in the glass panes. This was nothing compared to the hole Desmond left in his wake.
The last thing Emma saw as the Vilmar was lifted off his feet and sent out the window was a look of utter shock and amazement over his face. The next second, he was gone.
Emma’s chest heaved up and down as she sucked in long draughts of oxygen. She allowed her hose, helmet, and armor suit over her body to dissipate, giving her a break from having to keep her energy channeled on the constructs.
Allowing the constructs to disappear was like having a weighted vest lifted off her both physically and mentally. Emma allowed herself to relish the feeling for a moment before she was by her mother’s side.
Tistan’s eyes were full of pain; however, the hardened warrior wasn’t about to complain. “You did well, Emma. Earth is lucky to have you as their Arilion Knight.”
“Thanks.” Emma didn’t mean to shrug off the compliment, but the sound of sirens in the distance began to fill the room. “We need to get you help and be out of here before the cops show up. I’m not sure how we’re going to explain a wedding shop full of dead bodies to them.”
“Agreed,” Tistan grunted as she tried to maneuver one of her hands across the holo band she wore on her wrist. “We should be gone.”
“Here, let me,” Emma said. Lifting her own arm, she touched her holo band on her left wrist. She adjusted the coordinates for the Academy.
The next instant, a tingling sensation filled them as they were teleported from Earth to a space station that orbited around the planet of Stardox in the Milky Way Galaxy.
Emma and her mother were taken from the upstairs of the bridal shop in the garment district of Los Angeles and deposited to the teleportation room in the Academy.
The teleportation room reserved for receiving incoming travelers was plain white with a half circle chamber constructed for arrivals. Across from the receiving teleportation bay was a control panel with two stations for whoever was on duty.
“Emma, Emma, is that you?” The familiar voice of her friend Layga immediately put Emma at ease. “Are you hurt?”
Truth be told, Emma was exhausted with a pounding headache that felt like a shovel was being whacked against her skull every other second thanks to Desmond Dalshire. She wasn’t about to tell her friend any of this when her mother was suffering from not one but two broken wrists.
“I’m fine.” Emma motioned to her mother. “Tistan needs help. We have to take her to the infirmary right away.”
“Right, lucky I was on shift at the teleportation room.” Layga moved over to lift Tistan into her large arms. As a member of the Ree, her race was one of giants. She was easily a head taller than Emma, even though they were the same age. “Here, Tistan Duel, let me carry you.”
“I can walk myself, Ree,” Tistan growled. “I know the way.”
Layga visibly recoiled as if Tistan had slapped her.
“Come find me before you leave,” Tistan told Emma before she left the room. “We should discuss our next moves with both our would-be allies and our new enemy.”
“I will,” Emma said as her mother disappeared around the corner.
“What happened?” Layga asked, looking Emma up and down. “You look horrible.”
“Thanks, thanks for that.” Emma took a seat beside her friend. “I feel horrible. I need a Tylenol or something.”
“Wow, who pissed on Tistan’s leg?” Jeba walked into the room with the two other girls. “I just passed her in the hall and she looked like a mad saberling. I swear, if she wasn’t Emma’s mother, I’d—”
Jeba was a Bracka from the planet Brewit. In every way, she was the complete opposite of Layga. She was short and stocky with a temper legendary among her people. That the three girls were best friends was nothing short of a miracle.
When Jeba saw Emma, she immediately changed her tune. “Oh hey, Emma, your mom—looks nice today.”
The three friends immediately broke into a fit of laughter. Emma was so tired, Jeba’s words seemed funnier than they should be at the moment. Each chuckle brought a new pang of pain to her cranium.
“Ugh, don’t make me laugh,” Emma said, doubling over in her seat and holding her head. “It’s been a wild morning.”
“What happened?” Jeba asked as her eyes widened in size. “Does something or someone need killing? Please tell me we need to go kill something.”
“Well, kinda.” Emma spent the next few minutes explaining her morning to the girls. She told them everything from meeting General Fox to fighting Desmond Delshire.
When she was finished, both Layga’s and Jeba’s mouths were open. Layga’s was so wide she looked like she could fit an entire turkey inside in one bite.
“So we do get to kill something.” Jeba nodded with a smile. “Perhaps things are beginning to look up.”
“Is that all you heard?” Emma shook her head incredulously. “I have to get back to Earth and try to smooth things over with the general. And I have to hunt down and kill this Vilmar before he can turn anyone else.”
“Right, right.” Jeba grinned, making her eyebrows jump up and down. “But we have a fight on our hands. The giant and I love fighting.”
“Actually, you love fighting,” Layga corrected her friend. “I’d rather talk things out if we can.”
“Yes, yes.” Jeba waved her hand, dismissing what her friend said. “Talking, fighting; same thing.”
The comm link on the desk in front of the girls lit up and Dean Slain Extile’s familiar voice filled the room. “Emma, I was notified that you have returned to the Academy. Will you please come to my office for a moment? Layga, Jeba, thank you for performing your task and notifying the office when anyone teleports in or out of the Academy.”
The link clicked dead.
“Woops.” Layga winced.
“And he wants to ally himself with the Academy and our own Alliance?” Dean Extile ran an orange finger over his orange chin. “He already knew of us?”
“Yes,” Emma said from her seat in front of the dean’s desk. “He said they’ve discovered spheres that have allowed them to travel from planet to planet in the universe. He also has the help of his own alliance he has been building on behalf of Earth. They had a Draconian with them. He looks like a human lizard or dragon. He has access to technology way beyond Earth’s.”
Slain nodded along with Emma’s explanation. His carroty-colored eyes took in every word she was saying with care. Slain wore a simple black robe that touched his feet. He was tall like her mother, a trait indicative of the Halyna race.
The office they sat in was spacious with books lining the walls in massive shelves. His office was divided into two parts. One was where they sat now at his dark brown desk. The other area was part of the same room. A few steps descended into a sitting area with cushioned chairs and busts of various alien animals.
Emma knew the office well. It was where she was first taken when she entered the Academy under the disguise of a Halyna. It was where she had her first teleportation experience and threw up all over the dean’s floor. Pepperoni and jalapeno pizza, if she remembered correctly.
“I’ll have to run this by Director Trueart, of course.” Slain broke the silence. He spoke out loud as if he were talking to himself. “The Alliance has been open to including more races into the coalition now that the Arilion Knights have returned to the universe.”
“Have more Arilion come to the Academy?” Emma asked hopefully. As much as she knew she could go the distance alone if she had to, she also realized having another Knight to share experiences with would help lighten a load. It was a burden she had felt on her shoulders since she was chosen by the vambraces.
“Yes, we’ve had a newly chosen Arilion Knight reach out to the Academy and ask for guidance.” Slain lifted a hand to quell Emma’s excitement. “He needs time to adjust. Not everyone has been so eager to accept the role of champion of their planet as you, Emma.”
Emma’s smile died on her lips.
“What do you mean?” Emma asked, confused. “He doesn’t want to be an Arilion?”
“He’s coming to terms with his destiny,” Slain said in a way that reminded her of how politicians spoke. “Give him some time and then I think it would be a great idea for you to speak with him. In the meantime, I want you to know you have the full support from the Academy in protecting Earth. I know your planet hasn’t fully been accepted into the Alliance yet, but I feel like it’s just a matter of time. And you’re already part of the Academy, Emma. You’ll always have a home here.”
Not for the first time, Emma marveled at how Slain was able to put her at ease. He reminded Emma of her father; not quite as playful but just as kind and strong.
“So what do we do now?” Emma asked, trying to figure out what next steps she should take. “I have a feeling General Fox is going to be waiting for me at home and he’s probably not going to be too happy with the way we teleported out of his car and didn’t wait for him.”
“Agreed.” Slain stood from his seat behind his desk. “I’ll contact Director Trueart immediately and get something for you to give to this general when you return to Earth. In the meantime, why don’t you check in on your mother and get something for your headache.”
Emma’s face must have given her thoughts away.
“Please, the number of times you winced and touched your head was enough for me to tell you didn’t get away unscathed from the fight with the Vilmar,” Slain said, motioning with his chin to the door. “Go take care of yourself. Your planet is going to need you ready and healthy in the coming days.”
“Right.” Emma rose from her seat, then hesitated as she made for the door.
“Is there something else?” Dean Extile asked as he noticed Emma’s hesitancy to leave. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” Emma bit her lower lip, then decided to ask the question that had been on her mind since General Fox had recommended it that morning. “Do you—do you think I should tell my father what I am? I mean, about all of it and what’s going on here?”
Dean Extile took a moment to think about Emma’s question.
“You’re just going to answer my question with another question and let me figure this out for myself, aren’t you?” Emma sighed. “You have that look on your face.”
“Do I?” Slain smiled. “If you know all of that, then maybe you already know what the answer to your question is. What do you think?”
“I think raising me as a single parent, he’s given everything to me. I think I love him and I want to keep him safe. That means keeping him as far away from all of this as possible.” Emma hesitated. “And then there’s the whole mother thing who left him and ended up being an alien. He’s gone through enough.”
“And yet for all those reasons, one remains that rivals what you have shared.” Slain continued Emma’s train of thought. “He’s your father and you love him and you hate lying to him.”
“I do,” Emma agreed. “More than anything, I wish I could share this part of my life with him. But is that selfish of me? Just because I want to tell him to make my life easier doesn’t mean I should if this knowledge is going to put him in harm’s way.”
“Emma Jackson.” Slain approached her and placed a gentle hand on her right shoulder. “You are the most unselfish person I know. Trust me, that’s saying a lot. I’m the dean of an intergalactic academy. Be true to your instincts, be sure to think with your head, but only after it’s consulted with your heart.”
Emma smiled at Slain. He hadn’t given her the answer she wanted. What he had given her was something to think about.
“Go, go get something for that head.” Slain removed his hand and made his way back to his desk. “I have an Alliance to contact.”
Emma obeyed, leaving his office through a large door. On the opposite side of the door, a waterfall paused briefly to allow Emma to exit without getting wet. The waterfall was one of her favorite things about Slain’s office, that and the ceiling.
The ceilings in the entire Academy simply didn’t exist or at least didn’t seem to exist to her eye. The space above her simply went on and on like the sky. It also changed colors from bright to dark when the Academy’s daily cycle changed from daytime to night.
The waterfall that existed over Slain’s door came seemingly from nowhere. A long sheet of water fell into a groove in the floor and was carried away to where? Emma had no idea.
I hope they’re not recycling toilet water for the waterfall. The idea popped into Emma’s head making her grin. Or drinking water, or both.
These thoughts traveled with Emma as she made her way to the infirmary. The pounding in her head had not intensified, but neither had it subsided. It was annoying now more than anything else.
When Emma reached the infirmary, she was met with the familiar sight of white beds lined up neatly on either side of a long room. Only one bed was being used at the moment about halfway down the aisle.
Tistan Duel lay on her back. Both of her wrists were in a kind of metal cast. Beside her bed was a short Bracka woman named Madame Cherub. Emma had interacted with the head of the infirmary twice before. Once when she was injured from a charging Turlock and once when she and Instructor Drown needed to get to Slain’s office to return Emma to Earth. The woman had shown up out of nowhere to assist them.
Scenes full of mystery still touched at Emma’s mind. She remembered the two Alliance guards Madame Cherub had lulled to sleep simply by the tone of her voice.
“You can come in,” Madame Cherub said without turning around. “Your mother is sleeping now while the Bone Builders do their work.”
“How did you know I was here?” Emma asked as she entered the room and made her way down the aisle of beds. “I didn’t make a sound.”
“Sound is only one way to realize you’re not alone.” Madame Cherub rose from her seated position. She turned to smile at Emma. Her face was wrinkled with the passing of time, but still full of joy and life. “Now what injuries did you endure during your fight with the Vilmar?”
“Just, just a headache.” Emma grimaced as she touched the spot on her face where Desmond Dalshire had landed his strike. “I didn’t realize Vilmar were that strong or quick. I’ll be better prepared next time.”
“I know you will.” Madame Cherub gave her one of her signature wide grins. “Please, come and sit. I’ll mix the elixir to take away that headache you must have.”
At the last part of her words, Madame Cherub looked down at Emma’s glowing vambraces. When not in use, they shimmered with a dark purple energy.
Emma caught the Madame eyeing her vambraces.
“Have you ever seen them before?” Emma asked. “I mean, a pair of vambraces.”
“I’m old but still not that old.” Madame Cherub made her way around the bed Emma sat on to a short table. She opened the doors to the table and began gathering the supplies she needed. “The Arilion Knights have only just begun to reemerge in the galaxies. Before that, there were millennia when the universe was left without its knights.”
“Why do you think they’re—I mean, we’re back now?” Emma asked, not sure if the Madame would have an answer but hoping for some pearl of wisdom. “I mean, why now?”
Madame Cherub pursed her lips as she produced a small tray with an empty beaker. Next, she brought out three separate vials all holding a different color liquid.
“I imagine there are threats that have entered the universe that would require the aid of Arilion Knights to vanquish. You see, the Light hates the dark. It will not abandon us to it. You had to turn back the Shay from attacking your own planet. You turned their attack but did not defeat them. Now the Vilmar are seeking to infiltrate Earth.” Madame Cherub poured the first vial of light blue liquid into the beaker, followed by the next vial of dark green substance that reminded Emma of some kind of vegetable-based smoothie.
When the liquids combined, the contents of the beaker bubbled.
“I wouldn’t normally gossip, but you’re an Arilion and I think you should know.” Madame Cherub paused to look at Emma.
There was something dangerous in the old woman’s voice that made Emma hold her breath.
“There have been reports of Arilion Knights being chosen around the universe. But as always, when heroes are called, villains move to meet them.” Cherub lowered her eyes, pouring in the final vial of dark red liquid that looked like blood. It fizzed as it hit the other two in the beaker. “I’ve heard of a new order of Knights. A dark order emerging to combat the Arilion. You need to be careful, Emma Jackson. I fear for your life.”
Madame Cherub held Emma’s gaze past the point of it being comfortable. Emma felt a sense of dread descend on her. She had always known the Madame to be cryptic but in a kind of loving and jovial way. This was something very different.
“I don’t mean to frighten you.” Madame Cherub cleared her throat. “I just want you to be aware of the many forces working against you in the universe. The Light will not let you down.”
“I don’t know what you mean by Light,” Emma confessed, trying to figure out if the Madame meant the forces of good by using the term or an actual being or maybe just the goodness that lived inside of others. “I’ve never seen this Light. Even when I was chosen.”
“That doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist.” Madame Cherub tried to grin. “Here, drink this elixir. It’ll take away the pain in your head.”
Emma accepted the glass beaker, looking down at the liquid.
“It’s best not to overthink this one or smell it,” Madame Cherub warned. “Just down the hatch.”
“Down the hatch,” Emma repeated, bringing the beaker to her lips and swallowing the liquid. It tasted like old fish if the fish had been infected with a zombie virus that rotted it from the inside out.
“Nope, no,” Madame Cherub coached as Emma brought a hand to her mouth and closed her eyes, fighting every fiber in her being that told her to spit it out. “Swallow it, Emma.”
By some miracle, Emma gagged down the liquid, shaking her head. Tears came to her eyes as her body was racked with coughs.
“Oh man, maybe I should have just stuck with the headache.” Emma licked her lips and fought the urge to spit. She looked over at the slumbering form of her mother, making sure she hadn’t woken her from her peaceful state.
Tistan’s eyes were still closed. Her ample bosom rose and fell with every breath she took.
“Don’t worry,” Madame Cherub told Emma. “I slipped your mother a sleeping aid to help speed her recovery.”
“You ‘slipped’ her something?” Emma looked at her mother, then to the Madame of the infirmary with shock clear on her face. “What does that mean? You roofied her?”
“No one went on anybody’s roof.” Madame Cherub shook her head. “I’ve known Tistan Duel long enough to understand she wanted to get back into the fight as soon as possible. Your mother is a woman of action, as you well know. She’d be up and running around the Academy with the Bone Builders on her wrists if I hadn’t given her something to sleep.’
Emma nodded along with Cherub’s assessment of her mother. She wasn’t wrong. Tistan would be meeting with Slain or coaching Emma on how to handle the events coming her way if she were awake.
She took a closer look at the metal cases around her mother’s wrists. They were identical and clamped on to her like manacles. A display on either one showed a read out in green and red lights that Emma didn’t understand.
“Bone Builders are exactly what they sound like,” Madame Cherub sidled up to Emma. The short Bracka was twice as wide as Emma but only came up to her chin. “They’ll assess breaks or fractures in the bone and repair it within a few hours’ time. Tistan will be up and raging to go very soon.”
“I see,” Emma said, looking down on the alien mother who had only reentered her life a few months before. “Thank you for taking care of her.”
“And you?” Madame Cherub asked. “How’s the head?”
Emma had completely forgotten about her own headache. It was gone like some distant memory that had happened yesterday or the day before.
“I feel great, thank you,” Emma said, giving Madame Cherub a sideways look. “You didn’t slip something in there to make me sleep too, did you?”
Cherub shrugged before she shuffled around the bed to return the vials and beaker she used to administer Emma’s medicine. “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. We’ll never know.”
“Uh, no.” Emma grinned, realizing the Bracka was teasing with her. “I’ll know if I wake up all of a sudden drooling on your floor.”
“No, I refrained.” Madame Cherub motioned with her head to the doors of the infirmary. “You have a visitor. I wouldn’t want you to miss out.”
Emma moved her gaze over to the open doors of the infirmary where Instructor Drown stood. The Halyna teacher of combat was a longtime friend of her mother. He and Emma had gotten off on the wrong foot when she first started at the Academy, but when she had needed him the most, he had come through for her.
He was dressed in a long robe, his orange skin a shade darker than either Tistan’s or Slain’s. Stubble ran over his jaw and his shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a ponytail.
He waited there at the door, his eyes on Tistan’s still form only. Emma thought he might enter the infirmary to speak with them. He didn’t.
“You should go to him,” Madame Cherub whispered. “Like most warriors who have seen and lost too much, he wants to take the first step, but he won’t let himself, maybe even can’t allow himself.”
Emma didn’t bother with asking the woman what she meant. She was getting used to Madame Cherub’s cryptic way of talking.
Emma crossed the infirmary and made her way to the door. It wasn’t until she was only a few feet from Drown that he moved his gaze from Tistan to Emma.
“How is she?” he asked, skewing her with one of his signature cold stares. “What happened to you two?”
“She’s fine,” Emma assured the instructor. “Her wrists are broken, but Madame Cherub administered the Bone Builders and drugged her. That last part sounds bad, but it’s so she can sleep.”
Drown sighed relief, his muscular chest actually descending as he did so. The hardened warrior had a soft spot for her mother that Emma suspected went further than friendship.
Drown caught Emma’s eye as she witnessed his sense of relief.
“And how did it happen?” Drown changed the subject quickly allowing no chance that Emma would be able to ask him how he felt. “Who did this?”
“There’s an alien race trying to infiltrate Earth called the Vilmar,” Emma explained. “We discovered a coven including humans the alien turned and the alien himself. Those he turned were easy enough to get rid of, but he was stronger than I thought.”
“You’re stronger than he could ever be with those vambraces,” Drown growled at her. “You should have been able to take him easily.”
Heat rushed to Emma’s face as she caught the tone in his voice that said he blamed her for what had happened to Tistan.
“Yeah, well, I guess I’m still getting used to being an Arilion Knight and the whole mother back in my life thing and aliens running around freaking Los Angeles.” Emma didn’t mean to shout, but her voice filled the infirmary. “Why don’t you go and fight the Vilmar? I’m sure you’d do a much better job than I could.”
“You need to train harder.” Drown ignored her words, looking down at her with an intensity she would have shied away from two months before. “You need to be like the Arilion Knights of old. You can be like them if you push yourself past your limits. Don’t hold back.”
“I’m not holding anything back,” Emma said through clenched teeth. Anger burned in her heart.
Just go before you say or do something you regret, Emma told herself. You have better things to do than argue with Drown.
“So, hey, it’s been really great catching up with you, Instructor Drown,” Emma lied and gave the Halyna a fake smile. “I’m going to be going now.”
Drown didn’t respond to her. The only indication he gave of hearing her at all was moving his gaze back from her to her mother.
Emma cooled off by traveling through the Academy. She headed down to visit the Beast Prevention class taught by the newly appointed Ree named Instructor Low. The Academy had found a suitable replacement for the position, reassigning the android who had previously taught the class in a lateral move to assist Emma’s mother in her duties as chief security officer at the Academy.
Emma walked the halls as the students of the Academy were released from their classes for their midday meal in the mess hall. Emma did her best to smile at familiar faces, but there was no denying things were very different now.
As much as she wanted to be one of them, just another recruit at the Academy, she wasn’t. She had entered the Academy under a disguise and had to lie to her class of recruits. Then she was chosen as an Arilion Knight. This separated her even further.
Now her former classmates weren’t only wary of her being half human, they were in awe of her being a living, breathing Arilion Knight. It was the double-edged sword of not fully trusting her while still being amazed by her that drove most of them away.
Taking one on one classes with the instructors to further hone her abilities as an Arilion Knight drove the wedge between her and her former friends even further. Layga and Jeba were the only ones that had remained by her side.
As Emma walked down the stone hall, Jaymore and Elexon caught her eye. The Ree and Bracka boys noticed her looking. They smiled and waved but did nothing to slow their progress as they hurried past.
Daylon’s familiar face came next. The Halyna boy had shared something with her they were only beginning to explore when Emma’s identity as half human, and an Arilion Knight at that, was revealed.
“Oh, uh, hey, Em—I mean, Emma,” Daylon said with a boyish grin that didn’t reach his eyes. “I didn’t—I didn’t know you’d be here. I thought you trained in the mornings now and were back on Earth in the afternoon.”
The entire time he spoke to her, his eyes shifted from her vambraces to her eyes and back and forth. To most of the recruits and even to some of the adults, the glowing vambraces were legendary.
“Yeah—I—well, there’s a lot going on right now on Earth, so the schedule has been kind of bananas lately.” Emma cleared her throat, trying to make the conversation as least awkward as she could. “How are classes? Jeba and Layga tell me Instructor Grimm is really getting into some tough—”
“Come on, Daylon,” a familiar voice that made Emma cringe inside said from behind her. “You’re going to be late for our lunch date.”
Emma turned to see Dana, one of the other first-year recruits. She was a Halyna girl who fit the bill as your typical bully. It seemed even in a floating space station in orbit, mean girls still existed.
Dana refused to look at Emma. Instead, she craned her neck to look past Emma at Daylon.
“Good to see you too,” Emma said to the Halyna girl.
“Shouldn’t you be training or protecting your planet or something?” Dana rolled her eyes, looking at Emma for the first time. “Or maybe telling more lies about your purity of race.”
“You know the really cool thing about these vambraces?” Emma constructed a drill the size of her arm in her right hand. In her left, a purple axe appeared in her palm with a wicked-looking end. “I can make anything I want, anything.”
Dana took a step back. She opened her mouth like she was going to say something, then closed it again. She turned on her heel a moment later and stalked down the hall.
“Oh, that’s really going to piss her off.” Daylon whistled behind Emma.
“I know.” Emma sighed, allowing her constructs to disappear as she turned back to Daylon. “I probably shouldn’t have done that.”
“Well, I should be going now, but…” Daylon’s voice trailed off like he was going to say something more. He looked at her with a gaze that said there was more if he could only bring himself to say it. “But good luck, Emma.”
“Thanks,” Emma said as Daylon walked by. There was more she was going to say too. So much she wanted to tell him.
You got to say something, you got to say something before he leaves, before it’s too late! Emma screamed at herself in her head. This is the perfect time. If not now when?
Emma turned to say something to Daylon’s retreating figure. The hall was nearly free of recruits now as they made their way to their midday meal.
Emma opened her mouth, not knowing what to say. The growling she heard behind her cut her off.
Emma closed her mouth slowly, turning as she said good-bye to Daylon under her breath. She recognized the low growl-type purring. It was coming from the classroom to her right where Beast Prevention was held. It was the reason she had come down here to begin with.
Emma walked through the doorway to the inside of a classroom where chairs and desks were set up, surrounded by an alien landscape of trees, grass, and a bright never-ending sky overhead.
At the head of the classroom, a giant Ree male stood looking down at his desk as he leafed through papers. The growling came again even louder and more manic.
“Hush now, good boy.” The Ree instructor looked to his left past the trees at where the sound was coming from. “We’ll be along soon to get you your lunch.”
He looked up to see Emma standing at the entrance of his class.
“Hi, sorry,” Emma said with a wave of her hand. “I think Fang might be getting a little excited because he smells me.”
The Ree instructor stood eight feet tall, built like a small brick building. When he saw Emma, his eyes filled with wonder. He immediately dropped to a knee, causing the ground to shudder. He bowed his head. “Arilion Knight, my classroom is yours.”
“Oh, you can—you don’t have to bow to me.” Emma hurried into the room and grabbed the Ree’s left arm to lift him to his feet. “Please, you can get up.”
“My name is Master Low, Instructor Low here at the Academy,” Instructor Low introduced himself. “I am forever in the service of the Arilion and what they stand for. If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know.”
Standing this close, the Ree instructor reminded Emma of how large he actually was. The robe he wore could have easily acted as a covering for a small car. His long dark hair and beard made his face look even larger than it actually was. Emma had to crane her neck upward to look him in his eye.
“Thank you, Instructor Low.” Emma bobbed her own head. “I’m just here to visit a friend.”
As if on cue, the whining purr coming from just inside the wooded area sounded again.
“Of course, please.” Instructor Low extended a massive arm to his left. “I assume you are speaking of the saberling? I was told you share a common bond with him.”
“Yeah, at first I think he just liked me because of my scent.” Emma smiled as they made their way through the line of trees to an enclosed pen where Fang sat waiting. “But we’ve been through some trials together now that have brought us closer.”
Emma’s grin turned into a Cheshire cat smile as she saw Fang jumping up and down in his pen. The saberling looked like a small wolf and sabertooth tiger hybrid with enormous fangs coming down from the top of his mouth. He was still an adolescent but was growing every day. Even now he was about forty pounds and came up to Emma’s thigh.
“There he is,” Emma unlocked the gate to the fence that kept Fang in his designated area. “I missed you too buddy.”
Fang jumped on her, licking any and every piece of her he could get his pink tongue on. Emma scratched him around his ears and played with him by ruffling his cheeks and stroking his chest and sides.
Fang closed his eyes and smiled as if he were in heaven.
“Amazing,” Instructor Low commented. “I’ve never seen a saberling take to anyone like this. At least not after knowing them for such a short time. Saberlings have been domesticated, of course, but never this quickly.”
“We’ve been through an alien invasion together,” Emma said, remembering the night the Shay came to attack Earth. “Maybe that’s why we’ve bonded so quickly.”
“Perhaps,” Instructor Low said from his spot outside Fang’s pen. “If you would like to take him with you, I could speak with Dean Extile. I’m sure for an Arilion Knight, things could be worked out.”
Emma laughed out loud at the thought. She imagined her father’s and Miss Starling’s faces as they saw Fang for the first time.
“Sorry, sorry, I’m not laughing at you.” Emma sank to her knees and hugged Fang. “That’s very nice of you to offer. Thank you. I don’t know if Earth is the best place for him at the moment. He wouldn’t fit in.”
Emma heard her own words as she spoke them. It seemed neither of them were doing a great job of fitting in.
“Ohhh… I see.” Instructor Low nodded along with his words. “I know changes can be harsh and colleagues less than understanding. You’re not the only Arilion Knight to face these problems.”
“What do you mean?” Emma asked, looking up from her playing with Fang.
Instructor Low didn’t say anything. Instead, he pointedly looked to his left. A jerk from his chin told Emma he wanted her to follow his gaze.
Through the multicolored trees, Emma caught what the Ree instructor was hinting at. A dull purple glow emanated from a pair of vambraces somewhere deeper into the woods.
Emma couldn’t make out exact details of who was wearing the vambraces, but she could tell that whoever it was, was large with dark fur covering its body. Slain’s words that another Arilion had come to the Academy for guidance tickled the back of her memory.
You’re not as alone as you thought you were, Emma said to herself. Maybe things are finally starting to look up.
Emma rose to her feet. She dusted off her pants, giving Fang a final scratch behind his ears.
“When did the new knight get here?” Emma asked, approaching Instructor Low from the opposite side of the fence. “To the Academy and then to your class?”
“He arrived late yesterday afternoon at the Academy,” Instructor Low said, opening the gate for Emma. “He came here just before my class started. He stayed hidden during my lecture. I think the landscape here reminds him of his home.”
Emma nodded along with Instructor Low’s words. She tried to get a better look at the new Arilion Knight, but the trees where he stood were too dense, his distance too far. To get any kind of a good look she’d have to get closer.
“I should go talk to him,” Emma said out loud even as she thought the words. “I know how he feels.”
“You do as you see is fit.” Instructor Low cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Emma, not every Arilion who is chosen will be so accepting of the mantle. I fear our new knight is perhaps a bit overwhelmed, even bitter at being chosen.”
“I get it,” Emma said, already walking away from Instructor Low. She made her way deeper into the forest. “Thanks for the heads up.”
Fang ran alongside his pen and gave off one of his growl purrs.
“I’ll be okay, buddy.” Emma looked over to the worried saberling with a wink. “I’m tougher than I look.”
Emma made no effort to mask her presence. In fact, she made sure to place her feet a little heavier on the ground so the new knight would know she was coming. The last thing she wanted to do was sneak up on the latest addition to her order.
Emma’s heart rate picked up in tempo as she neared the creature. With every step, more details became visible. All of these details told Emma to run the other way.
He was in a small clearing on a large rock. His head was down, eyes closed as if he were sleeping or meditating. Black fur ran over his body. A long bushy tail and pointed ears made him look like an animal. His body was in the shape of a man. He sat like he could walk on two feet. His mouth and nose protruded from his face in a muzzle.
On his forearms, dark brown leather-looking vambraces so different from her own metal ones glowed with a vivid purple. He wore the uniform of the Academy, black with purple outlined trim. The only exception to his uniform was that he had torn off his sleeves. He wasn’t quite as large as Layga, but he was muscular and much taller than Emma.
“Are you just going to stand there and stare at me?” the new knight asked, opening his eyes to reveal a pair of yellow orbs. “They send you to tell me everything’s going to be all right?”
“What?—no,” Emma said, shaking her head. “No one sent me. I’m here on my own. My name is Emma Jackson. I was just chosen as Earth’s knight two months ago.”
“What’s your name?”
“Is this the part where we become best friends and you reassure me I’m not alone?”
Emma was starting to get annoyed with the knight’s bad temper. His voice was deep but didn’t sound like an adult in her ears. If she had to guess, she’d put him in his late teens.
“We don’t have to be friends,” Emma said, moving forward to take up a standing position in front of him. “But even acquaintances know each other’s names.”
“I’m Jace Hunter from the planet Raze in the Milky Way Galaxy,” Jace said, looking up at her and fixing her with a predatory glare. “What else do you want to know, or can you leave me alone now?”
“You have a really bad attitude about this,” Emma said, unable to keep a lid on her own frustration. “You’re an Arilion Knight. The road is about to get a lot tougher from here. You’re going to have to deal with it.”
Jace stood from his seat. His muscular frame towered over Emma. His biceps were nearly the size of her leg. He stared down at her, baring his teeth.
“I am dealing with it,” Jace growled at her. “I’m here, aren’t I? I’ve come to the Academy to learn how to use these powers.”
“How did your vambraces choose you?” Emma asked. “I mean, what were you doing?”
“I—it doesn’t matter,” Jace said, catching himself before he was about to open up to Emma. “What matters now is that I learn how to use these things whether I want to or not. Are you going to teach me or what?”
“Sure, they have instructors at the Academy that will help you as well, but I can tell you what I know,” Emma said, extending her own vambraces to show Jace. “I know that the vambraces feed off our warrior spirit. We were chosen because we have the very strongest will amongst those who live on our planets. With our minds, we channel our will into energy. We can create anything from weapons to defensive construct to armor, you name it.”
As Emma said the words, she constructed a sword, then a shield, and then a purple helmet over her face.
Wonder washed over Jace’s wolfish features for the briefest moment before he bottled his awe. A look of contempt spread over his face once more.
“It’s probably easy for you to be so in love with the idea of protecting your planet because it was kind to you.” Jace spat the words, looking Emma up and down with disdain. “Not all of us have had the same privileged upbringing as you.”
“You don’t know anything about me.” Emma raised her right eyebrow, refusing to back down. “You think life’s been easy for me? Listen, you don’t know a thing about high school. Especially for a tall, pointy-eared human who has a stuttering problem. Let’s also throw in the fact that I grew up without a mother.”
Emma was practically seething.
Who the heck does this furball think he is? Emma thought to herself. He comes in here like he’s owed something, throwing out judgment on me like I’m some kind of one percent elitist.
“Emma? Excuse me, Emma?”
Emma turned to see Instructor Low a respectful distance from the two Arilion. He nodded to them both before continuing. “I don’t mean to intrude on official Arilion business, but Dean Extile is requesting your presence in his office. He says it’s urgent.”
“The good news is that the Alliance sees the benefit of including Earth into the coalition,” Slain explained to Emma as she once again sat in his office. “Honestly, they were voting to include Earth even before General Fox showed up at your doorstep. They see the advantage of allying with the Arilion Knights and thus their planets as well.”
“Why am I sensing a big ‘but’ coming up?” Emma asked. She sat rigid in one of the overstuffed chairs in the dean’s office. Truth be told, she was still heated from her conversation with Jace. Only second to bullies, she hated those who were so quick to pass judgment on others. “This is way too much good news. What else is coming?”
“Emma, for one so young, you are developing at an astonishing rate.” Slain leaned against his desk. He folded both arms over his chest. “Not only your fighting ability but your discernment. You should consider a position in politics.”
“Yeah, well there’s this whole Arilion Knight thing I’m kind of destined to do.” Emma wagged her brows. “But you were saying?”
“Right. The Alliance has agreed to meet with General Fox here at the Academy to discuss the Earth joining the coalition. However, your little teleportation trick away from the general didn’t sit well with him.” Slain winced as he brought up a holo image on his desk of Emma’s house and a black sedan parked outside. “He’s waiting at your house. With your father arriving any minute, I can only imagine he plans to tell him of your identity as an alien hybrid, Arilion Knight, and protector of your planet.”
Emma’s eyes went wide as she scanned the holo display. The holographic images popped up and hovered over Slain’s desk in light blue pictures. There was no mistaking her two-story home and the black sedan sitting outside.
Her heart dropped to her stomach. If she had to tell her father what was going on, this is not how she wanted to have to do it.
As she watched, the passenger side of the black sedan opened. Out walked General Fox. He made his way methodically to her front porch, where he sat on one of the two rocking chairs as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“He’s obviously waiting for your father,” Slain said, drumming the fingers of his right hand on the desk. “I would offer to have him removed, but now that we are about to extend the offer for Earth to join the Alliance, perhaps it’s better if we deal politically with our new alliance member.”
“He can’t—” Emma stopped. She felt sick to her stomach at the thought of her father hearing the truth from anyone but herself. “I need to get there right now. I have to be the one to tell my dad the truth.”
“I agree.” Slain straightened from his position leaning over the holo display. “You should be the one to tell your father. You can also tell the general we are granting his request for a meeting. Good luck, Emma Jackson.”
“Thanks,” Emma said, rising from her seat and maneuvering her right pointer finger around the teleportation band on her wrist. “I’m going to need it. See you soon.”
A moment later, Emma felt a tingling sensation race across her body. One second she was in Slain’s office, the next she was standing in her kitchen, the door to her house to her immediate left.
Emma glanced at the clock that blinked green in the display portion of their kitchen stove. The time read four forty-five. Her father would be home from his job as a college history professor at the local community college any minute now. There was no time to try to come up with a plan.
Emma raced to her front door and flung it open. To her right, General Fox sat in his uniform, slowly rocking in his seat. He ignored her presence, keeping his eyes resting on the street where her father would pull up at any time.
“Listen, I know we should have waited for you,” Emma said so fast it sounded like one word coming from her mouth. “We just thought it was best to teleport there ahead of you and take on the Vilmar before you or any Marines could get hurt. I’m sorry, but you can’t do this. My father isn’t a part of this.”
“I accept your apology, Emma,” General Fox said as he slowly rocked in his chair. He even gave her a smile. “But your place isn’t to tell the United States Marine Corps our job. Putting ourselves in harm’s way is what we’ve signed up for. It’s what we’ve been trained to do.”
General Fox paused for a moment, still slowly rocking back and forth in his chair. The sun was just going down now behind the tops of the roofs, painting the general in a golden light.
Emma could tell he wasn’t happy with her, but there was still no anger in his voice. A hint of disappointment and blunt speech was the most he was willing to show at the moment.
“I know you haven’t received any training.” General Fox held her stare. “I get that you’re not a Marine or a member of the armed forces. But one thing I think you can agree with me on is that for any team to be effective, there has to be a level of trust. The Marines preach this day in and day out until it’s so ingrained into your soul there is no question that the Marine beside you has your back. The trust we have for one another goes far beyond words. My men know that whatever comes, we’re in this together. When you and Tistan Duel used our information to teleport and took it on yourselves to face the Vilmar alone, you broke that trust.”
“I know—I know and I feel horrible for that.” Emma cringed as she grasped the full magnitude of the position she had put General Fox in. “I’ll prove to you that I can work as part of a team, but right now, please. If you’re serious about us moving forward, please don’t do this.”
“I’m not one to hold grudges.” General Fox reached for a cigar in the front of his shirt pocket and a lighter. He bit into one end of the cigar and spat the edge into the bushes in front of him. “I address issues, we learn, and we move on. I know you haven’t known me long enough to see that’s how I operate, but you will.”
“Okay, okay, good.” Emma heaved a sigh of relief. “I wasn’t sure how pissed off you were going to be about the whole thing. Thank you. I spoke with the dean at the Academy, who contacted the Alliance, and they want to meet with you to talk about Earth joining the coalition. But seriously, if we could talk about this later? My dad is going to be home any minute.”
General Fox still didn’t move. He sat puffing on the end of his cigar as the yellow flame from his lighter stoked the tobacco inside the rolled husk.
“That…” General Fox spoke slowly, exhaling the smoke and enjoying the flavor. “…is some seriously great news. We can build trust from this point going forward, Emma. As far as me not telling your father a thing about this? I give you my word. You can tell him.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Emma saw movement from the street. Her father’s black sedan that was already nine years old with a white scrape on the passenger rear side where someone had opened their door too fast pulled into their driveway.
A light bulb clicked on in Emma’s mind as she understood everything the general wasn’t saying. He was prepared to forgive her and move on, but not before she paid for what she had done. Technically, it was Tistan who had teleported them to fight the Vilmar, but Emma was guilty by association.
The general was going to be true to his word and not tell her father. However, he wasn’t going anywhere and that would force Emma to tell her father everything anyway.
You can just grab him with your vambraces and force him to leave, Emma thought to herself as her wild imagination took off. You could grab him and teleport him away right now.
For all the reasons Emma wanted to escape, she understood why she couldn’t. She was part of something so much larger than herself right now. And if she was honest with herself, she had wanted to tell her father from the beginning. He was her best friend. She had shared everything with him, even the embarrassing stuff. There wasn’t a moment in her life when he had let her down.
Richard Jackson exited his vehicle holding a battered backpack he used to carry his teaching materials at the college. The plain jeans and button-up shirt made him look as though he could be a student of one of his own classes instead of the teacher. His short hair and a shorter dark beard covered his face.
His eyes sparkled when he saw his daughter, then transitioned to confusion as he caught sight of General Fox.
“Hey, Em.” Richard Jackson smiled at his daughter, then looked over to the general as he approached. “Hello.”
“Hello.” General Fox stood from his seat and extended his hand. “General Fox. I’m pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Uh, me too, I think.” Emma’s father shook the man’s hand, looking over to his daughter for direction. “Is everything okay here?”
“Yeah—yeah, it’s—it’s great,” Emma lied, trying to think of how to even broach the subject. Her stuttering would be a telltale sign to her father that she was lying. Instead of lying to him further, she word-vomited the truth. “Dad, I love you. I haven’t been honest with you over the last two months. I never went to a science camp. I’m half alien. I went to a place in space called the Academy to train. There was an alien force coming to invade Earth and I fought them back. Along the way, I discovered I’m part of a universal protection corps known as the Arilion Knights.”
Emma paused to take a breath, unwilling to look her father in his eyes. Instead, she pulled up the sleeves of her dark hoodie to reveal the purple vambraces on her forearms.
Finally, she looked up at her father. Richard Jackson’s mouth was open as he marveled at the pieces of armor on his daughter’s forearms. He looked at Emma, then to her forearms, then to the general, and back again. More than once, he looked like he was going to say something but didn’t.
“Are you okay, Dad?” Emma asked, biting her lower lip. “Sorry, I know I kinda dumped on you right now. Say—say something.”
“I—did you say you were half alien?” Richard Jackson shook his head, beginning a nervous laugh. “Emma, is this some kind of joke? It’s a joke, right?”
Emma just shook her head. She couldn’t imagine what was going on in her father’s mind right now. She had turned everything he thought he knew upside down in the space of a few sentences.
“It’s not a joke, Mr. Jackson,” General Fox looked over at Emma. “You really laid it on him thick, kid. Maybe we should go inside, sit him down for the rest.”
“There’s—there’s more?” Emma’s father licked at his dry lips. “Emma, what’s going on?”
“Yeah, good idea. Let’s go inside and get you to sit down.” Emma guided her father into the house while the general put out his cigar. The sun was setting fast already, ushering in long shadows that would herald the approaching night.
Emma led her father inside, her hand gripping his own as it had for so many years. This time was different. This time, she was leading him, the calluses on her father’s palm whispering promises of her own future as she continued to train as an Arilion Knight.
Emma, her father, and General Fox huddled around the kitchen table in silence.
“And you?” Richard finally spoke, looking over at the general. “How do you fit into all of this?”
“I spearhead a movement codenamed Project Nebula. We’ve been tasked with exploring the universe using ancient spheres we’ve uncovered. I’m here on behalf of the government to extend a hand to your daughter. We want to help in whatever way we can.” General Fox leaned back in his seat before motioning over to Emma. “You should be very proud of Emma, Mr. Jackson. She’s not only turned an alien force back from invading Earth, but she’s been training every day to be the Arilion Knight Earth needs her to be.”
“The who?” Mr. Jackson furrowed his brow. “The Armadillo Knight? What’s an Armadillo Knight?”
“Arilion, Dad.” Emma placed her arms on the circular kitchen table. “These vambraces choose one Arilion Knight on each planet to serve as the planet’s protector. They select the people whose will is the strongest.”
Mr. Jackson sat quiet, trying to process all the news coming at him at once.
“You should be proud—”
“I am proud of my daughter.” Mr. Jackson interrupted the general before he could finish his thought. “I’m proud of her every day. I don’t need her to be some kind of intergalactic Jedi Knight for that.”
“It’s more like being in the Green Lantern Corps, but I guess Jedi Knight works too,” Emma said under her breath. “I’m fine, Dad. I have great teachers and now more Arilion Knights are being chosen by the day. I’m not alone.”
“You’re never alone, Em,” her father corrected her. His eyes widened as a light bulb clicked in his head. “The attack on the beach, last month. That was you, wasn’t it?”
“That didn’t make it on the news; we made sure of that,” General Fox interjected. If he was angry at being cut off by Mr. Jackson before, he didn’t show it.
“No, I saw it on my news feed on Facebook,” Mr. Jackson said, staring at Em again. “That was you, wasn’t it? I mean, all there was, was a few blurry images, but it was you.”
“That’s when the vambraces first chose me,” Emma agreed. “I think they picked me because they knew I wasn’t going to stop. They felt the fighting spirit within me. They knew I needed to turn back the invasion to protect our planet.”
Mr. Jackson slumped back in his chair. “Aliens.”
“Aliens,” Emma agreed. She rose from her seat and went to the counter to get her father a glass of water. The hardest part of their conversation was yet to come. “You’d like them though, Dad. They’re not all bad. I made some really great friends while I was at the Academy. I want you to meet them.”
“Right, alien friends.” Mr. Jackson accepted the glass of cold water his daughter brought him.
“You should tell him about reconnecting with your mother,” General Fox coaxed Emma.
Mr. Jackson coughed and spit out a spray of water as he choked on the general’s words.
Emma cringed inwardly. Outwardly, she glared at the general.
“It’s best to get it all out now.” General Fox motioned to Mr. Jackson. “You said you wanted to be the one to tell him. So tell him.”
Emma spent the better part of the next few hours telling her father everything. How her mother had been an alien spy that fell in love with him, married, and conceived Emma, then was called back to her home when the mission was over. She went into detail about the Academy, the battle with the Shay, and now the Vilmar. Her training, her instructors, how the vambraces worked; everything.
General Fox chimed in here and there with more information Emma didn’t even know. He told them about their own growing corps of Arilion Knights, their headquarters underneath the Hoover Dam at a place called The Den, and their run in with the Lord of Chaos.
For the most part, Mr. Jackson remained quiet, soaking in his new world. Things he had been taught as a child about the universe were being redefined and reshaped by the minute.
When the topics of conversation had been exhausted, the table quieted once more.
“And here I thought you were missing out on some of the best years in your life.” Mr. Jackson looked at his daughter with a shake of his head and a wince. “But here you are making friends with aliens, acting as savior to our planet, and—and reconnecting with your mother.”
The last part of what he said looked like it actually caused him pain. The way he pushed the words past his lips with the pain in his eyes was everything Emma feared.
“I don’t ever know if I’ve truly ever experienced a state of shock before, but this is the closest I’ve gotten to it.” Mr. Jackson forced air out of his lips as if he wanted to say more, but no words he could create could do the moment justice. “I don’t know what to say.”
“It’s a lot,” General Fox agreed. “The best thing you can do is take time to come to grips with the truth. It’ll take time to accept all of this.”
“I’m—I’m sorry, Dad.” Emma shook her head. She wasn’t a crier, but seeing her father going through so much emotional anguish felt like an ice-cold dagger digging into her heart. “I wanted to tell you so many times before. I just wanted to protect you from all of this.”
Tears pooled, then fell down Richard Jackson’s face. There was no sobbing or crying; just salty streaks of water making tiny rivers down his cheeks and into his beard.
“We’ll be all right, we’ll be all right,” Mr. Jackson said over and over again as if he were convincing himself of his own words. He rose from his seat and moved over to where Emma sat. “I get it. I’m not happy about you lying to me, but if this isn’t some kind of crazy dream, I get why you’ve kept this a secret.”
At the sight of her father crying, the familiar sting of tears also touched Emma’s eyes. She refused to give them the satisfaction of making their way down her face.
Emma rose from her own seat. She embraced her father, burrowing her face into his chest. His familiar smell was comfortable, something like worn clothes that weren’t quite dirty but carried his scent.
Emma and her father broke their hold a moment later. General Fox jumped up from his seat, sending his wooden chair skidding across the tile kitchen floor.
His eyes were wide, a hand already at the small of his back where Emma knew he kept his sidearm. She followed his gaze to the kitchen window. There was nothing out of the ordinary that she could see.
They had been talking long enough at the table where the night had shifted from a descending sun to a full moon showering the neighborhood with its silver light. It looked normal enough. A view of their front yard let out to the street and the houses on the opposite side. No one was in sight.
“What?” Mr. Jackson looked over to the general. “What is it?”
Instead of answering the question, General Fox lifted a finger to his ear. “Laloyd, come in.”
Emma couldn’t hear the Draconian’s voice on the other side of the conversation, but she could guess what he was saying as she listened to General Fox.
“Nothing? You’re sure?” General Fox moved to the window, looking out to the dark night beyond.
Footsteps reached their ears from somewhere on the second floor of their house. So faint, Emma had to look at her father to confirm he had heard the same sounds.
Mr. Jackson furrowed his brow; instinct took over as he pushed Emma behind him. He placed himself between her and the foot of the stairs.
General Fox joined Mr. Jackson and Emma, removing the black Remington 1911 from its holster at the small of his back. “I take it you’re not expecting any visitors?”
“Nope,” Mr. Jackson said under his breath.
As the two men spoke, Emma caught movement from her peripheral vision. Her father had installed motion-detecting lights around their house as an added safety precaution only a few months prior.
The light at the front of the house that reacted to motion went bright. For the briefest of moments, Emma caught sight of a thick man with blood-red eyes staring at her from the front window.
He was gone a moment later.
“The turned, maybe Desmond himself is here,” Emma said, channeling a sword into her right hand and a dagger she held blade down in her left. “How did he find us so fast?”
Without waiting for an answer, she placed herself alongside her father and the general.
More noise came from the back of the house. It sounded like someone scratching long nails across their back door. Multiple steps could be heard overhead as more feet hit the floor above.
Emma could hear Laloyd’s excited voice talking to General Fox via his implanted comm unit. What he was saying was lost on her, but she could imagine.
“Yes, we’ve gathered that.” General Fox placed himself at the foot of the stairwell, aiming down the sights of his weapon. “Call in backup and stay in the vehicle.”
The handle to their front door jiggled as someone or something tried the lock. Emma exchanged her position beside her father and the general to meet the attack from the front door and the kitchen window if necessary.
Like an old friend calling for a visit, fear tingled down Emma from her head to her toes. Her heartbeat picked up as she had to remind herself to breathe.
Easy, Emma warned herself. Easy.
The fear that came for her this time had an extra edge. Her father was with her now. If anything happened to him, she didn’t know how she would be able to go on.
“Does, does someone want to tell me what’s going on?” Mr. Jackson asked.
There was no time. The sound of breaking glass as the kitchen window exploded inward accompanied General Fox’s discharging weapon.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Two turned stumbled into the house via the wide kitchen window as the front door shuddered from the impact of others. Emma didn’t have time to see how many were coming down the stairwell. She had her hands full at the moment with the turned in front of her.
Compared to the other turned she had faced earlier that morning, these were very different. There could be no mistaking these beasts for humans. Sharp teeth and red eyes gave them away as something far more sinister than the average Joe.
They moved faster than the other turned as well. Emma could only assume that with this ability of speed came enhanced strength.
Emma charged her pair of enemies with abandon.
You’re not getting to my dad, you’re not going to lay a finger on him, Emma roared in her head. I’ll kill every last one of you if I have to.
Emma slashed at the charging turned on her right. He was a hulking beast of a man that could have easily been a body builder in his life before being infected by the Vilmar.
He caught Emma’s blade in both hands, ignoring the pain the sword must have caused. Rivers of blood fell down his hands and arms as he pushed forward. Instead of trying to force her opponent back, Emma took the opportunity to plunge her purple dagger into the right side of her enemy’s head near his ear over and over again.
The turned fell on top of her, pinning her to the ground.
This took only a matter of seconds. Even as Emma was falling backward under the dead turned, she saw her second opponent race past her and lunge at her father.
This enemy was already out of her reach. If she was going to save her dad, it would have to be with her vambraces.
Emma shot her left hand out, constructing a purple rope that wrapped around the turned’s left ankle. She jerked hard, sending it flying backward as it tried to swipe with a clawed hand at her father’s face. It was only inches away from taking off his nose.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
General Fox’s sidearm continued to roar in the space of the small kitchen. Emma’s eardrums were screaming at her as her hearing took a beating.
“Get over here,” Emma grunted as she used the strength channeled by her vambraces to pull hand over hand on the rope and slide the protesting turned across the tile kitchen floor to her place, pinned underneath its comrade.
The turned shrieked and spat. It directed its attention from Mr. Jackson and looked at Emma. It came at her in a high leap, descending on her prone form with all of its force.
It looked like it had at one time been an average-build housewife. A blood-encrusted pearl necklace was on her throat and a pair of designer jeans rode on her hips.
“Sorry, not sorry about this.” Emma transitioned from her rope construct to a short spear. She placed the bottom of the spear on the tile floor. The sharp point she directed at the turned’s gapping mouth.
She caught the descending monster with perfect aim. The tip of her purple spear went into her mouth and out the back of her head, leaving her quivering on the end of her spear only a foot away from her face.
Blood dripped down on Emma, nearly covering her own mouth. At the last minute, Emma constructed armor for her head that looked like a motorcycle helmet to shield her face.
“This is so gross.” Emma took a quick breath before jerking her spear to the side and laying the woman beside her.
“Emma, Emma.” Her father skidded to a halt by her side, helping to free her from underneath the heavy mass of a man that lay dead on top of her. “Are you all right?”
“Oh, yeah, just another day at the office,” Emma lied to her father, trying to ease the panic in his voice and the sheer terror she saw in his eyes. “I’m great. This is what I do now.”
The front door broke off its hinges as three more turned fell into the house.
Emma had a brief moment to see General Fox reload and open fire once more. The stairwell was a heap of bodies where at least four more turned were either dead or in the process of dying.
“Stay back,” Emma instructed her father, already moving to meet the new threat. “I’ve got this.”
The three turned that had just broken down the front door bounded for Emma and her father like a tidal wave seconds from crashing on the beach.
Emma took a brief moment to construct armor around her, the likes of which a medieval knight would wear into battle. She charged her opponents, battering into them so hard she took them from the kitchen into her father’s study. The dividing wall that separated the two was no match for the force Emma gathered. As one, they eviscerated the wall and slammed into the ground.
Emma tried to separate herself from the pile of arms, legs, and teeth that snapped at her. Demonic red eyes from her darkest nightmares glared so intensely, it was as if they sought to burn holes in her.
To Emma’s chagrin, her father was there a moment later. He had picked up a chair from the table and decided to use it as a weapon. One of the turned grabbed on to Emma, trying to sink its teeth into her purple armor.
Mr. Jackson raised the chair over his head, and with a roar that would have made even Instructor Drown proud, he began beating the turned with it.
His heart was in the right place, but there was no way her father was going to be able to fight a turned and live. A plan was still forming in her mind as she threw first turned off her, then punched another across the jaw, when the sounds of a child screaming filled the room.
Even past the general’s blaring firearm, the screech was clear. A blue light akin to a laser beam hit the turned Emma was grappling with. The heated laser round missed her by a few inches. It met its target, annihilating the chest of the turned Emma was grappling with. A hole the size of a basketball appeared after the explosion of blood and gore washed over Emma.
Emma turned in time to see Laloyd thrown backwards through the air as he discharged some kind of futuristic type rifle that looked like a long water gun toy. He fell back into the kitchen with a crash.
As much as Emma wanted to help him, she still had one turned struggling underneath her while another grappled with her father.
Mr. Jackson was trying to fend off the attack of a turned as it reached for him with long claw-like nails. To his credit, Emma’s father batted away each blow with his chair, fending off the worst of the attack.
“Emma, hold still! I got him!” Laloyd screamed from his spot where he had picked himself off the ground. “Ughhhhhh!”
Laloyd screamed in that same high-pitched squeal that reminded her of an adolescent youngster trying to pull something heavy.
A second blue laser beam streaked by Emma, popping the head of the turned her father was wrestling with like a balloon. Blood went everywhere, coating her father from head to toe in the sticky red substance.
Emma held on to the turned grappling with her tightly. She stared into its lunatic eyes as it wriggled to try to get free of her, doing everything in its power to toss her off.
Refusing to let go, Emma assumed a dominant position atop the turned, slamming its head over and over again against the wood floor of her father’s office.
“I got it, I got it.” Laloyd had picked himself up from the floor once more and raced over to stand in front of Emma. He aimed the massive rifle down on the turned’s head. “Stay clear.”
“No—don’t. You’re going to—”
Emma didn’t get the rest of her warning out as Laloyd pulled the trigger.
“Ughhhhhh!” The impact of the weapon’s blue laser beam at this close a distance bucked Laloyd so hard he was lifted off his feet, slammed into the ceiling, and fell down on his face.
The only thing that saved Emma from receiving a blood bath like her father was the purple armor that coated her body. The red substance flew at her and painted her like a Pollock. She was a picture of red and purple from her helmeted head to her waist.
“I think that’s all of them.” General Fox walked into Mr. Jackson’s office. “Everyone okay in here?”
“I think—I think I swallowed some of the blood.” Mr. Jackson spit over and over again, trying to free his mouth of the taste. “I think I might be one of these vampires now.”
“They’re not vampires and neither is their condition transferred by blood,” General Fox said, checking the number of rounds he had left in his weapon. He swapped out the magazine. “We’ll get you checked, but you should be fine.”
“I’m okay too.” Laloyd jumped up from his prone position on the ground. “Wow, that was crazy! I was like vroom vroom with my Master Blaster and Emma’s dad was all like ‘No, it’s going to eat me, help.’ Then I was like, I got you! Then I came over to help Emma and she was like, ‘what no!’ And then I was like ‘Not today, you Vilmar turned piece of garbage.’”
“I’m not really sure that’s how it went,” Emma said, rising to her feet and allowing her armor construct to leave her body. All around her, a sheet of blood fell to the ground. “Why didn’t you warn us they were coming?”
“And I told you to stay in the vehicle.” General Fox turned to Laloyd with a stern glare. “What about that?”
“I messed up.” Laloyd allowed his rifle to sag to the ground. The smile he had on his reptilian face a moment later now swapped with a look of horror. “They must have entered through the backyard and around the far side of the house. I didn’t see them until they were already breaking in. I had to come and help, General. You’re my family. When my family is attacked, I can’t just sit by.”
“You’re a noncombatant and an important member of our team on diplomatic loan to us from your planet,” General Fox reminded Laloyd. “You obey your orders next time.”
“Yes, sir.” Laloyd looked like a little boy who had just been chided by his hero. “I will, sir.”
Sirens sounded in the distance.
“Wonderful.” General Fox holstered his sidearm and smoothed down his uniform. “The local authorities will be here in a matter of minutes. I’ll speak with them. The rest of you stay inside. Laloyd, where’s our backup?”
Laloyd placed his weapon on the floor and reached inside his jacket. He pulled out a smart pad a moment later. “Sixty seconds out, sir. They should reach us just ahead of the local authorities.”
“Wonderful,” General Fox said without actually meaning the word. “We’ll have a party.”
Without another look, General Fox made his way outside.
Emma took it upon herself to pick up the broken front door and prop it up against the entrance to her house. If the idea was to keep aliens and the turned hidden, giving someone a view into the house and the wreckage within was not the way.
Emma secured the broken door as best she could before taking a look at the inside of her home. A pile of dead bodies fell down the stars where General Fox had defended the first floor. The kitchen was a mess of broken chairs. Their table was upended and glass shards from the front window sprinkled the ground.
Blood soaked the kitchen floor leading into her father’s study, where an entire wall had been destroyed. Her father’s books were askew all over the ground, a bookcase had been demolished, and in the middle of all of this, her father sat staring at Laloyd as if he were the Ghost of Christmas Past.
“Oh right.” Laloyd waved to Mr. Jackson with a hand covered in green scales. “First time seeing an alien, huh? I promise I’m not going to pop out of your chest or anything. I come in peace and all that. Are you all right, Mr. Jackson? You look pale.”
“So this is what a government safe house looks like, huh?” Emma strolled around the small confines of the dilapidated condo on the outskirts of town. “I thought it would be—be…”
“Less mildew-y?” Mr. Jackson finished her thought.
“It’s only a very temporary location,” Laloyd assured them as he pulled his black jacket tighter around him. Although it was the middle of the night, he didn’t want to draw attention to any prying eyes who might be able to see past his hat and hood. “As soon as General Fox meets with the Alliance and irons out the details, I’m sure we can use the Academy as a headquarters.”
Emma took a second look around the rundown neighborhood. She wasn’t sure if it was the late-hour darkness or if the area actually looked this bad in daylight. After General Fox had spoken with the local authorities and his team had arrived to contain the area, Emma, her father, and Laloyd had been given directions to the safe house.
The idea was General Fox would use Emma’s holo band to communicate with Slain and arrange the meeting with the Alliance. In the meantime, she was stuck on Earth. The safe house Laloyd had taken them to looked like it had seen better decades. A wrought-iron screen door and iron bars over the windows gave way to a white one-story house whose paint peeled off it like a snake shedding its skin. The lawn looked like it hadn’t seen a lawnmower in months and the waist-high chain link fence that surrounded the property was already beginning to rust.
“It’s a—a—well, I’m just going to be honest with you. I was expecting more too.” Laloyd shook his reptilian head. “We’re in good hands. There are two squads of Marines stationed around the neighborhood, in vehicles, rooftops, and surrounding buildings.”
Emma looked up and down the street, trying to spot their silent guard. She couldn’t spot a single one. They were hidden well. It looked like any other street in the middle of the night, deserted and alone.
“Let’s see if the inside looks any better,” Laloyd said with a hint of hope in his voice. “I mean, the inside can’t be as bad as the outside. Right?”
Emma followed Laloyd with her father as the three unlikely companions entered the porch. The wood beneath their feet groaned as if the house itself were complaining about having visitors at this time of night.
Laloyd produced a black chip from the inside of his coat and waved it in front of the wrought-iron gate as if he were wielding a magic wand.
To Emma’s surprise, there was a click and a soft female voice welcomed them.
“Welcome to Haven.”
“This day just keeps getting weirder and weirder.” Mr. Jackson looked down at his daughter with a fatigued smile. “Maybe it would be easier if you were in a gang or ditched school or something.”
“Sorry.” Emma shrugged with a smile as she followed Laloyd into the house. “Just intergalactic relations and fighting the forces of darkness across the universe. You raised me too well to drop out of school.”
“I should have fed you more processed foods and let you stay up late watching TV as a kid.” Emma’s dad grinned at her. He waved a dramatic hand in front of him. “After you.”
Emma gave her father another smile. After all he had been through that day, he was still the same joking, caring father she always knew. There was a tiredness in his eyes now that hinted at more than physical fatigue. Something there told Emma he hadn’t come to grips that her mother was back in the picture. That was going to be something only time would be able to heal.
Emma walked into the house, where an empty room met her. The carpet was ripped in a dozen places. Dusty blinds hid the windows and the smell of something long dead made her gag.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Laloyd said with a cheerful smile as he glanced down at the smart pad he held in his hands. “I knew Haven had to have a few tricks up her sleeve. Watch this.”
Laloyd went to a crumbling brick fireplace to their left. He looked back down at his smart pad for a minute, then used the same black key fob he had used to open the door to pass across a specific series of bricks.
“Oh, so it’s actually worse inside than outside,” Emma’s father said behind her. “I didn’t think that was possible. But on the bright side, we don’t have vampires here trying to rip out our throats.”
“Haven,” Laloyd said, speaking to the chimney. “Enact protocol zero, four, zero, eight, seventeen.”
“Protocol zero, four, zero, eight, seventeen recognized and executed,” the female voice that seemed to come out of the very walls themselves answered. “Please make sure all exits are secured.”
“Oh, right,” Mr. Jackson said, closing the front door behind him. “Sorry, Haven.”
“No need to apologize, Richard Jackson,” Haven answered back. “Please remain standing where you are for a brief moment.”
Shimmering green lights descended from the ceiling down to the floor as if they were peeling away a layer of reality. The house transitioned from dilapidated and condemned to state-of-the-art and high tech.
The walls transitioned from stained, and in many cases, riddled with holes to plain white and without blemish. The old flooring underneath their feet turned to lush grey carpeting, sleek furniture filled the room, and even the fireplace moved from crumbling brick to a steel fixture showing four large screens that monitored the exterior of the house.
“All right, yeah, guys, now we’re talking.” Laloyd removed his deep hood and the baseball cap that sat awkwardly on his horned head. “Now it’s time to just kick back and wait. I wonder if this place has any food or Netflix.”
“Yes.” Haven’s voice came from nowhere and everywhere at once. “The kitchen is fully stocked and we have access to over two thousand channels and apps.”
“Anyone want anything?” Laloyd placed his smart pad on one of the cushioned chairs in the room. “Since coming to this planet, I’ve become a big fan of pickles dipped in peanut butter.”
“That’s just wrong.” Emma shook her head while waving away Laloyd’s offer. “I’ll pass, thanks.”
“Papa Bear?” Laloyd looked over to Mr. Jackson. “Something to help cope with the events surrounding your day?”
“No, thanks,” Mr. Jackson said with a weary smile. “I think I just need some sleep.”
“Cool, cool, I’ll be in the kitchen getting my pickle and peanut butter sandwich on.” Laloyd did a body roll dance move before venturing deeper into the house.
Emma and her father were left alone for the first time since Mr. Jackson had discovered the truth about his daughter.
Emma didn’t get to finish her words. The space next to her shimmered for a brief moment before the familiar figure of her mother appeared next to her.
It was like Emma’s body had turned to stone. Her eyes doubled in size as her father saw her mother for the first time in sixteen years. Not only that, he was seeing her in her true form.
Tistan Duel’s orange skin, hair, and eyes clearly set her apart as an alien. While on Earth, she had been disguised to look like a human with a pill that altered her true pigmentation.
She wore a brown cloak with a hood that fell behind her back. A black and purple uniform clung tight to her muscular body. Her swords were sheathed in a holder behind her back. The handles poked up on either side of her head.
Emma wanted to say something. She even tried to break the silence between her mother and father, but no words came out. It was like she had been struck dumb and paralyzed at the same instant.
“Intruder detected, activating initiative Cole,” Haven’s voice filled the room.
“What’s going o—” Laloyd rounded a corner with a half-eaten pickle smeared in peanut butter. His mouth was full as he spoke. “Oh—oh my. Haven, retract that order. She’s a friendly.”
“Understood,” Haven obeyed. “Retracting order Cole.”
“Riley?” Emma’s father looked at Tistan without fear. “Riley, is that you?”
For the first time since Emma had met the brutal warrior she knew her mother to be, the woman was silent. Tistan opened her own mouth as if she were going to say something, then thought better of it and closed it again.
Everyone looked over to Laloyd, who stood in the doorway munching on his pickle. He stared on wide-eyed as the drama unfolded in front of him.
“Maybe we should give you some—some time to talk this out,” Emma said, finally finding her voice.
“No,” Tistan and Laloyd said at the same time.
“You should hear what I have to say,” Tistan told her daughter while shooting Laloyd a dirty look. “I want you to be here.”
Tistan took a step toward Richard, opening her hands as if she were going to start speaking.
“No.” Richard extended his own right hand out palm forward. “No, you don’t get to walk back into my life and have the first word after you left me with our daughter. You don’t get to do that.”
Tears raced down Emma’s father’s face. For the first time she could ever remember, her father choked on the tears he shed. Growing up, she had seen him wipe away tears, blaming them on allergies or lint in his eye. They were always there one second and gone the next. Her father wasn’t one to allow himself the luxury of crying, at least not in front of her.
“You lied to me,” Mr. Jackson said, fighting back the tears so his words could come out. “You lied to me for years; you lied to me about our love together and then you left our daughter to grow up without a mother in her life.”
“No, I didn’t—I didn’t—I didn’t lie about us,” Tistan stuttered as her own eyes filled with tears. She took a half step forward, then stopped herself. “I was here as a spy for my planet. I didn’t expect to fall in love with a human. But I did. I do—I still love you.”
All eyes turned to Laloyd, who had gone to the kitchen and now returned with the entire jar of pickles. His eyes were as large as silver dollars as he munched on his favorite food, eager to hear every word.
“If you don’t stop listening to our conversation, Draconian,” Tistan snarled like an animal thirsty for blood, “I will remove each of your fingers and feed them to you instead of your pickles.”
“So dark,” Laloyd gasped, retreating backwards into the kitchen.
“I do love you, Richard,” Tistan said with more resolve now that she had already said it once. “I love you and OUR daughter. It is because of this love that I left you.”
“No, you can’t have it both ways.” Richard shook his head, taking in a deep breath and wiping his eyes dry. “You can’t abandon us, then show up sixteen years later, orange and apparently some kind of warrior, and tell me you lied and left me because you loved us.”
“My people would have sentenced you to death if they knew I had a family on Earth,” Tistan pleaded with Richard. “I couldn’t take you with me. When I was called back to my planet, it was the only way. If I had refused, I would have been hunted down and they would have found you and Emma.”
“So you decided for us,” Richard finished her thought. “You don’t get to decide these things for the people you say you love. You’re honest with them, you tell them the truth no matter how hard it is, no matter how much it tears you up inside, and you get through it together. You don’t get to run off on your own and do as you see fit.”
Emma sucked in a silent lungful of air. She had never seen anyone talk to Tistan like this before. By the way she saw her mother’s jaw muscle clench and unclench beneath her skin, this wasn’t going to end well.
“Hey, so it sounds like you two have a lot to go over.” Emma took a step toward the kitchen. “I should probably go and keep Laloyd company before he decides to eat pizza with ketchup or something crazy like that. Seriously, that guy, am I right?”
“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to,” Emma’s father said to her. “It seems like you’ve already had time to come to grips with all of this and forgiven your mother. You’re a better person than I am, Emma.”
Guilt racked her from the inside out. She had lied to her father as well, not only about her being an Arilion Knight, but about her mother’s true identity.
“You either forgive me or you don’t.” Tistan shook her head as tears still fell down her orange cheeks. “I can only say I’m sorry so many times.”
“I need time,” Emma’s father answered. “I feel like I’m going to have a mental breakdown. You’re orange, for goodness sake. Riley, you’re an orange alien spy, maybe warrior now. Am I taking crazy pills or something?”
“It is a lot and I have much to atone for, but I’m not going anywhere.” Tistan reached out again as if she wanted to touch her husband as if by coming into contact with him, she could comfort him in a way her words weren’t able. She retracted her hand yet again. “You won my heart and have kept it these many years; whether you believe that or not does not make it any less true. I’ve traveled the universe, defeated countless foes, and I’ve never stopped thinking about you or our daughter.”
“I don’t have anything else to say to you right now,” Mr. Jackson said, shrugging. “I have to figure out for myself what I need to do.”
“I understand.” Tistan whipped the tears from her own face and cleared her throat. She turned to Emma. “Emma, I’ve also been instructed by the Alliance to tell you that Earth has been accepted into the coalition. You’ll need your holo band to teleport back and forth. General Fox has agreed to bring another Arilion Knight to the Academy with more training using Will to aid you with dispatching the Vilmar from Earth.”
Tistan reached into her cloak. She handed Emma a black holo band that would slip onto her wrist. True to Madame Cherub’s words, her mother’s wrists were completely healed. Emma accepted the piece of tech and the news, the whole time wishing her mother and father would spend more time talking out their feelings.
Her mother was beyond stubborn and she had never seen her father act like this before. He was usually calm and cool-headed with a heavy dash of good nature. The man that had spoken with Tistan was hurt, maybe beyond repair. It was a side of him she had never seen.
“I’m supposed to take you to the Academy now, but—but I’ll give you time to say good-bye.” Tistan looked over at Richard one last time, then hit her own holo band. She shimmered for a moment and then disappeared.
“Can I come out now?” Laloyd asked from inside the kitchen.
“Yes,” Emma’s father said, sinking into one of the heavily cushioned couches. “Bring some of those pickles with you but leave the peanut butter.”
Laloyd obeyed, handing the oversized jar of pickles to Richard. He accepted, choosing a large, salty specimen and biting into the vegetable.
Richard’s eyes looked bloodshot. His face was worn and drawn. Emma went to him, sitting beside her father. He moved to allow her room, handing her the jar of pickles without looking at her.
“I know I already said it, but I’m sorry, Dad. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I—”
“I already forgave you.” Emma’s father looked her in the eyes with a tired smile. “That means you don’t have to apologize for this ever again.”
“Does that mean you’re going to forgive her?” Emma asked.
Laloyd leaned so far forward in his chair waiting on Richard’s next words, he fell on the ground with a thud.
“I don’t know,” Emma’s father said with an amused smile at the Draconian. “I’m going to try, but the lies run so much deeper than keeping a secret for two months, Emma. It’s different.”
“I get that,” Emma said, crunching her pickle and enjoying the way the salty food coated the inside of her mouth. “I want you to know that whatever you do decide, I’ll still love you more than anything.”
“Thanks, kid.” Emma’s father leaned into her, pushing her shoulder with his own. “I’m an emotional wreck right now. I just need some sleep, and I’m sure things will be clearer in the morning.”
“I don’t know about that.” Laloyd shook his horned head. “I mean, you might have some clarity, but you have a lot to work through. I mean, I don’t envy your position, Mr. Jackson. Your ex-wife is an alien warrior that now proclaims her love for you but left you and your daughter high and dry without any explanation? I mean, if you can forgive her for that, it’s going to take some time.”
“Laloyd.” Emma’s father looked at him with a blank stare. “You just reiterated, literally, everything that took place here.”
“I know.” Laloyd shook his head. “You couldn’t write this stuff. I’m still trying to process it all myself.”
The last thing Emma wanted to do was leave her father. She was more than Emma Jackson, though. She was an Arilion Knight. It wasn’t about what she wanted anymore. She had to get to the Academy to train—sleep first—but train to be what the Earth needed her to be.
“Go ahead, I’m a big boy.” Emma’s father brushed a strand of her blonde hair behind an unexpectedly pointed ear. “I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” Emma asked, holding on to her father’s hand and giving it a squeeze. “You’ve been through a lot today.”
“Ugh, Em, you’re crushing my hand.” Mr. Jackson winced.
“Oh, sorry.” Emma released her father’s hand, forgetting the power she wielded now as an Arilion.
“It’s okay. The feeling should come back soon,” her father teased as he flexed his hand open and closed dramatically. “I’m good. Go. I’ll be fine. I have Haven, Laloyd, and a team of Marines looking out for me.”
The sounds of deep snoring that reminded Emma of a bear gone into hibernation distracted the two for a moment. Laloyd had fallen asleep in his chair, a half-eaten pickle held tightly in his right hand.
“I think you’re going to be taking care of each other.” Emma stood up from her seat by her father. A wave of fatigue washed over her.
Has this really only been a day? Emma rubbed at her burning eyes. Did I just go and fight Desmond this morning?
So much had taken place it seemed impossible, but it was true. It was a funny thing that on days packed with so many events that morning could feel like another day altogether.
“I’ll come back as soon as I can,” Emma told her father as she adjusted her holo band. “I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, Em.” Her father stood up with a smile on his face. “Be careful.”
Emma tapped her holo band, sending her from a view of her father inside the safe house named Haven one second to the stark white teleportation room in the Academy the next.
A second year recruit Emma recognized by his appearance but not by name pulled his feet off the desk in front of him as she shimmered into view.
“Emma Jackson, the Arilion Knight.” The tall Halyna boy jumped to attention. “I’ll notify Dean Extile that you’re here right away.”
“Sure.” Emma waved to him not dismissively; she was just too tired to care at the moment. “Tell him I’m going to my old room to sleep. If he needs me, he can get me on the holo band.”
“Yes, ma’am, of course.” The Halyna boy hunched over his console, already opening a channel to the Academy’s dean.
Emma didn’t wait around to find out if Slain wanted to see her now. It was well past midnight and she was having a hard time keeping her eyes open. Placing one foot in front of the next eventually brought her to her old quarters in the barracks level where the rest of the recruits slept.
As an Arilion Knight, Emma had been granted access to a suite of her own on a level that was being repurposed especially for Arilion. It was spacious, her very own quarters, and held every amenity. What it didn’t have was her friends.
Emma traveled down the hall, stopping at the door of the room she, Layga, and Jeba had shared. Whistling like the air being pushed hard out of someone’s nose penetrated the door.
Emma stepped inside to see Layga’s massive form on her bed. Her nose played a steady tempo of sending whistling air through her nostrils in time with her rising and falling chest.
Jeba blinked and sat up in her bed as Emma entered. One second she was trying to process where she was, the next she reached for the blade beside her bed.
“Layga, get up! Get up! We’re under attack!” Jeba shouted, still trying to get her bearings.
“Who? What?” Layga rolled off her bed with a heavy thud that reverberated through the floor.
“No, it’s just me, it’s just me.” Emma flipped on the lights, putting her hands into the air. “Take it easy.”
Jeba blinked at her, slowly lowering the knife. With her free hand, she wiped the line of drool coming from the right side of her lip. “Emma, you should be careful when waking me from a deep slumber. I nearly ended your life. Arilion or not, my blade is as fast as a lightning bolt in space.”
“Can lightning exist in space?” Emma squinted, trying to remember what she knew on the subject.
“Mine do.” Jeba sat down on her bed, placing the knife beside her.
“Why do you have a knife next to your bed?” Layga picked herself off the floor and moved over to give Emma a hug. “Hey, Emma.”
“I am always prepared,” Jeba stated flatly, as if that answered everything.
Emma found herself grateful for her friends not for the first time since she had met them. Layga’s warm embrace and Jeba’s personality were exactly what she needed.
“Sorry to wake you,” Emma said, releasing Layga and heading over to her own bed. “I just didn’t want to be by myself tonight.”
Emma changed into her shorts and plain black shirt. She told her friends everything they had missed up until that point. Jeba tsked at times, shaking her head. Layga sucked in her breath when she heard about Emma’s parents being reunited.
“Your family politics are a mess.” Jeba shook her head once Emma was done. “Your father should leave Tistan for good.”
“Jeba,” Layga nearly shouted. “That’s not what Emma needs to hear right now.”
“It’s okay.” Emma yawned, closing her eyes. “I can’t worry about any of that. Worrying isn’t going to help. I just need—I just need to sleep.”
Emma fell into such a deep sleep, dreams didn’t even bother to pierce the depth of her slumber. It seemed like she had just closed her eyes for a second when Layga and Jeba were trying to move quietly around the room and dress for their day at the Academy.
Even though Emma’s life had drastically changed when she was chosen by the vambraces to be Earth’s Arilion Knight, life at the Academy for everyone else was business as usual.
Emma was just mustering the courage it would take her to sit up in bed and start her own morning when her holo band blinked off and on, signaling an incoming message.
Emma brushed away the blonde strand of hair in her eyes. She read the message. It was from Slain. The Human Arilion Knight working with General Fox has arrived. He would like to meet with you in the mess hall when you are ready.
“Holy crap!” Emma jumped from her bed, searching for her Academy uniform like a wild woman.
“She finally went off the deep end.” Jeba shook her head. “The stress of being an Arilion Knight proved too much for her feeble mind.”
“No, no, I’m fine.” Emma felt a tingle of excitement race toward her stomach as she pulled on her boots and buttoned her shirt. “I mean, I’ve been excited to meet this guy for a long time, but I didn’t know it would happen so soon. Should I shower? Do I have time to shower?”
Layga smoothed down her own black and purple Academy uniform. “How much did you sweat yesterday?”
“What?” Emma asked, trying to wrangle her hair into something presentable.
“That’s how I gauge the necessity of a shower,” Layga explained. “If I sweat during the day, I know I need a shower for sure. If I didn’t, then I feel good about skipping the shower for the day.”
“That’s disgusting, giant.” Jeba shook her head as if she were disappointed in her friend. “You need to bathe, especially your nether regions every day. Sometimes even twice if they begin to feel unclean.”
“Ugh, I just don’t have time.” Emma stopped her manic process of getting ready and stood in the room, debating a shower. “He’s already there waiting for me.”
“Here.” Layga ran to the dresser by her bed and came back with a spray bottle full of black liquid. “It’s a perfume I usually save for special occasions, but it’ll help with masking any scent. Just be sure to take a shower before you go to bed tonight.”
“Okay, okay, cool. Thanks Layga.” Emma approached her friend with her arms open.
As Layga applied the first spray from her bottle, Emma understood how horrible of a mistake she had just made. The odor of the perfume hit her nostrils like a batch of newly cooked bbq, which wasn’t a necessarily horrible smell to Emma. She liked bbq; she just didn’t want to smell like it.
“Whoa, that’s enough,” Emma said to her friend as Layga applied a second spray, this time moving from her torso to her face. The liquid hit her tongue as she said the words.
Emma spat, working her tongue in and out of her mouth as the taste of chemical and old meat entered her mouth.
“You poisoned her with your sultry feminine wiles of perfume.” Jeb shook her head. She waved her right hand back and forth in front of her nose to clear the air. “Now she smells like a meat buffet.”
“What are you talking about?” Layga placed her perfume back in the drawer by her bed. “This stuff smells great.”
“I don’t have time to try and change again.” Emma shook her head, trying to spit out the last of the meat chemical taste. “We have to go.”
The three girls speed-walked to the teleporter on their level that would take them to the mess hall. All the other girls on the barracks floor had already made their way to the hall for breakfast.
Emma, Layga, and Jeba were teleported to the level a moment after they stepped into the cylinder-shaped teleportation device that acted as a kind of elevator around the Academy, if elevators teleported people.
Emma felt a nervous wave of excitement wash over her again. Not only was she going to meet someone who knew what it was like to be an Arilion Knight, but he was a human.
Jace Hunter was the only other Arilion she had met and he wasn’t exactly the chatty type. If this new Arilion Knight could teach her more, if he could just talk with her, it would be something she hadn’t had before. Only someone also chosen by the vambraces could truly understand what it meant to be an Arilion.
As soon as the girls walked into the mess hall, it was obvious as to who the Arilion was. Not only was he the only other human in the room, but everyone was sneaking peeks at him; the boys in admiration and the girls in a completely different kind of admiration.
He sat facing them with a plate of food in front of him. It was hard to tell how tall he was from his sitting position, but he was muscular with short dark hair and tan skin. His facial hair wasn’t quite a full beard but more than few days of stubble began to add together.
His uniform was also black and purple with an emblem of an ancient helmet in the middle of two wings that sat on the right side of his chest. The vambraces he wore glowed softy with warm purple energy. He looked kind enough, but as Emma approached, she could tell he was thinking about something. A furrow of his brow told Emma all was not well.
When he looked up, his dark brown eyes found the girls. The expression of worry and sadness faded as a boyish grin touched his lips. He stood with the smile on his face and worked his way around the table.
“He’s a god,” Jeba said under her breath.
“You must be Emma Jackson. I’m Frank Wolffe.” Frank extended his hand. “It looks like we have a lot in common.”
Emma swallowed hard.
Play it cool, play it cool, she repeated like a mantra in her own mind. The feeling of talking to the most popular kid in high school filled her as she tried not to stumble over her own words.
“Hi,” Emma managed as she shook his hand. “It’s—it’s so great to meet you.”
“Ehum, Ehum.” Jeba coughed hard into her hand, not trying to mask her intentions whatsoever.
“Oh, right.” Emma released Frank’s hand and introduced her friends. “This is Layga and Jeba. They’re some of the best recruits the Academy has. They also helped me fight off the Shay when they invaded Earth.”
“Hello.” Layga’s hand enveloped Frank’s like an adult holding a child’s hand.
“Hi.” Frank smiled, looking from Layga to Jeba. “Any friend of the Arilion protecting my home planet is a friend of mine.”
“Are you wed?” Jeba asked as Frank removed his hand from Layga’s and shook Jeba’s.
“What?” Frank asked, sniffing the air. “Does anyone else smell bar-b-que?”
“Don’t avoid the question.” Jeba smiled as she released Frank’s hand and smoothed down her wild red hair. “Are you betrothed?”
“I’m not married, but I have a girlfriend if that’s what you mean,” Frank answered Jeba, still sniffing the air he turned his head this way and that. “I swear I smell cooked meat. Do they serve that here for breakfast?”
Emma took a half step back to try and carry the smell with her. She just couldn’t bring herself to admit that she had sprayed meat perfume on herself before meeting him.
“Good, girlfriends I can work around.” Jeba wagged her eyebrows at Frank. “So how long will you be with us at the Academy?”
Things were going downhill fast. Emma knew she had to lasso in Jeba before she made an awkward first impression worse.
“Layga.” Emma looked over to her friend for help. “Maybe you and Jeba want to grab some food before your day of classes starts.”
“Huh?” Layga looked to Emma, then to googly-eyed Jeba. “Oh, right, yes.”
Layga went over to Jeba and ushered her along with her.
“Excuse us, Frank,” Layga said, practically pushing Jeba along. “We should grab a bite to eat of whatever delicious meat they have cooking. It smells wonderful.” Layga gave Emma a huge wink, Frank was sure to see.
“Oh man,” Emma said under her breath.
“So, they seem nice,” Frank said, redirecting Emma’s attention back to the table. He motioned for her to take a seat. “Do you want to grab anything to eat while we talk? They have an assortment of—of strange alien food that I’ve never seen before, but hey, it beats an MRE.”
“No, no. I’m good,” Emma said, taking a seat on the opposite side of a small circular table where Frank sat. In all honesty, she wasn’t sure if her stomach could take introducing anything into it at that moment. Old habits of anxiety touched her like unwanted advances.
Emma knew it was all in her head, but that didn’t help. So far, Frank had been nothing but friendly. Still, her anxious nature and old habits didn’t take that into consideration.
“So the good General Fox has told me all about you. He gave me a file and everything,” Frank said, taking a seat across from Emma. “Not that I read it. I figured I was going to meet you anyway. But if he asks you, I read every word of that report.”
Emma felt a smile and a small chuckle escape her. “Deal, I won’t say anything.”
“Good.” Frank looked down at his tray of oatmeal-like porridge. “Do they have anything like coffee here?”
“I wish.” Emma shook her head. “I could really go for a unicorn Frappuccino right now.”
“You and me both.” Frank grinned from across the table. “So I’m going to be as honest as I can with you. The truth is I’m new to this whole Arilion thing too. But anything I can share, if there’s any way I can help you, I’ve got your back. We’re not only Arilion, but we’re the only two Arilion humans, so our bond goes deep.”
“Right, thank—thank you,” Emma said with a heavy exhale. She took a moment to look around the room. As soon as she did, everyone who was staring at them immediately turned their heads away.
“It’s weird, right?” Frank leaned back in his seat, examining the mess hall. “It’s like we’re the cool kids in high school now, but the high school is the universe.”
“It’s super weird,” Emma agreed, trying to figure out how she felt about being the one with all the attention. “High school on Earth, I mean, just regular high school wasn’t going too well for me.”
“I hear that.” Frank nodded along with her words. “I grew up dirt poor. My experience before I joined the military wasn’t exactly glamorous either.”
“I stuttered a lot. I mean, I still do, but it was worse before,” Emma admitted. She pulled back a lock of her blonde hair and pointed to her ears that came up at a point due to the fact she was half Halyna. “These didn’t help either.”
Frank smiled, placing a boot on the table. He rolled up his pant leg, pointing to a deep scar on his left shin. “Courtesy of a bully named Liam Tatum. I know, right? Who names their kid Liam Tatum? Anyway, I got beat up all the time. I rarely had money, but I think I just made a good target for bullies. I was small as a kid, always wore second hand clothes too big or too small, funky cheap haircuts—the whole nine yards.”
Emma’s anxiety began to fade as she realized the thirty-something-year-old man in front of her shared more in common with Emma than anyone she had ever met.
“Maybe that’s why the vambraces chose us,” Emma said, thinking out loud.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, we’ve been beaten down, bullied, made fun of, put through the wringer, and here we are,” Emma said as she had a moment of self-realization. “Wow, sorry for getting so deep on you. I’m usually not like this.”
“It’s a special occasion when a Jarhead and the savior of Earth get together.” Frank looked around, making everyone staring at them immediately turn back to what they were doing at their own tables. “Hey, let’s get out of here. I know a place.”
“Do you think we’re going to get in trouble for being in here?” Emma asked, looking wide-eyed around the training room that was still under construction. “I mean, I know this level of the Academy is being repurposed for the Arilion Knights, but that sign on the door clearly said to keep out.”
“Naw, we’re fine. I checked it out this morning.” Frank walked to the far side of the room. “Besides, what are they going to do? Fire us?”
Emma looked around the wide open circular room. The level set aside for the Arilion Knights was the uppermost of the Academy. The center room had a glass roof that opened up to the universe beyond. Construction supplies and building tech alien to Emma’s eyes lay strewn along the side of the walls. A half completed control console sat on the right side of the room.
“Is this—is this going to be like our danger room?” Emma asked out loud as she envisioned what the room would look like when finished.
“Did you just throw out an X-Men reference?” Frank looked up from fiddling with something on a tall box. “Nice.”
A moment later, music Emma recognized but didn’t know the name of filled the half-finished room. The repeating lyrics were “Whoa, black betty, bam-la-lam.”
“I think better with music most days.” Frank approached her, bobbing his head and stretching his arms. “I know you’ve already been training here at the Academy. How are your constructs holding up?”
“Pretty good, I think.” Emma channeled her Will, imagining her sword in her right hand, then transitioned to a knife, then a circular shield.
“Not too shabby, Jackson. Check this out.” Frank lifted off the ground, floating in midair before a purple Tyrannosaurus Rex construct took shape around him. Frank drifted in the middle of the monstrous beast as if he were in a suit of armor. “I’ve been working on this one since I watched Jurassic Park for the hundredth time. Pretty cool, right?”
“So cool!” Emma laughed out loud. “I didn’t know we could fly.”
Frank touched down, allowing his construct to fade. “Yeah, apparently, we’re all predisposed to certain physical attributes like speed, flight, strength, durability, and so on. I still can’t really fly, more like float. I need more time to practice.”
“You don’t have time to practice now?” Emma asked innocently. “That’s all they make me do here.”
As soon as Emma asked the question, she knew she had pushed a button. The same worried, sad expression came over Frank’s eyes. He stood quiet for a moment, trapped in his own thoughts.
“I’m sorry. We don’t have to talk about training or time or anything if you don’t want to,” Emma said, trying to recapture the levity of the moment. “We can keep training.”
“No, it’s nothing you’ve done.” Frank shook his head, freeing himself from the thoughts that haunted him. “There’s a friend; she’s in trouble. When I get back to the Den, I have to find a way to save her.”
Emma was surprised Frank had said so much. He didn’t seem like the type to spill his guts. In all honesty, Emma didn’t know what to say. Instead of trying to offer a solution, she did the only thing she knew how to do.
“I’m here for you if there’s any way I can help,” Emma said, hoping this would be enough to cheer up her new friend. “We’re Arilion Knights; we have to stick together.”
“Oohrah to that,” Frank said as he transitioned from thoughtful to cheerful once more. “How do your long-range constructs look? I know you’ve got the bladed weapons down, but what do you do when you need to take out an enemy at range?”
“Honestly, I haven’t gotten that far yet.” Emma thought back to her fight with the Vilmar and his turned. “I used throwing knives or a rope.”
“No guns?” Frank asked.
“I haven’t trained with any. The instructors leading my drills aren’t exactly familiar with them themselves,” Emma admitted. “Can you teach me?”
“For sure.” Frank approached her, constructing a medium-length rifle in his hands. It looked sturdy with a long barrel and a magazine at the bottom. “It’s an M16A4. It’s reliable and comfortable for me to construct because I’m so familiar with it. The more knowledge and time you’ve had with a construct, the easier it is to build and the longer you can hold it. Do you have any kind of familiarity with a long-ranged weapon? Even if it’s not rifle or handgun?”
“My dad owns a revolver, but he keeps it in the safe,” Emma thought out loud. She didn’t want to disappoint Frank. “I’ve been to the shooting range with him a few times, but—”
A light bulb went off in her head.
“I used to take archery lessons when I was a kid,” Emma said excitedly. “I was pretty good at it too.”
“There we go.” Frank extended his right arm, creating a round target for Emma to shoot. He pushed the construct out a good thirty yards and looked over at her expectantly. “Let’s go, Jackson. Let’s see what you got.”
Emma concentrated, bringing the familiar shape of a recurve bow into her hands. The bow was nearly as tall as she was. A purple arrow appeared between the string of the bow and the bent wood itself.
She pulled back on the string with her right hand. Her left hand out straight provided the anchor for the act. She took a deep breath in and slowly let it out. Her right hand came up to her right cheek, holding the taut bow string and the feathered end of her arrow.
Aim small miss small, aim small miss small. She repeated the mantra her archery instructor had taught her.
She released the arrow with an audible thrumbing sound. It sailed through the air too fast for the eye to track and buried itself just to the right of the bullseye on Frank’s construct.
“Not bad, Jackson, not bad at all.” Frank grinned, looking at her handiwork. “With a few hundred hours of practice, you’ll be an ace.”
Emma’s smile faded to disbelief. “Did you say a ‘few hundred’ hours?”
“Practice, Jackson, practice, practice, and more practice until you can form constructs in your sleep and you’re just as deadly with them,” Frank preached. “If the Corps instilled anything in me… okay, they instilled a lot in me, but one of the things we always did was practice. Day in and day out.”
As Frank was going on about the importance of practice, Emma caught movement by the doors to the training room. She turned to look, noticing Jace lurking by the entrance to the room.
She was still too unfamiliar with his mannerisms and facial features to tell for certain, but he didn’t look like he was eavesdropping. He had an unsure expression across his long snout as if he were deciding whether to come in or not.
“You can come in if—”
“Give the fur ball some time,” Frank said to Emma, not looking over at Jace. “He’ll join us when he’s ready.”
“How do you know?” Emma asked with curiosity in her eyes. “Have you spoken with him?”
“No, but I’ve seen enough Marines with the same look.” Frank’s own expression went solemn. “You get familiar with it after a while when you’ve been with guys who’ve seen serious action. They get stuck in their own heads. The fur ball is an Arilion Knight chosen by the Light and given the vambraces. He’s one of us. He’ll be fine.”
“The Light?” Emma asked, repeating the word. She had heard mention of it before from books and her own instructors at the Academy, but Frank said the word as if it were a person, not a thing.
“There’s a balance in everything,” Frank told Emma as she stared on wide-eyed. “The Light’s with us and fights the darkness. I’ve experienced it first hand while I was playing a game of ‘beat the crap out of each other’ with the Lord of Chaos. We’re not alone, Jackson. Everything that has happened to us has happened for a reason. Man, listen to me. I don’t even sound like myself anymore.”
Emma wanted to ask more questions. She was stopped from furthering the conversation as Jace walked into the room. He wore the same black and purple uniform she had seen him in earlier that day with his sleeves ripped off. His vambraces shone the same as hers. He stopped just inside the doorway.
“Look who decided to come in and stop playing stalker.” Frank grinned at the Arilion from across the room. “I thought you were about to offer me free candy and puppies, maybe a ride in your van.”
Jace skewered up his face. “Why would I offer you treats and small animals? What is a van?”
“Never mind. It’s a bad human joke.” Frank went with it. “I’m Frank Wolffe.”
“Jace Hunter,” Jace said, folding his arms awkwardly over his chest. “What’s that noise?”
Emma stopped to listen. Frank’s playlist had moved down the line a couple of songs. At the moment, it was playing a tune she had heard before but couldn’t name.
“Oh, that’s ZZ Top, ‘Le Grange,’” Frank answered, bobbing his head to the beat. “Good stuff, right?”
“Z Tops,” Jace repeated, nodding along with the beat. “I’ve never heard anything like it.”
“Oh, we’ve got plenty more where that comes from.” Frank motioned to Emma. “We were practicing our archery skills. Do you have bows on your planet?”
“Not bows,” Jace said, opening his arms and constructing an axe with a sharp half-moon edge on one side and a hammer on the other. In the middle of the two sides was a rifle muzzle.
“My man.” Frank grinned. “I think I’d like your planet.”
“Probably not,” Jace said, approaching Emma and Frank. He didn’t offer more explanation to his words.
“Cool.” Emma broke the growing silence. “Let’s see what we can do.”
The next hour was spent honing their skills with the weapons they had chosen. Emma and Jace took down targets Frank constructed and did the same for him when it was his turn.
Seeing Frank transition from his own constructs was like watching a musician play his favorite instrument. Without hesitation, Frank flowed from one weapon to the next, sending a few bursts of his purple construct into his target before deconstructing and reconstructing and doing it again. In this way, he moved from handguns to rifles and even a heavy hand blade.
For his part, Jace was mostly quiet, but Emma saw it as a huge improvement that he was even there.
Just when Emma’s throat was telling her it was time to grab a drink, her holo band went off. It was a message from Slain that read, “Please meet us in my office. Director Trueart and General Fox would like to have a word.”
At the same time Emma received her transmission, Frank walked a few steps to his right, speaking to someone over a channel only he could hear. “Yes, sir. On our way.”
Frank looked at Emma and Jace with a grim smile. “I think it’s time to go on the offensive.”
“Frank, Emma, Jace.” Director Trueart stood from his seat on one of the dark couches in Slain’s office. He said the last name with a hint of surprise. “It’s great to see you all. Major Frank Wolffe, it’s a privilege to meet you for the first time.”
“Director Trueart.” Frank nodded with a smile. “Thank you for allowing Earth to join the Alliance.”
“We’re stronger together.” Director Trueart waved them over to take seats. “Earth and Jace’s own planet of Raze are welcome additions to the Alliance. I’m sure it will only become stronger as more and more planets join our cause and their Arilion Knights come here to train.”
The short Bracka man beamed with pride. A cheery playfulness raced across his wide face and large features. The only time Emma had interacted with the Bracka before, was when she had first been chosen as Earth’s Arilion Knight. The events of that night had placed her in front of the council, led by Director Trueart. The council also consisted of Slain and the leader of the Alliance militia, Commander Kull.
Emma found herself grateful that the Ree woman was not there. Past her physically intimidating size, the commander was less than polite and seemed to have a vendetta against Emma despite her having no history with the woman.
Inside Slain’s office, General Fox, Slain, and the director had been sitting on the couches. When the Arilion walked in, they all rose. General Fox nodded to Frank and Emma and extended a hand to Jace.
“I’m General Fox,” he said with an up-twitch of his lips. “I’m always glad to meet another Arilion Knight.”
Jace looked at the extended hand for a moment, then accepted it. He didn’t say much besides a low grunt of approval.
If the general took offense, he didn’t show it.
“Well, thank you all for coming.” Director Trueart looked to the entrance of Slain’s office as the door opened and the waterfall outside parted. “Ah, Commander Kull arriving right on time. We can begin.”
Emma must have let out her sigh just a little too loud. Frank looked over at her with a raised eyebrow.
“Do we not like Commander Kull?” Frank whispered.
“I don’t know. Do you like being stubbed in your toe over and over again?” Emma said, fighting back another wave of unease. “You’ll see.”
“Greaaaaaat,” Frank whispered back.
Commander Kull entered the room, all eight feet of her with broad shoulders and a black and gold uniform, marking her as a member of the Alliance forces. Her dark hair was braided and pulled tight behind her head in a Mohawk-type style. Both large and muscular, she had to weigh close to five hundred pounds.
“Commander Kull, welcome.” Director Trueart waved her forward. “You’re just in time. We were about to begin talking about the situation on Earth.”
Commander Kull’s eyes wandered around the room. She nodded to Slain, grimaced at Emma. Her gaze didn’t get to Frank or the general before landing on Jace.
“Director, with all due respect, the Were should not be here.” Commander Kull shook her head as she judged Jace as if he were a pile of dough that needed to cook longer in the oven. “He’s not mentally stable. You know his past history of being a sla—”
Jace let out a low growl. Standing straight, he was still much shorter than the Ree woman, but that didn’t seem to bother him. A purple construct was just beginning to form in his right hand when Slain stepped in.
“Jace is an Arilion Knight,” Slain said, physically stepping between the two. “He’s welcome in my office whenever he would like.”
Commander Kull looked over to Director Trueart for support. The Bracka man ignored her gaze. “Well, it looks like we’re all here. Commander, I don’t think you’ve met General Fox and Major Frank Wolffe as of yet.”
While Commander Kull, Frank, and the general exchanged pleasantries, the commander’s words weren’t lost on Emma. The commander was about to say that Jace had been a slave. Emma eyed the Were up and down.
He had calmed himself enough now to allow the construct he had begun to prepare in his hand to dissipate. He still stared ill will through his yellow eyes at the commander.
“Please, everyone take a seat and we can begin,” Director Trueart said, placing himself once again on the couch in Slain’s office.
Slain and Frank brought over the two chairs that sat in front of his desk. Jace stood behind the group, leaning against an over-stuffed bookcase. Commander Kull for the most part ignored him as she did Emma.
“Now that the council has voted to include both Earth and Raze into the Alliance, we can begin moving forward with details of our new partnership.” Director Trueart touched the holo table that sat in front of his couch like a coffee table. “The first order of business should be the plan to convert a portion of the Academy to a facility to welcome, train, and offer guidance to the New Arilion Knights, appearing all over the universe.”
Emma caught Frank’s obvious stare at General Fox.
“Our location on Earth, the Den, isn’t equipped to handle thousands of new recruits,” General Fox said, looking at each of the gathered members in turn, including Jace. “We can send out broadcasts informing every galaxy that the Academy is the new headquarters of the Arilion Knights. The Den will act as more of an elite team of Arilion Knights as we take on specific missions to protect the universe.”
“The Academy will be like the proving grounds and the Den will be our strike team.” Frank reiterated the general’s words as if he were mulling over the thought himself. “But there has to be thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of habitable planets in the universe. Will the Academy be able to house that many Arilion?”
“As of today no,” Slain said, leaning forward in his seat next to the general. “But we’ll grow with the demand. The Academy is an orbiting station that will evolve to meet the need.”
This seemed enough for Frank.
“We’ll start broadcasting the signal as soon as possible,” Director Trueart stated. “Now to the more pressing matter at hand. It seems Earth has a problem and that means the Alliance has a problem. We’ll send a team to assist you with the eradication of the Vilmar from your planet.”
“The Vilmar?” Jace said from where he leaned against the bookcase to the rear of the group. “What about the Vilmar? Have they invaded Earth?”
Commander Kull rolled her eyes, about to open her mouth and no doubt say something rude or demeaning to the Were.
“As far as we know, it’s just a single Vilmar that has come and infiltrated one of our main cities,” Emma said before the commander could get a word out. “He’s turned dozens, maybe more of our inhabitants. We need to stop him before he can turn more.”
“I’ll come with you,” Jace said with no hesitancy in his voice. “I’ll go to Earth and fight for your planet.”
What the heck? Is this the same guy that I just met yesterday that didn’t even want to talk? Emma thought to herself. What’s happened to him? Who is this guy?
“Your enthusiasm is appreciated,” General Fox said with a kind but firm tone. “But we have Frank and Emma on the job. With a few units of Marines, we should be able to control the situation ourselves.”
Jace’s wolfish face twisted into a mask of frustration.
“We all know your people have a deep feud with the Vilmar,” Commander Kull added. “But this is not the time to let your emotions get the best of your actions. Besides, you have no training as an Arilion.”
Frank raised his hand like a small child in class waiting for the teacher to call on him. Everyone in the room stared at him as if he had gone crazy.
Emma couldn’t help feel a small smile cross her lips.
“Major Wolffe?” Slain finally asked.
“Oh, yes, thank you,” Frank said clearing his throat. “For the record, I had no idea the werewolves and vampires had a blood feud. Second, if Jace wants to come, I would like to respectfully tell the adults in the room that we could use his help. Especially if he’s familiar with our enemy. I’ll take responsibility for him.”
“Like you took responsibility for the member of your own Marine unit that bombed the Draconian capitol and killed their Prime?” Commander Kull asked.
Emma had no idea what the commander was referring to, but she could guess as the words hit Frank like a physical punch to his gut. Anger raced across his features like Emma had never seen. The normally good-natured Marine clenched his fists so hard they shook. The purple energy that glowed from his vambraces brightened in intensity.
For a moment, Emma thought he was going to bound from his seat and knife the commander to death. Even though she had to weigh twice his own weight, right now Emma would give the edge to Frank in a fight.
“Frank,” General Fox said in a low tone that carried so much force Emma was confused. How a single word spoken so softly could command that strength was foreign to her.
Frank unclenched his fists. A vein in his neck jumped up and down like a child in one of those inflatable jump houses.
“Commander Kull.” Director Trueart picked up the conversation. “Major Wolffe is one of the most experienced Arilion Knights that exists in this universe as of now. If he sees fit to include Jace in his plans, I feel like we should seriously consider the request. He also brings up an important point. If Jace knows this enemy, he could be a great asset in the fight for Earth.”
Commander Kull didn’t respond. She held Frank’s death stare with a stone face of her own.
“Well.” Emma felt obligated to fill the silence. “This is going great. So we’ll head back to Earth to take on the Vilmar. Three Arilion and Marines to have our back. Great plan. Let’s do it.”
“I agree wholeheartedly with what is being said.” Slain’s orange eyes twinkled as he looked over to Emma. “Perhaps in the spirit of the Alliance, we can include a few members of the Academy to join the unit. Maybe a Bracka and a Ree could be found to accompany the strike team.”
Emma immediately picked up on what Slain was hinting at. How the man could be so thoughtful even at a stressful time like this was beyond her. Emma didn’t have an uncle, but if she did, she imagined he’d be something like this.
“Jeba and Layga both have training on Earth fighting alien forces,” Emma volunteered. “They’d be a great addition to the team.”
“Oh, you can’t be serious,” Commander Kull huffed. “Sending two first-year recruits to fight the Vilmar is insanity. A contingent of my own warriors should be part of this fight before any first-year recruits.”
“No need; we’ll have the Arilion Knights there,” Frank said with a wild grin. “I’d take an Arilion Knight over one or two of your own warriors any day of the week.”
“Oh no,” Director Trueart said from his spot next to the commander.
“Well, why don’t you put your body where your mouth is?” A wild gleam came over Commander Kull’s large dark eyes. “That can be arranged. Why don’t we settle this with action instead of words?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Frank said, rising from his seat. “We can use the training room right here, right now.”
“Now let’s all calm down here,” General Fox said, rising from his seat. “We’re all on the same side.”
“There’s nothing wrong with friendly sparring to make one another better,” Commander Kull said with no sign of friendship on her face. She turned to Frank. “Me and my best against you and yours.”
“Yippee ki yay,” Frank said, turning to Emma. “I’ll take Jackson to be my second.”
“Wow, hey.” Emma rose from her seat since it seemed like everyone was doing so now. “As much as I’m all about beating one another to a pulp, Earth has a very serious problem.”
“This won’t take long,” Frank said, grinning at Commander Kull. “Let’s do this.”
Events were moving so quickly, Emma was having a hard time keeping track. One minute they were in a meeting, the next the party had been moved over to the danger room inside the Academy.
Emma, Frank, and surprisingly Jace were on the far side of the room while General Fox, Dean Extile, and Director Trueart conversed in the center. Commander Kull had gone to get her second.
“Why didn’t you choose me?” Jace snarled. “I would have ripped them apart.”
“Well, I think you just answered your own question,” Frank said, rolling his neck around his shoulders. He stretched out his quads by lifting his leg behind him and grabbing his foot. Next he left his legs straight on the ground and reached down to touch his toes, stretching his hamstrings. “We’re trying to prove a point here, not kill them.”
“And what point would that be?” General Fox asked as he joined the Arilion Knights. “Frank, we just formed an alliance with these people. What are you thinking?”
“You know me, I don’t really care what people think about me or that whole respect business,” Frank said, jumping up and down on his toes. “But I think if we can prove to them what we can do, we’ll solidify our bonds of trust.”
“And that had nothing to do with the mention of your friend?” Emma lifted an eyebrow. “The one Commander Kull prodded you with?”
“Naw, nothing at all,” Frank lied with a grin. “Aren’t you going to stretch and warm up? We have a tag-team match coming up soon.”
Truth be told, Emma wasn’t afraid to fight, but neither was she looking forward to facing down the Ree and whatever other champion she decided to be her second. Earth needed them. The Vilmar could be spreading with Desmond Delshire at the helm. Who knew how many more he had already turned.
“You ease up if you’re winning.” General Fox stared lasers into Frank’s eyes. “Yes, you beat them, but nothing more. This isn’t a stage for you to work through your issues.”
“I understand, sir.” Frank gave the general the thumbs-up sign. “You know me.”
“I do know you and that’s why I’m worried.” The general turned on his heel. He returned back to his place with Dean Extile and Director Trueart.
“Why does everybody always say that?” Frank wondered out loud.
Without warning, the door to the training room swung open and in walked Commander Kull followed by the largest Ree Emma had ever seen. He was a mountain of a warrior, a true testament to his race. Emma had seen Ree before. She had become accustomed to their size. This one was unlike anything she had ever witnessed. He had to be nearly ten feet tall. His black and gold uniform fit like a glove, showing off his massive arms and legs. Dark hair held back by a ponytail and a thick beard hid most of his features, but there was no denying the intensity in his ebony eyes.
Whatever Commander Kull had told him was going on must have sparked something close to his heart. He held a double-bladed axe in his right hand whose sharp edges looked like they could be the width of the door leading to her house.
Commander Kull also carried a weapon. A curved blade rested on her right shoulder. She had donned a black helmet that reminded Emma of something a boxer would use when sparring, except hers was metal.
Emma felt an empty sensation touch the pit of her stomach. She wasn’t going to back down, but neither was she eager to run into either Ree.
I thought having other Arilion Knights on my team was supposed to be a good thing. Emma began preparing herself mentally for the fight about to take place. I didn’t realize I was going to be picking fights with giants.
“I’ll take the big one—the bigger one,” Frank said with a rueful grin. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help when the fighting starts. Use your speed and range weapons. I don’t think they’ll be able to move as fast or as long as we will. This is going to be fun.”
How the Marine could smile at a time like this was beyond Emma. She shook her arms, stretching the joints and ligaments that ran from her shoulders to her fingers.
“You and I have different definitions of fun,” Emma said, stepping forward with Frank to meet the pair of Ree in the center of the room. “And you don’t be afraid to ask for help either.”
“There she is.” Frank nodded with her words. “You know what they say, the bigger they are.”
“We’ll keep Alliance rules.” Director Trueart joined the combatants in the center of the ring. “The fight will be over when both members from each side submit or are no longer able to continue. I don’t need to remind you that we are now allies. Killing blows will not be tolerated. If anyone tries to inflict permanent damage on the other team, they will forfeit the match for their side. Questions?”
Frank was locked in a staring contest with the giant Ree Commander Kull had brought with her. Frank craned his neck almost completely up to look into the giant’s eyes.
Commander Kull wore a sadistic smirk across her large lips. She stared down at Emma as if she were nothing short of an ant to be stepped on. There was something about the way the commander looked at Emma that stoked the fire already burning inside her.
The look reminded Emma of the way so many bullies, mean girls, and even some teachers had treated her in the past. It was a glare of loathing.
“You can still give up now, little knight.” Commander Kull eyed Emma up and down. “I will show you no mercy.”
“I’m going to break you.” Emma stared back at the Ree. There was no hesitation or stuttering in her words. The truth was she was half surprised she had found the words to begin with. But there was no denying she was changing day by day. She wasn’t the victim she had been just a few months before.
Commander Kull clearly wasn’t ready for that type of response. She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again.
“Back to your ends of the sparring room, then come out ready to engage,” Director Trueart said as he retreated back to the edge of the room. “May the best warriors win.”
“Nice comeback; was that from a Rocky movie?” Frank asked as he and Emma retreated to their end of the room. “I was staring down the Jolly Green Giant, but that sounded like it was from a Rocky movie.”
“Rocky IV,” Emma said as they reached their end of the arena where Jace stood waiting. “My dad loves those movies.”
“Slaughter their fighting spirit and you will win even before their bodies give in,” Jace said to them as he extended his right hand in a closed fist. “As one.”
“Well look who’s coming around,” Frank said, extending his own right arm and placing his vambrace on top of Jace’s. “You’re going to be all right, fur ball.”
Both knights looked over to Emma.
“Boys.” Emma rolled her eyes. She also placed her right arm on top of theirs. For a moment, as all three vambraces touched, the glowing of their armor picked up intensity and bathed the room in violet light.
Emma turned and looked down the training room to where the Ree had already made it to their end. Both Commander Kull and her second’s blades shimmered with green light, much like her mother’s blades had done. Together, the Ree began trotting forward. The weight of their combined steps gently shook the floor of the orbiting space station.
“Let’s get some,” Frank said as he constructed a rifle Emma didn’t recognize.
There was no time to focus on what he was doing now. Emma had a charging Commander Kull to worry about. The Ree had almost reached the halfway point of the training floor.
Emma focused on bringing the recurve bow she had used just earlier that day into her hands. The wish of having more time for practice descended on her, but there was no changing that now. Emma placed her left foot forward and stood sideways.
She notched a translucent purple arrow in her constructed bow. She pulled the string taut, the end of her arrow caressing her cheek. Commander Kull was crossing the halfway mark. The commander made for a massive target. Her blade was held in her right hand as she closed the distance.
BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
Frank opened up beside her with his own weapon as he screamed at his enemy. “Come on! Bring it!”
Emma pushed the noise from her mind as she took one final breath, then exhaled, allowing her arrow to fly. Her target was the commander’s left leg. She imagined an arrow in the Ree’s thigh would be painful but not life threatening.
The purple projectile whizzed through the air. Before coming into contact with the commander’s leg, the large Ree slashed sideway with her sword, breaking Emma’s construct and protecting herself at the same time.
Oh, no I didn’t see that coming, Emma said to herself as she readied another arrow. One more chance, then this is going to suck.
Emma lined up the shot once again, this time drawing the bolt back as far as it would go. Trying to remain calm in the face of the charging Commander Kull was no easy task. Every fiber in Emma’s body screamed at her to get out of the way. Commander Kull was only yards from her now.
The one thing that kept Emma rooted in her spot was the fact that the closer the commander came, the less likely of a chance she was going to be able to block the incoming arrow.
A rogue idea hit Emma. Before she could talk herself out of it, she constructed two more arrows on her bow, bringing her grand total to three. She had only ever seen the act used in cartoons, but what the heck? If she could imagine it, she could do it.
Emma let the arrows fly as the whites of Commander Kull’s eyes came into view. The three purple bolts raced toward her in the space of a half second. To attest to the commander’s credit even at point blank range, she managed to bring her block across her body and block two of the three bolts.
The last arrow struck her high on her left hip. The force was enough to make the commander falter but not completely stop her forward momentum.
Emma abandoned her long-range attack in favor of her own blade. At the last instant, she sidestepped the attack, avoiding the charging behemoth.
Commander Kull regained her momentum, swiping to her left. The arrow that struck her in the hip deconstructed, along with Emma’s bow, but the wound remained very real. If the commander was hampered at all from the attack, the only thing she showed was a slight limp.
Emma danced around the commander’s attacks using Frank’s suggestion to play to her own strength of speed and endurance. The commander was quick for her size. She moved to block Emma’s retreats and swung out with her sword over and over again.
Emma blocked and parried where she could, but eventually, she had to meet the commander’s force head on. It happened while the commander brought her sword down on Emma’s head. Emma raised her purple blade in a parallel move to block the attack. The two weapons sparked as the commander brought her weight to bear on her opponent.
Emma gritted her teeth as she absorbed the impact. A tremor of pain ran down her arms as they extended over her own head to hold her weapon sideways and keep the commander’s blade at bay.
Noises from the battle Frank was fighting played somewhere in the background. Emma could see shapes and movement from his own struggle but nothing more. At the moment, she had larger problems to think about.
“Submit,” Commander Kull ordered Emma as she muscled down on the handle of her own sword, adding more pressure to Emma’s defense. “Contrary to what you might think, I do not have a desire to kill you, only to humble you in the presence of your betters.”
Oh no she didn’t, Emma growled to herself in her own head. A second later, she was forced down to a single knee as the pressure from the blade above her head grew. Think, don’t try to meet her power for power, be smarter. You can construct whatever you want.
Just like the idea to add multiple arrows from her bow came a random image. Emma rolled to her left, allowing the commander’s blade to come down on the spot where she had crouched a moment before.
Commander Kull’s sword bit deep into the ground. Emma rose to her feet, but instead of an attack, she called a familiar vehicle to mind, constructing it from her vambraces as she remembered its details to the chimney stack.
The life-size version of Thomas the Train Emma had constructed barreled into Commander Kull so hard, Emma almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
A line of energy ran from Emma’s vambraces to the rear of the train as she brought it to life. The sheer will to bring something that large and powerful to existence felt like she was lifting a hundred-pound weight on her shoulders.
Sweat trickled down her brow. It was enough to convince Emma to allow the construct to evaporate. Commander Kull was struggling to her feet on the far end of the mat, spitting a mouthful of blood beside her.
Even hit by a train, the Ree was dazed but not out of the fight.
“Oh come on.” Emma rolled her eyes in frustration. “Stay down!”
Emma was over playing nice. This little show of who had the bigger muscles in the newly formed Alliance had to end. Earth needed saving. At the moment, she felt like she was the only one that cared.
“Submit,” Emma ordered the Ree as she brought a piano to life in the air above the commander. “Submit or I’m going to go Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote on your alien butt.”
The commander fought to her hands and knees, shaking her head. “You’ve won nothing yet with your tricks. You’ve—”
Emma allowed the piano to fall on the Ree.
I hope I don’t break any bones. Okay, well, at least no major bones—or Madame Cherub has those Bone Builders she used on my mom, so maybe a few bones wouldn’t be that bad, Emma thought as the piano crashed down on the commander’s back.
The sight looked more painful than Emma would have liked. The baby grand piano slammed into the commander, flattening her on her stomach. As soon as her construct hit, Emma allowed it to deconstruct instead of leaving it on Commander Kull. She had no desire to cripple the woman.
Commander Kull lay motionless on her stomach. Emma approached slowly in case it was some kind of trick. It was no trick. A line of blood ran from the Ree’s temple down the side of her face. Her torso still rose and fell, signaling she had only been knocked unconscious by the piano.
Emma let out a silent praise of thanks. If she had killed the Ree, she didn’t know how she would be able to move on.
“Nice, work, Jackson,” Frank said from his spot on the opposite side of the training room. “I might have to steal that move and use it later.”
Emma turned to see one of the most disturbing things she had ever witnessed in her life. The gigantic Ree Frank had been fighting was swaddled like an overgrown baby. A purple blanket wrapped him from feet to neck. A pacifier was in his mouth, cutting off any moans or yells. All the Ree could do was glare murder at Frank.
“You—you swaddled him?” Emma asked, raising her right hand to wipe a thick sheen of sweat off her forehead. “How do you know how to swaddle things?”
“One of the members of my team adopted a baby flying wolf creature,” Frank said as if it were all supposed to make sense. “His name is Magnus and he loves to be swaddled. I just imagined the pacifier myself. I’ve seen plenty of movies where they give it to the baby to keep him quiet.”
“What kind of movies are you watching?” Emma raised a brow.
“The Hallmark Channel has some really quality storylines, especially around the holiday season.” Frank nodded his head along with his own words. He caught Emma’s raised eyebrow. “Don’t judge me, pointy ears. We all have our skeletons in the closet.”
“Can we be done with this now?” Dean Extile approached with the others. “It’s clear who won. I say we allow Frank and Emma to take their selected team to Earth to deal with the Vilmar issue.”
“I agree.” Director Trueart motioned to Frank and his giant baby. “Major Wolffe, will you please release our colossus of a Ree?”
“Of course,” Frank said, dismissing his purple constructs. “I think he might need a changing, though, maybe a burping too.”
Director Trueart nodded and moved over to speak with the livid Ree who had just been forced to relive his childhood. Emma could hear parts of what the director was telling the giant warrior like “Let it go” and “Your commander needs you.”
“Well, if we’re done with this, it’s time to head to Earth and engage in the real battle,” General Fox said, voicing what they were all thinking. “We’ll make up our strike team of the three Arilion Knights, and the Ree and the Bracka Emma has worked with in the past. We’ll have our Marines on standby for added support.”
“Have you been able to locate where this Vilmar ran?” Jace asked, joining the group. He gave both Frank and Emma approving nods. “Seeing all this fighting taking place around me has me itching for some blood.”
“We have a location where he retreated to,” General Fox informed the group. He gave Emma a long stare. “My Marines will form a perimeter and allow our strike team to go in. If you flush him out, he’ll have nowhere to go this time.”
“Brilliant.” Director Trueart rejoined the group. He addressed Dean Extile. “If you can, inform the other two recruits they will be leaving on a mission. Have them meet the rest of the team at the teleportation room. I think I should stay here for when Commander Kull comes to her senses. I don’t think she’s going to be in a particularly cheery mood when she comes to.”
Emma looked over to where the titanic Ree bent over his commanding officer, bringing her to. Emma wasn’t particularly eager to be in the same room when the commander regained her senses either. It appeared she wasn’t the only one.
“Roger that,” General Fox said.
“I agree,” Dean Extile said at the same time.
“Well, let’s go.” Jace led the way from the room. “There are Vilmar and their turned to kill.”
Emma, Frank, and General Fox followed while the dean went to collect Layga and Jeba for the mission. While the three Arilion Knights and the general made their way to the teleportation room, General Fox gave them further details.
“We still don’t know for certain if Desmond Dalshire is the only Vilmar in town, but we have to assume for the sake of this mission that he’s working with someone else,” General Fox explained, using his hands to demonstrate his words as the group traveled through the orbiting space station. “We’ve tracked him to an abandoned hospital in Los Angeles called The Linda Vista Community Hospital. It was abandoned after being transitioned from a hospital to an insane asylum.”
Emma nearly tripped on her own feet as the general relayed the news. “I’m sorry. I thought you said insane asylum.”
“I did,” General Fox said with unblinking eyes. “Is that a problem, Miss Jackson?”
“You’re not afraid of a few ghosts and demons, are you?” Jace chuckled in his raspy way of speaking. “You just took on one of the best Ree warriors.”
“I don’t even like watching scary movies.” Emma swallowed hard, trying to imagine what they would face at an abandoned asylum. “Come on, Frank, back me up here. You’re watching the Hallmark Christmas Channel. You can’t like scary movies either.”
“What? Who—me?” Frank gave an awkward chuckle, shaking his head at General Fox’s stare. He looked at Emma and addressed her in a low whisper, “I told you that in confidence.”
“Sorry, how was I supposed to know that?” Emma shrugged. “Next time, you have to tell me when you’re letting me in on a secret.”
“Humans,” Jace mumbled under his voice.
“You’ll infiltrate and bring Desmond out and whatever accomplices he’s working with if there are any at all,” General Fox told them. “We’ll teleport directly to our base outside the asylum. It’s time to take care of this vampire alien once and for all.”
“This food is delicious. Is it a present from the gods of your planet? Such wonderous sustenance must be in response to years of prayer and yearning.” Layga patted her ample stomach area. “What do you call it again?”
“Uh, you’re eating a cheeseburger,” Emma said, stuffing fries into her mouth even as she did so. “They’re all over the place in this city.”
“I love cheeseburgers,” Layga said, chomping down on her third unwrapped cheeseburger. “And I also love these things you call fries.”
Emma, along with Layga and Jeba and the other two knights, had been teleported to an abandoned building two blocks from the asylum. The idea was to wait for the sun to go down, then advance on the building and Desmond Delshire.
Emma sat with Layga, Jeba, and Jace in an open room with no furniture. The walls were flaking and the floors looked as though they were going to fall through at any moment.
Frank and General Fox were discussing tactics while they checked in with the rest of the team coordinating the assault.
A fast food meal had been brought for the rest of the unit, then they were left alone to await the coming darkness.
Right now, the last rays of the orange sun were descending past the tall buildings of downtown Los Angeles. The area they were in was rundown and mostly deserted. Weeds sprang up around chain link fences and windows were boarded up on every other building.
It was strange that in a city as alive and full of people as Los Angeles, there were pockets where no one dared to travel. Perhaps this pocket was uninhabited because of the alien resident who had claimed the asylum as his own.
“Do you eat all your meat like that?” Jeba asked Jace as the Arilion Knight tossed his wrapper of raw meat in the corner of the room they were using for trash.
“I do. I usually prefer to hunt my own food, but that is a privilege I have not had for a very long time,” Jace said, walking over to the open window.
“Is that because you were a slave?” Jeba asked without a hint of remorse.
Emma and Layga froze. They glanced at one another with large eyes.
Emma had guessed Jace had a past he wanted to keep secret, but she never would have imagined Jeba would know what it was, much less confront him with it.
All eyes turned to Jace to see what the Were would do. He had his back to them at the moment. Reading his expression was impossible. His body language seemed to sink for a moment. His shoulders lowered and his furry black back arched as if he were letting go of a secret that had burned him for a very long time.
“How did you know?” Jace asked, still not turning to look at Jeba. If he was angry, his voice didn’t give off a hint of malice. He sounded curious. “I’ve hidden my scars.”
“Your world lies within traveling distance of my own,” Jeba said as she sat cross-legged on the far end of the room from the window. “I’ve heard stories of the planet, Raze. How they’re a brutal people who enslave their own. From what I know of you, it was a guess. You don’t strike me as a carefree elite member of your society.”
Jace turned his head to the right. He revealed only his profile. His yellow eye shone bright, and his long wolfish snout and mouth wore an uncharacteristic grin in place.
“When the vambraces chose me, you can imagine the looks on my masters’ faces.” Jace’s grin grew wider. “The pack that owned me and my parents before me finally got what they deserved. I made their exit from this world far too quick in retrospect. The years they beat me pale in comparison to what they did to others.”
Everything began to make sense to Emma. She was forced to wrap her mind around something so foreign to her she wasn’t sure if she would ever fully understand. How someone could own another person and take it a step further by beating and killing them was an impossible idea to her.
“What did you do then?” Layga asked. “I mean, after the vambraces chose you and you freed yourself?”
Jace finally turned around. His muscular arms were crossed over his chest. He leaned backward against the window. The next words he spoke as if they had a foul taste as they exited his lips.
“With the vambraces, I was suddenly like a celebrity to my kind. The same ones that would have whipped me to do their work wanted to parade me around like their hero.” Jace lifted his left upper lip in a snarl. “They wanted me to stay and be their champion. I refused. They’re not worth saving.”
“What about the other slaves?” Emma asked, thinking of the injustice being done to them at this very moment. “What about those who are in the same position now that you found yourself in before?”
“Why do you think I’m here in the first place?” Jace asked, directing his eyes toward Emma. “I’m here to learn and train. I’ll need to be the very strongest I can be before I return to Raze. I will free the slaves, I’ll change my planet, but to do so, I need to be more than I am at this moment. I’ll need to be prepared to take on the army the elite faction on my planet has at their disposal.”
“So your people think you’re here to learn how to protect them and become a full-fledged Arilion Knight,” Layga began.
“But really you’re here to learn and go back and slaughter all those slave owners,” Jeba finished with an approving nod.
“Exactly,” Jace said, his eyes not leaving Emma’s. “You don’t like that plan, human?”
“I didn’t say that.” Emma dusted off her pants as she rose from her place on the floor.
“Your eyes say everything,” Jace countered.
“I’ve learned that when a fight comes my way, I’m going to see it through to the end. That’s the only thing to do.” Emma sighed, thinking of the Shay and more recently her battle with the Ree commander. “However, if there is a way to stop the fight and come to terms before the blood begins to flow, then maybe that’s worth looking into.”
Jace didn’t say a word. Instead of speech, he began to disrobe. He pulled his arms through the black and purple Academy uniform he wore. Although he had torn off the sleeves, it still covered his torso from his neck down to his waist.
“I’m flattered that you find me attractive, but my heart belongs to another.” Jeba waved off what she guessed were his advances. “Besides, it wouldn’t be appropriate. We’re not alone.”
Jace ignored her words, removing his shirt and dropping it to the floor beside him.
Layga audibly gasped.
Emma felt her combination lunch-dinner gurgle in the pit of her stomach.
Jace’s torso was covered in scars. Long white marks rose from his skin where his black fur refused to grow back. His upper body was a crisscross of painful lesions that interwove with one another like some massive spider web built on his chest and stomach.
Layga lifted a hand to her mouth.
Jace turned around slowly to make sure they could all see what he had endured. His back was worse than his chest. Only sporadic clumps of black hair grew at all amongst so much scar tissue rising from his back.
“The leading families of Raze prefer not to mar the faces of their slaves,” Jace explained as he finally turned full circle and began placing his shirt on once more. “They want us to bleed, but they don’t want to look on their actions. I will return one day and I will free my people. Those in the ruling class can submit or die. I’m not interested in talking with them, not anymore.”
Emma was so shocked, she wasn’t sure what to say. The pain that Jace had endured for the entirety of his life had molded his hate into something not easily swayed.
Emma was trying to come up with the words, but trying to change his mind in the moment didn’t seem right. As much as Jace would deny it, he just needed someone to understand him right now, not preach to him how he should or shouldn’t feel.
“You’re safe now and with a new family,” Emma said, moving forward to stand in front of Jace. “I think I’m just starting to learn that myself. We can agree and disagree how to handle things, but we have to have each other’s back no matter what. It’s a big universe out there and if we’re going to survive, we have to do it together.”
Jace slowly nodded.
That would have to be enough for Emma at the moment. It seemed that was all the Were could offer..
Jeba started a slow clap that picked up speed as the seconds ticked by.
“Why are we clapping?” Frank asked as he entered the room.
Jeba immediately stopped and began batting her eyelashes at Frank.
“What’s the word?” Emma asked as she redirected her attention toward the Marine. “Can we go in?’
“I thought you were afraid of confronting the Vilmar?” Jace asked with a grin. “Eager to begin now?”
“Still not eager to run into an abandoned asylum at night filled with vampire-like aliens,” Emma corrected. “I’m just ready to get this over with. I hate waiting.”
“Well you’re in luck.” Frank motioned to the window and the last rays of the setting sun beyond. “We’re ready to gear up and head out. We were just waiting for the cover of night. General Fox and his team have designated an entry point for us. We travel with myself and Emma in the lead, Jeba and Layga in the middle and Jace bringing up the rear.”
“All due respect, I feel as though I would be better suited to remain by your side.” Jeba sauntered over to Frank, swinging her hips as she did in a way Emma had never seen her do before. “I can help protect you.”
“Thanks for the offer.” Frank slowly backed out of the door as if he were retreating from a slumbering bear. “But I’ll manage. Come on; follow me. It’s time to get this done.”
Emma and the others traveled with Frank through the interior of the building. Two rooms and a hall later, they came to an open chamber that had been converted into a kind of mission control room.
Marines stood at attention at hastily erected work stations, near a wall of weapons and equipment. General Fox hunched over Laloyd’s right shoulder as the Marine and Draconian examined a map on a large screen.
“I think we’re geared up as much as we need to be.” Frank lifted the vambrace on his right arm to prove his point. He motioned Layga and Jeba over to the row of equipment. “Dean Extile had weapons and uniforms sent for you.”
The Ree and Bracka nodded and went to gear up before the fight.
“Oh hey, Emma.” Laloyd turned from his seat and gave her a warm smile. “You should know your father seems to be in good spirits after a long night of sleep and a heavy breakfast I made him. You know, all the fixings to help him out. He’s going through a rough time right now. I made him pancakes, sausage, bacon, eggs, potatoes—”
“I’m sure Emma is grateful to hear the news,” General Fox interrupted. “However, we have a job to do here right now.”
“Oh right.” Laloyd turned back to his monitor and brought up an image of a city block. There were a half dozen or so smaller buildings around one main structure that had to be the abandoned asylum. “So here’s what we’re looking at. Man, I’m glad I don’t have to go out there. I mean, I’m no coward, but I have absolutely zero desire to go into an abandoned crazy house while it’s dark and hunt down a…”
Laloyd’s voice trailed off as he looked at the four pairs of eyes staring him down.
“You’re not helping right now.” Frank patted the Draconian on the shoulder. He motioned to the monitor with his right pointer finger. “Where’s our incursion point?”
“Right.” Laloyd struck the keyboard a few times, narrowing in on the rear of the massive asylum building. He zoomed in to a pair of closed double doors. “This is the rear entrance. It was used for waste management. It should be easily accessible.”
“Great, waste management,” Emma said under her breath.
“Like poop?” Jace asked, catching on to where Emma was headed. “We have to go through the poop chute?”
“No, like trash.” Laloyd scrunched his reptilian brow. “I wouldn’t send you through excrement. That’s gross.”
“We have two units of the very best with a perimeter around the grounds along with some tech the Draconians were willing to share with us,” General Fox said as Laloyd zoomed into the view of the grounds once more. General Fox drew a triangle around the asylum grounds. “Reaper One and Two are in position. Trust me, if Desmond tries to escape this time, he won’t be going very far.”
“Understood,” Frank said, looking to Emma and Jace. “Questions?”
“I have a question if I may?” Jeba asked, rejoining the group. She wore black and gold Academy light infantry armor that hugged her body. A sword hung on the right side of her hip. “What if we do find this Vilmar? Are we supposed to bring him in or kill him on the spot?”
Layga also rejoined the group. She wore a similar suit to her counterpart’s. The Ree carried a heavy axe on her shoulder. The blade of her axe shone with a dull blue light.
“We should kill them,” Jace said without hesitation. “They’ll have no mercy on us.”
“Capture if you can, but not at the risk of your own safety,” General Fox instructed the team. “You all come back safe. That’s an order.”
“I just want to make sure we’re not going to split up at any point,” Emma whispered to Frank as the group left the perceived safety of their command building.
“What?” Frank frowned at her through the dark. “Why would we split up?”
“I don’t know; they just do it in all the horror movies ever made. The group at some point thinks it’s a great idea to search a large space individually and nothing good has ever come of that in the history of movies, like ever,” Emma said to Frank as she kept her eyes open, her head on a swivel. “Just tell me we won’t split up in there.”
“No worries, young padawan,” Frank reassured her. “We’ll stick together.”
“Good,” Emma whispered back.
Frank and Emma took the lead with Layga and Jeba in the middle and Jace bringing up the rear. As soon as they left the building, Emma could sense something was very off. It was possible the feeling could be in her head, but it felt like something was present. It was more than the feeling of being watched. It was in the unnatural cold of the night, in the ways the shadows played out against the stars and recently emerged half-moon.
In the city of Los Angeles, stars weren’t exactly visible, but even the crescent sliver of moon seemed to give off little light compared to other evenings in the city of angels.
Emma and Frank led the way down the left side of the sidewalk. Emma could hear General Fox providing Frank with updates via the earpiece she and the others on the team had been given before they left.
“Radio silence from here on out,” Frank whispered through the comms.
“Roger that,” General Fox answered.
Emma’s heart raced as she squinted into every dark recess, every deep shadow that seemed a little too black. There was nothing.
“These Marines holding the perimeter are hidden well,” Layga observed as they made their way forward. “I have not been able spot a single one yet.”
“That’s their job,” Frank reassured the group. “It’s nice to know that they’re out there and they have our backs just like we all have each other’s. We’ll get through this and joke about it one day.”
I hope he’s right, Emma thought to herself. For the first time, Emma found herself worried not for her own safety or even that of Frank and Jace, but for Jeba and Layga. Not only were they not Arilion, but they were still recruits. What had she been thinking to allow them on this mission?
It was too late now; they were there together for better or worse.
Frank sank to a single knee using the building to their left for cover. He lifted his right hand in a closed fist, signaling them to stop.
“What is it?” Emma followed his lead, dropping to a knee. She couldn’t see anything, but her hearing was either playing tricks on her or someone far off was whistling in the night.
“Listen,” Frank whispered.
Sure enough, the sounds of a rather merry tune drifted on the night air. Where it was coming from was impossible to tell for sure, but Emma could guess. They were on the corner of their own block, ready to travel past the smaller outlying buildings to the asylum. Right now, the only thing that could be seen of the main structure was the top two stories of the five-story building that rose up into the night. It looked like a kind of altar to some long-forgotten blood god or maybe that was just Emma’s imagination getting the best of her once more.
“The Vilmar is playing mind games with us,” Jace said in such a low tone it was nearly impossible to hear. “They are known for their trickery and tactics such as this. They’ve been an enemy of my people since history began. We should move forward and not stay out here in the open.”
“Agreed.” Frank stood up, motioning them forward.
“Emma, if you die tonight, may I have your vambraces?” Jeba asked.
“No, what? No.” Emma looked back at her friend, one part amused one part annoyed. “Jeba, this is not the time for this and I’m not sure it works like that anyway.”
“Oh great, here we go.” Layga hunched low, trying to make herself a smaller target in the night.
“What?” Emma asked.
“Do you remember when we fought the Shay on the beach?” Layga asked. “Jeba was going on and on about someone dying that night too.”
“I can’t help what I feel.” Jeba shook her head, sending her red ponytail whipping back and forth behind her head. “I have the same sense again this night. One of us will fall.”
“Enough with the prophecies, Nostradamus.” Frank pointed across the street with his right hand. “On me, we’re going to cover the open ground fast.”
Emma nodded, following Frank’s lead. The Marine sprinted across the street taking a path along the sidewalk that would make them pass the outlying asylum buildings on their left. The route would eventually give them a straight shot to the rear of the main building and their entry point.
“Still clear,” Laloyd’s familiar voice sounded on the comm channel. “Nothing to report.”
“Roger that,” Frank breathed as he moved forward.
It felt great for Emma to finally have something to do rather than sneak around and let her fear grow. She pumped her legs underneath her as she stayed on Frank’s tail. The glow of her vambraces and those of Frank’s in front of her were like beacons of hope in the darkness. It was as if the vambraces themselves fought, burning the night in favor of the light.
Emma stopped behind Frank with the rest of the group behind her. They were near a long white building with peeling paint. Along with the eerie whistling that stood out in front of the white noise of Los Angeles like a sore thumb came a stench.
Jace coughed, working his nose around like a dog. To Emma, it smelled like rotting meat. She pressed her body up against the wall to her left, trying to figure out where the smell was coming from.
“Giant, did you relieve the gas from your bowels again?” Jeba asked Layga as the two recruits joined Emma against the building.
“A hard left around that building and you’re there,” Laloyd’s excited voice sounded over the comms. “Wait—I see something. Back entrance.”
The whistling came to an abrupt stop.
“You can just use the back door.” The sound of Desmond Delshire’s voice traveled to where Emma waited with the rest of her group. “Or don’t. It’s up to you.”
“Wait here,” Frank said, looking back at Emma. “You’re in charge.”
Before Emma could voice her concern, Frank stood up straight and walked around the corner.
Emma swallowed hard, peering around the side of the building. In front of her, a lawn of dead grass traveled to the front of the asylum. To the right was a group of skeleton trees and to the left the asylum itself.
In the light of the moon, it was difficult to make out exact details, but Emma could make out the figure of a man just outside the rear asylum doors. She knew it had to be Desmond; there was no one else around.
Frank traveled past the wide building he had been hiding behind a moment before. He stopped at the corner of the gigantic asylum building. The structure was enormous. Not only towering five stories in the sky, but its strange giant shape like a large twisted L added to its mystery in a macabre way.
The number of broken or dark windows had to be in the hundreds while the overall degenerating look of the building told a story of abandonment all on its own.
“I don’t know you,” Desmond said to Frank. “Where’s the girl? I want to talk to her. I know her. She shot me with a hose.”
“You can talk to me,” Frank said, squaring his shoulders. “You’re going to come with me. Surrender now or we’ll put you down. I’m not going to make that offer again.”
“I already told you, I’m not speaking with you,” Desmond said. This time, his voice carried a hint of venom with it. “As far as putting me down, you have no idea what’s waiting for you in here. Now let me talk to the girl. I know her. We share familiarity. I don’t know you.”
“Let Emma speak to him, Frank,” General Fox’s voice sounded over the comm unit. “Maybe there’s a chance he’ll slip up and give us something useful. Keep him talking.”
“All right,” Frank said out loud to the Vilmar. “If you try anything, imagine the most painful death you can wrap your mind around, then double it.”
“Promises, promises,” Desmond purred through the darkness.
Emma rose from her spot behind the corner and squared her back like she had seen Frank do. Her lips were dry all of a sudden. She clenched her fists at her side and forced herself to walk forward.
“There she is.” Desmond waved at her. “We didn’t get to finish our conversation yesterday.”
“Conversation?” Emma asked incredulously. She stopped next to Frank. “You mean when you were trying to kill me?”
“Well, all relationships have their ups and downs.” Desmond sighed. Emma could practically imagine him rolling his eyes. “Anyway I wanted to talk with you because you’ve seen what I can do. You know I’m capable of giving you a run for your money and—oh, we should probably talk about me sending my turned after your father. How is he, by the way?”
Emma felt heat rise to her face. Anger boiled inside of her, burning her vambraces from a dull violet to a bright shining indigo force that glared in the darkness.
“It’s what he wants,” Frank warned her. “He wants to play on your anger so you’ll make a mistake. Don’t give him that. You control that.”
“You know he’ll never be safe now,” Desmond chuckled. “Never. I’ll send turned after him now over and over again until he’s one of mine. I’ll watch the transition torment him and, who knows, keep him for a pet or maybe experiment on him. I’ve been doing some great things with experimentation these days. I should show you.”
It took everything inside of Emma not to charge the Vilmar right there and then. A thought of an ancient knight wearing full armor riding a war horse came to mind. She could construct that, lance and all, and ride down Desmond, pinning him to the cold ground with a lance twice the size of his own body.
Frank’s right, Emma thought to herself. Desmond wants me to attack. It’s all a trap. If I give in to his cruel shenanigans now, he’ll have won. No way I’m giving True Blood that satisfaction.
Desmond clucked his tongue. “Oh well, it was worth a shot. I thought you’d bite for a minute there. Guess I’ll have to use the Were you have with you. Were, I know you can hear me. I watched you approach down the street. Tell me, are you one of the elite families on your planet doing the whipping and whole enslaving thing or were you the one being whipped with the rest of your pathetic pack?”
Emma’s eyes went wide at the words coming out of Desmond’s mouth. She already knew trying to stop Jace with a warning was out of the question. General Fox shouted through the comms while Jeba and Layga yelled from the side of the building they were still behind.
It was difficult to make out all of their words, but Emma definitely caught a “No!” and “Stand Down!”
Jace ignored them all.
Emma turned to see a hurtling blur of black fur, yellow eyes full of rage, and purple vambraces sprint toward them.
“Jace, don’t give him what he wants!” Emma put herself in the way of the Were as he made a beeline for Desmond Delshire. “Stop!”
Emma was fully prepared to tackle Jace, even wrestle him to the ground if that was what would keep her new friend from sprinting head first into the Vilmar’s trap.
This is going to suck, Emma told herself as she constructed purple football pads and a helmet around her.
Jace was on all fours tearing up grass underneath his paws with such ferocity a trail of dirt littered the air around him. Emma had never seen eyes like his. They were full of some primal animal bloodlust that held on to him in a way Emma could never understand, in a way she never wanted to.
Right before the moment of impact, he sprang on his back legs, vaulting over her like an elite running back in the National Football League. Emma was fast, but in that moment with the anger fueling his body, Jace was faster.
He was over Emma and streaking toward Desmond like a demon of speed had possessed him.
Desmond was laughing, retreating into the building.
Jace might have caught him outside if Frank hadn’t tried to stop him. While Emma had tried to block him with her body to hold him back, the Marine took a different tactic.
Frank used his vambraces to create a rock golem that rose in front of Jace like some zombie rising from his grave. For what the creature lacked in definition, it made up for in sheer size. The golem was as large as a Ree and twice as thick. A pair of bright eyes shone as it moved a massive hand down to catch Jace by his chest.
Jace faked right, then cut hard to his left, sending the golem over reaching, off balance. It crashed down to the ground in front of him. Jace disappeared into the asylum a moment later after the still laughing Desmond Delshire.
“A golem, really?” Emma looked over to Frank, shaking her head.
“Easy there, varsity linebacker,” Frank said as both Arilion allowed their constructs to fade. “I had a second to decide what to construct. I should have gone with a dragon blocking the entrance to the asylum, but oh well.”
“What—what do we do now?” Layga asked as she and Jeba ran to Frank and Emma. “He’s walking right into Desmond’s trap.”
“We’ll probably be following right behind,” Frank said, walking forward with the rest of the group. “General, I take it our orders remain the same?”
“That’s right. Jace’s comm unit has gone dead. He’s in trouble,” General Fox said over the channel. “If Desmond has something to interfere with our comms, you have your orders. If you need the cavalry, you send us a sign: break a window, break a wall—I don’t care what you just tell us—and we’ll send in the Marines to take care of business.”
“Roger that,” Frank said as the group reached the rear doors of the asylum.
“Oohrah! Marine,” General Fox said with a ferocity Emma had never heard from him. “You all come back home safe.”
“Oohrah!” Frank said in such a deep tone Emma took a step back for a moment. She had to remind herself it was Frank, the same guy who was on her side of this fight.
The four members of the strike force stood at the rear entrance to the asylum. The most disturbing part for Emma was the lack of sound. The dark building rose up in front of them like some ancient mountain in a mythological land. The double doors that opened in front of them did so in a way that made Emma think of a mouth of a cave. Inside, she couldn’t make out more than a wide wall with cheap laminate flooring.
“Sorry, Jackson,” Frank said as he constructed a large-lensed flashlight in his right hand that shot a purple beam of light into the dark interior of the building. “I told you we weren’t going to split up, but Jace had other plans.”
“If we’re walking in there, we need as much light as we can get.” Emma imagined a torch in her right hand that flamed with a brilliant purple fire illuminating a circumference of a dozen yards in front of her. “Here we go.”
Layga and Jeba had their weapons ready. The blades of their chosen weapons were each shining with a dull blue glow.
“We’re with you, Emma,” Layga encouraged her friend. “You too, Frank.”
“Until the death,” Jeba added.
“I like your friends.” Frank smiled at Emma as he bought a handgun to his right palm. “They say sweet things.”
Emma followed Frank, considering bringing her bow to life in her hands in exchange for the fire she acquired but deciding against it. At the moment, they needed light. When the fighting started, she’d be able to construct her bow within the space of a heartbeat or so she hoped. The construct was one she was familiar with but also one she still needed a lot of practice with.
You’re a freaking Arilion Knight, Emma said to herself as they walked up the short flight of stone steps leading into the building. They crested the threshold. Whatever’s in here better be worried about you coming for them.
Frank led the way with Emma a half step behind, Layga and Jeba bringing up the rear.
The inside of the asylum was quieter than the outside, if that was even possible. A chill fell over Emma as if she were entering some long forgotten tomb. There was a musty odor in the building of a room that had been shut up for too long.
Frank moved forward in a slightly couched position, his flashlight seeking the darkest corners while Emma’s torch lit up the rest of the area around them. Old towels, utensils, and rotting clothing lay in clumps along the hall. Doors with glass windows lay closed or half open on either side of the wide hall. Nothing moved.
“I heard a slight static buzz when we came in,” Layga told the others. “At least I think I did.”
“There’s some kind of jamming device in here,” Frank said, not taking his eyes from the path in front of him. “At the moment, we’re giving Desmond everything he wants. It’s starting to piss me off.”
“We may be in his trap at the moment, but his trap exists in our much larger trap,” Jeba said in a moment of clarity. “The Marines surrounding this building will not let him flee. This is it for him.”
Emma was about to agree, pointing out that Jeba was being positive for once and not talking about people dying when an old square intercom on the wall to their right crackled to life.
Frank raised his weapon toward the speaker. Emma lifted her torch, ready to transition to her bow if the need came. Instead of any attack, Desmond’s silky smooth voice filled the hall.
“By now, you’ve realized that there is no communication beyond this building,” Desmond said so cheerfully he could have been reporting the morning news at a high school. “Your little wolf is either dead or down for the count. I’ll let you discover which it is. It’ll be more fun for me that way. Oh, this is about to get so fun, I can’t wait! Come please, hurry and come. I’m waiting for you on the top floor, the fifth level. Emma, nice touch with the torch, very medieval. Good luck.”
The static line clicked dead.
“How’d he know you were carrying a torch?” Jeba asked, her head on a swivel as she searched the dark passage for an answer. “Witchcraft?”
“More likely he has cameras set up to monitor us,” Emma said as a shiver ran down her spine. “We’re being watched.”
“Let’s find the stairs in this place and get going,” Frank said, moving deeper into the building. “He said he was on the fifth floor.”
“He could be lying,” Layga warned.
“Could be, but I don’t think he is,” Frank said without turning around. “He’s that arrogant. He thinks he’s already won.”
“Well, he’s wrong,” Jeba snarled. “I don’t have any kind of love for the Were, but if he did in fact harm Jace, I’m going to—”
“Shhh…” Emma halted. She lifted the torch that burned in her right hand higher to get a better view of the open foyer their hall was spilling into. “I heard something.”
Emma’s senses were on overdrive. The group stopped, looking into a circular room with a line of elevators on their left and a staircase on their right. In the center of the room was a ring of desks that must have acted as some kind of check-in station when the asylum operated. Past all of this, in front of them was another hall and a pair of double doors, the entrance.
The scurrying came again, tiny pairs of feet running quickly across the floor.
Emma caught sight of a long hairless tail slip behind one of the desks in the center of the room. Judging by the size of the tail, it was an animal the dimensions of a small dog.
“Now would be a good idea to armor up,” Frank said, constructing a purple suit around him that looked like he had stepped out of a sci-fi video game. Along with the change he made, he also transitioned his flashlight and handgun to a heavy assault rifle with a light attached under the barrel.
Emma nodded, constructing her own armor. Hers was similar to Frank’s, but she relied more on what she knew. Her armor was sleek and simple, like the kind Iron Man wore. A visor formed over her face comparable to that of an ancient knight.
“Here.” Emma transitioned her torch into a ball of light. She threw it up into the middle of the room. A purple tendril of energy connected her right vambrace to the orb of energy providing the light.
The purple light painted the room, exposing every corner of the building’s floor from dark corner to blacked out doorways leading deeper into their waking nightmare.
Black beady eyes glared at them. Hairless rodents that came up to Emma’s knees stood completely still mesmerized by the light. If Emma had to guess what the creatures were, she would say they had to be rats. They were like giant hairless rats whose skin wrinkled at their neck and on the joints of their limbs. Their long snouts gave way to a bush of bristling whiskers. Crooked teeth that ranged from urine yellow to rotting black filled their mouths.
“Rats,” Frank said just above a whisper. “Why did it have to be rats? They look like those swamp things in Princess Bride except without any fur.”
With no warning, the rodents that had no right to be such a size snapped from their trance-like state staring at the orb. They charged Emma along with the rest of the unit.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Frank wasted no time painting the scene with lavender rounds as the rodents streaked toward them.
Her right arm still holding the ball of lavender light in place, Emma used her left to construct a blaster from the top of her left forearm’s armor. She had no idea what she was constructing, but she had seen enough sci-fi movies to get the idea that a blaster was a cylinder weapon that shot energy bolts.
Unlike Frank’s weapon that roared into the room proclaiming violence, Emma’s sounded like dry smoker’s hack when it went off.
Round after round of her purple energy blasts found the skinless rodents as they scrambled to get to Emma and Frank.
“Have at thee!” Jeba yelled as she and Layga took up a forward position in between and just ahead of Frank and Emma forming a kind of triangle.
How many rodents there had to be in the room was beyond Emma. Definitely dozens maybe hundreds of the creatures poured from every open doorway. They came from every hole in the floor and walls.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” Frank yelled over his booming weapon and Emma’s blaster that had transitioned now into a wet flu-induced cough. “Emma, on point. I’ll bring up the rear!”
Emma forced herself to move forward. Sure she had been in a fight before but not like this, not while using her powers up against hundreds of enemies.
Emma bottled her fear and made for the left side of the giant room, where a stairwell hugged the wall, leading upward into yet more darkness.
The rodents were relentless as they scurried toward her. A single blast from her weapon was enough to take one out, but more kept coming. Emma waded through the dead bodies of the rodents as a musky rotting odor filled her nose.
Layga swung her axe like a trained professional, not once allowing a rodent to get within biting distance of her. Jeba wasn’t so lucky. With her shorter legs, it was hard for her to find her footing over and around the dead bodies of the rodents as they made their way to the stairs.
Jeba slipped on the blood-soaked floor, sending her down to a knee. The two closest rodents to her zeroed in on her disadvantage. Their nails clicked on the floor as they made their manic attempt at her throat. Jeba caught their first one as it leaped at her left arm with the top of her sword. She skewered the creature right through its open mouth, sending her glimmering blue blade out the back of its skull.
While she shishkabobed the rodent on her left, the other one on her right lunged. It chomped down hard on her right forearm.
“Rawww!” Jeba screamed in pain.
Emma looked behind her just in time to see Frank take out the rodent crunching down on Jeba’s arm with a single shot to its chest.
The rodent fell limp. Jeba cradled her arm, looking at Frank in admiration. “You saved my life.”
“It’s nothing,” Frank shouted, drawing a bead on another rodent and making swiss cheese out of it. “Let’s go.”
“No, I owe you my life.” Jeba looked like she was going to drop her sword and go and kiss Frank. “I am yours now as you are mi—”
Layga slapped her friend across the face as gently as a Ree could.
Emma wanted to roll her eyes, laugh, and scream at Jeba to keep moving all at the same time. She would have done one, maybe all of these if she hadn’t spied the stairwell to their right teeming with turned humans.
They were so close now, only yards from their destination when Emma saw the front runners. But these turned were different from the normal humans Emma had come across. It was as if these humans had been baked too long in whatever it was that turned them in the first place.
They were hunched over with arms longer than they should be. They were losing the hair on their heads and they trotted down the steps more like monkeys than men.
“Um, Frank!” Emma shouted over the noise. “Stairs aren’t an option anymore.”
“What?” Frank asked, dispatching another rodent. “Why no—”
Frank’s words died in his mouth as he looked over at the stairs filled with the monsters slowly descending on them. The only silver lining in the cloud seemed to be even the rodents wanted nothing to do with these new creatures. Where once the furless animals were eager to throw themselves at Emma and her team, now they retreated back into the darkness.
“New plan.” Frank pointed to the opposite side of the room, where a row of ancient elevators sat with their sleek rusted silver doors closed. “Elevators, move!”
Emma obeyed. She had no desire to fight the horde of mutated humans descending the stairwell, but neither did she want to sit in a steel box in a building that for all intense and purposes Desmond Delshire controlled. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one.
“Is it wise to enter an elevator?” Layga asked, bounding over the husks of dead rodents with the rest of the unit. “Who knows if it’s working. Who knows if it’s a trap.”
“We’re not taking the elevator.” Frank winked at her. “Trust me, I have a plan.”
“Why don’t I feel any better?” Layga asked.
While they hurried over to the opposite side of the room, Emma noticed Jeba cradling her right arm to her chest. It wasn’t in the Bracka’s nature to complain or show pain, but it was obvious there was something wrong.
Emma glanced behind them. The creatures descending down the steps, unlike the rodents, moved slowly and deliberately, swinging their unnaturally long arms like orangutans.
Frank and Layga went to work on prying open the elevator doors, giving Emma the time she needed to inspect her friend. With one eye on the turned monsters still coming down the stairs, Emma channeled her best motherly voice. “Let me look at your arm, Jeba.”
At first, Emma thought her friend would protest. But the paleness in her complexion and the pain in her eyes forced her to obey Emma’s orders. Slowly, Jeba retracted her right forearm for Emma to see.
The rodent hadn’t managed to puncture the lightweight yet durable armor but it looked like it had crushed Jeba’s arm.
Emma slowly rolled up her friend’s sleeve, trying to be as gentle as she could. Jeba’s arm was a series of black and blue bruises. No bones were sticking through her skin. For that, Emma was grateful. She was no doctor, but it was clear something was very wrong.
“There,” Layga grunted. A metallic screeching sound accompanied the word as she and Frank tore open the elevator doors.
Inside, the elevator was bare. A pungent order of urine and feces permeated the air, telling them all the rodents had figured out some way to infiltrate the steel container and leave their mark.
Emma dry heaved.
“Hold them off. This is only going to take a second,” Frank ordered Emma before he got a look at what she was doing. His eyes followed her own down to Jeba’s arm. “You good, Jeba?”
“I’ll make it,” Jeba said, withdrawing her arm from Emma. “I can make it.”
“This is going to be over soon.” Frank nodded in her direction. “Emma, buy me some time.”
Emma turned back to the main threat headed toward them from the winding stairwell. The first of the turned beasts had made it down to floor level. They were now plodding their way along the ground floor toward the opposite side of the lobby and the elevator doors.
A distance of twenty yards separated them now.
Emma was starting to fatigue under the weight of not only holding her constructed armor around her but also the purple orb that illuminated the room. The mental strain on her was like her brain was being forced to hold a one-pound weight in place without moving it. It was easy at first, almost comically so, but as the minutes ticked by, the weight felt heavier and heavier.
Well, there’s no way I’m going to kill the light and plunge us into nightmares with these knuckle-dragging gorilla-looking monsters, Emma thought to herself, considering her options. Or maybe it’s time to make it rain.
A plan formed quickly in her mind. Frank stepped inside the elevator with some kind of constructed saw. He went to work cutting through the elevator ceiling. Emma wanted to find out what his plan exactly entailed, but there was no time.
Emma took a deep breath preparing herself. At once, she allowed the armor around her to dissipate as well as the purple orb providing their only source of light.
“Ummm, Emma?” Layga asked with bated breath. “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job or anything here, but now we have a hundred monsters walking toward us with no light.”
“Give me a second.” Emma gritted her teeth. She extended both her arms forward and upward, imagining in her mind what she wanted to construct. The force of her will channeled by her vambraces turned her thought into reality. A moment later, thousands of long purple icicles formed in the air above them. Their razor sharp edges pointed at the monsters ever diligent in making their way towards them.
The light the thousands of icicles let off wasn’t as bright as the orb Emma used before, but it did the job. The lobby was once again glowing in a dull purple glow.
Sweat gathered on Emma’s forehead. Tiny pinpricks touched her body as the heat she was exerting from her Will overtook her. A roar built in her throat until she couldn’t hold it in any longer, “Rawww!”
Like an army given the order to attack, the purple icicles floating above Emma’s head sped to meet their targets.
The monsters shambling toward them had made their way to the middle of the lobby. There were so many of them that the end of their procession still couldn’t be seen. They formed a solid line from the middle of the lobby all the way to the top of the stairs and beyond where the light didn’t penetrate.
Hungry red eyes fell away to soft noses and a mouth full of sharp teeth. The vanguard of Emma’s icicles met their lines, ripping through flesh, skin, and muscle as if they were paper. Emma kept constructing more and more icicles to send at the wall of approaching enemy.
Even more disturbing than the amount of blood and gore spilling to the floor was the fact that these turned monsters didn’t say a word. There were no screams of pain, no grunts of discomfort. They just continued to push forward like a silent zombie horde. Where one died, another stepped over its body. Where a leg was severed or even two legs, it crawled along the floor toward its target, burrowing through the gore of its brothers and sisters.
Constructing and sending thousands of icicles over and over again took Emma to her knees. Arms up, she clenched her jaw. For the moment, her assault seemed to be working. She had brought the monsters to a stale mate as those in the front died and those behind them were injured. How long Emma could keep this up was the question.
“Whoops,” Frank said over the rush of Emma’s icicles. “Well, that’s not good.”
Emma wanted to yell at him in that moment, but all her concentration had to remain on keeping the monsters at bay.
“What? What are you talking about?” Layga asked, poking her head into the elevator. “We need to go, now!”
“Yeah, well, I was going to see if I could get us a ride up, but I guess we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way. Let’s go. Emma, come on.”
Emma finally lowered her hands, gasping for breath. She felt weak and disoriented. Layga helped her to her feet as the four members of their unit entered the elevator.
Frank had been busy. The entire ceiling of the elevator had been cut and bent back like a tin can. Looking up now gave them a dark view into the elevator shaft and the darkness beyond.
“Everybody get ready. I’m going to get us to the fifth floor.”
“You can fly?” Jeba looked over at Frank with admiration. “I knew you had to be an angel the first moment I laid eyes on you.”
“More like float, but thanks, I think,” Frank said as he constructed a purple base with chains at each corner that he held in his hands. “Hop on.”
Emma was regaining her breath as Layga released her from her hold. The girls stepped on Frank’s oversized scale. A quick look to her right, through the open elevator doors told her the turned monsters had continued to advance. Empty eyes stared at her as long hairless arms reached toward her. The nails on each hand were black and pointed like talons or knives.
“Hold on.” Frank lifted from the ground holding the chains in his left hand that brought the platform the girls stood on with him.
Layga swiped down with her axe, severing a grasping hand of the lead monster that tried to get a hold on the purple platform Frank lifted slowly from the ground.
“Hey, does this thing go any faster?” Emma asked as she constructed her bow and sent a shaft through the skull of the next turned beast that stumbled into the elevator. “We’re about to pick up some hitchhikers.”
“Working on it,” Frank wheezed as he lifted them higher and higher. To his credit, he was making progress, but his speed was akin to a motorized shopping cart grocery stores offered patrons who had difficulty walking.
Layga hacked at another hand, severing it clean from its wrist. The hand fell on the purple platform, still wiggling in its death throws.
“Ewww, gross,” Emma said as Jeba stomped on it like it was some overgrown spider, then kicked it off the platform. “I’m going to need so much therapy after this.”
Finally, they were out of reach of the grasping hands of their enemies. Frank lifted them higher and higher. Soon they were passing the closed doors for the second and then third level.
“So very very impressive.” Desmond Delshire’s voice seemed to come from the very walls of the elevator themselves. “However, I wonder if I should disqualify you. I meant for you to have to fight your way up the five stories of the asylum. This feels like I’m being cheated.”
“What have you done with Jace?” Emma asked, feeling anger burn in her chest. “Where is he?”
“Don’t worry, Emma Jackson, I haven’t killed him. That would be such a waste. As you can probably tell, I’m somewhat of an academic, studying and manipulating alien DNA with human hosts. It’s my calling in life,” Desmond said, taking time to pause as if he were reflecting on the size of his brain. “I’m so much looking forward to cutting into an Arilion Were and seeing what I can create.”
Emma’s stomach twisted in her gut as images came to mind of Desmond hunched over Jace, using a scalpel to remove his tissue. Another image flashed across her thoughts of what Desmond had done to create the hairless rodents and the monstrous turned that chased them to the elevator doors.
“I guess it’s for the best, though,” Desmond sighed. “Better you get here quickly and I dispose of you so I can get to work. So much research and so little time, you know. Once you exit the elevator on the fifth floor, make a left. I’m all the way down on the right. You can’t miss me.”
At the same time Desmond’s voice went quiet, Frank reached the fifth and top floor. The doors to the elevator were open, showing them a dilapidated narrow lobby where the elevators let off their patrons before they continued down the halls of the floor.
“I don’t—I don’t think Jeba should go on,” Layga said, looking down at her pale friend as they gathered in the room. “I’ll stay with her.”
“What?” Jeba scowled, hiding the wince of pain that came to her face. “Absolutely not. I’m going. I’m fine.”
“Maybe this is where we call for the cavalry?” Emma looked over to Frank, who was trying to raise General Fox on the comms. “We can call in the Marines.”
“Comms are still jammed,” Frank said, looking at Jeba with pursed lips. “We could call in the Marines, but how many of their lives would be lost as they fight their way up the levels of the asylum? Who knows what Desmond has waiting for them on levels three and four.”
“Don’t call them.” Jeba took a seat on the floor cradling her arm. “We’re almost done. This is almost over. If me sitting out keeps lives from being lost, then I can do that. I think my arm is broken, but I can take the pain. Go get Jace, kill Desmond Delshire, and let’s be done with this.”
Jeba’s words were so finite, her resolve so firm, Frank and Emma practically jumped to do her bidding.
“I won’t let anything happen to her,” Layga said, gripping her axe. “But hurry. She’s in more pain than she’s letting on.”
“We’ll be right back.” Emma nodded toward her friend. “Hang in there.”
“Frank, Frank, come over here,” Jeba whispered. “I have something only for you to hear.”
“You’ll be all right; this is about to come to an end.” Frank kneeled next to her. “We’re going to end this right now.”
Jeba leaned in and whispered something in Frank’s ear.
The only light came from the vambraces Emma and Frank wore and the blue glow from Layga and Jeba’s blades; still, this was enough to see Frank blush deeply. Whatever Jeba had told him had turned the tanned Marine’s cheeks rosy.
“Um, right, well.” Frank rose to his feet, motioning to Emma. “Let’s uh—let’s get this done.”
Emma and Frank made their way down the hall, following Desmond’s instructions. Frank constructed a heavy machine gun while Emma went with an arrow notched in her bow.
“So did Jeba say she wanted you to have her babies?” Emma couldn’t help but ask. She made sure she kept a straight face.
“We’re about to walk into the lair of a real life villain, with more than half our unit down, and you’re cracking a joke?” Frank looked over at her with a frown that slowly turned into a grin. “Yeah, yes she did.”
Both Marine and teenager broke into a light chuckle. Their mirth was short lived as a wide door down the hall grew closer and closer with every step. Emma was exhausted from her work with the icicles, but she was beginning to understand that Arilion Knights weren’t allowed to get exhausted. It was time to go again. She had no other choice but to rally or give up. It wasn’t in her nature to give up.
“Does it ever get any easier?” Emma asked as the two stood in front of the closed door that presumably would lead them to Desmond Delshire. “I mean, all of this. Does it get easier?”
“It does,” Frank said slowly. “Some things get easier; other obstacles will come up you’ll have to face. You’ll always get a bit nervous before a mission, but that’s life. You’re mother-freaking Emma Jackson, an Arilion Knight. We’ll take what life give us, make the best of it, and move on, because giving up isn’t an option. It’s never an option.”
Emma felt goosebumps race down her spine in light of Frank’s words.
“I’ll go in first with a shield,” Frank said, constructing a circular barrier as tall as he was and twice as wide in his left hand. In his right, he held his rifle. “You come in a step behind me with that bow of yours.”
“Got it.” Emma nodded.
That was it. There was no more time to plan, no more chances to turn back. Frank lifted his heavy right boot and slammed it into the door. The aged piece of wood splintered and swung inward before breaking off its hinges. Before the door even hit the ground, Frank was through the entrance, Emma right behind him.
Emma had her bow pulled taut. Her heart raced quickly for what felt like the millionth time that day. A life such as hers meant she was constantly getting spikes of adrenaline and this situation was no different.
The fight or flight sensation embedded in her DNA told her it was time to run or get in the fight. Emma chose the latter.
As soon as she was in the room, two things were immediately evident. The room was empty save two tables on the far corners of the room and a line of windows along the right wall. On one of these tables, Jace lay on his back under a light. His chest rose slowly as he gathered, then released breath.
The second thing Emma noticed was the opposite table on the far side of the room with some kind of electronic alien device that looked like a metal stereo.
“That’s how he’s been jamming us.” Frank looked over his right shoulder to Emma. She saw the warning in his eyes before he could even get the words out of his mouth. “Emma, get do—”
Frank shoved Emma out of the way at the same time a short whistling sound penetrated the relative quiet. A steel barb embedded deep in Frank’s neck as he used himself as a shield for Emma.
Emma looked up to see Desmond emerge from the shadows in the right hand corner of the room. Whether he had used the darkness that already existed there or some kind of alien tech that rendered him invisible Emma couldn’t tell. What she did know was that Frank was already falling to his knees while Desmond reloaded his weapon.
He held a steel tube in his right hand. With deft fingers, he placed a dart into the end of the tube and brought the weapon to his lips again. A wild menace lived in his eyes. It was a look of a child as it tortured an insect.
Emma lifted her bow, drew her string back, and let her arrow fly.
At the same time Desmond blew through his own weapon, sending the steel barb at Emma. The two projectiles collided. Emma’s much larger construct eviscerated Desmond’s smaller barb continuing its forward momentum and striking him across his right cheek.
Desmond shrieked, dropping his weapon as he stumbled backward. He lifted his right hand to his cheek as the black blood from his wound ran down his finger.
A cry like a wounded animal left his lips as he charged Emma faster than she could draw a bead on him. Emma had enough time to construct another shaft and draw back her bowstring, but no time to aim.
Desmond collided with her as she loosed her arrow. He slammed into her, carrying her backward and across the room until they were stopped by the table Jace was lying on.
Emma felt blows landed to her right jaw and left temple before she could gather herself enough to bring her own forearms across her face and block Desmond’s strikes with her vambraces. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. The substance covered her left eye from a deep cut Desmond opened on her temple.
A better option came to mind as deja vu set in. Instead of trying to simply defend herself from his blows, Emma lowered her arms, giving Desmond a free shot at her face. The Vilmar looked on her with wild eyes as he reared back with his right fist. He brought it down on her face with all the power of a trained martial arts master.
At the last second, Emma constructed a steel helmet across her face similar to the ones she had seen the ancient Spartans use. Desmond’s fist hammered the helmet so hard Emma still felt the blow, but not as much as Desmond.
A crack sounded as the Vilmar’s hand broke on her helmet. He screamed in agony as he brought his right hand into his chest like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Emma seized her moment of opportunity. She was wet with her own sweat and blood, more tired than she could ever remember being, but this was her chance. This was her moment to rise up.
Alongside the right wall of the room, the filthy window showed very little moonlight coming through. Emma positioned herself with Desmond between herself and the glass windows.
“You have no idea the game that is being played here.” Desmond shook his head with a sick laugh. “You have no idea what’s really going on. You’re like a lost, frightened puppy.”
“Well, this puppy’s got an arrow with your name on it,” Emma said, constructing her bow again and aiming it at Desmond’s chest. “Give it up or this is where you die.”
“I can’t wait to see the look on your face once the Shay come to your planet again,” Desmond said with a wicked smile. He turned away from Emma, speeding toward the glass window. He jumped.
Glass shattered all around him as he was lost to view. Emma stood stunned by his words and the fact that he had just committed suicide. Thinking quickly, Emma aimed her bow at the alien piece of tech next to her that jammed their comms. She released her arrow, sending a short burst of sparks from the unit.
Instantly, her comms came alive with chatter. There were the sounds of weapons being fired from the Marine units outside.
“General Fox.” Emma ran to Frank’s side, pulling the barb from his neck. He was still breathing. “Desmond jumped from the fifth story. I have wounded. Send help from the top of the roof down. There are too many enemies on the lower floors.”
“Emma! Emma, it’s good to hear your voice,” General Fox said, relieved.
Emma could hear Laloyd chattering excitedly from somewhere close by. General Fox’s voice came over the comm unit again. “We got him, Emma. We’re sending help via the roof top right now. We got him!”
Within the next hour, Emma and her team were extracted by helicopters from the roof of the asylum and deposited safely back at the group headquarters.
A very wounded and unconscious Desmond Delshire had been apprehended by the Marines guarding the perimeter. It seemed he had broken a leg in the fall as well as suffered a severe concussion.
The only member of Emma’s team that seemed to have gotten away without a scratch was Layga. Frank and Jace were getting over their medically induced hangovers, Jeba was having her fractured arm placed in a cast, and Emma had the lacerations on her face looked at by the field medic.
Once Emma was cleared, General Fox walked in with, to her surprise, her father. Mr. Jackson rushed to his daughter’s side, squeezing her in a tight embrace.
“Sorry, he insisted,” General Fox said with a shrug. “He was hell bent on going into the asylum after you, but we met halfway. I had my men bring him here.”
“I’m glad you did,” Emma said, reassuring her father she was fine. “I’m tougher than I look. You taught me that.”
“I know, I know.” Mr. Jackson took a step back with his hands open in a sign of surrender. “No father wants to see his daughter’s lip split open.”
“You should see the other guy,” General Fox said with a grin.
“Speaking of the other guy,” Emma asked, her memory picking up on the words Desmond had told her before he jumped. “Desmond said something about the Shay coming back to invade Earth.”
“Probably just messing with your mind,” General Fox reassured Emma. “I’d say we can go speak with him, but you did a number on him and the fall sent him into a coma. He’s been treated for a broken hand, a shattered leg, and a concussion, among other things.”
Emma nodded along with the general’s words as she tried to convince herself that Desmond was lying about the Shay, that the winged alien creatures were not planning to return to Earth.
A shimmering light appeared on the far end of the room. General Fox drew his weapon. Emma constructed a blade and stood in front of her father. A second later, Tistan Duel appeared at her daughter’s side.
“Emma, Emma, are you all right? Slain told me the mission was a success, but there were injuries.” Tistan ignored General Fox. She gave her ex-husband a quick look, then turned back to Emma.
Unlike her father, Emma’s mother didn’t embrace her. It wasn’t in her nature, but that didn’t mean she cared any less. She wore the same concern in her eyes her father had a moment before.
“I’m fine, I’m good, I mean I could eat a cheeseburger and Dr. Pepper at the moment, but I’ll make it.” Emma allowed her sword construct to disappear.
“Well I guess everyone’s invited.” General Fox holstered his weapon. “I’ll leave you to it.”
General Fox walked out of the room, leaving Emma, her father and her mother together for the second time in as many days.
“Well, I just wanted to make sure you were well.” Tistan cleared her throat uncomfortably, trying not to make eye contact with her ex-husband. “I guess—I guess I’ll be getting back to the Academy.”
“Ugh, this is so awkward it’s killing me,” Emma said, unable to bear being caught in the middle again. “Is this what it’s going to be like every time the two of you are in a room?” Emma asked.
Her father shook his head and let out a deep breath. “No, it shouldn’t have to be.”
Emma knew her father well enough to recognize that tone of voice. He was having a hard time pushing the words past his lips, as if he were digging and searching for every syllable. Her dad was about to talk about his feelings.
“Tistan, I mean, I guess that’s your real name.” Emma’s father swallowed hard.
“Well, this is going to get even more awkward if I’m here, so maybe I should go.” Emma made for the room’s exit.
“No,” her father said with a raised hand. “You should be here for this. I, uh, I had the night to think about it. Who am I kidding? I had the night and the entire day. It’s all I’ve been able to think about.” Emma’s father looked Tistan in the eye as he bared his soul. “I can’t promise you things are going to work out. I’m still angry and hurt. I still have so many questions. But—I guess I’m willing to talk with you and try and understand all of this.”
Emma’s eyebrows shot up as she looked from her father to her mother. Sure, it was exactly what she had hoped for, but her father being so willing to speak with Tistan after only a single day of giving things thought was moving faster than she could have hoped.
Tistan broke into a rare smile. It was the first time Emma could actually remember seeing her really truly smile. She was beautiful.
“I can’t promise you anything.” Emma’s father saw the same smile and shook his head. “I don’t know if this will or even can work.”
“It’s enough,” Tistan said with an even wider smile. It was hard for Emma not to smile herself seeing her mother so happy. “Just talking with you is enough.”
“Pssss…” Emma looked to the doorway where Laloyd stood with a bag of microwavable popcorn alongside Frank. “This is where you should give them some space.”
If Emma’s father and mother noticed the Marine and the Draconian in the doorway, they didn’t show it. The lovers long separated were locked in eye contact, sharing a moment they had each dreamt about for many years past.
Emma couldn’t stop grinning, even as she made for the door to join Frank and Laloyd. Laloyd gave her a sidewise grin and offered her some popcorn.
Emma dipped her hand inside the bag and came out with some of the popped buttery salty goodness. “Did you have anything to do with this?”
“Maybe.” Laloyd looked at her sideways, then broke into a grin of his own. “I made your dad breakfast while we were at Haven this morning, remember? We spoke for a long time. The heart wants what the heart wants.”
Laloyd said the last part as if that were all the explanation he was prepared to give. For the moment, it was enough for Emma.
“Thank you,” Emma said to Laloyd as she looked over to Frank popping another piece of popcorn into her mouth. “How are you feeling?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Frank said, massaging the spot on his neck where the barb had knocked him unconscious. “It feels like a crazy weekend in Vegas, but I’ll live. You did great back there, Jackson. You’re the Arilion Knight the Earth needs. I mean, if I can’t be here all the time, I’m glad they have you.”
“Please.” Emma walked with her two friends from the doorway of the room where her mother and father stood talking by a window looking out onto the orange horizon that heralded the morning of a new day. “Even if you were here, the vambraces would have chosen me. You’re lucky you got yours on another planet.”
The Marine, the Draconian, and the teenager looked out the window, each lost to his or her own thoughts for the moment. As much joy as Emma felt at completing her mission and her parents speaking to one another in the next room, a sense of dread touched her mind.
Desmond Delshire had no reason to lie. His voice ran over and over again in her mind. “The Shay are returning.”
If they come, I’ll be ready, Emma promised herself. I’ll be ready.
End Book Two
Hungry for More Arilion Knights?
At the moment there are 4 books out in the main Gateway story with Frank Wolffe and 2 in the New Knights series with Emma Jackson.
JR Castle and I are working hard to get you the next book in each series. Rise Up (Gateway 5) is available for preorder slated to release next with Strength in Struggle (New Knights 3) which is also available for preorder, coming out hot on its heels.
Until then, if you haven’t started the main Gateway series, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Frank Wolffe.
Into the Breach (Gateway to the Galaxy Book 1)
“You’re smarter than you look.”
“Yeah, well, I like to manage expectations.” Frank glanced at his flavor-of-the-week date with a wry grin. He tried a playful line he had used so many timed before, intentionally misquoting the saying to get a smile. “I’m just a girl looking at a guy, wondering what—”
A message from Frank’s watch blared a familiar tune as it interrupted the two at dinner and all those around them.
“Umm—sir?” A waiter passing by their table gave Frank a parental look.
“Sorry, I’m on it,” Frank said with an apologetic nod.
“What’s ‘butts’?” the ash-blonde at his right asked, scrunching together her perfectly shaped eyebrows. “Why does your watch say ‘butts’ on it?”
“It’s B.U.T.T.S. all in caps, like an acronym. It’s just work,” Frank said, checking the smooth, black face of the watch he wore on his left wrist. He ignored the message from his boss. “So where were we? We were talking about doing something fun after dinner, right?”
“What’s an acronym?” the blonde asked, a quizzical expression etched on her face. “Is that like two words that are the same?”
“I think you’re thinking of a synonym,” Frank said with a signature smile.
BEEP BEEP BE-DOH BEEP BEEP!
Before he could continue, his watch sounded again. Usually, it wouldn’t have been of any major concern; his Power Rangers ringtone letting him know he had a message from work was standard. However, tonight, Frank had taken his newest date to a rather exclusive, highbrow Italian cuisine experience, where the other patrons didn’t look amused by the constant juvenile sounds emanating from his latest communication tech.
“Can you turn that off?” his date asked as she looked around, her shoulders shrinking as she glanced from side to side, avoiding eye contact with the other diners. Her gaze beneath the curtain of obvious eyelash extensions landed on a table in the corner, where a quartet of brawny, well-dressed men sat glaring at them. Their bodies were tense and unnaturally still within their cashmere, fine-tailored suits. If Frank were to venture a guess, their day jobs weren’t exactly of the legal kind.
“Technically, I can. But the boss doesn’t like it when I switch her to ‘off’ or ‘mute.’ They can track all of that stuff, you know,” Frank said, eyes on the same table as Melony … or was it Susan?
Open concept dining area of the restaurant featured low, cushioned seating around polished, olive-wood tables. A warm, orange glow from table candles and low-hung pendant lamps lit the way for the service staff. The team met their patrons’ needs in swift, unpressured movements; their timing and recommendations were as impeccable as their shirts were crisp. It was the type of place one went for a celebration, where the prices on the menu carried an extra digit and the parking was valet only. It wasn’t Frank’s usual go-to, but he was always down to try anything once.
The light chatter in the restaurant picked up again, after having been disturbed for the second time by Frank’s watch. A cellist filled the air with smooth vibrations from a corner, serenading the crowd with songs Frank could recall but couldn’t name.
“Like, what kind of watch is that, anyway?” The blonde leaned over to Frank, revealing a light pink bralette beneath a plunging neckline. “I’ve never seen a triangle one like that before.”
“Oh, it’s not really on the market,” Frank started. “It’s a—”
BOM-BOM BOM BOM-BOM
This time his watch didn’t send him a message—it rang. The theme music to Terminator thundered through the quiet of the restaurant like a war drum in a church. The interruption was too loud for Frank to ignore. A quick look down confirmed his suspicions: two messages and a call.
The first message said: Frank, report in.
The second: Frank we have an urgent matter for you. Report.
The call was from his immediate supervisor.
“Hey, muscles,” a raspy voice said from Frank’s left. “Time for you and your cell phone to make yourself scarce from my restaurant. You can leave the lady.”
Frank leaned back in his chair to look up into the bloodshot eyes of a bald man with a scar across his throat. He was one of the four who had been glaring at him from the table in the corner. Behind him stood three larger men Frank guessed were his own “muscles.”
“Listen, I’m sorry,” Frank said, shaking his head with a sigh. “I understand my watch going off can be disturbing. Trust me, the last thing I want to do is ruin someone’s tortellini. That’s a fun word, right? Tortellini? Anyway, I’ll take the call outside, and we can all go back to enjoying our night.”
“You must not have heard me.” Baldy grabbed Frank by the collar and dragged him to his feet. “You’re done here.”
“This … this is just escalating so fast.” Frank sighed. Although he was being lifted from his seat, his tiptoes barely touching the ground underneath him, Frank kept his cool. “We’re really going to do this right here? Right now?”
“You have brain damage or something?” Baldy leered down at him.
“Probably. All that time in the Corps couldn’t have been good for me.” Frank placed both his hands on top of the man’s who was holding him up. He looked over to his date. “I’m really sorry about this.”
The blonde’s mouth was wide open as she watched the scene unfolding in front of her. She wasn’t capable of saying anything, though she did manage to grab her phone and begin to record the scene. The entire restaurant had gone quiet; from the cellist playing in the corner, to the chattering people at the other tables, everyone looked on, unwilling to intervene.
“Last chance,” Frank said to the gorilla-sized restaurateur still holding him. “Let me go now, or things are going to get … painful, up in here.”
“You idiot,” Baldy said. “You’re—ahhhhh!”
Frank had kept his temper in check for as long as he was able. A long time ago, he had been taught the lesson that someone’s grip could be stronger than your own, but a single finger of theirs was never as strong as your entire hand.
In one quick move, Frank had grabbed the man’s left pinky finger and twisted it backwards past its normal range of motion.
The phalange cracked with a sickening noise. And Frank didn’t stop. It was his turn to grab the hefty man, who was a few inches taller than his own six-foot frame, by the pressed broadcloth collar. Frank slammed the crown of his own head into the man’s crooked nose—once, twice, three times.
There was another crunch as a shower of blood cascaded over the two combatants, as well as the table Frank had been sitting at with his date. Frank’s chambray shirt was a bloody mess. The front of Baldy’s shirt was white no more.
“Damn. I’m going to need another new shirt,” Frank said, considering himself for a brief moment, rolling his eyes.
Everyone was stunned as the bald man moaned and sunk to his knees. Like some spell had been lifted, the three goons behind their downed leader charged at Frank.
Frank’s plan was simple. When dealing with multiple targets, the best idea was to always put down each enemy as fast as possible, with as few strikes as possible, in order to move on to the next target. Not like in the movies, where the hero fights five different bad guys at once.
The first attacker came at Frank with a wide swing. Frank leaned back, letting the blow glance past his face. The strike was so close, a brief gust of wind rushed past his nose.
Frank struck out with his right fist, which landed across the bearded man’s jaw. Then he slammed into the man with his right shoulder, driving him back into his two counterparts who were trying to get around their comrade and join the fight. Frank grabbed the dazed man behind the head with both of his hands, and at once, he drove the man’s head down and his right knee up into his skull.
The man toppled just as pain exploded across Frank’s eyes. Bright dots played in front of him. Another strike from the dark-suited man on his right split the right side of Frank’s lip.
Recovering, Frank caught the third blow intended for him, twisting the man’s arm completely around by his wrist. The attacker fell to his knees in a scream of pain. As though in one single, fluid motion, Frank slammed his right fist into the back of the man’s exposed arm. His blow landed right over the man’s elbow, shattering his arm in multiple locations.
But it had taken too much time. Frank’s final attacker grabbed a dinner knife from the table and lunged for his head. Frank moved out of the way, but too late. A shallow cut opened at his dark hairline on the left side of his face.
Frank knocked into a table behind him, trying to get out of the path of the man swiping his knife through the air like a crazed orchestra conductor.
Frank reached behind him, feeling at the edge of the table and grabbing a utensil he hoped was a knife of his own. It was a spoon.
“Of course I would grab a spoon,” Frank muttered.
The two men circled one another. Frank’s enemy smiled at him with malicious intent. Without warning, the man charged again.
Inverting the spoon so the handle now pointed up, Frank batted the incoming knife to the side and plunged the handle of his spoon into the man’s left eye.
A collective gasp rose up from the restaurant’s clientele. The man screamed, clawing at the spoon coming out of his eye as he fell to the ground.
“Someone should call an ambulance … or two.” Frank looked down at the carnage at his feet. “They’re going to need some help getting up from this one, and a lot of pain meds.”
Frank looked over at his date. The woman’s mouth hadn’t closed since the fight began. Nor had her phone been put down. A spray of crimson blood from the bald man’s nose speckled her cream dress.
“Hey, Faith.” Frank winced, hoping that was her name. “You okay?”
“My name’s not Faith, Frank!” The woman finally recovered from her shock, looking down at her blood-spattered dress. “And no, I’m not okay!”
“Why was I thinking Faith? Amber? It’s Amber, right?”
The blonde shot daggers at him from her blue eyes.
“I’m going to kill you myself!” the woman screamed.
Frank’s watch went off again.
“Well, I gotta run, but … raincheck?” Frank grinned at the woman, his split lip still bleeding. “We should really do this again sometime soon.”
Instructions always came the same way: a location destination and a time. Nothing more, nothing less. Transportation arrangements were made for him. All Frank had to do was show up where he was told to and introduce the buyers to the weapons and/or equipment.
B.U.T.T.S. stood for Ballistics United Tactical and Tech Systems. His employer was a technology and weapons manufacturer that primarily sold to the United States government. The company, founded by two Marines who had served in Desert Shield and were originally backed by some smart investors, had earned the leading name in the business of everything from body armor that could stop a high-caliber bullet at point-blank range, to the latest and greatest in gauss powered rifles. Not to mention, they developed and launched items most people have only heard of in futuristic and sci-fi cinemas. They credited part of their continued success to employing Marines who had been in the field, who knew their stuff, and who knew how to execute orders.
A quick flight, and Frank found himself in Nevada. An armed escort picked him up from McCarran airport. Frank wasn’t given details on who the buyer was, but when the soldier approached him, he was pretty sure he knew.
“Frank Wolffe?” asked an attractive, middle-aged woman with shoulder-length chestnut hair and clad in military fatigues. “Are you Frank Wolffe?”
“You already know the answer to that.” Frank smiled with a wince. The act had brought on a stinging sensation to the corner of his lip, which was still recovering from the previous night. “I heard you needed some … goods.”
The woman’s astute gaze darted around the small airport to see whether anyone had overheard Frank’s remarks. “Yes, we can discuss the details later. The products have arrived ahead of you and are waiting for us. Follow me.”
She wasted no time on pleasantries. Simply completing an about-face, she walked away.
Frank was used to the military type. He had served his own obligation as soon as he could enlist. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he had been contracted with the United States Marine Corps. As soon as he had completed his stint, he had been hired by B.U.T.T.S. During his decade or so with the weapons manufacturer, he had worked his way up the ranks to be a salesman of sorts for the company. His amiable personality and ability to magnify the effectiveness of their product made him a perfect fit for the job.
“I’m Major Lucy Lopez,” the woman said, still walking briskly to exit the airport terminal. She extended a hand while she walked, making the handshake awkward.
Frank took it anyway. “Glad to meet you.”
That was it. Frank and the woman strode to the terminal exit, where a desert Humvee awaited, with two more Marines riding in front.
Major Lopez opened the door for Frank, and the two ducked into the back of the Humvee.
A pile of paperwork sat in a bulky, foliage-green seat. The familiar B.U.T.T.S. logo stamped on the envelope was enough to tell Frank the paperwork was for him.
“This came for you a few hours ago with the rest of the equipment,” Major Lopez said, taking a seat opposite Frank and slamming the heavy door shut behind her.
The chill morning air of the Nevada desert was just cold enough to create light puffs of mist from Frank’s breath. He pulled his wool peacoat tighter around him, wishing he had worn long underwear or something other than denim jeans. Though the arid desert climate didn’t cut to the bone like the winds of Chicago, it penetrated clothing layers with a slow, still creep.
“Not used to the cold?” Major Lopez looked amused as the Humvee jerked into motion. “Don’t worry, we’ll be there soon.”
“I’m great, take your time,” Frank said, grabbing the manila envelope resting on the seat beside him. Embossed at the top of the otherwise nondescript enclosure was the logo of his employer—a pyramid with the back of a bullet in the center filled the triangle-shaped emblem. A circle surrounded the pyramid.
Frank took the next few minutes to peruse the itemization of equipment and weaponry he would be unpacking and presenting to the United States Marine Corps. The list was extensive; beyond extensive. Frank saw items on the inventory he had previously thought were still in the conceptual stages of development. This order would have totaled in the billions of dollars.
“You all right?” Major Lopez asked across from Frank as the Humvee barreled out of Sin City and into the vast Mojave desert’s rocky red-browns with patches of cactus and grasses. “You look like you’re surprised.”
“What? Oh.” Frank kept his head tilted down, but moved his eyes up to meet the Major’s gaze. “What are you jarheads doing out here in the Mojave? I’ve never seen an order like this before.”
“You know the rules: don’t ask, don’t tell,” Major Lopez said with a twitch of her own eyebrows. It was clear she was aware of her flawless skin and attractive disposition. “Eyes only.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Frank said, shaking his head from side to side as he finished pouring over the manifest. “I’m breaking my own rule. The less I know, the better. I’m going to introduce you and your CO to the goodies then I’ll be off.”
“Sounds good to me,” Major Lopez said.
But the truth was Frank couldn’t shake curiosity that easily. “But seriously, like it’s aliens or something, right?”
“I mean out here in the desert, you found aliens. Like Area 51. Don’t try to lie to me about that one. I’ve been there.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny.” Major Lopez actually smiled.
Frank leaned back with a sigh. “You’ve told me everything already.”
“I’ve told you nothing.” Major Lopez rolled her eyes.
“Exactly,” Frank said, putting his hands into the pockets of his peacoat. “That’s my point.”
“You’re a nut.”
“Oh, I’m a lot more than that,” Frank said as his mind ran over the vast inventory once more. The Marines had spared no expense. Everything on the list would equip a small army. The only thing missing was the large hyper-beam weapons Frank had seen in development at B.U.T.T.S. headquarters. He wouldn’t doubt that it was only on backorder.
Thy made the rest of the journey in silence. Frank caught signs on the road to their destination outside the city of Las Vegas, and it was soon clear where the Humvee was headed. The Hoover Dam was getting closer and closer.
Mile markers counting down the span to the man-made structure popped up every few minutes as they approached. Frank’s mind was working on overdrive. To his knowledge, there was no working military branch stationed at the Hoover Dam.
A sixth sense Frank had grown to trust during his own time in the military tickled the back of his neck.
Easy there, hombre, Frank thought. You’re not in the military anymore. This isn’t different than any other job. Get in, play Santa, give the kids their shiny new toys, and get out. Don’t ask any more questions or show more interest than you have to. This is just a job. Tonight, you’ll be back taking Lisa, or Deborah, or whatever her name was, out on a make-up date. Or if not her, someone else.
Despite his own internal pep talk, Frank couldn’t help noticing when the Humvee pulled off the main road. Major Lopez produced a black hood from her back pocket and handed it to Frank.
“Really?” Frank accepted the hood. “It’s not like I don’t know where we are. And the hood’s still warm from your butt cheek.”
“Oh, I know you know where we are, but you don’t know how we get in.” Major Lopez pointed to the hood. “I’m going to have to insist. And I warmed it up for you on purpose. You looked cold.”
“That’s borderline disgusting.” Frank sighed as he placed the hood over his head, covering his espresso brown hair down to his muscular neck, the end resting on his broad shoulders. The cloth was coarse and irritated the cut on his hairline where the steak knife had scratched him the night before. “I’m going to tack on hazard pay for this one.”
Frank felt the Humvee lurch to life again and bounce down an unmarked road.
“I’m going to have to ask you for your phone, smartwatch, and any other pieces of communication you have on your person,” Major Lopez said, her voice drifting past the hood. “It won’t work where we’re going anyway but just to be sure. They’ll be returned when you’re done.”
Frank had been expecting this new development, but he moved slowly anyway. “Rules, rules, rules. Makes me miss my time in the corps.”
“I’m sure we could find you the right paperwork if you want to re-enlist,” the Major said, accepting Frank’s phone and watch. “Maybe even speed up the process for you and get you back in basic by week’s end.”
“I’m going to have to take a hard pass on that.” Frank was going to say more, when the thundering of water—a lot of water—picked up the conversation for him.
Frank resisted the urge to take off the hood and see for himself. It sounded like millions, maybe trillions, of gallons of water escaping somewhere around or below him.
The urge to tear off the black hood that scratched at his fair face was nearly impossible to ignore. Frank had to remind himself to behave and keep his hands by his sides, instead of removing the hood that obscured his vision.
For the time being, the roar made by the rush of escaping water drowned out anything he or the Major could say, and for what felt like a few minutes (but in reality, had to be seconds), all there was, was the sound of water being drained to—well, Frank wasn’t sure to where.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sound of the rushing water receded, and the Humvee jerked to life. Frank felt the vehicle moving forward.
“Either we’re entering the world’s largest toilet bowl, or I have a serious inner ear issue,” Frank said through the hood. “Hey, man, we can make this ride a lot smoother if you’ve got the funds.”
Clearly, the major was not amused at his swipe at their older-model vehicle.
“We’re almost there,” Major Lopez answered as the Humvee came to yet another stop.
This time, instead of there being another rush of water, the electric hum of a slow moving elevator filled his ears. Frank felt the military-grade vehicle begin to sink as if being lowered on some kind of oversized lift. A stale, dank scent accosted Frank’s nose through the wool mask.
“Just a few more seconds now, Mr. Wolffe,” Major Lopez coaxed. “You’re doing great.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me.” Frank leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m great over here, sitting blindfolded in a bag you pulled out from your back pocket. Hey, have you guys washed this thing since the last victim you brought down here?”
The only reply he received was the vehicle jolting to a stop again. The hum of the lift silenced. For the last time, the Humvee rolled forward and came to a complete stop only a few seconds later.
“All right you’re good to go,” Major Lopez said, reaching over and taking the hood off Frank. “Welcome to The Den.”
Frank blinked, then blinked again, not believing his eyes. “Did you roofie me somehow, or something like that?”
Frank looked through the window of the Humvee to a massive enclosed staging area loaded with vehicles and aircraft alike.
The major didn’t answer Frank, but instead hopped off the Humvee, exchanging words with the two Marines who had been in the driver and commander seats. The two soldiers saluted and jogged down the vast warehouse.
Frank’s synapses fired like Pop Rocks on cola as he took in the area around him, calculating the details to deduce their possible location. There were no windows in the warehouse; all four walls, floor, and ceiling were the same cement grey.
The room itself was massive with rows of Humvees, JLTVs, and other four-wheeled vehicles on one side of the chamber. On the other side were lines of Apache helicopters, hovercrafts Frank had never seen, and some kind of spacecraft fighter that looked like a stealth bomber.
Running, shouting, and working amongst all of these pieces of machinery were a handful of Marines. They carried large power tools, had vehicles up on lifts, and wore welding masks as they performed their duties. In the center of the room, a giant octagon lift rose to the ceiling, with a hydraulic system that raised and lowered the platform. The rail it rode on started on the ground and followed a diagonal line to the ceiling more than three stories above.
“Pretty cool, right?” Major Lopez said, prying Frank’s attention away from the scene in front of them. “Not everyday you see something like this.”
“Yeah,” Frank said, noticing the water that dripped from the ceiling where an octagon opening had closed since he had arrived. “I mean, the Russians have something like this, but I’m not going to talk about that.”
Major Lopez’s eyebrows shot toward her hairline. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Am I?” Frank said, deflecting his true emotions with humor. In all honesty, he was worried what he was getting himself into. He had delivered dozens of shipments of weapons, armor, and tech to the military, but never in a setting like this.
“Follow me.” Major Lopez motioned to Frank. “The colonel doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Frank fell in line with the major, and the two made their way out of the colossal warehouse room, through a twisting maze of cement and steel.
It didn’t surprise Frank there were no windows. He understood enough to deduce they were underneath the Hoover Dam in a hidden bunker. Why he was being allowed to see as much as he was, was the thing that bothered him the most. Did they plan to wipe his memory with drugs or something else? Worse, did they plan on killing him? No, then why the black hood at all?
Hold onto your huevos rancheros, Frank thought. You’ve been in worse jams than this. Besides, no one has made an aggressive move or done anything to make you think they’re going to axe you at the end of this.
Frank and the major passed a few white lab coated technicians and other Marines on patrol before they came to a stop near a steel door that stood open. The room was once again large, but not as big as the first chamber Frank had seen. This room seemed to be reserved for storage and staging. An enclosed shooting range stood at the far end. Still, the sporadic thud and crack of rifles and the whiz of a piece Frank hadn’t seen previously echoed throughout the chamber.
In front of Frank were a series of familiar-looking crates stamped with the B.U.T.T.S. pyramid logo. Standing in front of the green crates was a dark-haired, middle-aged man who wore the same tan military fatigues as the major. He was running a hand over the B.U.T.T.S. emblem as if he thought the pyramid might come alive at any moment.
“Doctor Agarwal.” Major Lopez walked into the room, startling the man so hard, he actually jumped. “I see you got the notice to assemble.”
“What? Who—I mean, yes. I wasn’t unpacking the goods or anything.” The doctor examined Frank with wide, golden eyes. “Son of a biscuit, man. You’re him, aren’t you?”
“I’m who?” Frank looked back and forth from the major to the doctor.
Major Lopez just shrugged. “Better get your bearings on the gear you’ll be displaying. The Colonel is on the way with the rest of the unit, and he’ll be ready for a briefing.”
“You’re the guy fitting us with the gear and leading us through the gateway,” Doctor Agarwal continued as he gawked at Frank. He extended an open hand. “Doctor Raj Agarwal. Just call me Raj.”
“Hey, Raj.” Frank accepted the man’s hand and shook it firmly before moving to the crates of unopened B.U.T.T.S. supplies. “I think you’ve got your wires crossed. I’m not leading anyone. I’m just here to give a blow-by-blow with the ordered equipment, then I’m out. I have a date waiting for me, I think … I don’t know, the whole thing is kind of confusing actually.”
Frank began hefting the boxes, stacking the crates filled with body armor in one pile, while the weapons went in another. The gauss rifles had their own stack, along with the electromagnetic gauss powered sidearms.
Raj and Major Lopez talked to the side in low whispers. As far as Frank was concerned, he was happy to be left alone with a physical task in front of him.
Lifting the crates and dividing the gear soon left him with a glisten of sweat on his brow. He removed his black peacoat and went back to work. The crates with the weapons weighed over a hundred pounds, and the ones holding the armor even more than that. But all of this was okay with Frank. Throughout his whole life, he found a kind of sick, soothing comfort when it came to physical exercise.
In a matter of minutes, he had divided the crates from B.U.T.T.S. into four piles, with the topmost crate open, displaying the contents. Each airtight, watertight case had been lined up, cupping its contents in a bed of egg-crate Polyethylene foam. In order from left to right, Frank had opened the crates holding: diamond steel armor, helmets, gauss assault rifles, and electromagnetic side arms.
His display in the center of the warehouse looked out of place. All around him, the room opened up to neat aisles of the Marine Corps’ own weapons, before turning into the shooting range. Boxes of ammunition and supplies lined the walls in perfect order as though they were judging Frank’s impromptu display in the center of the room.
It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. Frank turned as the sound of multiple pairs of booted feet struck the cement floor. A dark-skinned man with a square jaw and cold eyes entered the room, along with five wide-shouldered Marines and a petite woman who looked of Asian descent. She was the only one who smiled at Frank as they entered. Her jet-black hair was pulled back into a low bun, allowing Frank to make out the thin tubes leading into her ears usually indicating hearing aids. It was both a gift and a curse for him to note each detail when assessing newcomers.
“Mr. Wolffe.” The dark-skinned man came to a stop in front of Frank. He was a few inches taller, and just as muscular. He extended a hand. “I’m Colonel Solomon Breaker. Glad to have you. Shall we begin?”
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A Note For You
From Me to You
Hey you. Here we are again, another book finished and another chance to get to tell you all the craziness going on in the Gateway Universe and my own life. Okay, Gateway news first.
Emma and Frank have finally met! It was such a great time to look and see how Frank has grown as a character. I didn’t even realize how far he had come until he started speaking to Emma.
I think we can agree that Frank from book one in the Gateway to the Galaxy Series to Frank now is a very different person. If he and Emma had met and spoken in the first book, I don’t know how much help he could have been to her.
Exploring Jace’s character was interesting as well. I didn’t realize how dark his past was until he delved into his back story. There’s so many different ways to go with his character. I guess I’ll have to wait until New Knights three to see what happens to him.
Speaking of New Knights, I have about a dozen different ideas for other Arilion to come and train at the Academy, I have to figure out how I’m going to do them all justice. It would be easy to introduce an army of them, but I’m not sure that’s the way to go. I want to do right by them and their stories instead of just having you accept that there are a ton of Arilion coming to train at the Academy. I have to figure out that piece.
Okay, so that’s enough about the universe now. What’s been going on with me? I never used to get sick. Maybe once a year I’d get a cold or something like that, but in the past six months now, I’ve had a fever, E coli, and now strep throat. I need to take better care of myself. I eat healthy and work out like a beast, so I think it’s coming down to rest. That’s what I’ll be trying to juggle as I write the Gateway five book. How to thread the needle between writing a book every 28 days and getting enough downtime for my body to keep up with me.
A piece of really cool news is that one of my previous series got picked up to be shopped around by a production company. As many of you know, Gateway is my second go at writing in the science-fantasy arena. My first trilogy is called War Wolves.
Last Thursday, a production company reached out and asked for permission to pitch it to studios and gain interest. They believe in the product enough to spend time doing that, so that’s a great sign.
I’ve been down this road once before when my books the Elite Series were optioned for film. It was never made into a movie, but I understand the process a book has to go through to get to the big or small screen. There’s still about a hundred and one things that have to happen for War Wolves to be a movie or TV show, but hey, it’s a start. I’ll keep you all updated as I know more.
If you’ve been reading my author notes, you know I always end with the same invitation to connect. Without readers and friends like you, I’m a writer trying to support his family. With my pack, I’m able to do just that. I have two options for you to stay in the loop.
1) I have a private group on Facebook I created for all of us to hang out. There are over a hundred likeminded readers who enjoy everything you do. We’re there just sharing cool new books, movies and the occasional meme. Join The Pack here https://www.facebook.com/groups/1944447962437071/
2) I know some readers don’t like using Facebook and/or would rather just receive an email with info when new books are out. I totally get that. If you’d like to be part of The Pack via our newsletter, you can go to www.jonathan-yanez.com and join the ranks.
From the bottom of my recently free of E.coli heart, thank you for joining us on this journey. Something tells me if you’ve stuck with me this far, you have a little Arilion Knight in you too.
Love you animals (Not in a weird way, in a family kind of way),