In the end, we all die, Simona” the shrill voice, still laughing hysterically, echoed off the sides of the rubble and ruins that surrounded her. “Even you. You won’t live forever, you know. You may as well give up now. There is no hope left for the world.”
Simona scanned the buildings that surrounded her, trying to locate where the voice was coming from. But she couldn’t place it. She wanted to scream in frustration. This was the third city he had destroyed this week. There hadn’t been enough time to save the other two. She had arrived too late.
This time it was different though. Even though the city had already been destroyed, this was the first time that the Destroyer was still here. Well, that was what everyone else called him. But she knew him as Blazej. Somehow, deep down, she had known it was him all along.
She mentally patted herself on the back for such highly honed intuition.
“That’s where you are wrong, Blazej. I am going to live forever. The only one dying today is you.”
Simona clapped her hand over her mouth. She had never spoken like that to anyone. She never had too. At least not as far back as she could remember, which wasn’t very far. She lost all her memories in the accident.
And Blazej had been the one to put her back together. Minus a few parts. Adding a few parts. She was different but alive. And for that, she had been grateful.
He had made her much more powerful. Stronger. Faster. Better. In so many ways. And for the last few months, she had never resorted to using her gun. She had always been able to handle violent situations without depending on her weapon. Simona had consistently found creative ways to resolve escalating situations before they got out of hand.
But now, for the first time in months, she felt immense anger rising up within her. For the first time, she wanted to use the gun she was carrying.
Simona had only brought it in case of any extreme situation where she had to take a long-distance shot where she couldn’t resolve things directly. But this was different.
At first, she tried to rationalize it by telling herself that she was doing it to save other cities. But Simona knew that wasn’t true. She was just angry at having been used by Blazej. She felt guilty as if she were responsible for helping him get this far.
Because she had been his bodyguard for the past few months. Protecting him from danger. Preventing attempts on his life. And only now she found out that he had been using her to cover up all of his shenanigans.
Now, it had all started to make sense. She hadn’t understood at the time why the attacks on Blazej and his company had increased so intensely. But now she felt like kicking herself for not having caught on sooner.
Her fury condensed in the pit of her stomach and Simona became laser-focused on finding him. She had had enough of this nonsense. It was time to put an end to his charades and expose him for what he had done to these cities.
She had stopped running. The sound of smaller explosions still going off in the burning buildings no longer frightened her. She had only one mission now. And that was to find the man responsible for all of this destruction.
Simona put her head down and headed in the direction she thought Blazej’s voice had come from. There was only one building still standing that was near enough for her to have heard his voice. There could only be one reason that it hadn’t been destroyed. And that was because the culprit was still in there.
Her early arrival had most likely put a stop to his escape. She felt pleased with herself for having figured out what city he would target next. He most likely hadn’t expected that at all.
The gun was now finally in her hands for the first time after all these months. But she didn’t need to use it to break into the building. The long-legged, bionic woman kicked the doors in like they had been made of cardboard. She moved swiftly, from one room to another, until she came to a large, open conference room.
She saw Blazej through a glass pane, sitting at the far end of the table. Simona didn’t bother knocking or even trying to open the doors normally. She tore them off the hinges with a single, solid kick.
Simona screamed and tried to pull the trigger. All her anger and rage at the destruction he had caused came to a boiling point. But moral pacifist that she was, Simona wasn’t able to bring herself to shoot him.
She spun his chair away from the computer so he was facing her. He smiled wanly and whispered softly, “I knew you wouldn’t shoot me. They set me up and said you would. He wanted to frame me.”
“Who?” Simona asked.
But it was too late. Blazej had already taken his final breath. She looked over at the computer. It was still set to play random clips of Blazej saying random phrases meant to irk her. Then Simona looked down and saw a bomb under the desk. Triggered by when she had turned the chair around. Counting down. Two minutes left.
Just enough time for her to have shot Blazej and reported him to the authorities before the building went down. Now she had to find out who set them up. But first, she had to get out. She stretched her long legs as fast as they would go to get her out of this building before it went up in flames.
Simona didn’t bother trying to go back out through the doors. The main entrance was too far down. She pulled the trigger on her gun for the first time in months. The thick glass windows shattered from the impact. Weakening them enough for her to break through with little effort.
The woman covered her face when she leaped through the shattered glass. The drop to the ground below wasn’t easy on her, but the titanium that supported her body withstood the impact. And then Simona was back up on her feet and running down the street before the building went up in flames.
Simona knew what her mission was now. Forget the burning cities. Nothing was going to stop her until she found the person behind this fiasco, and make him pay for what had been done to Blazej.
The fury she had felt earlier was nothing compared to the burning rage inside her now. Hot tears of anger and sadness evaporated into the wind as she raced back to the waiting chopper.
Halfway there, Simona paused and turned to bid farewell to her friend before the building went up in flames.
“Yes, my friend. We all die in the end. Even I. But I will never go down without a fight. I will find out who did this to you. I promise you that. I will never give up.”
Maxamed stepped slowly into the room. His jaw dropped and his mouth fell open at the scene before him. The door started to slide closed behind him. He twisted his body around and shoved his foot in the crack before it could close. The clipboard he had been carrying in his hand clattered to the floor.
The door slid open again, and the scientist could barely leap back into the hall fast enough. After the door had closed, Maxamed leaned up against it, still panting. He finally caught his breath and turned back around to peek through the window.
The scientist blinked several times and rubbed his eyes to see if what he was seeing was really real. He finally opened the door again slowly. Watching to see how the thing would react.
Maxamed finally took a tentative step back inside. He picked up his clipboard again and walked forward slowly. Placing one foot carefully and silently in front of the other.
The great beast finally stirred. It turned its head slowly in his direction. Its eyes widened when they saw him. They glowed white.
The scientist took a step back in the direction of the door. Ready to flee if necessary.
The large, slimy creature focused its eyes on the scientist standing before it. It opened its mouth and hissed loudly. The same white glow in its eyes also filled its mouth. A bit of it drooled out of its mouth and hit the floor. Maxamed half expected the saliva to burn through the ground like acid. But it didn’t and he breathed a sigh of relief.
Maxamed must have stood there between the green-glowing screens that monitored the beasts vital sight for at least two solid minutes before he thought to check them. His fingers flew rapidly across the controls as he tried to analyze what had happened to the creature during the night.
How did it grow so rapidly during the night without anything to eat?
Yesterday, when they had brought it into the lab, it hadn’t been much bigger than a large dog. And now its legs spread out across the entire room. The same legs with sharp-pointed ends that were tapping slowly across the room in his direction.
Maxamed pulled out his phone and called Dr. Chisomo. He let the phone ring several times, but became impatient and hung up. Next, he tried dialing his lovely assistant, Ogechi. But she didn’t answer either. The scientist sighed in frustration and went back to analyzing the data on his screen.
There was so much strange data running through the system that didn’t make sense. Maxamed couldn’t make heads or tails of all the information.
Based on what he could gather from the data, it seemed like Dr. Chisomo had come in about midnight. There was a huge surge of info coming in around that time. And then later around six in the morning, Ogechi should have comen in as well. There seemed to be another huge surge of data right around that time.
Maxamed glanced over briefly at the wires connecting the creature to the system. Everything seemed to be hooked up correctly in spite of its enormous growth. They had managed to stretch enough not to break. But by the looks of things, they wouldn’t last much longer if the monster kept growing at this rate.
The scientist pondered it thoughtfully. At the rate it was growing, it would soon be too small for this room. He wondered what they would do then. Bringing it in yesterday had been a piece of cake. But now, there wasn’t an easy way to move this beast somewhere else.
The creature struggled to move around and pulled itself up onto its long, pointy tipped claws. But it wasn’t able to get a grip on the hard floor. It wobbled around before settling back down.
Maxamed sidled away from it a bit back toward the consoles to see what he could figure out. He was still there busily tapping away at the screen. The scientist didn’t see the creature’s neck stretching out slowly and silently in his direction. Nor did he see one of the long claws coming up from behind him toward his feet.
When he did notice them, it was already too late. The creature’s claw was pulling him into its waiting outstretched jaw. And only then did Maxamed have his epiphany and realize what had happened to Dr. Chisomo and Ogechi.
Why they hadn’t answered their phones. And why the data registered so much strange activity at the times they had arrived. Now, the creature’s rapid growth made sense. But for Maxamed and his colleagues, it was already too late.
Jie crouched behind a rock. He peered into the darkness. Watching the magnificent creature before him. His heart beat faster as it came closer. The boy tried to calm himself down. But it was almost impossible.
The darkness in the cave was oppressive. He was already having trouble breathing, and the hot, heavy air made it even more difficult. Jie wanted to stand up and stretch. But that was out of the question right now unless he wanted to be seen.
The scaly creature moved silently across the rocky surface. Choosing its path carefully. It never made a sound. Jie wondered how such a large, bulky creature could move so quietly through the darkness over the broken surface.
Jie gripped the staff in his hand more tightly. He waited silently as the beast moved steadily toward him. He was amazed that up until now, the animal had made no sound at all.
In a large chamber like this, the slightest scrape of a rock would have echoed loudly, breaking the thick silence that permeated the air.
Jie slowed even his breathing. Afraid that the faintest sniffle might alert the scaly creature to this presence. The beast stopped and craned its neck forward. It lowered its back and stretched out its large, leathery wings.
The immense range awed the young human watching it. Jie could barely believe what he was seeing. He wanted to reach out and touch them. To actually feel the leathery scales for himself.
The fabled beast was so close. Just a few steps away from him.
Jie knew that it was searching for him. He could sense it straining in the darkness. Trying to figure out what was going on.
He gripped the staff in his hands more tightly. It was the only thing that kept him from being discovered. Or so he thought.
“Step forward. I have been waiting for you. Why do you hide behind a rock like a frog?” the great beast hissed.
Jie’s heart skipped a beat. He lowered his head and tried to make himself smaller. Wondering if he had heard correctly. Did it really know he was here? Or was it talking to someone else?
No one else answered. The silence in the air thickened.
The only part of the creature that Jie could still see was its tail sticking out from behind the rock that he was crouched behind.
The tail swayed slowly from side to side.
Jie raised his head a little. Following the rough outline of the creature’s back and wings. He couldn’t quite tell if it was looking in his direction. He half-hoped that someone else had followed him in here.
Maybe the monster was referring to another person. And yet it was here, just on the other side of the rock that he had chosen to hide behind. It would be too much of a coincidence.
Still, the creature waited on the other side of the boulder that stood between them.
“Are you talking to me?” Jie whispered softly.
“Of course, silly. Who else would I be talking to in here? It’s not like a get many visitors down here.”
Jie stood slowly to his feet. He grasped the staff more tightly and held it out in front of himself for protection. He couldn’t help but notice that the glow from the tip of his staff matched the bluish-white glow in the dragon’s eyes.
A low, throaty rumble came from the creature’s chest. Almost as if the beast were laughing at him. Jie felt slightly miffed and frowned.
“Did you really think you could control me with that thing?” the dragon asked.
Jie shrugged. His face burned with shame. The question made him feel stupid. However, in his defense, the old man that told Jie about the staff had made it sound like this was a powerful magical item that could control magical creatures like dragons.
“Dragons are too powerful to be controlled by such puny devices,” the beast rumbled. “We control everything and everyone around us.”
Jie didn’t like the arrogance in its tone of voice. He wanted to do something to put the creature in its place. But, he didn’t feel comfortable correcting a giant monster in a dark cave. So, Jie kept his mouth shut. He simply bowed his head and apologized.
“Come, Jie. I brought you here for a reason.”
The man jerked his head back upright. How did the creature know his name? And why had it brought him here?
Jie followed the dragon back across the rocks until they came to an abyss. A great, dark chasm that yawned out into the blackness. He couldn’t see where it ended or how deep it went. He looked over at the dragon beside him that was now leaning back on its haunches.
“You have done well, little one.”
The words irked Jie to no end. He was getting fed up with this dumb dragon and its patronizing lines.
“What have I done well?”
“Completing the missions that I assigned you.”
Jie looked at him blankly. His mind whirling. Trying to process the information.
“What, silly human. Did you really think that staff would control me? I had you bring it because I needed it. I need it. We need it.”
Suddenly, everything fell into place and began to come together for him. The old man that told him about the staff. Everything Jie had been through to find it. This creature here had orchestrated it all.
Now, Jie only had one burning question.
The dragon turned and smiled in a dragon kind of way.
“This is only the beginning. There is so much yet to come.”
Jie hated these stupid responses to his questions that never provided any real answers. He wanted to throw the silly staff over the edge of the abyss and walk away. But he really did want to know. And he had already invested so much time into getting here.
Meeting the dragon who had orchestrated it all, seemed to be a nice reward for his effort. So, he decided to play along.
Jie sat down and threw his legs over the edge of the chasm. He let them swing there over the darkness.
As much as he didn’t like some of the events, it wasn’t so bad Jie figured. Meeting a dragon was a nice reward for his effort. Even if he didn’t like the dragon’s personality.
“It’s okay. I don’t like you much either,” the dragon said.
Jie blushed in the darkness. No one had told him that dragons’ could read minds. He swung his legs nervously over the abyss and tried to keep a blank mind. But it wasn’t working very well. A million thoughts flitted through his head.
“Relax, human. Enjoy the moment. Soon, you will know more than you wished you did.”
Jie wondered what that meant. But realized that like all of his adventures thus far, he would just have to take it one step at a time and wait for all the pieces of the puzzle to fall together.
Spartak floated slowly over the ruined buildings of the city below him. He drifted in the direction of the giant monster. Careful not to make any sudden movements that might set the creature off. He tried to keep his nerves under control.
The man knew that he could fly off quickly in retreat if needed at any second, which was a relief and temptation at the same time. He desperately wished he could. Every fiber of self-preservation in his body screamed for him to get to safety before it was too late.
But Spartak knew that was out of the question for now. The fate of the human race depended on him and how he handled himself now.
The great, hairy beast continued to forage through the rubble below. Searching for its next victim to eat. BowelTeeth was what the news reporters had named it when it first appeared because of the innumerous fangs that protruded from its mouth and covered its enormous underbelly.
Although most people were pretty sure that those weren’t real teeth on the outside of its body, no one had actually gotten close enough to confirm what those things were. He just hoped that they weren’t eggs that the monster was carrying around until they hatched.
Spartak could hear the screams of those who hadn’t managed to get out of the building before it was knocked down by the horrid creature. He tried not to look down at the tragic sight below him.
His instincts as a former firefighter to try to rescue someone was intense. However, there was nothing he could do to save them by going down to their rescue. He needed to keep his focus on the task at hand. Killing this monster.
BowelTeeth suddenly stopped foraging for food and shifted its attention in Spartak’s direction. Twelve pairs of eyes turned to gaze at the strange sight of a human floating towards it.
Spartak slowed his forward momentum. The creature had stopped foraging for humans in the wreckage below. Its eyes focused on the human before it. The man came to a complete stop. He floated silently in the air. Unsure of what to do.
The giant monster lifted up one of its long, scrawny legs and poked a tendril out in his direction. As it moved toward him, Spartak backed away as quickly as he could. The man swung the massive weapon in his arms toward the creature’s leg.
Spartak continued to wait though. He managed to keep his nerves still enough to keep from pulling the trigger. The leg stopped before it actually touched Spartak. It held its leg still as if waiting for him to do respond or do something. Almost as if it were testing him.
The human finally reached out a hand. He pulled off his glove and stretched it toward the hairy tip of its leg. The stiff bristles wavered in the air. Pulsing and wafting gently, even though there was no wind. Almost as if it were analyzing him.
He waited quietly to see how it would react. Never moving the barrel of the gun away from it. Spartak kept the gun pointed at it the entire time.
Finally, the floating tendril moved forward a few inches. Then it stopped as if waiting for him to take the next step. Spartak waited quietly. He didn’t pull away. But he didn’t move forward either.
BowelTeeth pushed its tendril forward another half inch. The hairy bristles continued to pulse and wave in a back and forth pattern as if it were sniffing him. It moved forward a bit more with each pass until Spartak felt them tickling lightly across his palm.
Spartak pointed the gun a few feet up the leg. Just in case it did try something and he had to shoot, Spartak didn’t want to shoot himself accidentally. He was ready to blow off its leg and then turn the plasma blaster up into its face.
Dr. Garen had given him the weapon earlier that day. Spartak had never seen anything like. But Dr. Garen had assured him that it would blow the creature apart if needed. All Spartak had to do was get close enough to do some real damage.
Spartak figured this was close enough to do whatever damage Dr. Garen intended. But he still couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. He felt a strange sort of bond to the monster. A sense of camaraderie and kinship. He continued to wait to see what the beast would do.
The human waited silently for the monster to make the next move. He was ready for it. But in the end, BowelTooth drew its long, wriggly tendril back away from him. Then the monster turned and began to walk away in the direction it had come from.
Spartak followed it as it made its way back to the hole from where it had come from. Then it wriggled its way back in and disappeared from sight.
Dr. Garen and General Rouben were not happy when he returned to the base. They demanded to know why he hadn’t taken a shot at the creature, but Spartak just shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t explain it.
He knew there was more to this than met the eye. There were things going on that he was not yet classified to know about. Like how they had given him the ability to float. Or where they had gotten the plasma gun with the strange symbols all over it.
But for now, he didn’t care. He had done what they sent him out to do. Stop the carnage and destruction. The monster had left the city for now. And the most important thing to Spartak was that he was still alive.
Mamuka surveyed what was left of the city around him. He scanned the area from side to side. Looking for any sign of movement, but saw nothing. He listened for any sounds but heard nothing. Only the continuous whistle and low moans of the wind blowing around him.
He clicked his tongue and flicked the horse’s reigns. The large, grey mare lurched forward with a quick start. But Mamuka knew that her pace wouldn’t last long. The beast would quickly slow down, and he would have to flick the reigns again and kick her in the sides to keep her going.
The horse wound through a yard and followed a broken fence up between two burnt-out houses. Smoke still wafted from the larger home to their left. Mamuka continued to scan the area. Watching for any sign of movement. But there was nothing.
They rounded the house and came out behind two other houses. Strangely enough, one of the houses farther on had not caught fire. Mamuka pulled back on the reins and brought the horse to a stop.
Seeing an unburned house like this in the city was a first. Every other home that they had passed since coming into the town had either already burnt to the ground or was still burning.
The man wanted to take off his gas mask to take a closer look but resisted the urge. He knew the stench would be unbearable. Mamuka had waited as long as he could before putting it on, but they had been almost five miles away when he could no longer take it.
None of his colleagues had been able to make it as close as he had, even with their gas masks on. He knew they were weak, but he didn’t despise them. Let them wait another day for the wretched fires and smoke to die down before they came in with their equipment.
Mamuka refused to wait. He knew time was of essence. They needed to get in as soon as possible if they wanted to find clues that would lead to the source of the burning cities. This had been the fifth in the past month.
Fires like this had started sporadically just over a year ago. Initially, they only took out a few houses. But as time went on, they began to burn stronger and longer. Now, the flames were taking out entire cities with populations of 50,000 people at a time.
The strangest part of it all was that none of the inhabitants were ever found. Not so much as a single corpse had ever been found. It was almost as if the entire population had been abducted before the town got leveled by fire.
He swung the barrel of the gun down in the direction of the house and dug his heels into the horse’s side for it to move forward. But the creature refused to budge. Mamuka flicked the reins harder, urging the beast with another click of the tongue.
Mamuka sighed in exasperation and swung his leg over the saddle to get to the ground. This had happened once before. Two cities back. Mamuka had tried everything he knew to get the horse to move forward to now avail.
The brute beast was as stubborn as a mule. He knew it would do no good to insist now though. He wondered what it was that the horse was so terrified of.
The man felt no fear himself. Only a strange sense of curiosity. He really wanted to know what it was that caused entire cities to burn down and huge populations to go missing.
The news reporters had been calling them Apocalypse Fires ever since the beginning because of the horrible smell of sulfur. Sharp, coking, and this particular variation left a bitter taste in the back of one’s throat.
Mamuka looped the reins around a bush so the mare wouldn’t wander off until he got back. Then he strode around the house, looking for any sign of life. The house was closed up tight as a drum.
After circling it warily a few times, he finally made his way up to the front door. Mamuka tested the knob and was surprised that it opened easily. The man had almost gone straight for kicking the door in since he had expected it to be locked.
He pushed his way inside, pointing the gun in front of him. Mamuka went through each of the rooms one by one but found nothing. Strange that this house hadn’t burned along with the others.
It reminded him of the first burning cities he had visited. There had often been unburned houses. But each time, larger and larger percentages of the towns had burned. After a while, the cities all burned completely.
This was the first time in months that he had found an unburned house. Mamuka felt excited. Maybe they would find something in the house that could give them a clue as to what was causing these cities to catch fire.
He went back outside to get the equipment in his saddlebags. But to his surprise, the horse was no longer there. Strange, since Mamuka had taken the time to tie it up.
The man walked around the house looking for it. But it was gone. Mamuka kicked at a rock furiously. Stupid horse. He never should have brought it in the first place. The only reason he had brought her was because his regular ride had gotten ill. Mamuka had to leave it behind and ride this lazy animal he was now on.
He looked for tracks to see if he could tell what direction it had gone in, but the only horse tracks he saw were those he had made riding in. And there weren’t any fresh tracks leading back out that same way.
Suddenly, he became aware of something different. They weren’t horse tracks, but something else had been walking around out here since the time he had left his horse.
Mamuka’s eyes followed the direction that it had moved in or come from. He wasn’t sure yet, which it was. His eyes sensed a movement in the shadows of the bushes beside the burning house that they had come past earlier.
He looked closer and saw the outline of a crouching figure. Mamuka began running toward it as silently as he could. It moved away from the bushes and around the side of the house.
When Mamuka came around the side of the house, he saw the creature loping across the far end of the yard. Since the homes had burned down here, It didn’t have anywhere yet to hide. The man broke into a dead run and began gaining on it.
It ran funny. He noticed that it moved like an ape bent over on all fours, but at the same time, hopped a bit like a frog before disappearing behind a small bush.
He came panting around from behind the shrubs only to see nothing there. As if the ground had opened up its mouth and swallowed the thing up.
Mamuka walked slowly now, looking for its tracks. He trailed along, looking for signs of broken leaves or bent grass. The led him onward a few feet and disappeared into a hole that seemed too small for the animal to have vanished into.
Two beady eyes glared up at him. Mamuka took a step backward and swung his gun up and around to his side.
The creature leaped up and out at him. The gun went off in his hands. It was pure instinct. His fingers pulling the trigger smoothly and fluid motion.
The creature fell to the ground at his feet. Gasping for air. Looking up at him in surprise and shock. It reached out a finger to his boot and poked at them gently before breathing its last. Its eyes closed, and its head lolled to the side.
“Doggone it, you foul creature. What did you do with my horse?”
But it was too late. This thing, whatever it was, would no longer tell anyone its secrets.
“Hercule?” Jeannine asked tentatively.
The short, petite woman blinked and shook her head. Her breathing quickened. She felt her heart palpitate. Jeannine brushed her reddish-brown hair back from her face.
The huge man took a step closer in her direction. She could feel a wave of heat emanating from him. She stepped back and squinted for a better look because she couldn’t put her glasses on under the helmet. Jeannine was pretty sure that this was Hercule though. It looked like him, at least.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
The man took another step closer. Close enough for her to see the whites of his eyes. But there was something wrong with him. His entire eyeball was white. He had no pupil. No iris.
“Hercule?” she whispered. Her voice quivering. “What did they do to you? Where have you been these past six months?”
The man cocked his head to the side and looked at her for a long moment through hollow eyes. There was no glimpse of recognition in his face.
“It’s me, Hercule. Don’t you remember us? I came here to find out what happened to you. I thought you had,” she paused. Her voice lowering to a whisper before completing her phrase. “I thought you had died.”
Jeannine reached out her right hand and touched his arm gently. The tattered sleeve of his uniform flaked and drifted to the ground like ashes crumbling from paper.
She gasped and pulled back in horror. The flesh on his arms lay shredded on open layers. A glowing orange and yellow tattoo with three half-circles surrounded by a larger red one etched into his flesh.
Jeannine gasped and stepped back in horror. Her hand covering her mouth. Her eyes flickering back and forth from the tattooed symbol on his arm to his white eyes. And then back again to the strange formation of curves and circles.
“What does that mean, Hercule?” she asked when he glanced down toward his shoulder.
The man shrugged. He looked back up at her. It gave her a strange feeling to be looking into his eyes. It was like she knew him, and at the same time like she was looking into the eyes of a total stranger.
And she didn’t even know if he could see her really. The weird blank look on his face. The completely white eyeballs. Like the eyes of a blind man, she had seen once in India.
Yet, she knew Hercule, or whoever this was, could see her. Or at least sense her. She raised her arm out to the side to test him. His white eyeballs looked out toward her outstretched hand and then back again.
“You do see me,” she said. “But you don’t recognize me. Do you, Hercule? You don’t recognize your Sweet Baby?”
She caught what seemed to be a flicker of recognition in his pale, white eyes. He cocked his head to the side. Just like he always did while pondering a new idea or which course of action to take.
“Hercule is no longer here,” he said bluntly. “You are mistaken. You should leave.”
“No, that’s not true. I don’t believe it. I know you, Hercule. I would recognize you anywhere.”
Jeannine reached out a hand to touch him, but he twisted away from her and held out his hands.
“Do not touch me. It would not be good for you. You should leave. Now!”
“No, I won’t leave you. Now that I’ve found you, I will stay with you if I must. But I won’t leave you.”
She took a step closer, but he reached out a hand to block her.
“Stop. Don’t come any closer. You are too close already. You will be contaminated. Then it will be too late.”
“Contaminated with what, Hercule?”
“Do not call me that. Hercule is no more. I am only a weapon that was created to unleash destruction. But I do not wish you harm. You were special to the one you call Hercule. I can sense your bond.”
“Who are you? And what have you done to my Hercule?”
“I have done nothing to him. I am only a copy of the one you call Hercule. Others created me to be a weapon. It is not my will, yet I have no choice.”
“What happened to Hercule?” Jeannine asked.
She felt her voice quaver at the end even though she tried not to let it show. The man had once loved simply shrugged.
“I remember him vaguely. Remember being him. Retain some of his memories. But they faded long ago. Memories they tried to scrub from my mind. But I still feel them. I feel you in my bones. But that is all it is. Only a memory. You were special. You must leave before it is too late. I can no longer protect you.”
“Protect me from what, Hercule?” she pleaded.
“From fire and from death. The destruction that is to come. This is the apocalypse. And I am only one of many. I am only the beginning.”
The man Jeannine had once known as Hercule turned and walked away. She looked down and noticed that her hands looked strange. There was something off about them. She turned her palms face up.
The skin around her arms and hands seemed loose. Like it was coming off of her flesh. Her arms beginning to tear and shred like Hercule’s arms had been.
Jeannine looked over at him. He didn’t look back at her. She couldn’t see his mouth or jawline through the helmet, but the eyes and forehead were the same as the man she had once loved.
She had no idea what had happened to him, but it was enough that she was here with him in the end. The last six months without him had been miserable.
Jeannine took a step forward and smiled at him. He still didn’t look over at her. The sound of an intercom crackled.
“Test subjects 239,” a voice said. “Proceed.”
Jeannine saw flames building up around them. Explosions and fireballs erupting violently. This wasn’t at all what she had expected. How had she ended up here? Was she a clone too?
She shook the thoughts away and stepped forward. Closer to Hercule. She reached out and took his hand. Slipped her fingers between his. He didn’t pull away.
Hercule turned to look at her. She saw the reflection of her face growing brighter with rising flames. Her eyes stared back at her from the reflection. Pure white. Just like Hercule. She smiled at him and squeezed his hand once more before they were both completely engulfed by the flames.
Nina laughed and hooted raucously along with the frenzied crowd as the flames licked up higher and higher over. She raised her pitchfork and let out a long, loud whoop. A burst of hot, dry wind cycloned out from the flames and whipped her long, blond hair into her mouth just as she caught her breath. Nina choked and bent over to cough them out.
She looked up to see Vitek laughing at her. Another gust of wind blew sparks and smoke into his face, cutting his laughter short. Now it was Nina’s turn to laugh, although she was careful to turn away from the blazing flames and protect her face with her arms.
“She who laughs last laughs best,” Nina giggled.
Vitek scowled at her with an adorable pout that let her know he wasn’t really angry at her. She knew he wouldn’t be able to fake being mad at her for long. He was too easy going.
Nina scrunched up her face and shuffled toward him slowly with her arms outstretched. Imitating the foul creatures that they had come out to burn up and eliminate.
Her new boyfriend backed away from and pushed her arms to the side.
“C’mon, Nina. That’s not funny. You shouldn’t even be joking around like that. Someone might see you like that and run you through with a pitchfork.”
She just giggled again and turned to watch the flames blazing higher and cackling louder. Nina thought she could hear a faint scream coming from inside the hut over the snapping of burning wood.
“I’m sorry about your auntie, poor thing,” Nina murmured in a more serious tone.
Vitek shrugged. “She’s gone, but at least we got the whole nest of them, so they won’t be back to bother anyone else.”
Nina shivered at the callousness in his voice. She wondered if he would have done the same had she been chosen to be the sacrificial victim to lead them to the Shuffler nest. She looked up to study his face. He didn’t look back at her but continued to watch the flames intently.
“Where do you think they came from?” she finally asked quietly.
At first, she didn’t think he had heard her. But then Vitek finally shrugged his shoulders.
“The same place from which all evil comes. Out of the darkness.”
Nina mulled that thought over for a second. It seemed like such a trite phrase. It was what her people always said about evil, but she had never given it much thought before. At least not until the recent outbreak that led to them searching for this nest of evil that had corrupted three members of her town. People she knew. Friends and relatives swallowed up by it.
She was sad to know that they were inside the burning hut. Going up in flames. But at the same time, it was a relief to know that they would no longer be able to harm anyone else she knew and loved.
Nina thought of her parents. Thought of her twelve younger brothers and sisters. Her grandparents. Uncles and aunts and cousins. All would be able to sleep better and safer at night now that they had purged the forest of this contamination.
“That was a brilliant plan you came up with,” Vitek said.
He stepped closer and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. Nina shrugged as she leaned into his comforting embrace.
“Anyone could have come up with that idea. Everyone knew it needed to be done. Nobody wanted to actually say it out loud though.”
Vitek shook his head. “Not anyone. Most of us were in shock and couldn’t think straight after the horrors we witnessed first with Theodor and then with Apolena. You kept your wits about you and thought straight when no one else could.”
Nina blushed and buried her face against his chest so he wouldn’t see. Although it felt good to hear him say those words, it felt wrong to enjoy this moment like this.
She had long had a crush on Vitek and had spoken to him once or twice before. But using a situation like this to finally catch his attention over the last few days felt wrong.
“I should be getting back to the village to check up on my siblings,” Nina finally said when she finally pulled away from him.
Vitek pouted at first. She waited for him to smile. It didn’t take long.
Nina turned to walk back down the trail toward her home.
“Wait,” Vitek said. “You shouldn’t be walking home alone in the dark.”
The young woman smiled at the concern in his voice, but took a few more steps to wait for it to leave before turning to say, “Why not? There is nothing to be afraid of now that we set the evil on fire.”
But Vitek was gone. He was no longer standing there behind her.
“Vitek!” she called out.
She took a few steps forward. Looking around.
“Where are you, Vitek. This isn’t funny.”
There was nothing. Only the sound of crackling flames. Suddenly it hit her that none of the other villagers who had joined their expedition were around either.
“Bonifac! Silvie! Where are you?” she cried into the darkness.
Nina circled the burning house. Most of it had burned up already. The weakened structure was caving in on itself.
“Sarlota! Where did you go? Libor. This isn’t funny, you all.” Nina shrieked shrilly into the chill night air wafting in off the forest surrounding the burning home.
The dying flames were no longer strong enough to push back the cold, night air. She shivered and backed away from the hut. Pressing deeper into the darkness. Hoping that somehow it would hide her from whatever was out there.
Nina knew it was silly though. Especially if what she had said was true. Evil came from the darkness. Running into the night would not save her.
She stood there. Torn between running deeper into the darkness down the path to her home, or staying close to the light of the flames.
Nina knew that it was pointless to stay here. The flames were dying slowly, and the little light that remained would soon disappear along with them. Even the more robust fires of a little bit ago hadn’t been enough to keep her friends from disappearing.
She turned away from the dying flames. Waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Scanning the edges of the forest for any sign of movement. She backed closer to the warmth of the fire. It wouldn’t last long, but for now, it felt safer than running into the darkness.
Nina had seen her friends that had been turned into mindless, shuffling monsters burst into flames. So, anything out there trying to get her wouldn’t want to get close to the burning hut.
She heard burning wood snapping in the fire. A stream of sparks shot up into the starry night to her right. Nina looked up to watch the sparks blending in with the stars before dimming as they wafted up into the night air.
When she turned, Nina was utterly unprepared for the skeletal form standing in the midst of the flames and fire. She stumbled backward.
A ring of fire surrounded its head. Flames licking off of its bones, but without consuming it. As if somehow, it produced the fire from within itself. The skeleton’s sockets glowed brightly as it stood there. As if watching her to see how she would react to its presence.
“No,” Nina whispered to herself. Shaking her head. “Evil comes from the darkness. Not from the light and not from the flames.
The small, light form floated in front of my eyes. Silently hovering. It was too close to focus on. I squinted for a better look. A butterfly? A dragonfly? I couldn’t quite make out what it was. I scanned through all the words I knew, but couldn’t come up with anything to describe this strange form.
I pulled my head back to give my eyes room to focus. I gasped. Pulled my hand up over my mouth and giggled. It looked like a small woman. With wings. What was this strange thing?
“Hello! Who are you? Or better yet, what are you?” I asked.
The small creature tweeted brightly and floated in closer to my face again. She went out of focus. She tweeted a few more times.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you are saying. Are you trying to tell me something?” I continued pulling my head back to get her back into focus. She wasn’t much more than an inch away.
I held up a finger to push her back. She buzzed right around and flew back in closer. Tweeting wildly now. She was starting to get irritating. She sounded like a mosquito. I wanted to squash her like one too.
“Hey, back off. You’re too close. I can’t see you correctly.”
I put my whole hand up in front of my face and pushed her back. She was light. Like a feather. Floating around before me.
She came back around, but this time she floated past my eyes to the side of my head. It felt like she was blowing down my ear. It tickled. Like when your nose tickles, and you want to sneeze. Only I couldn’t sneeze through my ear, of course. I just shook my head and tried to get her out.
Suddenly, her tweeting stopped and became words that I could understand.
“Hello, Montana. I’m Cedarmist.”
I felt the flutter of breeze again in my ear as she flitted her way out. I shook my head again. Rubbed my ear and wiggled my jaw around to get the itchy feeling out.
Cedarmist floated back around the side of my head and into view.
“Uh, you talk,” I said.
I could have slapped myself. That was a goofy thing to say. It was impolite and probably offended her.
“Of course, I can talk,” she replied. “You’re the one that couldn’t talk with me before. I had to make you understand me.”
I frowned at that. She wasn’t making sense.
“What do you mean?” I asked bluntly. “I’ve always talked.”
Cedarmist giggled, “No, you haven’t. I just created you.”
“Yes, I have,” I retorted. “I’ve spoken all my life.”
The little ball of light in front of me shimmered and shined.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked.”Do you have any memories before this?”
I paused and cocked my head to the side. I tried to remember something before just now. Anything at all. But no memories came.
I couldn’t remember who I was. Or where I was. Or what had happened before this.
I started to breathe heavily. I felt like walls were closing in on me.
“What’s going on?” I demanded angrily, trying to control the panic that started to well up inside of me.
“I just told you. I created you. This is your beginning.”
“My beginning,” I heard myself mumble.
I looked down at my hands. They were hard. Plastic-like. But the tips of my fingers were soft. I could feel my hard forearms as I ran my fingers up them.
The dark seams where my joints should have been seemed strange. Like they didn’t belong to me. They looked like something that belonged on a robot.
Robot. That was a word I had been searching for. But this was weird. I wasn’t a robot. I was a human.
“What happened to my body?” I demanded.
She shrugged. “This is your body. I gave you this body.”
“What are you?” I asked.
“What do you think, silly?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t remember a word that describes you.”
“What?” Cedarmist gasped as if the very idea that I didn’t know what she was offended her. But I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely offended or just being ironic.
I shook my head.
“Oh, c’mon. I’m a fairy, silly. I created you with a mix of my magic and my technical know-how.”
The word fairy didn’t ring a bell. But I did understand the word robot. I knew how they were created. And I knew they weren’t created by strange creatures that floated around glowing in the dark.
“I know what a robot is, fairy,” I growled. “And I know robots aren’t created by fairies because they are built in factories.”
Cedarmist rolled her eyes and flicked her tiny wrist. “That’s just semantics, little lady. But, yes. For whatever it’s worth, I didn’t create you. However, I did find you in this junkyard. And I did bring you back to life.”
“But I’m not a robot.” I shrieked.
“Well, you sure look like one to me,” Cedarmist said with a fake pout to act like she was offended.
“Why did you do this too me?”
“Because I wanted to create something great. Together we are going to take over the world.” she gloated.
I rolled my eyes.
“Whatever,” I said with a puff. “Like you could take over the world,”
She scowled and waved her fingers. Suddenly, I couldn’t move. I started to panic and tried to wiggle my way out. But nothing happened. I was frozen.
“That’s not magic. That’s just something you programmed into my system.”
“Ha! Then you admit that you are run by a program. Therefore you are a robot.”
“Fine, I’ll play along. I’m a robot, and you created me. Now can you let me go?” Please.” I scowled back at her while continuing to try to move.
“Not till you apologize,” she said.
“For what?” I replied in exasperation.
“For not believing me,” she said with a flick of her tiny head of hair.
“Fine, I believe you are a fairy. I believe I am a robot. I believe you created me. I’ll believe whatever else you tell me. Now, can you let me go.”
Cedarmist waved her fingers, and I could move again. It felt so good. Like a relief from something terrible.
“So, what? Now, I’m your slave. If I don’t do what you want, you’ll freeze me.”
“Oh, no, honey. I don’t want to freeze you. I want us to be friends. I want you to help us.”
“And what are we going to be doing?” I asked warily.
“I told you already. We are going to take over the world. I’m going to create an army of robots. Together we are going to rule the world. I’m gonna teach all those other fairies that I’m not to be trifled with. And I’m going to teach those humans who didn’t believe in me.”
“You’re crazy, fairy.”
“Oops! Tut tut! Don’t say a thing like that. Shhhh! Or I’ll have to freeze you again.”
And she did for a brief second. Cedarmist wiggled her fingers to pause me for a minute just to show me she could. Then wiggled them again to let me go.
“Fine. I’ll do what you want. What choice do I have?”
“Oh, you have a choice. You can choose not to help me and stay frozen if you want,” she said with a big, fake smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
I wanted to reach out and slap her but immediately felt my body locking up again.
“It’s okay, sweetie. You’ll learn fast. You’re a fast learner. Much faster than the others,” she whispered almost sadly.
I looked around the vast junkyard. I didn’t see any other robots. I didn’t see any other humans. We were in the middle of an overgrown junkyard that looked like it had been abandoned over a hundred years ago.
“Come,” she said, leading me across the grass almost against my will. “Let me introduce you to the others.”
I stood there under the dark sky, lit only by the stars. There was a large hole in the ground. I looked like an old cave entrance. At first, I thought stars were floating up from the ground. But then as they came closer, I could see they were other little fairies just like Cedarmist.
They all floated up and around me. Oohing and ahhing. I wanted to punch them. Slap them. Squash them all. But couldn’t lift a finger. I stood there in silence as they flitted around me. But I swore I would find a way to break their spell over me even if it killed me.
Magic or programming, whatever this was, I wanted to be free from it. I just needed to bide my time. Figure out what they had done to me. And then find a way to stop them.
“So. How are we going to take over the world?” I asked as innocently as I could.
Dong moved quickly across the frozen tundra. He paused in front of a giant chasm that lay open before him in the icy wasteland. He paused for a moment to scan the landscape. Looking for the easiest and quickest way to get to his destination.
He panted heavily as he traced a pathway across the ice with his eyes. Then raised his weary eyes to look up at the massive iceberg before him. Dong let out a small sigh of relief. At least he could finally see his destination.
A large iceberg, solidly frozen into the tundra. Auseon, his final destination. The red ring glowing through the icy mountain let Dong know that he had finally arrived. He had seen it in his visions. it had been described to him those who guided him along the way.
And now, Dong was finally here.
The man had spent all this time sailing the known seas and crossing one continent after another to find this Ice-Crowned Pinnacle. A few more miles across the cold expanse before him was a delight. Dong was pleased to finally be here on the icecap. To finally be close to accomplishing his mission.
Dong continued his quick pace to circle around the large crevice to the right. Then cut across to the left to circle around another icy chasm.
Only a little bit more, and he could destroy this cursed item once and for all. Then everyone in Auseon would be free. And he would be hailed their hero. Well, almost everyone.
Sure, there would be those who didn’t agree with what he was doing, but that was to be expected of those ignorant fools. Dong just didn’t get why they couldn’t see things the way he did.
Dong paused to catch his breath again. The air up here was much thinner than most other places he had been too. It cut through his nostrils and felt like razor blades were slashing into his lungs with each chilled breath.
He huddled behind a large, rocky outcropping that stuck out of the ice. Trying to block out the wind. Dong wrapped his scarf more tightly around his face. Trying to make it stretch farther so he could wrap another layer over his nose.
The man shifted the weight on his back. It wasn’t very heavy any longer. He had eaten most of his supplies. The last game he had seen to hunt had been three days earlier. Dong was running low on food.
But none of that mattered. He planned on being at the base of that iceberg before nightfall. Camp there if he had to. Then find his way inside first thing in the morning.
He readjusted the straps on his backpack and tugged on them to make sure it was still secure. The last thing he needed was to have it fall off if he had to make a run for the Ice-crowned Pinnacle.
Dong hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But who knew what could be waiting for him out there under the ice. He was sure that this place wouldn’t be left unattended. He gave one final pull on the straps.
The only item that really weighed anything was Greathelm, the Haxstine Crown. Or as he and his fearless team called it, the Malignant Casque of the Beast. It had to be destroyed once and for all before evil, corrupt people got there hands on it again, as they had before.
The man began moving again. Willing himself to push on through the wind and cold. His body screamed with agony at each step. He wanted to stop and rest for the night. But he could sense that it wasn’t safe here.
Dong had already survived so many attacks and escaped so many close calls, that he felt he had developed a sixth sense that let him know when something was about to go down.
And he felt it now.
There was evil out here on the ice. A dark, foreboding feeling that things would only get worse before he reached the glowing, red ring.
The red ring. That single thought spurred him on. He had to get there today. Before nightfall. No telling what kind of terrible, nocturnal creatures roamed these frozen lands.
If something happened to him out here, there would be no one left to destroy the Greathelm, the Haxstine Crown. It would lie out here in the frozen tundra for someone else to find and wield.
Someone else could use it to command the dragons. Someone else could use it to control people’s minds. And then, they would rule over the people and do whatever their heart desired. And then this whole trip would have been in vain.
Why not simply put it on himself and command a dragon to come take him to the Haxtine Castle where it was safe and warm? Why not control the people to crown him king?
He would make just as good a ruler as anyone else. Maybe even better. He was strong. He could control his desires and keep them in check so that his heart didn’t grow corrupt as others had. Instead of destroying Greathelm and letting all that power go to waste, he could harness it for good.
Wouldn’t that be a much better objective then destroying it in the frozen fires of Auseon?
The insidious thoughts wound their way through his mind. Dong tried to fight them off. Up until now, he hadn’t ever entertained these kinds of ideas. But here, so close to accomplishing his mission, it seemed so futile.
The more he fought the idea, the stronger it became. The more powerfully the images of him ruling as king became.
Dong fell to his knees. He unstrapped the backpack and pulled it around. Pulling out Greathelm and rubbing it gently.
The man tried to remember why he was supposed to destroy something so powerful and wonderful. Why would he destroy the very thing that would allow him to help his people?
Maybe thee was a reason that the dragons and men had forged an alliance through the creation of Greathelm. Surely, they knew something he didn’t. Something that his peers bent on destroying it didn’t.
And all he had to do was slip it on his own head. Summon a dragon of his own. And achieve everything he ever desired.
Dong shoved Greathelm back into the bag and screamed at himself for not remaining faithful to his mission. But it seemed so bleak and futile now. Nothing would be obtained by the destruction of Greathelm he reasoned with himself. Men would go back to fighting among themselves for power.
This way, everyone knew who the rightful king was.
And who better to be the rightful king than himself.
Why not try it on? What could it hurt? He was right here near the Ice-Crowned Pinnacle. If he didn’t like it, he could still destroy it.
Dong slipped Greathelm out of the backpack. He placed it on his head. And suddenly everything made perfect sense.
He had the Haxtine Crown. He deserved it. He deserved to rule. He deserved to command the dragons. He deserved to control the people.
Almost as if on cue, a giant, white, snow dragon climbed out from the crevice and knelt before him as if inviting him onto its back.
Dong climbed on and let it take to the Haxtine Castle. For the briefest moment, he wondered why it had been there. Had it been there all along?
But he quickly pushed those thoughts aside to plan how he would make his grand entrance into the palace. Dong wanted to gloat over his enemies and those who doubted for a second in life that he would amount to much.
Dong had command of the dragons. Dong had control of the people. Dong could do whatever he wanted. Nevermind that he had abandoned his mission.
Dong was king.
“What!?” Kaltrina exclaimed. “What are you talking about. That’s not true. I don’t believe it.”
The tall, willowy girl with silvery-white hair glared at the Brothebit lying lazily on the branch in front of her.
The large, cat-like creature glared back.
“Are you calling me a liar, child?”
Its eyes flared bright yellow with irritation, and the Brothebit pulled back its lips in a snarl, revealing its large, sharp fangs.
“I am a Brothebit. Just like you. I just haven’t fully developed my tail and fangs and fur yet.”
The giant, white feline sighed with exasperation. Realizing that arguing with this girl was futile, she turned away from her.
The Brothebit lay on the large branch quietly, but her tail continued to twitch in irritation. She could sense the girl’s eyes boring into the back of her head.
The child was stubborn, ferocious, and explosive. All qualities that the Brothebit admired. She had instilled them in this young girl since the day Shinx had found her.
“But you told me that I was a Brothebit. You told me that one day, I would be as powerful as you.”
“I hoped that one day it would be so, child. And I raised you as such. But it is not to be.”
“What are you talking about? What am I? Who am I?”
The Brothebit sighed. Rolled over. Glared at the Katrina.
“You are human. Mostly human anyway.”
“What? No!” the girl screeched furiously. “I am not human. We hate humans. We hunt humans. We kill humans.”
“And yet, that is what you are, child. Mostly human. There is no denying it. You will never be full Brothebit like me. It is time that we part ways. You must go your human way. I must go my Brothebit way. I must return to my kind. I cannot take you with me.”
“Why are you doing this to me,” the girl screamed angrily, trying to hold back the tears. “I thought you loved me. I thought you were my mother.”
“All children eventually leave their mother and father and head out on their own. It is time for you to do the same. Be on your way. Find your own kind. Live your life with them.”
“Please, don’t do this to me,” Katrina pleaded. “Let me go with you. I will be good. I will do whatever you say.”
“It’s not about you being good or not. If you return with me to my kind, they will slaughter you. The Brothebit hate you and your kind.”
Katrina slammed her lance furiously against the branch she was standing on. She wanted to ram it through the Brothebit’s ribs, deep into her heart. Again and again.
The girl held back the hot tears that threatened to well up in her eyes at the feelings of betrayal and hurt that throbbed with every heartbeat.
She took a long, slow, deep breath that shuddered her whole body at the end.
“Why did you lie to me?” she finally managed to ask quietly. “Why lead me on all this time, if you knew I couldn’t go back with you?”
The Brothebit growled bitterly. A deep, throaty rasp that rattled Katrina’s bones.
“I wanted a cub, but never bore young. There was a human. He earned our trust. A good human. He offered to help. Our king told me not to listen to him. But my desire for my own grew and intensified. I went to him and accepted his help.”
Katrina had never heard this story before. She sat down on the large, rough branch beside Shinx to listen to the feline’s tale.
“The man said he was a research scientist who studied the things that make us Brothebit who we are. He called them genes. He said he could make medicine to help me bear young. But in the end, he betrayed me. Or I think he did.”
“What do you mean?” Katrina asked.
“He disappeared. Other scientists took his place. Put me in a cage. Did many hurtful things. The poked and prodded me. In the end, they created you in something they called a test tube. They said that you were a mix of races.”
The Brothebit paused to look off into the distance. Katrina watched the feline closely. Observed her fighting her emotions. She waited for the Shinx to continue.
“At first, I hated you. I hated what the scientist researchers had done. They acted as if you were my child. Even though you looked like them. I was horrified. I felt sickened. Disgusted.”
Katrina waited until Shinx got her emotions under control once again.
“Then, they began to do terrible things to you as they had done to me. They poked and prodded you. I realized that it wasn’t your fault for being there. If anyone’s fault, it was mine. I felt pity for you. Maybe even something akin to motherly love. And I had to save you. Get you away from them.”
“How?” Katrina asked.
“It was easy. I went with them willingly, thinking they were going to help me. They underestimated my Brothebit strength. They had created the place to contain a human. It was easy to tear through their defenses.”
“So, why did you bring me and raise me?”
“Call it motherly instinct. You were the closest thing to a cub that I had ever had. I cared for you and raised you as my own. I hoped that over time, you would become more like me. Grow fur. Grow a tail. Grow fangs. But instead, you only became more human.” the Brothebit snarled.
“So, I’m human, and you hate me. That is why you want to abandon me.” Katrina stated bitterly.
“No, child. I don’t hate you. I care for you deeply. I swore I would raise you as my own. You make me proud. But it is the way of nature. It is time for you to return to your kind. As it is for me to return to mine.”
“But what will I do without you?” Katrina wailed.
“You will return and learn the ways of humans. You will live with your kind. They will accept you. They will love you. Only don’t tell them where you came from. Make a new story for yourself. Humans are gullible. They will believe you. You will fit right in. I have taught you well.”
“No, I won’t go. I refuse to go. I will stay here.” Katrina shouted vehemently.
“Fine, child. You may do as you like. But you will be alone here once I leave. I will remain with you three days. Then I will go. It will be better for you to return to your kind, so you are not alone. I will show you where they come from. I will show you the place you came from.”
Katrina begged and pleaded with Shinx, but it was no use. The Brothebit refused to negotiate on the terms of her leaving.
The girl stood up and looked off into the distance. A slew of emotions flooded her body. Anger at the lies and betrayal. Rage at her soon abandonment. Fear of her unknown future. And even a twinge of nervous excitement at discovering her roots.
Katrina had always known that she wasn’t like Shinx, but she didn’t know why. At least until now. Everything made sense now.
It had seemed weird to compare how much more she looked like the humans Shinx killed then the Brothebit herself. And now she knew why.
The girl looked back at Shinx, still lying on the branch. Sulking over her decision. Katrina knew it had to be hard for her. And yet, she understood that the Brothebit was only trying to do the right thing by her. And she appreciated that.
Katrina was grateful for the years of care and sacrifice the creature had made for her. She decided to spend time and enjoy these last three days with the only mother she had ever known. And, if possible, Katrina would return again to see her once more. And maybe even make things right once she understood what happened herself.