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The Chaos of Life


by


James Vesping




Copyright 2016 James Vesping

Cover art Copyright 2017 James Vesping


All rights reserved.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.




Table of Contents


1 – The Chaos of Life

Epilogue

About James Vesping


1


The room would have been completely dark if not for the small lamp on the night stand. A slight breeze disturbed the curtains over the windows, having been opened to allow the cool, late spring air into the room.

It was a simple room, adorned with the various items the man had accrued over his few years of life; certificates of achievement, a university degree, and various tokens of appreciation. To an outsider, it would have appeared a comfortable domain, an altar to a relatively successful life. For the man, it was not what he had achieved, but instead what he had not that tormented him the most. Yes, he had achieved much in his professional life, was well liked by his coworkers, and was valuable to the company that employed him. But living to work leaves no room for an actual life and such was the dichotomy tearing at his soul.

The man had tried to find something to latch onto in his personal life, but he could find nothing. The technologies he worked with every day consumed him, driving every aspect of his being. When others found out what he worked with, many chose to steer away from him; those who didn't simply dismissed his peculiar behavior as that of an invalid, giving him nary a second thought. Few sought to know him on a personal level and so he was an outcast to society. His only connection to the world was the cat he had rescued from the streets. The cat that had just died during the day while he was at work.

He had silently acknowledged that his only companion had passed away, asleep in the small box it had called a bed. It had lived a long life, approximately half the years of the man who cared for it. It had been a part of his life for so long that it was difficult to fathom life without it. For him, it was the sign he wondered would ever come – it was the sign that it was time to go.

He did not come to his decision lightly; he knew his research was opening doors in ways no one had ever thought possible, pushing the boundaries of what the human mind was capable of perceiving. At the same time, he knew that the discoveries he had made behind closed doors could readily cause a panic, challenging everything that people wanted to believe was true. Even his own superiors were hesitant to openly discuss the realms of science he was involved in, for fear of being branded heretics. The very fabric of reality could be potentially torn apart with what he knew and he was surprised that his research was allowed to continue for as long as it had.

The first announcements made were for more applied technologies, little things like advances in computational power and new materials designed under different rules of physics. Such was impossible, many had claimed, and yet somehow they existed all the same. As more advances came, many demanded an explanation on the processes used to achieve them; as the company was concerned about how to provide an explanation that did not cause undue harm, the man suggested they tell the truth. The executives said that if he wanted to do so, that was his prerogative.

He had arranged an announcement to be seen by his peers and those high in scientific fields, but the company instead filled the audience with journalists and heads of state. As he reluctantly tried to explain his findings and what led to the advances, no one understood what he was speaking of and the audience ran amok with accusations and sensationalist news regarding the announcement. It was beyond the average human mind to comprehend what he was speaking of and what it meant for the world as a whole. The executives had used him as a scapegoat for what he knew would happen when the research was released to those unable to comprehend it.

Shunned by the public at large, he was too valuable to the company to terminate. His research was moved as deep as possible, away from prying eyes, and much of the matter was carefully swept under the rug. The existing technology was allowed to stay, but much of what he had spoke of was suppressed as ravings of a madman. The executives told him that when the time was right, they would release his full findings for all to see. He told them that the time will only be right when humanity ceases to exist.

The man sat on the edge of his bed, caressing the automatic pistol that he had carried for the longest time. It seemed cold despite having been on his person all day. It felt strange to have been keen on personal protection when there was little for him to live for, but he had always justified it that if those with nefarious intent were willing to kill him, what would they do to those unable or unwilling to defend themselves? His life may not of had value, but he did not wish harm on those who had more to live for. He saw himself as the wall that would protect others from harm, even if the very technologies he worked with terrified them.

He dropped the magazine of the pistol and set it aside, then thumbed back the hammer and retracted the slide. A round partially extracted from the chamber, the bullet still sitting in the bore. Carefully moving the slide forward, he looked around at the room one last time. He sighed and put the pistol to his head, then pulled the trigger.


-



2


“Stop! Give that back!” Tenna shouted, propelling herself as fast as she could. The boy she was chasing seemed to be keeping his distance no matter how hard she pushed herself, but she had no choice. She needed the serum he stole from her; it was the only thing she had to keep the voice from coming back in her head. Unfortunately, it was a rare serum, which made it highly valuable to anyone who knew she had it. It also meant that she had to steal it herself in order to get it. It was all she had to maintain her sanity and stay out of the “nuthouse,” as the people of the streets called it.

She had narrowly avoided going there two years ago, only because she had been slipped some of the serum before she saw the judge. Whatever it did, it silenced the voice and allowed her to convince the judge that she was as sane as any other 15 year old girl on the streets, down on her luck with no family and no one to care for her. She was released from custody and it seemed as if she was finally cured. Then a few weeks later, the voice came back. She tried to ignore it, but it was too strong and she found herself arguing with it in front of a group of strangers. When she realized what she was doing, she ran away when, in a twist of fate, she saw an advertisement for a serum promising to cure any ailments of the mind. She recognized it as the serum she was given.

Ever since, she had managed to scrounge, steal, beg, and borrow enough to get access to it. Even then, she had to steal it; she could never afford the asking price on a street girl's measly income. She could have turned to prostitution like so many other girls, but something in her spirit just would not allow it; if she were that desperate, then she might as well be dead. She raged at the very idea that she could stoop that low for survival, as if the rest of her body remembered something that she forgot. Her memories only dated back two years, where she woke up on the streets in a school uniform with no idea of who or where she was.

There was also the voice of a man echoing in her head, asking her bizarre questions and then predicting things happening right before her very eyes. At first, the voice didn't even seem to acknowledge her presence, but as time went on, it seemed to realize it was a part of her. Not having any memories herself, she was powerless to answer any of its questions. Eventually, it seemed to tone things down and treated her like a normal human being, dialing back the things it seemed to know and even treating her as if they were family. Then it finally gave her a series of commands that she felt impossible to resist, which led her to break into a heavily guarded medical facility, where she was caught and sent to stand for a trial of competence. The voice told her the facility was where her memories were stored and where they were “merged.” The voice revealed itself as a man from beyond her world and that her mind was limiting his ability to tell her everything – who she was, where she came from, and where her family was. The answers, he insisted, lay at the medical facility; if she would only try again, she would finally know.

After she started the serum treatments regularly, that was the end of Tristan, as he called himself. She had managed to work odd jobs here and there, with a few “appropriations” in between, and had even managed to put together enough funds to rent a small apartment. Then the 5 Month War started and the price of the serum rose on the black market. Her normal sources no longer could keep stock of it and she had to pay more to get it from other suppliers. Even after the war ended, the price remained too high and she could no longer afford a higher standard of living. Living on the streets was still preferable to the torment that Tristan brought on her.

Her most recent acquisition of the serum had been lifted from her by the boy she was now chasing; no doubt he had been watching her when she broke into the small pharmacy that just got a shipment of the serum. She had managed to score some just in time and she could already feel Tristan waking from his slumber, deep within her mind.

The boy took a turn and ran down a side alley and Tenna sharply turned to keep up with him, bouncing off a wall with one of her feet. The boy was starting to tire and her long legs were proving their worth.

Oh, what's this? Tristan smugly whispered. Never seen you run down a boy that hard before, Tenna. What, you gonna marry him? Maybe he took one look at your face and ran! Ha!

“Shut up, Tristan. He's got my serum,” Tenna replied.

You're still taking that stuff? You know that doesn't really keep me quiet. Just dulls your ears. Haven't you noticed your hearing going a bit south lately? Maybe if you weren't taking the stuff, you would have heard him sneaking up on you!

Tenna grumbled under her breath, tired of running and now having to fight with Tristan again.

Look, I'll save you the trouble. Take a right at the next alley, then a left; you'll catch him at his family's place. I'd tell you where to get to him sooner, but that would spoil part of the fun.

Tenna slowed down and sighed, then did as Tristan told her. She maintained a steady pace as she twisted through the connecting alleys, then came upon an intersection. No sooner than she stopped and the boy came running around the corner, crashing into her and sending the serum flying. Tenna was swooped off her feet while the boy went for a tumble across the dirty concrete.

“You little punk! If that serum is broken, you're helping me get another!” Tenna shouted, rolling over to look for the serum. She frowned for a moment as she realized she didn't hear any shattering or even anything hit the ground. Looking up, she saw the boy's father holding the vial, his eyes meeting hers.

“I think you've given my boy enough trouble today, girl. You ought to back out of this while you still got a pretty little head on your shoulders,” the father said, his voice booming through the alleyway.

“He stole it from me! That serum is mine!” Tenna angrily shouted back.

“Did he, now? From what I hear, you've been using less than legit means to get the stuff. Cops love to hear about that stuff; dealing in black market Brain Booster gets 'em a big bonus from the Monarchy, what with their stance on drugs n' all. Or I could turn you in to one of the Families, who would probably love to have a girl like you as part of 'em. So maybe you'd better consider that third option and just hit the road.”

Tenna growled and gritted her teeth when she heard Tristan again.

C'mon, kid. Live to fight another day. This guy is a far more hardened criminal than you are. You only gotta live with me til you can get some more. I'll even help you get some, if it makes you feel any better. Just put up with me for a while, alright?

“No! The last time I did that, you almost got me in the nuthouse!” Tenna shouted. The father in front of her raised an eyebrow and motioned for his son to go in the apartment behind him.

“What's the matter with you, girl? I gave you a choice. Don't make me get violent, now,” the father said, raising his own voice.

“I wasn't talking to you,” Tenna tersely replied.

You're making this weird, Tenna. He's starting to think you might be a better meal ticket than that serum. Get away while you still can. Please.

Tenna sighed and did a quick look to see if she might be able to steal the serum back later.

No, don't even think about it. He's got ties to the Detrievich family and he's got 9 kids backing him up. At least three of which will spot you the moment you go in through that window.

“Grr! Shut up! You're not the boss of me!” Tenna grasped her head with both hands.

The father looked at her and frowned. “Kid, you got some serious problems. Don't add to them here. Git!”

That's our cue, Tenna. I swear it to you, I'll keep it to a minimum. You won't have to do anything you don't want to. I promise.

“Promise? This time? You'll be quiet?” Tenna asked Tristan.

Promise. Things are going to get better for you from here on. I mean it.

Tenna sighed, looked at the father one last time, and then began walking away.


-



3


The younger children laughing as they played on the wrecked aircraft made Esther smile, but she still felt nervous for them all the same. As the eldest orphan at 14, she was often tasked to care and watch for the youngest ones of the Holy Seven orphanage, in what was left of the nation of Nicosia. The 5 Month War, as it was called by the Northern Monarchy, had left the small nation annihilated, and much of the country was left in poverty. The nation existed in name only, with broken homes, devastated families, and roving bandits to speak for it. They had made the mistake of siding with the Protectorate and when the two sides declared war, Nicosia found itself in the middle of it. Their meager army was used as a buffer by the Protectorate and upon its destruction, the Protectorate announced an end to hostilities. Few people remained in the country, with most moving to the Protectorate or the Monarchy, but those who had chosen to stay preferred the anarchy and freedom to the rigid life as a Monarchy subject or a slave to the state of the Protectorate.

It was a hard life, especially for those with no family, but the Order of the Holy Seven had been the one saving grace for the children who had lost everything. The orphanage was far from ideal, but it was a home for them all, and the Order did everything they could to keep it running smoothly. Such a task was difficult, but many people helped in any way possible. The orphanage was in a small community had once been a thriving small town, but many of the young men and women had died in the war; the people that remained had their hands full fighting off raiders and bandits. Resources were hard to come by and if not for the well at the center of town, it would have been abandoned after the war.

Raiders were always testing the defenses of the town; with the ready supply of water and remains of war equipment, it was an inviting target. Most of the raiders would turn around and sell their plunder to one of the nine Families in the Monarchy who ran the seedy criminal underworld. Unfortunately, children were prime targets for the raiders, to be sold to slaves to the Families. It was a nasty subject and despite the public outcry, the Monarchy had massive problems with corruption and stamping it out proved to be nigh impossible for the King. The Council of Ministers refused to give him the power to put an end to the Families, seeing that as excesses of the executive branch. They were often influenced by the Families themselves and the King, Cortaeus, was powerless to challenge them; to do so would be to invite revolution, which was becoming increasingly likely as many subjects in the Monarchy found themselves living in poverty while the royalty enjoyed the fruits of their labors. The people loved the King, but many felt he needed to step down and allow a formal democratic government take his place.

The King fought the Families the only way he could: by using his own. He tasked his daughter with infiltrating the Families and ferret them out of their seats of power. It was a long process as she had to work within the legal framework of the Monarchy, but it was finally starting to bear some fruit. It would take longer still, but eventually the King knew the Families would be taken down and the subjects of the Monarchy would finally prosper. The Queen, Rita, was not fond of sending their eldest daughter on such dangerous missions, but Cortaeus convinced her that it was the only way to truly prepare her to eventually take the throne.

None of this concerned Esther, who simply wanted to salvage what was left of her childhood and the other children. The world was always dark and foreboding; it always was before her and always would be. She imagined that long after she turned to dust, there would still be warring insects, fighting one another over her bones. She felt no anger toward the world, only pity. Passing those thoughts from her mind, she looked toward the children again as they played on the derelict aircraft. One of the younger boys was trying to climb into the cockpit, but could not pull himself up.

“Here Johnny, let me help you.” Esther came over and gave him a boost, allowing him to squeeze through the window and place himself in the pilot's seat.

“My name's not 'Johnny' anymore, Esther. I'm Captain Ersatz of the Gladiator Air Corps!” Johnny exclaimed, gripping the yoke and letting his imagination run wild. Esther laughed at the name he made up for himself.

“What's so funny? You don't like the League of Gladiators?” Johnny asked.

“You know what 'ersatz' means, right Johnny?” Esther smiled as she shaded her eyes with her hand, looking up to the cockpit.

“I just made it up. It sounded cool.”

“It means a poor quality replacement. You're not a poor quality Captain, are you Johnny? I don't think the League of Gladiators accept poor quality pilots.”

Johnny frowned and looked out the cockpit to Esther. “How do you know that?”

“Johnny, I'm older than you are. Have some pride in yourself. 'Captain John of the Gladiator Air Force' is a perfect young man for the Gladiator Air Force.”

Johnny smiled back at Esther and sat back into the seat. “But all superheroes need a secret code name. If everyone knows who I am, then the Forces of Night will attack us and I don't have a Gladiator communicator!”

Esther chuckled and looked at the plane. It once had vibrant nose art that had long since faded. Still, she could make out a name under the cockpit: “Bill 'Hammer' Aviril.” Esther briefly wondered if he had survived the war and if he was still out there, somewhere, achieving whatever he may of dreamed of in his life.

“Well, how about 'Captain Hammer'?” Esther suggested. “It's already written on the plane, so it makes perfect sense.”

Johnny hopped up and tried to look out the window to the side of the plane, but he couldn't see it.

“I can't see it. Are you sure? Help me down.”

Esther went over and held her hands out, allowing Johnny to scale over the side and drop himself into her arms. She pointed out the faint writing on the side of the plane.

“See? Right there. You could be Captain Hammer, rising like a phoenix from the ashes to deliver justice on behalf of the Gladiators.”

“Hmm... OK! But you have to keep it a secret. I don't want the others to blow my cover.” Johnny dropped his voice to a barely shouted whisper. Esther nodded and pressed her lips together with her fingers.

“I promise, Captain Hammer. Just remember to rescue me someday. Deal?” Esther smiled broadly at Johnny. Johnny grinned and ran off to play with the other kids.

“You're good with them, Esther. You'll make a fine matriarch one day,” Father Petrov spoke from behind Esther, startling her. She spun and bowed her head toward him.

“Father Petrov. Is it time to bring the children in?”

“No, let them enjoy themselves a bit longer. The longer days of summer will be here soon and with it will come the raids as water becomes scarce. But that should not be your concern, not when your 15th birthday is coming up.”

Esther smiled at Father Petrov and he motioned for her to walk with him. She followed him as he paced around the derelict aircraft, looking at every piece of it.

“I used to fly, you know. Before the war. Before I joined the Order. There's nothing quite like it, cutting through the skies like the blade of a sword. You can almost touch the Seven when you're up there. I hope someday, you and the others will get to experience that and more. Perhaps you will even go beyond the skies.”

“I would enjoy that someday, Father. But I feel that you wanted to discuss matters other than your history with me now.”

Father Petrov smiled at Esther. “You're a very perceptive young woman, Esther. Yes, I wanted to ask you if you had made a decision on what to do with yourself. It won't be long before you'll have to leave the orphanage and make a life for yourself. Maybe move to the Monarchy and find a dashing young man to engage you. Become a matriarch and have your own family. I believe that is the path the Seven would have you take.”

Esther tried to hide her blushing by looking away, a smile creeping across her face. Father Petrov was a wise man and Esther knew he was just trying to get her to look at life beyond the orphanage. But she felt as if it was her calling; if she was to be a matriarch, why not here?

“I think it is almost too soon to think about such things, Father Petrov. I do not have many skills to offer in the Monarchy and you cannot deny that you and Sister Zuzanne need my help here,” Esther replied, trying to emulate Father Petrov's manner of speech as best she could.

“You play it well, Esther, but I and Sister Zuzanne still have much life left in ourselves. Helena is rapidly taking your place, thanks to your mentoring of her. In time, she will pick the next girl to replace her. It is a never ending cycle, one of which the Seven tell us is necessary. To join the Order is not your path; you are destined for greater things than this little desert town.”

Esther frowned at Father Petrov. “Father Petrov, I wouldn't know where to begin. This is the only home I have known. Who in the Monarchy would take me in? Where would I stay? What skills would I have to learn?”

Father Petrov chuckled. “That's what I like about you, Esther. Always thinking ahead. You have a knack for seeing all the possible outcomes and picking the most likely. It's all easily arranged; you would stay with Sister Verelli at the Holy Seven college in the capital city of Merigold. You can study whatever you like at the college while assisting Sister Verelli. I think you would get along famously with her and she would appreciate your knack for foresight.”

Esther sighed and looked back at the other children. They were all having a good time, forgetting the world around them and letting their imaginations run wild. She tried to see a future for herself that didn't involve becoming a Sister, but she could see nothing else for her to do.

As if knowing her thoughts, Father Petrov spoke once again. “You may have the gift of foresight, Esther, but do not fool yourself into thinking that there is but one thread of fate. There are many threads, always winding, always changing. 'Threads start with the Seven, but where the threads end, they know not.' ”

Esther smiled. “The Threads of Dionysus, chapter 2, verse 5.”

“You see, this is just the end of your beginning. Like Dionysus, you must step out and begin the next chapter of your life. You must change your threads, lest you look back on your life and wonder 'what if?' Don't end your life with regrets, Esther.”

Looking away, into the distance, Esther could almost feel she saw the Monarchy and with it, Merigold. It felt so far away, but part of her soul wanted to go on that adventure. She could always come back here if it didn't work out.

“I still have time to decide, don't I Father Petrov?” Esther asked.

“Of course. You have another year at least, though I would encourage preparation for your journey before the year is out.” Father Petrov surveyed the town, eyeing the orange glow that the setting sun was leaving on it. “For now, we must get the children inside. It is time for the third meal and I am sure Sister Zuzanne and Helena have come up with something edible.”

Esther stepped forward and made a loud whistle with her fingers. “OK kids, time to go! Meal time!”

The children all gathered up and proceeded to run back toward the orphanage. Johnny ran up to Esther and grabbed her hand.

“Esther, I don't like it when Helena cooks. I don't think she knows what the Gladiators need to eat to be strong,” Johnny whispered. Father Petrov overheard him and let out a light chuckle as he herded the other children back.

“Oh, don't worry Johnny,” Esther replied, “Sister Zuzanne has been keeping an eye on her today. I think she'll have improved since the last time she cooked. Besides, I think Captain Hammer is strong enough to eat anything.” With that, Esther led Johnny back inside with the others, her bright smile giving Johnny all the confidence he needed.


-



4


“It's been 20 minutes, Highness. I think they've been tipped off.” The detective looked at his watch impatiently as he addressed Katerina, the daughter of King Cortaeus and Queen Rita. Katerina had spent months setting up this sting on the Fercelli crime family and she wasn't about to let a short delay along with an impatient detective ruin it.

“Be patient, Detective. The Fercellis are frequently late with their deliveries; they won't miss this one, or they'll lose favor with the Council.” Katerina kept her eyes on the warehouse as she spoke. It was already late night, but a few lights in front of the building allowed her to clearly see the loading dock and all nearby entrances. A lone guard patrolled the grounds, but Katerina was certain that many more were inside – all armed to the teeth. It was an important hub for the Fercellis, even though it was operated by the Detrievich family. The two families had managed to stay on good terms, which is what Katerina hoped to upset.

Surrounded by trusted Royal Police, Katerina had planned to raid the warehouse just as the Fercellis started to unload, causing both families to point fingers at the other for tipping off the Monarchy agents. She had hoped that the explosive rift would allow her to dig deeper into both families' operations and eventually allow her to build a rock solid case against both Quentin Detrievich and Edna Fercelli. It was a rather complex way to run what amounted to an interrogation operation, but getting the drugs off the street would be a bonus to get her father off her back.

King Cortaeus and Katerina did not get along well at all. While the King loved his daughter, she took after both of her grandfathers more than she did her own parents; being strong willed, independent, and far more in favor of a democratic form of governance than a monarchy. It did not help that she had badly wanted to join the fighting during the 5 Month War, hoping to make a difference on the front lines, but her father steadfastly forbade her from being anywhere near the military. Not only was it against protocol, but having a female – royalty or not – on the front lines would have sent the wrong message. While the King was progressive, he knew that his population would never approve of such action. Queens and Princesses were to tend to matters of the people, not matters of war. He had explained to her that were he not bound by culture, he would have given her his blessing, though he would have feared for her all the same.

“Perhaps,” he had told her, “when the nation has matured more, you will be allowed to pursue such matters with greater freedom. I have no doubt that you would bring honor and glory to the family name on the field of battle, but this is a matter that goes beyond our pride. Until such a time as we can all accept the loss of our mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters on the field of battle, you must tend to domestic matters as best you can.”

Undeterred, Katerina had slipped off into the night, donning a cover identity and attempted to enlist in the Air Corps. She had hoped to bluff her way through the physical exams, but her body deceived her and the recruitment center detained her as soon as they realized who she was. Being neither a sitting Queen or King, she did not have full rights to royal privileges, and so she was returned to the royal family. While King Cortaeus chastised her, Queen Rita kept the peace by reminding the King that she was still his daughter and was doing what he likely would have done in the same situation. It also helped Katerina's image with the public as a whole, who saw their future Queen being so humble as to stoop down to the level of her subjects.

After the war was over, the King took Katerina aside and told her that if she truly desired to make a difference in the world, she could assist him with the destruction of the Council of Families and bring order back to the Monarchy. Still angry over having been rejected from military action, Katerina accepted his offer simply for the opportunity to get away from her parents. She had felt trapped in the royal lifestyle and being unable to get out into the world to find herself was almost unbearable. She was not comfortable with the idea of waiting until a suitor came along to engage her, less so the arranged marriages that had been typical of her grandparent's time. Thus, she left in earnest to begin her journey toward becoming a detective in the Royal Police, although she would be denied the title.

Fortunately her mentor, Detective Gadalfi, treated her no differently than any other aspiring detective in the academy. He recognized the fire in her spirit and taught her how to temper it, fine tuning her observation skills and teaching her the patience necessary to run deep undercover operations. Gadalfi was also well versed in spy craft, having been part of Royal Intelligence, which he used to train Katerina in less-than-legal techniques. He explained to her that taking down the Families would take more than good detective work; it would take subterfuge and hidden warfare to properly bring them to their knees.

Gadalfi had told her, “What the King wants to do is just shy of open warfare, Katerina. The Families operate with terror and loyalty. You must have a healthy dose of respect for them, for the people in the Families have a strong sense of loyalty to one another. Your family may have run the Monarchy for generations, but the Families have ran the world below it for far longer. They will likely run it long after you pass from this world. Remember this, Katerina: the final words that an inductee to a Family utters is 'Family is forever.' You are not dealing with petty criminals, but a cult that has endured for centuries.”

Katerina shivered as she remembered those words. Detective Gadalfi had been like a father to her, more so than the King; when Gadalfi had been killed by a Fercelli enforcer, she swore that they would be the first to fall. She killed the enforcer by herself, telling no one, and dumped his body at the Lordenci Casino, the seat of power for the Council of Families. That was her declaration of war, exactly as Gadalfi had taught her. She did not fire the first shot, but she was certain she would fire the last.

The sound of vehicles approaching broke up Katerina's thoughts. She looked up to see a convoy of trucks pulling up to the loading dock, exactly as her sources had told her they would.

“Huh, whaddya know. 25 minutes late, but looks like Fercelli trucks. Guess you were right, Highness.” The detective pulled out the small revolver from his belt, getting it ready to go. He signaled to the officers behind to move up. “We're ready when you are, Highness. Just give the word.”

Katerina nodded. “Wait til they come out to unload the trucks, then hit them. They won't get a chance to go for their guns unless they want to risk dropping the merchandise.”

The detective looked ahead to see the guard opening the loading dock door and a group of Detrievich thugs came out to help unload the trucks.

“Now! Go!” The detective shouted, rushing out toward the warehouse.

“Wait!” Katerina shouted, but it was too late. The sniper on the roof put a round clean through the detective, dropping him on the spot. The officers were more lucky and they quickly moved forward, firing at the sniper and holding their guns on the thugs. Katerina darted to a low concrete barrier and tried to see where the sniper was, but she couldn't pin him down. He fired again, taking down an officer with a shot to the chest, but exposing his position to Katerina.

“North corner, top of the roof!” Katerina shouted, causing all the officers to start firing wildly in that direction. The submachine guns wielded by the officers did no good at that distance, but it helped to keep the sniper pinned down long enough for Katerina to dart forward and burst into the warehouse. Brandishing a military automatic pistol, she quickly moved toward the far corner of the warehouse, looking for the sniper. She did not find him, but she did see a ladder going to the roof that would likely lead her to him.

Stuffing the pistol back into the holster on her right hip, she began scaling the ladder, briefly looking back in awe at how high it reached. Reaching the top, she grabbed the sides of the opening that led out to the roof and pulled herself up into a crouch. Drawing her pistol, she carefully moved to the northern corner, looking for the sniper. She finally saw him cowering behind the ledge of the roof, holding a simple sporterized bolt action rifle.

“Put your hands up, slowly!” Katerina firmly commanded. The surprised man looked over and briefly wondered if he should die by her hand now or by the Family's hand later. His eyes bounced back and forth as he weighed his options. Then he furrowed his brow and looked directly into Katerina's eyes. Damn.

Before he could swing the rifle onto Katerina, she fired two shots into his chest, causing him to drop the rifle partway. He started wheezing, air entering his lungs where it was not intended to, but putting up a brief smile as his last few seconds of life floated away.

“Family is forever,” he whispered, then slumped back against the ledge. Sighing, Katerina walked over and kicked the rifle aside, just in case he wasn't dead. She looked over the roof and saw that the rest of the gang had been rounded up and cuffed.

“Sniper's down!” She shouted over the roof, being rewarded with jubilant cheers from the officers on the ground. She looked out and saw the bodies of the detective and the officer and closed her eyes. It may have been a successful operation, but the loss of a detective and an officer in exchange did not sit well with her conscience. These guys better have some good information or this will all have been for naught.


-



5


Tenna sighed and looked across the street. I can't believe I'm about to do this. I'm gonna end up in the nuthouse.

As if on cue, Tristan kicked in again. You're not gonna end up in the nuthouse, kid. I'm giving you gold here, alright?

“Oh sure, the last time you told me that, you said getting my memories back was going to be a piece of cake. Then I ended up in front of a judge and you kept making things worse!” Tenna tersely replied, her words almost going beyond a whisper.

Keep it down, I'm trying to do the right thing here. I got a few places to go if we can pull this off. You ever had a real milkshake, kid? Not the processed kind, I'm talking a real one. You'll be able to afford one after you pull this off.

“OK, so what do I do?”

A white car is gonna pass by us shortly. You'll be able to hitch a ride on the running boards, if you keep your head down. The car will take a right, then stop. You'll get off, sneak behind the car, then hide behind a crate of whiskey. I'll tell you the rest when you get there.

“No, tell me all of it now or I'm not doing this. You promised me.”

I can't see any further than that kid, sorry. Car's coming up.

Tenna looked to her right and just as Tristan had said, a white car was coming by, slow enough that she could catch on. She gracefully stepped up onto the running boards and used the door handle to steady herself, being careful to not open the door. The car slowed down slightly more and then made a right turn, accelerating a bit as it completed the turn. It then unexpectedly stopped and the driver started beeping the horn.

“C'mon! What's the hold up there?!” the driver shouted, giving Tenna her cue to hop off and slink around the back. She looked and saw a series of stacked crates, each advertising “Fourteen Sins” brand whiskey. Keeping herself low, Tenna carefully slid behind the crates, not sure of who she was hiding from.

Ah, Fourteen Sins! Have a taste for me, would ya?

“Don't mind if I do.” Tenna started to reach out then pulled her hand back. “Tristan! What'd I say?”

Oh, sorry kid. Got lost in the moment. OK, now I'm seeing... Yeah, that's it. There's gonna be a Lordenci enforcer sitting on the crate; don't worry, he won't see you. He's busy watching some poor fool who hasn't kept up on his payments. When he sits down, lift his cash from his left vest pocket. Should be about 400 Royals in there.

“Four hun- Wait, are we gonna have to run real fast after this?”

Err, I don't think so. I hope not. I think he's going to pursue his mark. Relax.

Right about then, Tristan proved his ability again and a man in a pinstripe suit and hat came over and sat down on the crates, looking across the street. Tenna could see the cash sticking out from the man's coat pocket; it was so inviting that Tenna slowly started to make her move.

No, wait! Stop!

Tenna froze, her heart pacing as she wondered if she was going to be caught. The man reached over and took the money out of his pocket, flipped through it real quick, then stuffed it back into his pocket.

His vest pocket.

Tenna sighed and looked away.

Don't give up just yet. Watch.

She looked up again to see the man taking a couple bills out, then stuffing the rest of the wad back into his coat pocket. She smiled and reached for it, doing so carefully but with finesse.

That's it, nice n' easy... Got it!

Tenna withdrew her arm and looked at the cash, her eyes widening as she looked at all of it. It was the most she'd ever seen in her entire life, more than the 400 Royals that Tristan guessed.

Ah, now that's all in a day's work. Now how about you get me that drink?

“Sure thing, Tristan.” Tenna thoughtlessly reached out to open the crate, but she had already alerted the man to her presence.

Damn it. We gotta work on our communication skills. And probably our coordination.

The man jumped up and looked at Tenna, who unfortunately was still holding onto the wad of cash she had just lifted from his pocket.

“What the- Hey, give that back!” the man shouted. Tenna let out an embarrassed chuckle, then took off in a run.

It's on now, kid! Quick, a left into the alleyway!

Tenna was running for all she was worth, the Lordenci enforcer hot on her tail.

“Give that back, you little whore! Stop running!” the man shouted, being unable to catch up with Tenna. He was clearly in worse shape than she was.

You'll have to do a little climbing to lose him for good. Get on that ladder and up onto the roof.

Tenna leaped up and was already halfway up the ladder by the time the enforcer got to the bottom of it. He grumbled as he struggled to scale the ladder, his large mass fighting him every step of the way. Tenna had already cleared the ladder and was on the roof by the time the man was half way up.

“What now?” Tenna asked.

When he gets to the top of the ladder, give him a firm push. He'll fall down and crack his head clean open, like a melon!

“What?! No! That's murder!”

Oh, for crying out loud... He's gonna kill you if he gets his paws on you! You got no other options, kid!

“There's always another option!” Tenna shouted, running toward the other end of the roof. She could see another building just close enough; with enough speed, she'd be able to make the jump.

No, no, no! You won't make it!

“Watch me!” Tenna shouted, circling around and running as fast as she could. She leaped off of the roof and went flying through the air; for a moment, she felt like a god, sitting among the Seven.

Damn it! OK, when you hit, make sure you roll!

Tenna took Tristan's advice and when her legs touched the roof, folded them inward and rolled across the rough tar. She felt a slight pain in her right ankle, followed by what felt like something poking her in the back, but was otherwise intact.

Great going, kid. You got away. But your ankle is busted and you got a nail in your back.

Tenna wasted no time in getting up and proceeding to walk away, but a sharp pain in her right ankle caused her to shriek and bounce off of it. She grumbled and thought about Tristan in less than endearing terms.

Don't blame me, I told you not to jump! You could have just done as I'd said and it all would've worked out.

“You were gonna have me kill that guy! A dead body doesn't just work out!” Tenna replied, limping away to find a way down from the roof. She looked back and saw the Lordenci enforcer staring at her. She gave him a smile and a salute.

Well, good hustle, kid. I guess you're alright after all.

“You know what, Tristan? If you can stay away from the whiskey from here on out, I think we can make this work,” Tenna replied, wincing as she balanced herself on a ladder and descended to the alley below.


-



6


“Merigold?! Really? That's fantastic, Esther!” Helena said to Esther, upon hearing the news that Esther had decided to travel to Merigold and join Sister Verelli at the Holy Seven college.

“What will you study there? Chemistry? Engineering? Painting? I've heard you can do anything you want!” Helena could barely contain her enthusiasm – nor the hint of envy.

“I haven't decided yet. I was thinking I'd try some basics in everything and see where they lead me. Though with the way Father Petrov talks, I was thinking aeronautical engineering would be the place for me,” Esther replied, looking out at the stars.

“Oh no, did Johnny go on his spiel about the Gladiator Air Corps again? Last week, he thought he was going to be a dragon tamer.”

Esther laughed. “I told him that dragons have been extinct for centuries, so he must have changed his mind.”

“You should have led him on. He was a little bit easier to deal with when he was out looking for lizards; now the only thing he wants to do is sit in that old airplane.”

Esther raised an eyebrow at Helena. “I thought he stuffed a lizard in your pillow last week. You woke the whole orphanage up screaming when you opened your eyes and were face to face with a horned desert salamander.”

Helena rolled her eyes. “Yes, I know, but now he keeps trying to get the other children to help him in and out of that wreck. Someone is going to get hurt and Sister Zuzanne keeps telling me that I will be responsible for them soon. And hearing him going around saying 'I'm the Captain here!' gets kind of annoying.”

Esther chuckled. “That's the last part you'll have to learn. If you keep reacting to his antics, he'll always push your buttons and pull your chains. That's why he put the lizard in your pillow and not mine.”

Helena shook her head. “He didn't put it in yours because he's taken with you. All the kids like you, Esther; you're just a good soul. I don't know if we should feel blessed that the Seven put you here with us or if I should pity you for the Seven making you endure what you have.”

Esther did not respond and looked up to the stars, trying to suppress her feelings. Helena had been in the orphanage longer than Esther, having lost her mother when she was born and losing her father later on to a sickness that ravaged the countryside almost a decade ago. She had no other family that she knew of and no one knew where her family hailed from, beyond having been slaves in the Protectorate. Much of Nicosia was composed of similar people, being the only nation that outlawed slavery. Even though the Monarchy had cracked down on it, it was still accepted practice to pay off debts and similar circumstances. There were rumors that the King planned to abolish the practice completely, but resistance from the Families kept that from becoming reality.

In some ways, Esther felt guilty that Helena felt sorry for her. Helena was borne of slaves and then lost everything before she was barely old enough to walk. In other ways, she did have to admit that her own tale was quite sorrowful. She had once been part of a fairly well-off family, having two older brothers and two younger sisters, her parents having come to Nicosia because they disagreed with the previous king of the Monarchy, many years ago. Unlike the current King, the previous king got along well with the Families and even encouraged their activities. Her parents had felt this would be the downfall of the Monarchy and the installment of mob rule, and so fled from the country to start a new life in Nicosia. It seemed that Nicosia attracted many such refugees from both the Monarchy and the Protectorate; despite being mostly desert, modern engineering techniques had allowed much of the land to be cultivated and thriving. It had only been about a century since the Nicosian Revolution had cemented their independence from both the Monarchy and the Protectorate. At the time, neither side felt it was in their best interests to take over what amounted to a small desert country, but the Protectorate made peace first and promised aid to Nicosia, in order to stick a thorn in their old enemy, the Monarchy.

The Monarchy only relented at the time since the Families were losing profit due to the conflict. The increase of power toward the state instead of the Families hurt their bottom line as they could no longer easily supply the illegal vices of many subjects. The Council of Ministers was created by the nobles at the time to stave off revolution from their subjects, who were being egged on by the Families. Since then, the balance of power had steadily shifted from the King to the Ministers and by extension, the Families. It was a masterful long term strategy on the part of the Families, but one which put the Family heads at the limits of their patience. Only the Lordenci family kept the peace, and they did so by the most violent methods possible. This cemented their place as the head of the Council of Families and in a hundred years, never released their iron grip on the Council. Everyone feared the Lordenci family. Everyone but King Cortaeus, whom they despised; but they could not take action against a King so popular with his subjects. So loved was Cortaeus that many referred to the current era as the “Enlightened Age of Cortaeus.”

Esther wished her parents would have survived to see the Monarchy finally progressing to the future, but it was not to be. When the 5 Month War started, her brothers and her father went off to the war as part of the first wave of defenders. All of them were killed on the same day, a tragedy that was so unusual that the newspapers across the country reported it. Esther had been old enough to work in the munition factories and so volunteered to perform her patriotic duty. Her mother was forbidden from doing so, as she had two younger daughters to care for. It was hard, painstaking labor, but Esther knew her mother and sisters relied on the small paycheck she earned from the factory. Then one day, a Monarchy air raid intending to target the factory ended up bombing the entire town. Esther had the misfortune of being nearby a lot of smokeless powder when a bomb hit, setting it on fire. The force of the fire was so great that it singed her legs as she ran away to escape. Much of the factory was destroyed as the hazardous chemicals exploded and caught fire, and she only survived thanks to a fellow worker – an old man – who carried her out. She had lost consciousness for most of the ordeal, but awoke in the old man's arms; he had died from his own wounds in escaping the factory.

Esther had made her way home, but found nothing left. A bomb had directly hit the family home and incinerated everything in a fifty meter radius. Exhausted and still in pain, she collapsed in what was left of the street she lived on. Father Petrov had found her, being part of a group of rescuers that had witnessed the carnage from afar, and took her to the orphanage. The small town was not considered a strategic target and so was spared much of the carnage. Sister Zuzanne did what she could to heal Esther's wounds, but care for burns was difficult anywhere in Nicosia and so she had permanent scarring all over her legs. It took her a long time to trust anything involving heat and open flames still made her nervous. Helena, for reasons Esther still did not understand, had attached to her over anyone else. In Helena, Esther finally found a reason to continue living, and so treated her as if she were a sister. Father Petrov encouraged Esther to help the others and before long, Esther was taking care of many of the children, even those who had been there for longer, with little assistance from Father Petrov and Sister Zuzanne.

“The Seven do not reveal their ways,” Father Petrov had told her, “for doing so would be unfathomable to mere mortals. Take what you have been given and make the world a better place, Esther. You have been given a second chance; prove yourself worthy of it to the Seven.”

Esther tried to push the thoughts of the past away and focused on the brightest stars in the sky. No one knew why the stars were so clustered in one part of the sky, with the north and south being darkest. Nicosia always had the strongest concentrations of stars and many said it was because only Nicosia was favored by the Seven. Esther remembered the old legends: Long before Nicosia existed as a nation, legends had been spun that in the age of dragons, humanity had been enslaved by the Ebony Crystal, an artifact so powerful that it opened a portal to the realm of darkness, allowing the forces of evil to reign over the world. Triumvarte, a powerful wizard, had created the Ebony Crystal from the Rotted Tree, deep in the desert. He imbued it with the souls of the ten most powerful dragons and bound them with his insatiable thirst for power. Upon finishing his incantations, the Ebony Crystal sparked to life and opened the portal, sending Triumvarte to eternal damnation.

Led by the crystal, the forces of darkness spilled throughout the land, defeating human and dragon alike. Humanity was rapidly enslaved, but dragons had managed to fight back. The first humans released joined the fight and before long, the world was engulfed in battle. Neither side was able to make any gains, but the forces of darkness kept pouring through the rift. Seven humans volunteered to ride with dragons and destroy the crystal, in a last ditch effort to stem the tide. Flying high above the battles below, the Seven found the Crystal, more powerful than ever before. They had also found that Triumvarte had been sent back to command the armies, his tortured and grotesque form scarring the landscape. There were seven humans and seven dragons – Nelianth and Lek'Ti; Dremforde and Vri'Li; Ivonne and Gla'Ki; Jarlston and Uta'Bi; Yuri and Bek'Tha; Olga and Tel'Gah; Cristan and Oma'Dah.

Nelianth and the dragon Lek'Ti were the first to attack and the first to fall, Lek'Ti's powerful flames searing Triumvarte's armor. They fell to an invisible hand, crushing them to death. They were henceforth known as the First of Seven. Dremforde and Vri'Li were the next, attacking with Dremforde's powerful war hammer and Vri'Li's razor teeth. Triumvarte dispatched them with jagged shards of ice. They were then known as the Second of Seven. Ivonne and Gla'Ki were the next, and they combined their attacks – Gla'Ki's roar with Ivonne's sword. Triumvarte deflected their attacks with a huge electrical storm that drained all life from their mortal forms. They became the Third of Seven. Jarlston and Uta'Bi tried a different method, with Uta'Bi distracting Triumvarte with random flames and attacks with his claws. Jarlston then put an arrow through Triumvarte's neck and for a time, it appeared the battle had been won. Triumvarte pulled the arrow from his neck and sent it flying back into Jarlston's heart, dropping him where he stood. Uta'Bi fell with her rider, the Ebony Crystal's influence having imbued human and dragon mortal forms due to their proximity to it and the rift. They became the Fourth of Seven.


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