Miss me? Tonight’s chapter introduces a new character with a special talent. He’s a nice break from having the point of view told by one on the “inside”, as Robin and Meese are. Even if Robin considers herself an outsider. Hope you enjoy!
The line of refugees shivered in the pre-dawn chill, heads bowed under their hoods and winter hats, gloved hands stuffed deep in their pockets or wedged in their armpits. Occasionally, someone would stamp their feet against the hard, ice-packed ground.
Ketan huddled in line, his registration papers clutched in his pocket. The checkpoint was new, a series of rudimentary portables clustered on the opposite side of a barbed wire fence. The closest building functioned as the entrance, letting refugees enter one at a time.
Two men guarded either side of the fence. One paced easily, an assault rifle slung over his shoulder; the other watched the line, the glowing end of a cigarette burning close to his mouth.
The door to the closest building opened, planting a square of fluorescent light on the wooden steps and the people lining up. One person went in. The door closed.
A minute later, the line shuffled forward.
Christ. Had he known the checkpoint would be this cold at 4am, he would have taken a later bus.
Behind him, the gravel parking lot contained few cars. His bus had already crossed the border, parking on the opposite side of the fence. The interior was dark, the door closed. The chrome gleamed dull and dirty in the checkpoint’s industrial lighting. The driver leaned on its front fender, a cigarette glowing in his hand.
Beyond the checkpoint, above the yellow industrial glow of the compound and its tiny portables, past the valley and farther down the trench of the mountains to the north, the sky lightened. His eyes drifted upward… a mountain ridge rose up between him and the city, its back a low silhouette in the night The underside of the clouds—all full of snow, most likely—had a gritty, muddy glow, underlit by the light pollution of Lyarne, the capitol.
It was still a few hours away by bus, but it gave him some peace of mind to know that it was there.
His breath blew out in a cloud in front of him. Cold cut through the cuffs of his jacket, biting at gap of exposed skin near his wrist. It didn’t bother him as much as it should have—more of an annoyance than an actual, life-threatening cold.
He flexed his fingers, working the stiffness from the digits, and checked his phone. 4:25. Forty minutes. He’d been there forty minutes.
And the cold was sapping his battery. He powered it off, opened his jacket, and stuck it into an inside pocket. The straps to his backpack cut into his shoulders. He hadn’t brought much with him. His phone, a couple changes of clothes, and a multitool.
He’d left his switchblade back in the bus, taped underneath the seat in front of him. Perhaps that had been paranoid of him. Given the primitive state of the checkpoint, he doubted they’d even have an x-ray scan.
But the guard could search his bags and his clothes, and Ketan really didn’t want to explain the knife. His skin color already made him look like trouble. The knife would be a death sentence to his application.
Which was stupid, really. He was Westran, just like everyone else. Since when had Lyarne become a separate state? It was still part of the country, last he’d checked.
And he’d checked yesterday.
Maybe the city was looking to become a city-state, like Mersetzdeitz. The plateaued city had once been part of Westray, after all—whose to say Lyarne couldn’t try for independence either? After all, the Lyarne-Terremain corridor was really all that remained of the country. The rest had been occupied.
Snow fell from the roof. It caught in the compound’s yellow lights like falling dandruff. A flake melted on his cheek.
The door opened again. A bright square of light slanted over the line. The frostbitten ground sparkled.
The door closed. Ketan shuffled forward.
Christ. He’d hate to see the place on a busy day.
Ketan drifted back to his thoughts, closing his eyes. A new flake of snow fluttered into his hair, another sliding down the side of his nose. The vapor of his breath blew around him, rising in the cold, dark morning. He heard a door open, close.
A shout snapped his eyes open. Another door opened, this time to a second portable. A woman shouted something to the guard that had been pacing. He shouted back. She disappeared back inside.
A second later, every light in the compound went dark.
Ketan blinked. Blueprints of retinal burn danced in his vision. It was pitch black. Now, the night seemed more tangible than the cold had. He tensed. His eyes adjusted slowly.
“What the hell?” Alarmed voices rose from around him. Dim outlines came to him, shapes in the dark. The person in front of him swayed to the left, her white knit cap the first thing to catch his eye.
“Calm down—this is just a procedure. Please, stay in line—”
The air exploded with noise. The resounding boom rocked the valley, the sound knocking through his chest. People shouted. His ears rang. Someone pushed into him.
The sound shifted, moved away. It screamed up the mountain trench, straight for Lyarne.
Then, the sky burst open.
Light crackled in the distance—a starburst of smoke and fire, the sound coming a few seconds later. It sounded like a distant drum. A second one exploded farther in. From his angle, it looked like the two bombs had meshed together, their fire growing, stretching, sparking into the sky.
But not into the city.
Already, he could see the curve of Lyarne’s famed shield, breaking the blast over its invisible surface. The bombs’ detonations raced over its surface, pelted it with mass amounts of energy, but it never broke.
Nothing got in. That was the rule. That’s why so many moved to Lyarne. That’s why they still hadn’t lost the war.
That’s why the checkpoint was so busy at 4am.
The light faded, fell. The energy spent. The view of Lyarne returned to normal, albeit smokier.
A pair of engines growled through the air above him, the two jets returning back up the mountain trench. The whine of their engine disappeared thirty seconds later.
After a minute, the lights of the compound went back on. People returned to the line.
It shuffled forward. Slowly.
By the fence, he saw the glow of the guard’s cigarette.
The man hadn’t moved.
It was nearly six before the bus pulled into Upper Lyarne’s depot. Ketan grabbed his small bag from storage, stashed the reclaimed switchblade deep into his sock, and followed the crowd off the bus. As the rest gathered around the bus’s outer storage compartments, he broke away from the crowd and slipped into the city.
Lyarne didn’t look a whole lot different from Terremain. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected—something cleaner, maybe?—but the city showed him the same gritty, cracked, snow-covered pavement as in the other city. It was bigger, of course—a lot bigger, considering it had been the commercial capitol since before the war—and it had more impressive skyscrapers and a lot more light. Maybe that’s because they didn’t have to worry about bombing raids. Lyarne had a functional shield, after all.
Then again, Terremain’s shield had been functional up until a few years back. It still was largely functional—if you didn’t live in the outskirts and kept to the city’s core.
Ketan paused underneath an awning. His phone made a sad bloop as he powered it on. The battery was going faster than he’d thought. Good thing he didn’t need it for long. He sent off a quick message and put it back in his inner pocket, where his body heat would slow the drain.
Snow fell a few feet away from him. It had a familiar hush to it, and caught in the yellow of the streetlight. Slush piled against the curb, three feet high from the last plow. A nearby power transformer buzzed in the quiet.
For the first time since he’d gotten on that bus, Ketan relaxed.
He was actually here. Under the shield.
It should have been harder to leave, but it wasn’t. Just a phone call, a bus ticket, and the better part of seven hours. Exhaustion pricked at his eyes, but he wasn’t really tired. It wouldn’t be his first all-nighter and it probably wouldn’t be his last.
Ketan yawned, stretched, cracked the joints in his fingers. His breath rose in front of him in a vaporous cloud.
His phone beeped. He checked the text.
We’re waiting. Password: Marco.
He snapped the phone shut and tucked it back into his pocket. Then, adjusting the straps on his backpack, he jammed his hands into his pockets, ducked his head against the snow, and moved out.
The second checkpoint was a lot less formal than the last. Located in the basement of an older, mid-level apartment, its only guard had removed his shoes and was watching a zombie movie on the screen of his laptop. He was Asian—Chinese? Korean? Ketan couldn’t tell the difference—with his long black hair pulled back in a smooth ponytail. His business shirt had a faded pink base with thin blue stripes and the top two buttons undone; his slacks had a sharp crease down their middle. Around him, the grungy, pitted concrete threw off the business casual demeanor. A bowl of instant ramen sat, half-empty, on the desk beside him.
He glanced up as Ketan approached, an eyebrow raised.
“Marco,” Ketan said.
The guard nodded, paused the movie, and stood up.
“You been here before?”
Keys jingled in his hand. He slid around his desk. “It’s a long way down. Twenty-seven flights of stairs, to be exact. This part will let you out at the edge of the Core. You got someone waiting for you?”
A door stood in the concrete, its paint peeling around the edges. The lock scraped as it turned. The guard held it open, giving Ketan a once-over.
A camera, mounted above the door, recorded him as he walked through.
Twenty-seven flights of stairs later, Ketan looked up at the antiquated underground city he’d heard so much about. The Underground was not meant for the upper echelons of society, it was for the unlucky ones—people like him. Refugees, criminals, street kids, deserters—anyone who didn’t fit into Lyarne’s elitest housing scheme.
Ketan kept to the sides of the road, his eyes roving about the street. Cracks snaked across the pavement, curb to curb, patched occasionally by a slick black coat of tar. The buildings had an old-fashioned look to them—the newest buildings were at least 70 years old, he’d heard, but these ones were older. They had the same antique windowframes and brick faces he’d seen in some old movies. Large, heavy beams spanned the street, and fresh concrete marred the facade of each building they anchored into. The smell of fresh baking permeated the air.
It was warmer down here. Comfortable.
His phone blooped one last time.
Well, there went the battery.
Ketan turned his eyes back up the street, searching for the people. There weren’t many—two in the bakery on the corner, with matching white shirts and aprons, and one walking up the street away from him, his arms laden with plastic shopping bags. Ketan’s stomach growled. It had been a while since his last meal. There was a bag of chips in his backpack, probably more crumbs than chips at this point. He still had some money, but he didn’t want to spend it just yet. There wasn’t much of it.
Footsteps sounded behind him. He smelled cigarette smoke.
Leloni wore a studded leather coat with an anarchy patch sewn over her heart. She’d added three new piercings since he’d last seen her, and her bleached-blond dreadlocks had grown another inch. Her natural black had started to come in at the roots.
“Hey,” he said. “Long time no see, girl. How ya been? I—”
He stopped short at the look on her face. She had dark, deep eyes, expressive eyes, and a grin as sharp as his switchblade. But the normal mischief had left her face, and her mouth was a hard, thin line.
Worry spiked in his gut. He searched her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“You got out just in time,” she said. “The city fell last night. I’m surprised you didn’t hear.”
His heart stopped. Fell? He shook his head. “Impossible. I was just there. It couldn’t have—”
“They broke through the front around nine last night. Probably didn’t take the base till after eleven.”
He met her eyes. “I was gone by then. The bus left at 10:45.”
Silence formed between them. Ketan’s mind raced. He had friends back there. Not many, not anymore, but some.
“The whole city’s taken?”
Leloni shook her head, blond dreads bouncing. “I don’t know. The news is spotty. They aren’t even showing it on Lyarnese television yet.”
Ketan shifted, adjusted the strap of his backpack. His shoulders had stiffened during the bus ride.
“What about Bo?”
She bit her lip, looked away. “I don’t know.”
Bo had been Leloni’s roommate when Ketan had known her in Terremain. Cut from the same rebel cloth, their apartment had been the upper loft of a long-abandoned car parts factory. They’d decorated the walls with one part band posters and two parts graffiti. When Leloni had left, Bo planned to follow.
That had been six months ago. A lot had happened since.
“I’m sure she’s fine. She’s tough.” Ketan put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. Leloni had a slight figure—much smaller than Ketan’s. The jacket made her look bigger than she was.
She stepped in and circled her arms around his waist. Her head nudged into the hollow of his neck. He smelled smoke on her jacket.
After a moment, she stepped back.
“Thanks, Ket-man. Cigarette? Oh, wait—you don’t, do you?”
He shook his head. “Never got used to them.”
“Right. Sorry. Hey—you hungry? We’ve got the usual canned cuisine. You haven’t met my friends yet, have you? No, of course you haven’t. This is your first time here.” She glanced back at him, and the pale light from a nearby shop window caught in her lumpy hair. “They’re a bit rough, but I think you’ll like them.”
Ketan made a noncommittal grunt. “I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.
“Good. We have lots to catch up on.”
She led him down streets and alleyways. They passed the bakery, a grocery store, and a DVD rental place. Most storefronts were dark and empty, this time of the morning, but the Underground was slowly awakening. There were far more people on the street than when he’d first come down, many dressed for a day at the office. He guessed they had to get up earlier if they worked above ground. Those stairs made quite the morning commute.
As they walked, the neighbourhood grew less and less developed. They encountered more evidence of burial—dirt and debris that hadn’t been swept up, building facades that hadn’t been cleaned—and the glass shopfronts became replaced with plywood boards and plastic sheets.
Sometimes, he’d see light in the cracks around the window, evidence of someone on the inside.
The neighborhood deteriorated the more they got away from the lit Core. He’d come to expect this from her—neither of them were the kind of people to afford rent. The Underground was supposed to amend that—plenty of spots to crash, he’d heard. That’s what had driven him here. That, and the shield.
“You guys got electricity?” he asked.
“Sort of. Why? You need something?”
“Phone’s dead,” he said.
“We can charge it after you sleep. There’s a place not far from us. Guy lets us charge.”
She led them to an old boarding school made of solid granite. Plywood boarded the windows, though he spotted light through a hole in one of the boards. In this part of town, the streetlights had not been rewired. A series of makeshift lanterns hung around the old light instead, jerry-rigged through a string of extension cords. They cast a pale, inadequate glow on the building’s exterior. Plywood boarded the windows, though he could see light through a hole.
Cigarette butts lay scattered around the front steps.
“Home sweet home.” Leloni shouldered open the door. It dragged on the floor, making a groaning noise. A thin line of light slanted across the hallway, illuminating a dark stairway. Leloni’s boots thumped up the old wood. “Guys?”
Someone swore from the next room. The door at the top budged open, and someone—a man—looked down on them. Yellow light flooded the stairs.
“The fucking stove won’t light. You got matches?”
“Got you one better. This is Ketan. Ketan, Scott—though he goes by Carson.” Leloni slid to the side, allowing the two to see each other. The guy had the ex-military look, except, by the slouch of his shoulders and the tilt of his head, Ketan could tell he’d never served. A ribbon of scar tissue twisted across the man’s shaved head, vanishing behind his ear. Another scar peeked out from under his stained wifebeater, just under his collarbone.
A knife wound.
“How’s he better?” Carson asked.
Leloni slipped into Carson’s arm, leaned up to kiss him on the cheek. “Because he’s so much more useful than a matchbook.” Her hand snuggled underneath Carson’s, tugged at the back of his shirt. She glanced back at Ketan, her dark eyes bright with her usual mischief. A half-smile revealed the edge of her teeth.
Ketan had a sinking feeling that he knew what was coming next. But he didn’t stop her. It was a small price to pay for crashing at her place, for the benefit of whatever community she’d cultivated.
Besides, no one said “no” to Leloni.
She grinned, stood on the tips of her toes to kiss Carson again. “Ketan’s a fire elemental.”
Carson looked down at him with renewed interest. “No shit? Let’s see. Light something.”
Like a monkey on display, Ketan thought as he raised his hand. Warmth sparked between his fingers as he tugged on his element. Flame fluttered into life, blooming up into the air like a torch. Part of it licked the side of his face like a warm, loving pet. Whatever snowmelt had been left in his jacket evaporated into the air.
The fire reflected in Leloni’s eyes, made their pale blue dance with liquid gold.
“Huh.” Carson wore an odd sort of expression on his face. The muscle worked in his jaw. He backed away from the door, making room for Ketan to enter. “Cool. You know there’s another fire elemental down here?”
Ketan closed his fist. The fire snuffed out. “Yeah. I’d like to meet him.”
Leloni giggled. “Meese is a her.”
“Meese?” What kind of name was that? “You know her?”
“Not exactly. She’s famous, though. Some say she’s the mage’s kid. Hard to miss. They’re both redheads.”
His skin burned up. Every time he used his element, he got hotter. He tugged at the zipper on his jacket. The element provided a latent warmth in general, but really kicked into overdrive when he called it. Sweat trickled down his chest.
The room was ratty. A single bulb burned in the ceiling, providing a stark source of illumination for the furnishings. A mattress had been shoved into the corner, the sleeping bag on top twisted in disarray. Two chesterfields sat near the center of the room, facing a coffee table made of breezeblocks and plywood. A single-burner camp stove sat on top, its gas canister propped out to the side. A can of beans stood open, next to a translucent, green-tinted glass bong.
Leloni slipped by him, careful not to touch him in front of her boyfriend. The hardwood under her feet was dusty and smudged with dirt.
“Is she the one that lit the shield?” he asked.
Three months ago, Lyarne’s shield had inexplicably caught fire.
“That’s why she’s famous. That why you’re looking for her?”
“Cool. You hungry? Come light the stove. I’ll tell you all I know.”
Aaand that’s all for today, folks! As usual, I appreciate any feedback, positive or negative or indifferent! If you’re looking for more, Firebird‘s prequel, Into the Fire, is available for free at the following stores: