Chapter 4: Guardian

Twilight crept over the sky as the four children were rushed from the warmth of their beds. Rhea rummage through the closet to one shoe and her jacket, sleep irritated the corners of her eyes as she blinked through the haze of dreams, before she could find her second shoe her parents dragged her from the house. The Summer sun disappeared over the horizon while emergency lighting covered the streets with an insipid blue sheen. Her red hair fell in loose waves around her face stopping just above her shoulders. Sirens screamed through the settlement, her large green eyes quaking in the gloom. As the eldest she’d been instructed to carry her infant brother, he pulled at her scruffy sleepwear and wailed incessantly as she clutched him in her arms. Her parents lead the younger siblings through the streets, casting nervous glances around every corner. Luna stumbled as mother pulled her by the wrist, her dark hair bounced around her shoulders, a shimmer of deepest blue showing when the light caught it just so. She loped awkwardly through the street, still struggling to shake off the fog of dreams. Jake, Luna’s twin, twitched nervously as they fled, his dark hair obscuring his blue eyes, the whites flashing bright when his head whipped left and right.

The family paused at a junction, the small frame of her father pressed flat against a brick wall, his short dark hair blended into the approaching night leaving a pale face suspended in the dark. Rhea cowered behind her mother, the sweet smell of her cinnamon perfume lingered, an attempt to mask the odour of chemicals from their work. Shouts of panic rose over the houses. Her father grabbed her by the collar forcing her to run, the delicate hands of a scientist trembled and scratched her skin as he grasped blindly. The infant in her arms wailed incessantly against the din of the sirens. A bolt of fire lanced up her leg, she tensed her muscles against the pain and stifled a cry. Broken glass crunched under her lone shoe, she began to weave a path delicately down the street, a stampede fought to escape from her chest, clouds gathered around her vision and threatened to engulf her vision. She weaved her way after her fading parents, shouts of panic drowned out by the shrieking sirens.

A ball of fire erupted over the rooftops, spewing a red blossom into the air. Pulsing layers of fire and smoke consumed each other as a red brilliance shimmered over the layer of cloud. She cried out as the shockwave ripples through her body and she stumbled to her knees. A thin river of crimson snaked down the street, a wave of renewed pain gripped her body from her temples to her toes. Move, Move, Run! She urged her body, her mind a prisoner in the ridged fresh tomb. Bent into a ball and squatting in the street she cowered from the monstrous red cloud that consumed the sky and the screaming pain sapping her strength. She wrapped around her crying brother and quaked in the red glow.

Unsteady hands swept under her as her father scooped her up and sprinted onwards. Groups of people joined them fleeing through the street. Two children she recognised, still in their sleepwear, the whites of their eyes wide and tinted red.

“What’s happening?” her father asked a neighbour in a hushed voice.

“The garrison’s fallen,” he said with a quick glance at Rhea and the baby in his arms, ”beasts are swarming the outskirts,”

Rhea’s father nodded sharply and looked to her, “Don’t worry lady, we’ll be safe in the shelter, beasts can’t get us there.”

The pit of her stomach turned at the warble in his voice.

“There might be a hundred manifested out there tearing the soldiers to pieces.” muttered an older boy, in his early teens. A quick slap from a parent made him run on in silence clutching his head.

“We’ll be safe, I promise,” her father repeated, gazing off into the distance.

Rhea peered up, his face was thin with strong cheekbones, a few days of stubble covered the lower half of his face. They rounded a corner and were confronted with a mass of people swarming towards them. The wave of bodies crashed around them as they struggled against the flow. Weeping faces flowed past Rhea and threatened to rip her from her father’s grip. She wrapped her brother tight in her jacket and held him to her chest against the crush. The tiny person was a warm bundle of knees and elbows, flailing against her grip.

The pop of gunfire rang into the night, they turned to flee with the crowd. Panicked voices rose above the din as they were shepherded through the street.

“The centre shelter has been overrun, get to the market!”

“The tower is closer!”

“Closer to the perimeter, fool!”

The crowd scattered as quickly as it had appeared, people filtered down side streets and walkways, all convinced of they knew the quickest way to safety.

“Jake!” the cry pierced the dusk hard enough to shatter glass, “Jake where are you!” her mother was on her knees pressing Luna to her chest screaming into the gloom. “Jake! Please”-

Her father twisted manically darting from one footpath to the next shouting his name, the crack of gunfire still rang out, closer but less frequent. He lowered Rhea to the ground, she winced while stepping onto her bare foot. Her father ripped a strip of his shirt off and wrapped it tightly around her foot. Blood seeped slowly into the cotton bandage.

“I know your foot hurts lady, but I need you to take your mother and run to the tower.” he spoke slowly, each word soaked with regret, “Can you be my hero? Look after your brother and sister, can you do that for me, be the hero for me?” moisture welled in the corner of his eyes as he spoke, Rhea’s lips trembled, a tightness pulled at the edges of her cheeks and her throat threatened to close on her. She nodded deeply as he pulled her into a tight embrace. He turned to their mother and pulled her to her feet. They leaned in close as tears streamed down her mother’s face, their foreheads touching. Rhea couldn’t hear what was said over the sirens until her mother exploded at him, “No you won’t, you liar!” she struck him in the chest, her long dark hair blowing in the wind. He pointed to Rhea standing alone in the gloom, clutching her baby brother. Rows of dark houses loomed over her on each side stretching off into the distance, cold blue light bathing the street.

He crouched to hug her sister, and shuffled Luna to where Rhea was waiting, “Start running girls, go as fast as you can, I’ll find you in the shelter when I have your brother.”

Her mother scooped up a hand from Rhea and Luna and ran down the street once more. There was no more gunfire, the night was filled with howls that sent a nauseating tingle down Rhea’s spine. People were slumped in the streets. They rounded the last corner and the tower loomed ahead. An immense monolith of metal and concrete rising in defiance of the night sky, her mother paused as they approached the fortress.

“Where’re the soldiers?” her mother gasped.

Rhea spotted a heap of people laying before the vast armoured doors, some in grey strike suits, many in their night clothes. Sparks rained down from the building, the soldier’s father always pointed out were missing. They protect us he would say and encourage her to wave at the weapon emplacements. Mother began to back away slowly, the hand on Rhea’s shoulder tightened till she thought she would cry out in pain. Dark shapes moved among the people, fur covered and slinking on four legs. Edging closer, hollow eyes glinting brightly with reflected blue light, Rhea backed away, the grip on her shoulder tight and forceful. Her mother stepped in front of Luna and Rhea, linking their hand behind her back.

“Run as fast as you can,” said their mother turning to face them, tears making her red mottled cheeks, thick brown hair billowing in the wind. Rhea felt her sister’s hand loosen as Luna made a step toward their mother who slowly backed away with a hand clenched over her mouth. Luna’s free arm grasped at the air between them a muted whimper escaped her lips. Sound faded from the world around her, she gripped her sister’s wrist tightly and swallowed the lump in her throat. Luna tugged miserably as their mother turned to scoop up something from a downed soldier. Rhea turned, swung her sister round and ran into the night.

—–

Rhea bolted upright, her heart beating furiously in her chest, a cold sweat covered her face and back. She glanced around in a panic, straining to make out her surroundings. The stars were gone, gradually her eyes adjusted and she began to make out shapes in the dark, rows of bunks and lockers lined the walls of the long hall. She forced her breathing to slow and felt the thundering in her chest begin to ease. Her tank top was soaked down her back and clung to her like a second skin, hair plastered to her forehead. She threw herself back on the bunk with a heavy breath. Those days seven years ago still robbed her of sleep when she needed to be sharp and alert. She closed her eyes and viciously twisted a thick pinch of skin on her leg. The pain cast the memories to the edges of her mind, They still need you lady, don’t let them down now.

Rhea played the back the previous day in her mind, her performance in the introductory session had been unremarkable. She hadn’t managed to hit her opponent but had only been struck once in return. Her heart sank, she’d frozen right in front of Lithia, dumbstruck like a child. She cursed her foolishness and attempted to banish her disapproving glare from her mind. A great first impression she sighed.

Rhea clung to the edge of the gymnasium her hands clutched behind her back. Red hair hung around her face in lively waves, swept casually away from her face. Her skirmish gear was baggy on her small frame, she thought back to Luna wearing ill-fitting hand me downs and a smile crept into the corner of her mouth. She shunted the memory aside when it began to ache in her chest. She watched the giant of a man posturing in the midst of the recruits, he was busy insulting the smaller recruits for their poor breeding. Two others, Yul and Setsu were by his side, forcing chuckles at his clumsy insults. He roughly handled one recruit by the collar and discarded them on the floor with a pantomime spit of disgust. Rhea stared at her feet and wished she could slip further out of sight before attention turned her way.

Becket sauntered into the gymnasium, a cheerful bounce in his step and a wave of relief flooded her mind as they were directed into a line. His features were rugged but handsome, with dark brown hair, the smile he liked to flash about complimented his face well. Lean and athletic, she watched as he beamed a smile along the line of recruits, a mischievous glint creeping into his eyes.

“Right you wonderful bunch of misfits and renegades, Lady Luck has smiled on you today and I don’t mean our hopelessly cheerful colonel. This morning you’re mine, and I’m going to make you wish you’d stayed in bed,” he said with a broad grin, “We’re going cross country and when you’re on the verge of voiding your bowels, our lovely Colonel has a test for you.”

Rhea swallowed against the butterflies assaulting her stomach “Will anyone be leaving today, sir?”

“That all depends on you recruit. I’ll warn you now, she’s in a foul mood, don’t let yourself down.” he paused as he ran his eyes down the line of recruits, “There’s a dropship waiting in the courtyard, grab a pack on your way out, miss your flight and you miss the test!” he said as he hefted a pack over his shoulders and bolted for the door.

The recruits stood dumbfounded as their instructor sprinted out the door. Terra sprang from the line with a shriek of excitement, quickly followed by Rhea and the others. Floodlights covered the base with harsh artificial light. The yellow haze of morning crept over the horizon, frail sunlight probing the canopy with life-giving warmth. Becket stood on the ramp of a small dropship, the callsign seagull was stencilled beneath the cockpit. Glass enclosed the pilot and allowed excellent visibility of the ground, a large three barreled cannon was mounted underneath. Sweeping back from the cockpit was a long neck that grew into the transport compartment. The front wall lowered to make the entry ramp.

A cloud of dust erupted as the whine of the engines intensified and the craft began to shake free of the ground. Terra dashed up the ramp, Rhea followed immediately after. A few paces behind were the infantry recruits Eda and Ahmet, followed by Yul, self-preservation trumping his position as Titus’ lacky. Cole stumbled onto the ramp as it began to lift off the ground and landed on his back.

“On your back again!” shouted Becket over the roar of the engines.

The final recruits, Milo, Raik and Setsu scrambled in as it left the ground. With a monumental leap Titus threw himself at the ramp, desperately he clutched at the steel floor for something to grasp. His face reddened as the craft rose higher, his legs flailed in the air and his knuckles grew white.

“Need a hand big guy?” said Terra as she sauntered over.

Titus Scowled furiously as his face pressed against the metal flooring, his cheeks a deep shade of scarlet. Becket knelt down and took hold of one huge arm, Terra clutched the other and together they dragged the bulk of the man over the ledge. Titus panted heavily as he lay on the floor. Becket watched the final two recruits fade into the morning haze.

He turned to Rhea and winked, “Two down.”

A short flight later the dropship hovered over a grassy clearing, the ramp lowered to reveal the dense forest below. Sunlight bathed the trees in a fine summer’s day. Becket stood at the precipice and threw out a spool of cable. He grabbed a runner from his pack and slapped it onto the cable, hopping off the ship without a word a high-pitched whine descended rapidly to the ground.

Terra stepped forward, a slight pause of anticipation in her step. Rhea struggled with the urge to stay seated, to remain unnoticed, but she’d spent 3 months practising drops in the academy, she saw the chance to slip ahead and leapt to her feet. The muscular woman stalled on the ramp, Rhea guessed suit pilots didn’t jump out of planes often. She slipped ahead, her short red hair bounced as she jumped off the platform, the exhilarating rush of air washed over her as she plummeted to the ground. She slapped her runner on the cable as the ground began to loom, kicking her legs out to spin the cable in a graceful spiral. The rush of adrenaline was intoxicating, moments later she was running across the grass with a grin plastered across her face in pursuit of their instructor.

Becket disappeared into the tree line as the recruits landed, some of them struggled to adjust their packs and rapidly fell behind. With adrenalin still coursing through her veins, Rhea sprinted like her life was at stake, pushing her small frame to its limit. Though small in stature her body was well conditioned, if not muscular like Titus or Terra. She took an early lead, Terra burst through the trees in pursuit. The engines of the dropship roared as it loitered overhead, the large cannon weaving a pattern in the trees below.

They scrambled over log piles and assembled fallen branches. The nimble redhead bounded over obstructions with graceful abandon, throwing her small frame about with no small degree of enjoyment, slowly pulling ahead of Terra. She leapt from platform to branch and back again, drawing closer to Becket. A euphoric smile spread across her face as she twisted in the air. Terra grimaced as she fumbled over a cluster of felled trees, and the girl slipped further ahead. They cleared the last obstacle set and began a long sprint over open ground. The remaining recruits far behind the leading pair.

Becket sprinted past a cluster of patrolling soldiers in strike suits, a number of them jerked upright to salute but he was already fading into the distance. The group stood in light amusement as the diminutive recruit in baggy skirmish gear barreled past followed by a determined blur of green hair and toned muscle.

Rhea’s breath was ragged, fatigue was building in her limbs, from the position of the sun she’d been running for an hour. Becket was keeping a steady pace ahead showing no signs of stopping. Her large companion had pulled level over the flat ground, she began to scowl as they approached the next set of obstacles. Rhea sprang lightly and pivoted over the vast stack of felled logs, using one hand to guide her turn, landing daintily on the other side with her feet together and arms spread in the air. A smile crept across her face before a jolt of panic struck her, remember where you are idiot, you’ll not win any hearts like this. She sped off, thankful that Terra was still scaling the other side of the obstacle.

Becket spared a quick glance back and saw Rhea vault the log pile and complete a ten point landing. He chuckled between laboured breaths. She was closing on him with Terra in pursuit, the rest of the unit was far behind and didn’t appear to be catching up. A voice from the dropship crackled in his ear.

“Scans show nothing prickly in the area, all patrols report no activity. You have a few stragglers dropping behind, might want to loop round soon.”

“Guide them to the test field,” Becket panted, “can’t let these recruits show me up so soon.”

“Yes sir”

Becket pounced over a dirt ridge into a small canyon with large trees arched overhead. Leaves scattered around his feet as he sprinted through the shaded canopy. Rhea landed in the chasm with a tidy roll and was running after him immediately, Terra burst over the ridge and struggled for balance, sliding wildly down the steep sides. Dappled sunlight flickered across the floor as the three sprinted through the tunnel of greenery. Four soldiers parted hastily as the three dashed past.

The sun was high in the sky, midday was rapidly approaching. The dirt walls towered high on each side, exposed roots twisted into ragged tentacles along the sides of the ravine. Becket maintained his lead over the pair of recruits. A root marked with two white dots flashed past, then one with a single mark. He bolted to the side, scaling the wall until his momentum was exhausted, he grasped a thick knot of exposed roots streaked with white paint and scaled the remaining wall. Rhea and Terra arrived in time to see him drag the root out of reach and leave it hanging mockingly overhead. He gave them a quick salute and vanished from the ledge. Terra took a step back and ran at the wall, she scaled a third before gravity dragged her down in a cloud of dust and loose gravel. Rhea came to a halt beside her, scanning the trees where Becket had vanished.

“Is it safe out here?” she asked, noticing they were now without instructor, numbers or dropship.

Terra chuckled as a small tuft of roots that came away in her hands. “They didn’t bring us out here to kill us, squirt.”

Rhea fumbled with the seal on her skirmish gear as Terra barreled up the slope once more. She eyed the white vine dangling near the crest of the dirt wall. “Boost me.” she said, “I can reach it.”

“So you can run off and leave me here? Not gonna happen.”

“I wouldn’t… I didn’t think”-

“Sure you wouldn’t” Said Terra absently as she examined her surroundings. She cursed under her breath and went for the pack on her back. Pulling out a medical kit, emergency weather gear, flashlight, tinderbox, a sun visor and a length of rope. She pondered the small coil of rope and eyed the wall of loose dirt.

“The longer we’re here, the further away he gets.” said Rhea.

Terra stared at the small girl, her blue eyes narrowed as she took in the recruit. Rhea resisted the urge to look away, the imposing figure loomed over her and she felt the sweat on her skin turn cold and prickly. Her brown eyes burrowed into hers and she saw the muscles of her jaw clench and release repeatedly as if she was chewing on the decision.

With a shrug, she turned and walked to the wall, “Okay do it, but leave me down here and you won’t enjoy the short time you have left.”

Terra locked her fingers together. Rhea gave her a shallow nod, stepped back and sprang at the crouching soldier, her foot sunk into Terra’s hands and with a mighty shout she launched the small girl skywards. Rhea tore through the air, sprinting up the side of the chasm and landing at the top with a delicate turn. Terra’s eyes narrowed as she disappeared in a flurry of leaves, her breath stalled for a moment as she second guessed her instincts, a moment later the thick white root uncurled over the side.

The pair slowed as they approached a wide open valley, Becket stood waiting in the centre, busying himself on a tablet. Rhea dropped to her knees to catch her breath, Terra gave her a gentle shove and the two shared a laugh before the small girl collapsed on the ground.

“I didn’t see it before squirt, but I get in now, why you’re here.” said Terra.

Rhea beamed up from the floor, breathing deeply, drinking in the smell of the valley and forest around them. The well-muscled warrior sank down beside her as they waited for rest of the recruits, Becket hovered within earshot.

“Fancy moves Rhea, especially like the landing.” he said.

Rhea’s cheeks flushed red, she spared a wide eyed glance towards Becket. His attention fixed on the tablet, a grin on his face, his eyes flicked to Rhea for a moment and the smile spread wider. She reached for words but the response failed to materialise, when his attention returned to the tablet she stretched out on the grass with a warm sigh.

Terra unzipped her skirmish gear and threw the jacket onto her abandoned pack. Her green tank top revealed many markings over her back and down her arms. A collection of badges dominated her shoulder blades, the largest was the Paladin’s crest, a blade and helmet of ancient design on a tapered shield. Down her arms extended a series of vicious creatures and armoured suits, scrolls with passages of text were scattered throughout the scenes. Rhea couldn’t identify a coherent theme but found the chaos appealing.

“Why do you have so many tattoos?” she asked.

“I started with my unit badge but kept changing units, pretty soon I started enjoying the feeling. Guess I’ll need another one when we’re Rangers.”

“You’ll be a Ranger, I don’t know if I’ll make it.”

“Name me another soldier who throws twirls into an endurance race for fun,” she said, throwing her arms wide in a faux twirl.

“I didn’t know it was a race,” said Rhea, hiding a small smile.

Terra released a deep laugh, “You loved it, it was written all over your face. So what weird lab did you come from?”

“Nowhere special, I graduated from the Airborne Academy two months ago.”

Terra paused, “Nope, the academy doesn’t teach you to move like that, you must be a Manifested or something.”

She released a timid laugh, “I was a gymnast before the Academy, I loved tumbling.”

“Well I’ll hold off on the execution,” said Terra, sucking air through her teeth, “but I still don’t think you’re normal.”

Terra’s ink patterns rippled as she flexed her arms overhead and collapsed back on the grass next to Rhea. “I can’t remember the last time I laid on grass.” said the green haired soldier.

Rhea spread her fingers across the ground digging her nails into the earth, “Is there not much grass on the continent?”

“Loads of it, but I was always driving a kill suit or inside one fortress or another. Could roll around in the dust if I wanted, but that’d get you some strange looks.”

“What are the colonies like?”

“You seen the vids? They’re pretty accurate, people cling to the forts and walls where they can, but that doesn’t get work done. The military’s all over the farmland but people still go missing, maybe they Manifest, maybe something takes ‘em, we don’t usually find out.”

Rhea hesitated as she ran her fingers over the soft grass, “Have you ever seen someone Manifest?”

“Never seen anything change, don’t think many people have. Killed a few, but never saw one… born.”

Rhea stroked the blades of grass between her fingers, gazing up at the clouds that hung effortlessly overhead. The dewy scent of plant life saturated her senses, her mind wandered peacefully from cloud to the sky, then a blue sheen on red spattered ground crept into the fringes of her thoughts. She pinched her thigh and twisted sharpy, catching a quick intake of breath.

“What were they like?” she finally asked.

Terra chewed on her top lip for a second, “First one was huge, some sort of mutated cattle stampeded into a village and tore through the market. Crushed a bunch of people before we got there. We found it trying to break open the emergency shelter, tore the armour right off. Twelve of us tried to take it down but all we did was piss it off. Didn’t go down until a dropship turned up and filled it with rockets. Second was a twisted dog thing,” she said with a sneer, “wouldn’t stand still and take a bullet like a good pup. Tore through a town on the second line, nothing was fast enough to catch it, thing could stick to walls like a bug. In the end, we had to evacuate the town and dust most of it.”

“Dust?” asked Rhea.

“Artillery and airstrikes, blow it to dust.” she said with closed eyes.

“That doesn’t happen here,” she said, rising to look Terra in the face, “on the mainland maybe, but not on the second line. They wouldn’t?”

“Sorry squirt, happens wherever it needs to, can’t be picky when it comes to wiping them out.”

Rhea’s eyes grew wide.

“Took your sweet time!” called Terra as Titus lead the main group of recruits into the clearing.

The dropship kicked up a cloud of dirt and threw chunks of turf into the air as it came into land. Becket instructed the recruits to carry a set of cases from the transport.

“I’m sure you all remember yesterday’s drills, help yourself to a blade, Rhea you’re with Cole, Terra take Titus, Yul with Ahmet and Eda with Raik. You two with me,” he said to the final pair.

“We’ve been running for 3 hours! I’m about ready to eat one of the small ones,” said Titus as he eyed Rhea.

“You’ll eat when you earn it.” said Becket, throwing two ration packets to Terra and Rhea.

Becket left the Group to their practice and took his two helpers into the dropship, pausing on the ramp, he examined the greenery at the edge of the clearing.

“Is the area still clear, seagull?”

“Scans are clear, sir. Message from Colonel Lithia, says she’ll be here shortly.”

“Gotcha, you two” he indicated to his helpers, “grab those cases and move them outside. Keep an eye on the scanner for me Seagull.”

“Yes, sir.”

Becket lingered on the loading ramp watching the trees as the two recruits moved the crates from the dropship. With a deep breath, he moved into the ship and busied himself amongst the equipment store.

The boxes had been placed at regular intervals and began to shift and grow as Becket poked at his tablet. They grew with a mechanical hum, some high into the air with scattered hand holds, others unfolded into a series of hurdles and slim unstable platforms.

Terra glanced over Titus’ shoulder, “Guess we know what the test is,” she said, their blades clattering in the air.

“The tests are pointless, half these runts are just waiting to die. They shouldn’t be given false hope,” said the giant as he swung his blade at Terra’s gut.

“I wouldn’t encourage people to jump to conclusions big guy, I don’t think you’d measure up well.” she said, throwing her weight into a thrust at his heart.

“I don’t need these weaklings approval, nor your lectures,” he said, blocking the strike and delivering a hefty punch into Terra’s ribs. She staggered back deflecting a follow-up strike away from her head.

A sly grin crept onto her face as she eyed the man-mountain, “So that’s how it’s gonna be?”

She raised her sword high and bellowed, the muscled giant moved to block and Terra delivered a solid kick to his stomach, sending him reeling back. She charged, weapon poised to strike. Titus fell back, using his long reach to keep her at bay, taking huge swipes at the advancing Amazon. Their blades rattled and Terra, muscled as she was, had to fight to keep hold of her blade during the massive strikes. She recalled Cole’s fight, the big man was surprisingly nimble and had predicted Coles moves perfectly. He wasn’t simple and wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice.

Blades flashed back and forward, each opponent probing for weaknesses. Titus grabbed at her blade as she turned away his strike, seizing her wrist and pulling her close, Terra sprang forward planting her forehead in the bridge of Titus’ nose with a damp crunch.

“Glory damn you, filthy wretch!” spat Titus as he reeled back.

“Don’t start what you can’t finish, big guy.”

“Don’t you speak to me like a”-

“You two!” shouted Becket with an edge of impatience, “Stick to the routine or the colonel will make sure no one gets desert! I’m not kidding, there’s a group of recruits on the mainland right now without dried ice cream, are you willing to risk it?” he said as he flicked two fingers between his eyes and the recruits.

Rhea watched the spat diffuse before returning her attention to Cole who waited. She apologised when she noticed the scowl on his face. There wasn’t much of a size difference between them, and Rhea didn’t know if this was a blessing or an insult.

“He’s an animal, I hope she broke something,” muttered Cole.

The pair began to trade blows, Cole telegraphed his attacks allowing Rhea time to react.

“Don’t hold back,” she said, her brow furrowing, “I don’t need you to treat me like a child.”

“I didn’t mean any disrespect,” he said, striking with renewed vigour.

Rhea stifled a cry as Cole struck her blade, pain rattled her joints and it took a concerted effort for Rhea to weather the rain of blows from the soldier. Gritting her teeth, she winced in anticipation of each strike. She struck back, her mind turning to the pain rattling through her arm. As the routine continued it took all her concentration to keep upright. Her time at the academy had left her poorly prepared for this, she’d learnt to fall out of the sky, maintain her equipment and shoot a target, only the most basic of close combat skills were covered. Cole was a veteran soldier and she’d let his small size cloud her judgment. The Irony, that she would judge someone on their stature, seeped into her thoughts. Still she shrank from the strikes. She closed her eyes and raised her blade in anticipation.

Becket approached with a raised eyebrow, a blade in his hand and a compact rifle on his hip. He raised the sword and slapped the flat of the blade down on Rhea’s head. The redhead blinked out of her trance with wide eyes as she saw the instructor standing before her.

“Why would you think it’s a good idea to close your eyes recruit?“

“I’m sorry…” she mumbled

“Glory help me we’ll be dead by winter if you keep that up.”

Becket stalked off and called everyone together with the promise of lunch.

Terra landed on the ground next to her with a heavy breath, a smear of red marred her cheek, a healthy coating of sweat glistening across her shoulders.

“Did he do that?” asked Cole, pointing to her cheek.

“Yea, he got a few good hits in, but I think I came out better,” she said, prodding the graze.

Cole looked over to see Titus nursing a bloody nose as he slumped against a tree. Yul and Setsu had joined him with bandages from one of their packs. Titus lashed out in pain and pushed Setsu to the ground, ending the intervention.

“How’d this one do?” said Terra, as she pointed a thumb to Rhea.

“Has an odd talent for fighting with her eyes closed,” Cole said with a chuckle.

“That’s a first, but it doesn’t surprise me, be careful the Colonel doesn’t see,” Terra said, as she sprawled on the grass.

“I don’t think Becket was impressed,” said the redhead into her chest.

“Don’t stress, I think you bought yourself more than a few weeks during the run.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Why are you here?” Cole cut in “I don’t want to offend, but you don’t seem like the type to apply for this unit, you know how dangerous a Ranger’s job is?”

Rhea fumbled with her packet of food, she opened her mouth to speak but her voice cracked, the moisture vanished from her throat.

Terra interjected, “You don’t have to answer, everyone’s got their reasons, you don’t need to share if you don’t want to.”

The recruits ate as well as they could on field rations and discussed the approaching test. The series of white blocks had unfolded into a makeshift obstacle course, high walls, unsteady platforms, and long beams jutted out over multiple levels. Titus remained separate from the majority of the recruits with Yul and Setsu. He glared from under his thick brow at the tattooed woman and her small friends.

“Break time is over!” announced Becket from a platform high up on the test equipment. Collect your blades and get back to your drills!”

A low collective moan rippled across the recruits as they gravitated towards their sparring partners. Titus and Terra locked eyes as they marched together.

“We have about five minutes until”- Becket snapped around, gun in hand. -”Get to the ship NOW!”

A shadow darted across the edge of the clearing, bounding along the treeline in a dark blur. Becket’s weapon spat fire at the creature as it shot forward weaving an erratic path. The scattered recruits ran for the dropship, Milo and Raik were close and sprinted inside, Terra and Titus were next, they flanked the ramp as Yul, Eda and Ahmet neared. The creature closed impossibly fast on the furthest recruits. It’s body covered in glistening segmented plates, vicious barbs protruded around the shoulders, knees and torso. It’s narrow limbs tapered to a thin blade flanked by clawed toes. Setsu, Cole and Rhea Sprinted from the creature as it snaked behind them. Bursts of suppressing fire peppered the ground as Becket dashed across the field. The creature ducked, close to the three recruits, skittering on all fours. It released a piercing shriek as the carapace maw retracted to display many rows of needle thin teeth.

Setsu howled and dropped to the floor, her leg missing below the knee as the fiend surged past her. Cole turned with his blade raised as the creature’s limbs folded with a crack and sprang open, hurling it forward in a dark blur. Rhea turned in time to see Cole fall to his knees, a thin blade protruding from his back. She screamed as a second shot through the back of his throat. Cole’s sword pressed limply against the creature to no effect. He tumbled back and the fiend barreled towards her. The bladed limbs sliding out of Cole with a sickening slosh.

Once more the creature folded its limbs and surged forward, Rhea leapt, spinning on her side between the razor arms. It skidded to a halt, limbs flailing in the turf, kicking up great chunks of grass, bullets peppered the ground around the creature as it serpentined towards her. Teeth bared in a sickening hiss, it reared on its hind legs and dived for her. Spindly limbs splayed as it pounced forward, faster than any creature she’d witnessed. There was nowhere she could go.

Rhea was struck by the massive force, dark shapes and flesh colours flashed before her eyes, she threw her hand up in defence. The impact threw her to the ground her face buried in the grass, a metallic taste seeped into her mouth. A visceral shout pierced the air, but it wasn’t her voice. There was pain from the impact, but where was the blood? Rhea rolled onto her back and felt for a wound across her body, nothing.

Terra stood over her, a huge slick of blood flowing down her right arm, a wicked cut running deep across her trapezium. Her right arm hung limp at her side as she furiously slashed at the creature with her off hand. Blue sparks flashed as the knife like limbs clashed with the desperate warrior’s training blade. The fiend hissed, spraying mucus across the grass. A massive figure pounced, Titus buried his weapon in the ground as the creature sprang aside. Bullets ricocheted off the beast chest carapace as Becket closed in.

Terra dropped to the ground clutching her wound. Rhea scrambled to her pack, dumping the contents on the floor and grasping at disinfectant sprays and binder packs. Terra grabbed Rheas trembling hands as she went for the wound on her neck, and pointed unsteadily to Cole and Setsu, then proceeded to dump the contents of her own pack on the ground. Rhea stumbled to the downed recruits, the sounds of steel and gunshots filling the air. Training took over, Rhea worked on auto pilot, Setsu was pale but had a faint pulse. She bound the leg to stem the bleeding and sealed the stump with a binding pack. The plastic wrapper shrivelled around the missing limb and closed the wound tightly. She injected a stimulant shot into her chest and satisfied she could do nothing else stumbled over to Cole.

Titus Bellowed at the hissing creature as he beat it back with his pole weapon, the beast snaked and weaved, attempting to break past the wall of muscle. He thrust at the fiend as it ducked low. The strike was good and he pinned the fiend’s head to the ground. Titus threw his weight into the weapon. The head splintered into a spiral of dust and smoke, twisting around the weapon. Titus’ eyes grew wide as the body lurched forward, the head forming through the fading smoke, open-mawed, inches from his neck. It lunged for his throat, the rows of thin teeth undulating like a heartbeat. A flash of metal grazed Titus’ shoulder, plunging straight into the creature’s open maw. Sparks flickered around its mouth as the creature ground his teeth into the steel.

“Got your back, big guy.” said Terra.

Titus released his weapon and grabbed the creature’s neck. Blood seeped around his grip and began to coat his hands. A grimace spreads across his face as he began to strain against the fiend. Terra released a mighty bellow as she wrenched her blade deeper into the creature’s mouth and twisted it away from Titus’ face.

Titus retreated as she threw the creature onto the ground with a colossal effort, sweat pouring down her face. The creature convulsed, its limbs scattered to dust and reformed in the opposite direction, writhing on the floor, the head twisted 180 degrees in a series of nauseating pops. Titus stared at his hand now slick with blood and pierced with lacerated barbs. The dropship engines roared and the ground shook as it pitched up sharply into the air. The turret under the cockpit snapped to face Terra as she stood over the Creature, staggered by the impossible scene she was witnessing. The creature’s body was reversed, It bounded towards Rhea who pressed desperately on Cole’s wounds.

A trench of fire streaked across the ground, throwing geysers of dirt and rock into the air. Seagull’s turret ripped into the ground, barrels spinning furiously, spouting death into the air. The creature darted left and right, it’s lengthy claws digging deep gashes in the turf as it veered away.

Blood welled in Cole’s throat despite a binding pack. Rhea’s hands pressed on his chest, the blood flowed down the side of his skirmish gear in a crimson stream that she couldn’t hold back. He lifted a limp finger as tried to speak and choked. She turned to see the beast surge towards her. Her heart stopped and she stared wide-eyed as a spray of earth ripped in front of her and the creature darted away into the trees. Becket joined Titus and Terra to form a shield between the injured and the fleeing creature. Becket Shouted into his radio and the creature disappeared into the tree line. Streams of metallic death tore into the canopy as the dropship peppered the forest.

Becket stood before them, rifle at his shoulder, eyes pinned on the trees. He drew a pistol and threw it to Terra. The three of them formed a triangle around Cole, Setsu and Rhea,

“How’re your hands, Titus?” asked Becket.

Titus grunted a response that fell under the roar of the engines. The rain of fire ceased and quiet settled over the valley.

“Confirm the kill Seagull!”

“Negative commander, I can’t track it, thing doesn’t register.”

“Land the ship, we need to get to a doctor!” pleaded Rhea.

“The only reason that thing is hiding in the trees is the dropship. If seagull lands it’ll be in the middle of us slitting throats before you can take two steps onto the ramp,” said Becket

“So what do we do?”

“You have to put a tube in his throat before he chokes on his own blood.”

A cold sweat shuddered over Rhea, “I’ve only done basic”-

“Do it, or he dies in this field.” said Becket with a chilling lack of emotion.

“You two”, Beckett shot a glance at the two recruits still standing. “stay sharp, help’s coming.”

Chapter 5: Risk
Chapter 3: Duty