diamonheart Costescu Florin

As far back as anyone can remember, an ancient tradition has run through all of Distria's eighteen centuries of history: two weeks after a child's birth, his father gives him or her a Birth Promise, a solemn pledge that the father has one year to fulfill. Failure to do so will lead to the heart of the father stopping on the very day he made the promise, one year later. Jaris Hesb's life dream is to have a child; something that his infertile wife can never give him. Working in one of the departments of the Magisterium, the organization that runs Distria's economic life, he seeks to live his life as far away from the political machinations that rise from the growing conflicts between the Magisterium and the royal family. And his transfer as an agriculture overseer in one of the newly conquered areas seems to give him exactly what he wants. Under the technologically advanced surface, however, Distria is heading for disaster. A third power seeks to prevent total collapse by fighting the newly emerging threat with the aid of the promises that children receive after their birth. Following a near-fatal attack, Jaris finally gets his wish. He soon realizes, however, that this will thrust him and his son into a head-on collision between the Magisterium who is seeking to gain full control of the country, the royal family who seeks to maintain the status quo, and a group of ancient beings that have been orchestrating world events for millennia.


Fantaisie Fantaisie sombre Tout public.

#fantasy #fairies #heroes #fairy #eldritch # #colonialism #eugenics
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Fatherhood

Line after line of bodies blocked Jaris' field of view, buzzing with a sound that the man didn’t have the patience to hear or understand. Nor did he care; he nudged or pushed the fleshy barrier aside, drawn by the lone discernable voice that could be heard in the crowded hallway.

A dozen classroom doors were open, and the students spread into the broad corridor, at least twenty rows deep. Pushing and prodding, they looked over each other's shoulders, trying to get a better view of the scene of what was happening at the front. Those who spoke did so in barely discernable whispers, mixed with the occasional cackle or finger-pointing. Most stood in silence, waiting for it all to be over.

Jaris pushed his way through line after line, his thoughts burned by the desperate voice that meant the world to him. He heard her pleading, trying to give explanations to a phantom, someone who never replied to anything she said. And each word stabbed him, forcing him to push student after student aside. His stocky physique, still strong despite four years of office work and relatively comfortable capital life, worked like a plow, carving through dry soil.

He broke through the last line of students with a shove, nearly falling flat on his face. He looked up, staring into the black muzzle of a farik rifle close enough to his face that he could have kissed it.

The enforcer holding it inched the weapon closer, and Jaris raised his hands in a submissive gesture, taking two steps back. Looking to the left, he saw two more enforcers keeping the students under check. They held their rifles in a relaxed position, but their eyes moved mechanically from one end of the corridor to the other, systematic and cold. They’re all young, most likely recent graduates, thought Jaris, looking at the youthful bodies in their jet-black and dark green attire.

“This is a school, you have no right!”

He looked past the troop's shoulders, looking at the woman whose voice echoed in the hallway. Slightly taller than the students in the hallway, her ginger hair reached the middle of her waist. Her face, already marked by freckles, took an even deeper shade of red as she gestured and pleaded with a man in his late forties, wearing the same uniform model Jaris wore, and a much younger nurse that stood next to him, carefully checking things on a notepad. Jaris noticed that both had the same badge on their collar: a 5 in a helix circle, and his heart sank. Department Five.

“Yes, we do, miss Hesb. Now stand aside.”

Looking to the right, Jaris noticed the source of the crying: a girl no older than fourteen. She sat on her knees on the spotless floor, her baggy hair wet with sweat of fear hanging carelessly on her shoulders. Covering her cheeks with her fingers, she looked at the ginger-haired woman, then back to her left.

Jaris felt his stomach sink. Two more enforcers were there, pinning another student to the floor, his arms restrained to his back. The bony ridges along the edges of his cheeks and jawline were still barely discernable, and his light-brown skin had yet to start developing into the distinctive mix of pecan and dark indigo Mistoa pigmentation. Still a teenager by any standard. Too young to realize what he’s done, thought Jaris. Too bad.

“You can’t just come here!” shouted the woman, stepping in front of the nurse, who was making her way to the now terrified girl. “No charges were laid on the boy’s account. Just…let me talk with the parents first.”

“The parents are the reason we’re here, miss Hesb; they seem to have more sense of responsibility than the school. For your sake, this better be nothing more than illegal mingling.”

“They’re just kids! You can’t just…”

"If they're old enough to know about sex, they're old enough to understand the concept of duty to their bodies and the boundaries that are there for their own good. Now step aside."

One of the enforcers watching the students turned around, his finger on the trigger. The woman locked eyes with Jaris; she'd given anything to have him by her side. Barely five meters apart, she could not gather the courage she desperately needed. She saw his gentle nod of approval and took a step back. Another enforcer pulled the screaming girl to her feet and then stuck her index into a small tube. Seconds later, he handed it back to the nurse, leaving a bloody prick on the girl's finger.

“Test positive.” confirmed the nurse.

The girl looked at the detained student and took a step in his direction, only to have the barrel of a demishot placed on her chest. The teen stretched himself to look up, then spoke something Jaris couldn't make out. Trembling like a leaf in a storm, she whispered a final goodbye before her hands were placed in restraints behind her back.

“Take her to Reproduction Center 20. Terminate the pregnancy.” said the older man in a low, almost mechanical voice.

The girl’s eyes snapped open, followed by a guttural scream. “My baby, don’t let them kill my baby!”. She repeated the same scream like a broken mantra, looking wildly in all directions, trying to find even the faintest trace of hope. The students parted, making way for the two enforcers who dragged her away. Two of the remaining enforcers picked up the other teen, and the inspector approached him.

“Boy, the joy of fatherhood will never be yours again.”

He grabbed the teen's crotch and squeezed, a barely visible glint of malice under the polished exterior of a man doing his job. The teen didn't flinch, his eyes still fixed on the direction the girl had been taken before. The enforcers went to grab him by the arms, but he was already on his feet. He gave the young teacher a final nod of thanks and walked through the students with cold dignity. When they were out of sight, the classes began to split into small rivulets, returning to their classes.

“We appreciate your cooperation. I trust this hasn’t been too much of a disturbance for your institution.”

The educational overseer, a plump woman in her fifties with a thick jawline, shook hands with him and the nurse. "None at all. It's always nice to have a practical example of what happens to those who practice irresponsible reproduction. Just for the record, this isn't the norm here. We're cautious when it comes to mingling. Some less experienced teachers seem to think bending the rules is fine. Either way, it's done. I'll get the expulsion papers ready by the end of the week."

“See that you do. And we expect a full report about the girl too. Especially her mental state. I want to avoid sterilization in her case, but that depends on what her past behavior was.”

He picked up his briefcase and went down the corridor, the nurse following close behind.

“How could you?” stammered Ajutine, her hands trembling.

"Don't blame me for your decisions. You insisted on having a mixed class. Did you ever consider that teens need more attention at this specific period of their lives? They're not responsible enough to handle their bodies; that's why they need us."

"They're just kids!" interjected Jaris, still holding to his wife's arm. "Their bodies are their own. I'm pretty sure they didn't need you, of all people, telling them about what love means. Not that it matters now, does it. You've got the blood of an unborn on your hands, and you know what they'll do to that boy."

The woman's laughter felt like a slap in the face. "It's not a baby, just an amalgamation of genes that weren't meant to mix. I can't imagine what must have been in that girl's head. To have Mistoan flesh in one's womb; just the thought of it makes me sick. As for that lad, sterilization is the least they should do."

She pronounced Mistoa like most urban people did, with the vowels removed. It was an additional insult to a word that five hundred years ago had meant mixed race. It had become an umbrella term for anyone not of Distrian heritage. In official usage, it still kept its original meaning. In everyday speech, it fluctuated between insult, slur, or casual label for anyone outside. Anyone who thought or was different.

"Right. Bring back the old policies. Reproductive inhibitors for a third of the population. I'm sure you'd be all for that. Did it ever cross your mind that so many problems come because we keep tightening control?”

"Jaris, control is everything. Their fertility rate is higher than ours, and if left unchecked, it can be the end of Distria as we know it. It's the right, no, the obligation of every Distrian woman to do her part in childbearing. Limited to her own kind, of course."

"Do you really expect sixteen-year-olds to think of that when they go on dates?"

The woman's lips curled in a soft grin. "You're right, Ajutine. Most have nothing but sex on their mind and completely ignore the duty they have to their body. , I've given three sons and a daughter to my country. Which is four times more than you have…or ever will!"

The hallway's silence thumped like a broken heartbeat under Jaris' steps. The overseer stepped back, instinctively reaching for the stun rod she held in her purse. Her hand was halfway in when Jaris grasped it like a vice. Staring into her cold eyes, he waited, and only when he felt Ajutine's hand touch the clenched fist of his other hand did he dare to exhale.

“Jay, please…it’s not worth it….”

"Damn right, it's not." he spat, looking at her polished badge: a 1 in a circle made of small, opened books joined end to end. "You don't deserve to wear that. Why don't you follow your two friends? Department Five's breeding program is always open for the likes of you."

“Just telling it like it is, Hesb. And unlike you, I wear my badge with pride.” she dared to say, looking at his empty collar. “Now let go of my hand before security takes away what dignity you have left. And you, Ajutine, come to my office. Your transfer papers are also done.”

“To which school?” asked the man.

"The one at the colony, Jaris. I won't ruin her career because you can't control your temper. You should keep your opinion on mingling to yourself, though. Pailt's a hinterland settlement. You'll be in the minority there, and most of the colony doesn't share your sentiments."

Ajutine watched her head down the barren corridor, and only when she was out of sight did she dare touch her husband's chest. Tears rolled down her cheeks, but no sobs, not for her, but for the students that were in the rooms around them. She had only allowed herself to cry on school grounds twice since she was hired. Students aren't as strong as they should be; you need to fill that gap with the repetitive line that every teacher knows. And in her case, she believed it both at school and at home.

"It's over, love," whispered Jaris, running his fingers through her locks.

“They came just after lunch. I…have no idea who tipped them off. Light above, those two…all they wanted was to be together. Even his parents didn’t have any objection. They told me to watch out for him, to…”

"There's nothing you could have done. They would have treated you as an accomplice if you had tried to hide them. At least this way, you can do some good to somebody."

"Damn it, I could have!" she hissed, squeezing his shirt. "I could have been more careful, or…"

Jaris cupped her cheeks, looking into her hazel eyes. She was everything he needed and wanted. Graduates from the same class and from the same category. He touched her slender body, holding her close until he felt like she was the flesh of his flesh.

“You’ve done more than anyone’s ever done in this school. Even if no one cares or bothers to thank you for it. You’re their teacher, but not their mother.”

“I should be. Isn’t that what a parent does, seek the best for their child?”

"They're not your children, Ajutine," whispered Jaris, feeling his cheeks getting wet.

“No one can be your child, Jay. Because I can’t give you one. I’m…damaged goods.” sobbed Ajutine.

Jaris’ face looked like carved marble. “Never use that word again! That’s their language, not yours.”

“It’s true!” shouted Ajutine, striking his chest.

“No, it isn’t. I wasn’t when I asked your hand in marriage, and it’s not now.”

“You could have taken my cousin, she’s already given birth to twins.”

Jaris barely refrained from laughing. A hormonal ditz with no work ethic who knew that she wanted to work in Department Five's eugenics section as soon as she knew what an orgasm was. "I didn't need that picture in my head," he confessed.

Ajutine wiped her tears and straightened her clothes. “Let’s go, I still need to get my papers from the chancellery.

“You can do that tomorrow. There’s somewhere else we need to be now.”

“Jay, they won’t like it if…wait, what day is it?”

“It’s the eighteenth. They’ve approved your investigation.”

"T…they did? When?" asked Ajutine, her voice oscillating between explosive joy and desperation.

"I got the call early this morning after you started classes. I needed to come and pick you up."

“I could have met you there.” protested Ajutine.

"You couldn't. We're not going to a private clinic but at Facility Ain.”

“Never heard of it.”

“You weren’t meant to. It’s not for the use of the general public.”

He handed her a thin graphen sheet with a name and several data lines. Ajutine read them, her face sinking with every letter.

“I’m sorry, that’s how it is. His direct instructions, and to be frank, I’m lucky to even have you on the list.”

“But it’s in Department Five!” pleaded Ajutine.

“It’s a building like any other, love. We go in, treat you, then we come out. Simple as that. Do you have your registry?”

She thumbed through her pockets until she found it. “Keep it handy. Once we enter magisterial territory, they can ask for your identification at any given moment. And as often as they want.”

“What danger can I pose to them?”

“You’re not a registered worker there. Heck, they wouldn’t even allow you entry unless you’re under the authority of someone who is.”

She grabbed his hand, their fingers intertwining. A small reminder of their school days when they had to return from recess in rows of two. "Don't let go, love; I wouldn't want to lose you in the crowd." he chuckled as they descended the stairway to the school's entrance.

*** ***

Under the crisp midsummer sun, Canolfan was the jewel whose brilliance drew particles from every direction. The Tops district was only the latest addition, a hastily constructed amalgamation of high-rises, shopping districts, and recreational hotspots meant to accommodate the influx of population that came in yearly. With a population of over four million, it was the beating heart of Distria, a center trying to unify a land that had grown too big too quickly.

Jaris shielded his eyes from the sudden brightness. It wasn't his home, just the place he had lived in for fifteen years. Like thousands of others, the prospect of financial success and advancement had drawn his family from the sun-baked Western Plains to the steel and glass high-rises of the capital. Now, at age twenty-five, he couldn't see any of those promises in his hands. The only consolation was that he worked in a field that, for better or worse, brought him back to what he had lost at age ten.

He stared into the sun, swiping the gleaming buildings one by one from his mind, replacing them with the sun-baked harvests that spread as far as his imagination allowed. I’m going home. Fine, maybe not home, but close enough. He looked next to the sun, and his smile broadened. Adulthood brought him the joy of marriage but at the cost of life under the shade of the impossible. One after another, things he had deemed impossible as a child turned out to be true.

Others remained, defying all attempts of categorization or control, so much that they didn't even have a name. The bright orange orb next to the sun felt like it was winking at him. Ever-present, day or night, it followed the movements of the sun and moon, emanating no detectable heat or light but generating a glow that cast no shadows. No one can ever explain you. How could they, sweet diamond in the sky.

They left the school grounds, heading for the dashlong station. The silvery tubes waited patiently, hovering a foot above the energy band that propelled them. It wasn't noon, and the five interconnected tubes were barely half-full with passages.

“Is he really that good?” asked Ajutine, just as the engine underneath them turned on.

“You mean Nezman? He’s the best there is. The guy practically runs the pregnancy and imprinting section. He’s treated harder cases than yours.”

”We don’t even know what my problem is, Jay.”

“We’ll find out soon enough. If he can modify babies before they’re even born, infertility should be a walk in the park.”

“Can we agree on one thing, Jay?” asked Ajutine, her throat dry.

“Anything.”

“No imprinting. When…if we have our child, let it be ours. If I was good enough for you, let our baby reflect who we are. No modifications or enhancements.”

“Stop using if. It’s going to work.”

“Jay, that’s been said to me so often; it's not funny. I just want an answer. And if it’s no…”

“It’s going to be yes. And he’ll be perfect for us, however he may be. We can’t control what part of us will be in him; where he’ll be raised, that’s another thing altogether. And it sure as heck won’t be in this gilded prison.”

"How long until we leave? I know they issued your transfer a week ago but didn't give a specific date."

"They usually don't. Department Three overseers work on a cyclical pattern: four years field work, followed by four of managerial office duties. Of course, if you're good at fieldwork, you can request to extend your term. And I'm planning just that."

“Will they approve?”

"I'm sure of it. A good part of the workers are born and raised in the major cities. Fieldwork work is akin to an exile. Soft and papered blokes who don't know the first thing about sowing seasons or animal husbandry."

“Jay, I’ve been a city gal all my life. Before you start bashing others, you better break me in first. I don’t know the first thing about country life.”

"Well, it's like learning any other skill. In your case, it's even the same job. And a lot easier; no more thirty-student classrooms. I've read that the Distrian colony in Pailt is around four hundred."

“At least we’ll be staying in an apartment, right?” she asked.

“Nope, we’ve got our own homestead. Rent free on top of that, plus my twenty-five hundred separi salary.”

“That’s barely more than a pension!” protested Ajutine.

"What can you do? Department Three isn't the first in line when it budgets allotment."

“You should be. The other eight can’t function without natural resources and food in their bellies.”

“They take it for granted, just like anything else. Now, can we stop talking about finances? It's not like there are giant stores where we can spend wild sums. We can raise and grow our food. Clean air, quiet afternoons, seeing actual trees and grains when you open your window in the morning. I may even try arnok riding again. I’m sure I’ve still got it.”

“Jay, have you seen those things? They’re monsters for war.”

“Only because you don’t know any better. They’re beasts of burden. Fast, strong, and actually fairly placid. Though you are right about the war part. Mistoa used them as cavalry steeds in all the conflicts we had with them. All it takes is to give them the right diet and…"

"I'm sick of hearing about war." snapped Ajutine. "It's all that men in power ever think about. They have no idea what it's like to have life inside you. To feel it grow, feed from you, and protect it until it becomes independent. I'm sure they'd have a different perspective on things."

Jaris looked around the wagon, his heart reaching his throat. Criticism of the Magisterium wasn't uncommon; even the royal family gave vent to public grievances about how the institution that had come to run most of the country's economy and services handled things. The problem was, who heard you doing it? For better or worse, things were better than they had ever been in decades. And comfort was something the average Distrian wasn't willing to give up, no matter how many shackles they had to wear.

"Keep your voice down, Ajutine. Let's not mess up our last days here."

“Light above, I hope it really is our last days here. I never want to see Canolfan again. If they don’t approve the extension of your term, let’s move to another city. Anywhere will do. As long as I don’t have to see that every time I step outside!”

She pointed an accusing finger at the hundred-and-twenty-story tower that dominated the capital’s skyline. An overhead screen turned red, followed by a female voice. "We are now entering magisterial territory. Unauthorized citizens must disembark at the next two stops." Instinctively, Jaris touched his collar, then searched his pockets until he found his insignia: a 3 in a circle shaped like a wreath made of grain stocks. He pinned it to his collar, then turned to Ajutine.

“I need you to behave inside.”

“Jay, I’m not going to take lesson manners like some child.”

“I meant it! Any authority outside their own ended at the last station. Whatever you may feel about them, don’t let it show.”

The dashlong halted, and the compartment began to fill. Men and women, wearing the same uniform Jaris wore: cord pants, white shirts, and tweed vests for the men, and knee-length skirts and plaid shirts for the women, each in the color of their respective departments. Conversations on a dozen topics hovered in the air, and Ajutine turned and stared through the window. The less she had to look at them, the better.

As the dashlong passed between a pair of high rises, the Magisterial Spire covered her entire field of vision, its surface of polished armored glass and steel as cold as the people who worked there. Built on a broad enneagon-shaped base, each side five hundred meters long, it narrowed as it rose, peaking to an almost needle-like tip. Nine other rectangular buildings, each thirty stories tall, stretched out from each side of the spire, like spokes on a wheel.

"Say what you want; they do know their architecture." whistled Jaris in admiration.

"It's hideous," replied Ajutine in a conspiratorial whisper.

The dashlong made a wide turn, halting at the main gate of each department. Traffic was a well-coordinated pattern of pedestrians using overhead passes, parking lots, roads for private levitracks, and additional dashlong lines serving each wing. In her seat, Ajutine felt like an egg in boiling water. She wanted to be anywhere else but there but needed to submit. Her future was in the hands of the institution she hated. She closed her eyes just as the vehicle halted again. She felt Jaris tapping her on the shoulder to get up. She did, and with one final plea, she whispered Light Above, I've tried everything. So, if my husband's happiness means anything, let me have a second life.

*** ***

Ajutine moved her lips but didn’t voice her thoughts.

She looked at the slim black-haired man in a lab coat who observed the monitors and barely refrained from calling out his name, not out of fear but devotion. His name carried with it the power of the divine. The sterile lab she found herself in, his temple. And his devices, the holy items that would make her what she always wanted to be.

A mother.

She lay on her back on a steel table, with the lower part of her body up to her chest immersed in a tube. It generated a low hum that had become monotonous in the last hour. Otherwise, she felt no discomfort. Turning her head, she saw Jaris standing a few meters away. Motionless as an idol, he waited in silence for the eventual results.

“Decrease pressure and evacuate the gasses. We’re done.”

The two nurses at their respective stations turned two dials simultaneously. The device's hum decreased and then stopped, followed by the hiss of a barely visible and odorless gas that shot from the edges. One of the women took a white robe and placed it over Ajutine’s naked body after she exited the tube.

“Well…” began Jaris, walking next to his wife.

Velarian Nezman froze the image on the primary monitor and called the two to come and look. At age thirty-two, he was the youngest head of the reproduction wing of Department Five in the last eighty years. His thin, pinkish lips, framed by a neatly trimmed goatee, carried no smile. They never did for any patient, regardless of their position. Not when he had to give bad news.

"What exactly am I looking at?" asked Ajutine.

Nezman enhanced the image and pointed to a series of reddish-brown patches spread over a smooth, somewhat muscular surface area. Jaris looked at the screen, then at Nezman, his hands itching.

"Xenodermic Reproductive Disorder," replied Nezman.

The word felt as alien as the display that showed the interior of her body, and Ajutine felt an instinctive recoil. She didn't understand it, but it felt wrong. A name she didn't want to be in the same room with.

"To keep things simple, your body can't generate sufficient quantities of the proteins needed during meiosis. That means any eggs your ovaries produce are rendered infertile."

Ajutine's eyes widened. Most of the words were incomprehensible, but the last one stuck out like a nail that pierced her guts. She looked at Jaris, a mixture of failure and disappointment darkening her eyes. Her lips trembled, trying to verbalize an apology for ruining Jaris' last hope.

"But...you can fix it, right?" asked Jaris, his speech hasty and raspy.

Nezman ignored him and continued to speak to Ajutine. "Miss Hesb, from what I can see in your medical files, there's no infertility precedent in your family. Tell me, did your mother have her PPS1T test performed?"

"She couldn't afford it." whispered the woman, too ashamed to look at either of the two men.

"What difference does that make now?" interjected Jaris. "We know what the problem is. What can we do to fix it?"

"You can't do anything, Hesb. And neither can I. Knowing what the problem is doesn't give you an immediate answer. XRD forms in the second trimester of pregnancy. If detected early on, there's a small window of opportunity when it's curable. But that time has come and gone for her."

"What about surgery?" pleaded Ajutine, tears now running freely. "Whatever you need to do, I'll consent to it. Just...don't leave me as I am now..."

"Surgery's out of the question," explained Nezman. "XRD isn't a tumor you can cut out of your body; it develops at the gene level. Imprinting can cure it, but even then, it's not a guaranteed success for every patient."

Jaris listened, the words feeling as cold as the lab walls. He always kept a reserved attitude toward his expectations; it made it easier to cope with the failure he knew would follow. "You get one of the highest budgets of any department. There's more equipment available to you than there are for most lazarets. Are you seriously telling me that you can't cure...whatever you called that?"

"Jaris, there's only so much money can do. You can't buy the cells you want. I can push the human body to its limits, but there are those cases where nature just stumps its foot and says no. And in this industry, it's best not to argue with nature."

"You are the face of the damn industry!" shouted Jaris, the veins on his cheeks close to bursting. "How long's the list of people for whom you did the impossible? I don't think the word limits is something you use all that often!"

He took a deep breath, looking embarrassed at Ajutine, then at the nurses. One moved next to the main terminal, her finger hovering over the alarm switch. Nezman shook his head, and she backed away.

"Do I need to pay more? Or is it because my station's not high enough?" asked Jaris between gasps of breath.

"Hesb, my waiting list includes the kind of people you only interact with through executive orders. I only take a patient if I'm convinced there's at least a chance of success. I hoped your wife could be the one case where I could cure XRD in a grown-up. On paper, it could have been possible. But the body tells a different story. I wish I could tell you to try again, but..."

"We've tried for eight years!" Jaris cut him off. "I can't handle another eight more years of false hope."

One of the nurses walked Ajutine to an adjacent room, where she began scribbling down a medication list. She looked at the names and prices; most were beyond her budget and, given their rarity, impossible to buy in Pailt. Jaris and Nezman sat in the main room at a table stacked with papers.

"The exam's conclusive. I could try giving her some of the newer drugs, and then when your assignment ends, you can come to see me again. But I must be frank: most of them are untested."

"How common is it to use your patients as test subjects if they're desperate enough?" asked Jaris, his body tensed like a steel spring.

"More common than you think. Unlike most of my coworkers, I'm honest about it. It's how things progress; heck, it's how imprinting started. Find someone with enough money and no desire to let nature and chance create their child, fulfill their wish, and in no time, others will try the same thing."

"Except I don't want a superhuman. Just a run-of-the-mill child will do. As long as it's mine and Ajutine's."

"So that your bloodline won't go extinct?"

"No, so I can have a complete family," replied Jaris.

"You could try adoption, then," replied Nezman. "Though I wouldn't recommend it. It's not fitting for a Magisterial worker to let unknown people into their family. Children all look alike from the outside, but genetics can't tell you his future personality or character traits. The last thing you'd want is to be in a situation where your child ruins your life, and you love him too much to get rid of him."

"Would you ever do that?"

"Probably not," confessed Nezman, his eyes looking into his thoughts. "My daughter means the world to me, but I wouldn't introduce another woman into her life; theories about two parents' upbringing be damn. She loved her mother too much to be able to look at a stranger and attach herself to her the same way. Though that's something you should think about."

Jaris' eyes twitched at the unspoken suggestion. Divorce. "Is that all you've got left to say to me?"

"It's the last rational solution. You'll never have a child with your current wife. I don't want to put you in this situation, but you need to consider which happiness you're looking for."

" I'd rather take my chances with an orphanage waiting list."

"And a chance is all you'll have if you take that route. Magisterial workers are at the bottom of every list per standard policy. Taking in unwanted children of dubious race or origin isn't something your higher-ups would allow, much less that you're fertile and able to reproduce."

"I'm not abandoning Ajutine!"

"You're only twenty-six and married for eight years. It's not baggage you can let go on the fly, but you can form new love bonds. Keep your options open; that's all I'm saying."

"If by options you mean choosing between my happiness as a father or a husband, that decision was made when I first met her. I'll never be able to mate with a stranger just so I can have a child. Much less love her."

A soft chime sounded from the control on Nezman's desk. He checked the code clearance, quickly turned it off, and then rose from his seat.

"Our meeting's over."

"But what about the rest of the..." protested Jaris

"What more do you want me to tell you, Jaris? Don't come to me for comfort or assurance that things will work out. I'd never insult patients by telling them what they want to hear. I told you what you needed to know so that you could make an informed decision. And that is no longer my concern."

*** ***

Nezman’s mind felt at ease when he left the examination room. Just another family seeking a solution and thinking they’ll find it here. Story of my life: why does anyone think I can work miracles? He did what was humanly possible; anything beyond that would violate the laws of nature.

He looked at the sterile corridors and saw his hypocrisy in the pristine sparkling whiteness of the rows of doors that lined each side of the corridor. Everything around him was a perversion of life. After all, that was the ultimate purpose of Department Five: to place control of nature in man's hands. The ability to modify and alter humans before birth was just the surface. The national eugenics program went deeper than he would have liked to admit.

Defined ethics and rigid principles are for those with the luxury of a free life, he thought to himself as he made his way to his office. There wasn't anyone in the department who wouldn't have liked to trade places with him. And Nezman would have been more than happy to oblige. He had the freedom to act in what he did simply because he was trusted. Or at least the right kind of people trust me, he thought, turning the key to his office.

Nezman took in the explosion of color with a deep sigh. Bookshelves of blackwood stood behind a matching work desk filled with graphen plates, a data processor, and a portable imprint projector. Several hand-drawn diagrams in wooden frames lined the walls, remnants of his school days at the Locusta. He went to his desk and turned his attention to the two other people who waited silently: a teenage girl wearing a Locusta Second Module uniform, her brown hair tied in a tight braid reaching her shoulder blades. The other, a woman in her forties, wearing a quilted vest over a grey velvet dress. Her black and dark blue hair was tied in the same hairstyle, with one noticeable difference: a streak of white hair that ran from the middle of her forehead to the end of the braid.

"Those shoes are filthy, Ozella; get them off the carpet at once!" said Nezman in a cold tone.

The girl obeyed without a word, kicking them under the desk at his feet. "Dad, it's done."

Nezman looked at the woman and got a nod of confirmation. “Can I see it?”

The woman shook her head. “She’s not taking trophies. And those things never survive the encounter long enough for you to take samples. Despite your men’s best attempt at it.”

Ozella’s stare boiled with a mixture of annoyance and anger. “You had me followed? Wasn’t my word enough?”

"No," replied Nezman flatly. "I told you, I wanted something, anything to analyze. It may give you the edge you need.”

"I don't need anything you can come up with in here, Dad!"

Nezman looked at the tears in his daughter’s uniform and the bloody injuries visible through them. “Yes, I can clearly see that. Do me a favor and have those checked out before you leave.”

Ozella's fingers gripped the edges of her chair, and the wood began to crack under the pressure. "Dad, stop dragging things around. It's done. If I survive three encounters and remove the target, you'll let me do what I want. Those were your terms. Both you and godmother agreed to that. I've met those conditions. Now keep your word."

Nezman sank in his seat, looking to the woman for any support or way out. He found nothing but the same turbulent whirlwind that he could not control. "Tempete, is she really ready?"

“She’ll never be ready until you let her make her decisions.” replied the woman. “If she’s mature enough to meet your conditions, then you’re mature enough to let stand out of your shadow.”

The man raised an eyebrow, his usual low-profile smile barely visible in his black goatee. “Maturity requires you to actually look at where your decisions lead. Not jumping headlong into a glamorized murder squad!”

Ozella sprang from her seat, almost knocking it over. "Are you joking? Since when is order and stability murder? Take a look at all the Enforcer Corps has achieved. Crime rates are at their lowest in the capital. There has not been a single uprising in the southern lands for the last eight years. Even the peace you enjoy in your office is due to them."

“That’s because they killed twenty thousand people in that last uprising, Ozella. And just so you know, Department Five doesn’t employ enforcer security. We use the regular military.”

“Dad, if you’re trying to talk me out of it, then…”

“Ozella, I’m done talking, alright. I told you everything I needed to say in the last few months. Anything you do from this point on is without my consent.”

“Fine, then I don’t need your consent. Just your signature. I know you have my folio. Sign it, and I'll hand it over to the overseers tomorrow."

Nezman opened a drawer and took out the dossier. He went through the pages rapidly, checking his signature and information. Like with most education institutions in Distria, paperwork was a nightmare. With an irritated sigh, he flipped the last page and stared at the bottom, the blank line where his signature was meant to go, daring him to pick up the stylus.

“Your current score stands at 760. The minimum requirement is 810.”

Ozella huffed in annoyance. “I still haven’t graduated the second module yet, so I can recover the lost points during the Games and Theories course. It’s not that big of a deal. As it stands, I’m classified as Excellent. That’s still enough to make the list.”

“Which may not be enough. At least ten students are competing for each spot."

“Dad, show me someone on that list that can outmatch me in anything required to be an enforcer! I’ve proven it to any teacher, and I sure have proven it to you.”

“You’ve proven it, sure. As for outmatching, tell me, how much of that is due to your skills and how much is due to…your Birth Gift?”

A cold silence followed the last words, chilling Ozella’s hands. Eyes open, she stared at her father, then back at her godmother. A dark shade of pink slowly crept across her cheeks.

"That's not true, and you know it!" she yelled.

Nezman shook his head, amused and conflicted. "Ozella, you may be able to fool your teachers, but not me. Given the nature of my work, I know a few things about anatomy. Your agility, precision, and stamina, none of them are natural. And there’s only so many times you can tell it's due to imprinting until someone catches on."

"My Birth Gift's not a crutch, dad!" she protested. "Nor is imprinting, for that matter. After all, you were too proud of our family line to spoil it through the process you've taken to an art form."

"Imprinted children aren't works of art; humans with extra steps, nothing more. At the end of the day, a case doll would be a better description for them. Cute jewels their parents show off with. You're no doll, though I wish I could attach strings to you."

“To keep me from becoming what I want to be?”

“To keep you from destroying your life!” snapped Nezman through gnashed teeth. “If you were some brainless hothead looking for the thrill of adventure and a license to abuse others, I wouldn't have batted an eye. You're going in with your eyes open."

“And you’re concerned that I’m aware?”

"You're not joining a patriotic organization, Ozella. You'll be hated there. Not because of your talent, you understand that, right? But because you see and understand too much. Yes, you’re special, but they hate that above all else. Ultimately, you'll be nothing more than a glorified cog."

“I’ve dealt with worse.”

"Then you're delusional! How long will it take them to discover your…other occupation? And when they do, what then?"

He looked past her shoulder, staring Tempete down. The woman's demeanor didn't change, and Nezman felt his throat dry. She's thought of that, too. Tempete stepped towards his desk and gently touched Ozella's shoulder.

“You’re assuming that they’ll accept the truth, even when it stares them in the face. Distria is so accustomed to normality that nothing can shake her slumber. And when faced with their past mistakes, they'll do what comes naturally: pretend it’s just part of the natural world.”

A lone tear ran down Nezman’s cheek. The stylus in his hand hovered over the page, held by shaking fingers. “She’s all I have left, Tempete. Do I have to lose my family one by one until…”

He looked down and saw Ozella’s hands holding his right hand. Warm and soft, they felt like velvet. The hands of a lady whose home was refined dinner parties and late-night balls. A lady who hid her innocence behind a shy smile. A…

“Promena…” he whispered, tears running uncontrollably.

He felt Ozella's grip tighten. "She would have wanted the same thing. Mom always understood where my place was. Help me get there. Let me be strong enough to protect those whom I love. And those who love me."

“I should be the one protecting you.”

“And you did, dad. Now let me stand on my own feet.”

She gently lowered his hand until the stylus touched the paper. The first touch of ink came out sloppy, like black blood oozing from a predator's open wound. Nezman continued the signature, his fingers feeling alien to his body. After he added the date, he closed the dossier and handed it to Ozella.

“Dad, you won’t regret this.”

"I already am. But right now, there's more on my plate than I can handle. You still have two days to think it over until the next school week starts.”

Ozella picked up the folder, holding it tight to her chest. Cheeks reddened by raw emotions, she walked out with the grace of a dancer. Nezman looked at the shoes she left under his desk, then at Tempete. “You’ll never get out of my life, will you?”

“Is that any way to treat your daughter’s godmother? And last time I checked, you came to me.”

“Not by choice, I can assure you," replied Nezman, cleaning his tears.

“But it was your choice, wasn’t it. No one forced you to give your daughter that specific Birth Promise. Rather than something normal, you decided to make it as extravagant as possible.”

"I was still within my reach. It should have been. We have the technology here to reinvent the human race from scratch. Hilarious that I can't give my daughter something purely subjective. How did it ever come to this?"

“Because it’s not subjective, Nezman. The word perfect does have an objective standard. One which you can never hope to reach. You’ve failed in what you owed your daughter, but your commitment to us still stands.”

Nezman’s hand gripped the stylus, instinctively pointing its sharpened end towards Tempete.

"I'm sick of you holding my mistake at my throat like a dagger. It's a perversion of what Birth Promises should be. I only wanted Ozella to have the best possible life when she grew up. Not to be shackled to you!"

He stared into Tempete’s grey eyes, which now looked like two storm clouds chained by lightning. Her frown deepened, and so did her voice. “Don’t talk to me about the meaning of Birth Promises, Nezman. I was there when the first one was uttered.”

He tried to find the courage to muster a reply, only to find his strength gone with the wind. He finished sorting his desk and then turned to a niche in the wall. The security lock scanned his fingerprint, and the wall opened, revealing a secure and sterile transparent container. Several graphen sheets were stacked inside.

"Can you leave now? There's still work to be done here."

He removed one of the sheets and placed it in the imprint projector. Tempete got up, but she joined him instead of going to the door.

“Is this the final product?” she asked.

"Not yet; it's still a work in progress. We started four months ago, but it's still only eighty percent done."

"You've done hundreds of these before; what's the problem."

“Well, you hold the future of your country in your hand only once.”

Nezman turned on the projector. To the naked eye, the only thing visible on the sheet was an abstract mixture of barely visible dots and lines overlaid in a three-dimensional display. Under the orange cone of light generated by the projector, it showed a fully formed male figure in life-size.

“Tempete, meet our future ruler: Prince Kazimir Valutus.”

He turned a dial, and the cone also turned, giving them a complete view. "This is what he should look like at age seventeen.”

“You’re not sure?”

“Imprinting is an exact science in what it can deliver," explained Nezman. "The problem is, you can't go beyond the family's genetics. You can remove things within a certain limit, but adding foreign genes is suicide. Which is why the queen isn’t exactly thrilled by my work.”

“Like you’re thrilled with hers, right?” laughed Tempete.

"If only she would stick with politics and leave us be. Just look at these demands. Purple eyes are hilarious since most Distrians have green eyes. Five foot nine in height, aquiline nose, ash blonde hair, enhanced metabolism. Nothing too fancy, right?"

“How much time do you have?” asked Tempete calmly.

"Two weeks. Imprints can be done a month before the birth at the latest. Thankfully, we can control the moment of birth. My staff is working at full capacity, but time’s not on our side here.”

“And you want my help with that?” asked Tempete.

"I wouldn't ask for your involvement in this even if you were the last being on Ered."

Nezman removed the sheet, but before turning off the projector, Tempete reached into her vest and took something out, a much smaller version of the projected sheet. The dots and lines on it were more pronounced, their green gleam standing out from the black metal.

“Is that a…”

“It’s what the queen wants from you.”

Nezman picked it up, looking at it with the reverence of a religious relic. Impossible and too good to be true were the first thoughts in his mind. Then, his pragmatism brought him back to earth.

“What’s in it for you?”

He didn't wait for a response. The prince's projection materialized again, the screen showing long information flows. He recognized most of his work immediately. Nezman skimmed over it, looking for what was different. Eventually, he found the new data. Page by page, he read the files with near mechanical efficiency. And as he did, his eyes grew wider.

He sank in his chair, his knees shaking. “Are you insane? There’s no way I’ll agree to something like this!”

“It’s what the queen wants, Nezman.”

“Did whoever made this look at the neurological patterns? The connections in the amygdala and frontal lobe are all rewired. And look at the cerebral cortex. With these changes…"

"He'll have enhanced cognitive awareness. But also won't be able to experience emotions," confirmed Tempete. "Like I said, it's what the queen wants."

“She’s mad! I’ll turn in my resignation tomorrow! She can’t expect me to breed a sociopath knowing it’s going to run the country one day.”

“That won’t accomplish anything. She already plans to do a second imprint after you finish yours. Don't assume that she trusts you; she doesn't. That's why she's using a second research team. She's letting you do the bulk of the work, but the special extra was meant to be kept secret.”

Nezman’s face matched the color of his lab coat. His shoulders sank, leaving him in the same place twenty years ago: a lost seventeen-year-old, his head full of knowledge but no idea where to go.

“A second imprint would kill her. Either at birth or shortly after.”

Tempete nodded in agreement. "And leave Distria leaderless. If there's one thing we've always strived to maintain, it is a stable power transfer. This is why I'm asking you to do what needs to be done now. Do the imprint as I’ve given it to you.”

“How can I live with that burden, Tempete?”

“Life always has a nasty habit of placing us in situations where we don’t want to do the right thing. If you don’t do it, someone else will. This way, you’ll ensure your place in court and at the Magisterium. And in doing so, you'll be able to give Distria what it needs: a fresh start and a new tomorrow."

“Under the leadership of a monster?”

"No, the rule of those made for that work."

“Meaning…”

“Do what I ask, and your Birth Promise will be fulfilled."

Nezman picked up the new sheet. Almost weightless, but in his fingers, it felt like iron tentacles that slowly crept up his arms and neck. Tempete's words felt like a cold shower rather than the explosion of ecstasy he was expecting. Freedom had lasted only a few seconds. The burden in his hands was his new shackles.

He walked to the vault and placed the sheet carefully inside. The unfinished imprint was still on the table. And when Nezman snapped it with his fingers, he felt nothing. After all, it wasn’t his child that he was destroying.

*** ***

Ozella took a gulp from the disposable glass, nearly choking on it. The homebrewed lethian tasted of the cheap metal distiller it was made in, the fruity taste barely covering the afterburn.

“Shouldn’t you be goin’ back home, miss?”

Ozella didn't bother responding. The vendor's toothless grin stretched out his face's thin, bony structures even more. Her fingers tightened around the glass. "I go wherever I damn please!" she shaped, tossing him three limna that landed on the counter with a metallic click.

Like most Mistoa districts, Kapche was an amalgamation of buildings made of whatever materials were available. The few multistory buildings erected by a charity organization two decades ago were full to twice the standard capacity. The roads were paved, and the sewage system worked, if for no other reason than to avoid the spread of diseases.

Ozella took another drink, ignoring the bystanders. Her torn Locusta uniform had been replaced with something she felt comfortable wearing: loose pants, training shoes, and a dark blue shirt. She pulled the knot that held her braid in place and shook her head, feeling the early-night breeze in her flowing hair.

Even at the periphery, the flux of people was the same. Those coming home from work stopped at the local street vendors that sold anything from drinks to evening meals before going home. Haggles and discussions in over twenty dialects could be heard; only some of the workers bothered to learn Ashra, Distria's official language, beyond what was required at their current jobs.

She found an empty bench and sat, the tension of the previous hours washing out of her like a busted dam. Alone with a simple drink, she looked up at the summer sky.

“Another objective achieved.” she smiled.

“Given how relatively easy it went, I’d hardly call it a victory.”

Tempete stepped out of the skeletal remnants of what had been a decade ago, Reproduction Center 21. Even in a district where housing was at a premium and homeless Mistoa sought any refuge, the building was avoided like the plague. Too many dark memories regarding that place were still buried in the community's memory. The woman looked at the half-full glass.

"Really, cheap booze. Is that what we're doing now?"

“A girl’s got a right to celebrate, doesn’t she, godmother.” laughed Ozella.

Tempete looked around and rubbed her nose. “This place stinks, and half the men are perverts. And that drink’s about as sanitary as some of your dad’s lab residue.”

Ozella gave her a sly wink. “I know, two ladies in a neighborhood for the scum of the earth. And over there, my neat and prim Canolfan. Worlds apart, and me in the middle, fighting for both.”

"Let's go, Ozella, we’ve wasted enough time here. If you want a celebration, I’ll organize one for you in two days.”

"Sure. Then you can invite all of Dad's friends. Heck, bring my entire class. Dress me up like a princess, set me on a pedestal, and have them tell me how great I am. Set up a massive gold slab: Behold, Ozella, slayer of monsters!

“I’d have to leave the last part out.” laughed Tempete. “Though you do look nice in a dress. You should try wearing them more than once in a blue moon.”

“School uniform skirts are enough. Besides, they don’t inspire confidence. There’s no strength in a dress.”

“Your mother wore them all the time. And weak was the last thing I’d ever call her.”

“Did she ever have to deal with what I have to deal with?” snapped Ozella. “The family was her only burden. But mine…”

She struck the wooden bench, shattering the plastic cup. “Is the burden of everyone else. The weak crumble if they have no shelter in a storm. You can promise someone the reward of a plentiful meal at the end of a long hike, but the wear of the road makes that promise irrelevant after a while. But if they can see the meal, have it constantly before their eyes, everything changes."

“Food rots eventually, Ozella.”

"And ideas get twisted by imagination until they have no resemblance to the original. Distria needs to know who stands for her. They need to see me, not some abstract notion of protection."

“That’s not how this works. Plus, what’s happening now is a fairly recent phenomenon.”

"Then what's the point?" exclaimed Ozella. "When I took out my first target, Dad didn't even greet me or check if I was in one piece. Three people died that day when it could have been twenty. Did anyone even bother thanking me? Or even notice anything?"

"They're not meant to, Ozella," replied Tempete, her voice now measured and cautious. “Distria is like a spectator watching a play: they love the character, not the actor that plays it. You’re the character of your play, but the world won’t see you as an actor. Not yet, at least.”

“They should!” shouted Ozella, getting off the bench. “The world doesn’t need shadows and abstract ideas, but rocks. Immovable powers behind which they can hide and on which they can lean.”

“Is that what you think you are?”

"I want, godmother, to be the face of the power that keeps Distria safe. Dad’s right about the Enforcer Corps. It’s an institution, and like all institutions, it’s impersonal. No one can point to someone tangible who represents what they are. I can change all that.”

“And what do you think the reaction will be? Truth isn't a blanket that keeps you warm at night; it's a knife that mutilates and burns until only the bare essentials remain. If you expose yourself, not to mention the work, you won't be hailed as a hero. At best, you'll be spat on because you didn't show the truth earlier and, at worst, killed by those who seek to cling to their power."

“They’re not evil, godmother!”

"Neither are we. Power doesn't corrupt; it only attracts those who are already corrupt. When I gave your birthday gift, I took my own risk. Raising a child is no simple task; your father knew that."

“Afraid I would have ended up as a street thug running amok with your powers?”

"Actually, afraid you would have become too loyal. There was always that tight balance between your freedom and the duty you had. And I couldn't be more proud of the outcome."

“I’m not your damn experiment!”

"But you are my ward. Your actions are also my actions. Everything that you do reflects on me, and I don't mean like a parent being embarrassed in front of his friends. Think carefully before you do anything of importance in your life, Ozella. Those decisions don't influence only your future, but mine too."

"Then you should be more open about things. As for decisions, remember that you were with me in the school overseer's office when I chose my Third Module option. Why didn't you say anything if you had any objections?”

“I’ve told you everything you need to know at the moment. More will come as you grow up," replied Tempete in a hasty tone. "As for your choice, I stand with you; it's the best move for now."

Ozella stretched her arms, and a fresh wave of stings from her wounds assaulted her body. "I can't wait to get home." She checked her arms and noticed that the cuts were now barely visible, leaving behind uneven scars.

“I’ve been healing pretty quickly these last few times.”

"Your body's slowly adapting," confirmed Tempete. "But as far as it's possible, try to use medicine. It's safer than constantly tapping into me."

"And have a disfigured and scarred body?" laughed Ozella. "Come on, who would want to admire a hero who looked like he got chopped by a butcher."

She lowered her sleeves, and an all too familiar pain exploded at the base of the skull. Sharp and unmistakable, it lasted for only a second. Gasping for breath, Ozella felt the cleft of her chest, trying to control the orange glow that emanated from there, pulsating like a beating heart.

“Another one?”

She darted into the abandoned center, making her way to the rooftop. Instinct and anger pushed her muscles like pistons, driving out the last remnants of lethargy and the afterglow of joy. The glow in her chest intensified, spreading out of control, bathing the stairway she was ascending in a glow that cast no shadows. Grasping her emotions like a collar, she placed her hand on her chest, and the light diminished to a faint glimmer.

She kicked the roof access door open and ran out, noticing Tempete, who was already waiting for her. I had killed one twelve hours ago! How can there be another one? Thought Ozella.

Clearing her mind, Ozella lifted her left sleeve. The glow in her chest spread down her shoulder, then along the entire length of her arm in a narrow stream until it reached the tip of her index finger. Her body reacted against her will; her arm and index stretched like a compass needle, moving over the slum below. She waited, breath measured, eyes focused.

A flash of movement flashed her attention, and her true sight opened. The world took on the texture of a patchwork made of colored dots connected by barely visible lines. And moving like a transparent display, a massive figure hopped from building to building. She felt her arm react, tracing the being's movements, and just as abruptly, her regular sight returned. Her index finger pointed to a warehouse several streets away. Dim lights were visible through some of the windows.

“There! That’s where it is!”

She ran to the roof's edge when a firm grip squeezed her wrist. Tempete stood beside her, and the grip tightened when Ozella tried to wrench herself loose.

“Not tonight, Ozella.”

She looked at Tempete, disbelief and urgency gleaming in her eyes. "What are you doing? It's going to kill those people!"

“Better them than you. You’re exhausted. If I let you fight now, the chances of you fighting another day are slim to none.”

“And the workers there? What chance do they have of living again after tonight?”

“None. And that’s something you need to accept. You can’t save everyone. And in this case, the victim should die so that you can continue fighting."

The dams of her eyes bust, allowing her tears to flow freely. "What kind of hero lets those he's supposed to protect die anyway?"

“Ozella, you’re not a hero. The world doesn’t need any more of those. What it does need is people who will do the right thing. And that can change. In this instance, it’s right to…”

She abruptly stopped, looking down at Ozella’s free hand. It held the polished obsidian-black shaft of a spear, its ruby-red diamond-shaped blade inches away from Tempete's throat. Ozella locked eyes with her godmother. No more tears. Crystal clear. Sharp. Merciless. “I said, let go," she commanded.

The grip barely loosened. “You know that won’t do anything against me, Ozella.”

"I know. I also know that your body can be injured. From this angle, I can slice your carotid open in one move. Given the amount of pain that would inflict, plus the loss of blood, you’d have to let go for long enough to tend to your injury.”

The rumble of thunder echoed overhead, followed by a flash of lightning that gashed the cloudless sky. The spear’s blade inched closer to the woman’s skin.

"What will you do, kill your ward for doing her duty?" laughed Ozella.

“That duty is to our cause!”

“I know. And right now, that cause is over there, and you’re in the way. Let go, or you’ll be responsible for every death that I could have avoided otherwise. And if you are responsible, then you’re no better than the thing I’m supposed to kill!”

Tempete stepped back, and the spear in Ozella's hand vanished. "Don't push your luck, girl; this isn't a fairytale."

Ozella turned her back and reached the edge of the building. “You’re right. I need no prince to carry me in his arms.”

She opened her hands, and rotating wisps of wind formed in them. Faster and faster until they resembled miniature whirlwinds. She lowered her palms, and the two tiny tornadoes propelled her through the air, wrapping her body in a near-invisible shroud of vapor and razor-thin air streams. Letting the energy in her left arm guide her movements, she plunged through one of the upper windows of the warehouse.

The winds wrapped her body to soften the landing. She stood crouched, trying to get her bearings. Stacks of boxes and crates were everywhere. None of the workers were to be seen anywhere. She walked cautiously, observing each crate, her ears perked to every sound. Nothing. She walked towards the office area and felt her shoes slip on something. Looking down, she saw the unmistakable sight of oxidized blood and, further ahead, the source: a human torso splayed on the floor. The lower part of the body was nowhere to be seen.

Hands trembling, she peeked past the corner. Death was no stranger to her, but its originality made sure she never took it for granted. She observed the body with the same detached precision his father used in his lab. The slice was too sloppy to have been done with a blade.

More remains lay ahead; severed limbs and organs were spread out over a twenty-meter area. With a mental calculation, she deduced that at least four men had met their deaths. The display was just for show. Ozella ignored it, paying close attention to the rows of crates and the walls. She was already in the trap, but the bait wasn't too appetizing. All that was needed now was to spring the trap.

Two crates were shoved from their place, missing her by a few meters. Three more followed; these ones aimed more precisely. She dodged the first, then smashed the other two with the blade of her spear. She jumped on the highest row of crates, trying to find the source of the attack.

“Show yourself!” she shouted.

The response came instantly. A sharp scream that made her flesh vibrate like a building in a tremor. She felt blood oozing between her fingers as she tried to cover her ears. All around her, windows shattered and metal railings twisted and bent in the unseen onslaught.

Then silence. Her lungs felt empty of air, and each movement abused her flesh. The ringing in her ears covered all other sounds, and her legs barely held her weight. She leaned on the spear's shaft like a crutch, trying to regain strength. Damn you, Tempete, I won’t give you the satisfaction of bursting here to save me and…

The crates underneath her burst apart, and she landed in a pile of half-frozen fish. Looking up, an impossible apparition dominated her field of view. It stood in a squatting position, looking at her with a grotesque imitation of human curiosity. The hag-like being’s arms had the thickness and muscularity of a bodybuilder’s thigh, while the chest and head looked withered with age. It grinned, exposing its rows of dagger-like teeth, then rose to its full four-meter height, standing on bird-like legs equipped with talons large enough to impale a man.

It grabbed a crate with one of its legs with the ease of lifting a toy and threw it down just as Ozella jumped from the pile of fish. Damn it, I should have seen that coming. The injuries in her body, both fresh and old, returned her to her usual sober self. This is what I bleed for. This is my battlefield.

The spear materialized in her hand again, fast enough to destroy one incoming crate but not the second. It shattered against the concrete, spilling its cloth content. Splinters tore into Ozella's shoulder and thigh, piercing her mind with fresh pain. She leaped over the next crate and landed on the same level as the creature. With a scream, she lashed out at the creature's chest and face.

Her hands trembled from the impact. But instead of flesh, it was metal. The creature held a cudgel made of a strange mixture of bone and wood, yet hard as steel. The weapons collided again, screeching and sending shockwaves that shattered the wooden crates around them. The creature handled the blunt weapon with the grace of a swordsman; each blow was precise but unable to break the blade or shaft of Ozella's spear.

Slipping and nearly falling over, Ozella felt herself pushed back. The blows were becoming stronger while her parries were weakening. She looked at the orange eyes of the creature and saw in them the certainty of death. She laughed at each letter that formed the word, but for the first time, she understood that the word carried substance. The end of everything that’s me.

She blocked another attack and felt the ankle twist and sprain. She bit her lips and continued the fight. The warehouse would become a tomb. But not for me. Not today!

The next blow was barely felt. Ozella watched the spear fall from her hand, the injuries to her fingers a distant concern. In silence, she looked at the creature.

“You shouldn’t exist.” she declared, coughing blood.

The being adjusted its posture, its talons shredding the scattered merchandise. Ozella waited, the gears of time grinding down. She looked at the remnants of the workers. How long would it have taken me to get here? There was still time. Her right hand clenched, but the spear didn't appear. The creature felt the sudden tremor of power, and a cackling laughter billowed in its throat. So, you do understand, thought Ozella.

Another step pierced the teen’s leg with a harpoon of pain. Fists clenched, she approached, her chestnut hair flowing upwards, pushed by the unseen gusts of wind. I don't need it. I don't need your weapon, godmother. I don't need a crutch. I don't need you, Dad, or your gadgets. I stand alone.

The scattered goods around slowly rose in the air, the air currents spreading from Ozella's fists, wrapping them like stones in a sling. I don’t need to be cuddled, dad! I don’t need your Birth Promise! But you need me. And I’ll make you see it!

With a feral shriek, the creature charged, cudgel raised like a blade. A sudden boom stopped the blow mid-stride when one of the wooden boxes shot from one of the stacks, striking it full force. It parried with its fist, shattering the wood.

It looked at Ozella. The teen stood like a living twister. Dark wind blades circled around her at impossible speeds, each sharp as a razor. Ozella screamed her anger and more crates flew, shot by the wind. The creature blocked two, but the third found its mark, striking it in the femur. It fell to one knee, its scream shattering the incoming projectiles.

Throat scorched and eyes burning, Ozella continued her assault. Anything not fixed to the ground became a weapon in her winds. The creature rose again and crossed her arms, and the next stream of debris didn't even reach its mark. In her chaos, Ozella looked at her foe; barely visible strands of green light, arranged like a honeycomb, encased its body. It moved, but backward.

“You’re not going anywhere!” screamed Ozella.

Passing through pain, she leaped, her wind-shrouded fists striking the shield. The walls around her shook, the cheap metal used to build the warehouse crumbling under the onslaught. And each blow sent the creature back but didn't break the shield. Die, just die already!

The scream finally shattered the last remnants of the northern wall. The unmistakable sounds of the Metropolitan Overwatch forces approaching broke Ozella's concentration momentarily.

Which was all the creature needed. It struck through its own shield, knocking Ozella over. With a grin, its body turned into a thin thread of green light that vanished into the night shy.

Ozella got to her feet. Barely dressed, she staggered to the shattered wall. She closed her eyes and felt her spear back in her hand. She dematerialized it quickly. The less she had to explain, the better. Looking at the broken remnants around her, both human and material, she took a few steps and collapsed.

5 Novembre 2022 14:02 0 Rapport Incorporer Suivre l’histoire
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