"And the first father gave each of the children of the sky, the harvest and the sea a drop of his blood and he spoke ,’as you, my children worship me as your god, I give to you my blood to create your own children who shall worship you,’ and humanity was born." The Itara, Creations 13:23
The sounds of the battle raging on the outskirts of New Empire City were getting closer. In one of New Empire’s wealthiest districts an explosion, the loudest yet, caused the fine china in the cabinets in the home of Retired General Alexi Harker to rattle. Rebecca Harker adjusted her mother’s antique vase on its base with steady hands. The servants abandoned them at the first news of a possible invasion two weeks before and it was up to her to keep the house in an order she was accustomed to. War was no excuse to abandon civility.
Hair pinned back in a neat bun and wearing an apron covering a freshly pressed shirt and slacks, Rebecca descended down the back staircase towards the door leading to their small garden. She pulled a wide brimmed straw hat and a pair of gardening gloves from the closet.
"My dear wife, where could you possibly going at a time like this?" General Alexi Harker crossed his arms in the doorway blocking her exit.
"The roses, my dear husband. Someone has to tend to them."
She stood eye level to his chest, but had ten times the presence of her large, but relatively unassuming husband.
"Most of the neighbors are gone," he let out a soft chuckle. "There is no one around to judge your roses."
Rebecca’s gaze did not waver as the low ruble of mortar shells echoed in the distance. He took a few moments to consider his wife’s whim as he always had done, but the war on their door step left him with little patience.
"It isn’t safe. The roses can wait another day. You can tend to the garden tomorrow," he lied.
According to the latest reports the first line blocking the narrow pass in the mountains fell less than an hour before and the enemy had their guns within the city limits. It was unlikely there would even be a garden tomorrow.
"Maybe we should evacuate," Alexi sighed. "The transports are gone, but I can make some calls and get an escort out."
"This is our home and we are not leaving. We did not leave during the Blood Law Riots, when our own neighbors threw bricks through our windows."
"These invaders won’t be throwing bricks, Becca." Alexi pleaded.
"I will not be forced from my home... by anyone." Rebecca made sure she had the last word in this.
In all the battles he had faced in his 20 year historic and remarkable military career, he had yet to win a battle with his wife that she did not allow him to win. In truth he wished he had her strength and faith in the Oprian Empire’s great military. This wasn’t the typical Kyre warriors they had faced for centuries. The entire colony of Kyrant was ravished in a matter of months. Reports from survivors claimed the enemy crawled from the pits of the ninth hell itself. Despite being a devout follower of the Harvest Gods, Alexi was far too reasonable to believe the rumors of their origins, but he was not foolish enough to discredit this new army from the east entirely. From the moment the modern city of Nim Po was ransacked, Alexi tried to rally the senate to approve military action. The heated debate with the Senate War Council ended in harsh words about the General’s Iranti heritage and a physical altercation between himself and a prominent Senator. The legacy of the first Iranti-born general in the Empire of Opree ended by what empire born Oprians would call the uncivilized Iranti temper. The incident could have landed him a Court Martial, but he left quietly with his name untarnished so that his sons wouldn’t have to bear the brunt of his failure
In the growing darkness, the glow of mortar fire and explosions lit up the eastern horizon. The Harker children gathered in the nursury. Ten-year-old Devon was all too aware of what was happening, although he wasn’t particularly worried about his own safety. His father was a soldier; the biggest and strongest there had ever lived. The boy’s thoughts wandered to his friends, who didn’t have strong, giant soldier fathers to protect them. To keep his mind off of his friends, Devon took on the duty of keeping his younger brothers, eight-year-old Gregory and four-year-old Nathanial distracted with toys and games.
When the commotion outside became more interesting than the games and toys inside, Devon and his brothers snuck over to the window to see what was happening. All they could make out in the darkness was an empty street and flashes of light off in the distance. Bored by the underwhelming amount of nothing happening,
"The invaders are trying to get in but the army is going to stop them!" Devon proclaimed, his binoculars pressed against the window hoping to catch a glimpse of the action. With his father’s much too large combat helmet strapped around his neck hanging on his shoulders, the curious boy resembled a turtle, a turtle eager and ready to take on the enemy.
Nathanial looked out the window again and to his disappointment there wasn’t any army or invaders. Hopefully, whatever was going on would be over by tomorrow because that was the day they were supposed to go to the zoo, something young Nate had talked nonstop about for weeks.
Rebecca watched from the doorway. She tried in vain to get the boys to play quietly, but she was too exhausted to fight them any more on the matter. She’d hope giving them free reign would wear them out enough to get some sleep, but her hope on that ever happening was fading. The mess made her frown. She was so thankful that her fourth child was a daughter who would play quietly and enjoy things like tea and dresses. For awhile she’d dress Nathanial up in those beautiful dresses in the fancy boutiques until her husband put a stop to it and that day her little boy started to become one of his father’s little soldiers.
She wondered if the fighting would keep them out of school much longer. It was hard enough getting Devon and Gregory into Bristoff Academy when her husband was general, the thought of finding them a respectable school now was overwhelming.
"What are you thinking about, my love?" Alexi wrapped his big arms around his wife, laying a gentle kiss on her cheek.
"We’re going to need new carpeting in the nursery," Rebecca sighed.
Alexi laid his hands on her shoulders. "I just got some bad news. There will be a mandatory evacuation in the morning-"
Rebecca flung her arms up in protest. "I don’t care-"
"Listen. It’s going to be near impossible to land a decent transport in the morning and I know you don’t want to take the kids to one of the shelters they are setting up. I have arranged for a private one to take us outside city limits tonight. Then you can leave for the summer house in Galenai. They will be here in four hours. Pack what you can, take any coin, jewelry and pin it to the inside of your clothes. Get you and the boys some clothes, sensible, warm clothes and their papers. Everything else we can replace. This is only a precaution. We should be back to normal in a few days." He lied.
There was no evacuation and no shelters for the millions still in the city. The Empire’s unstoppable army would be retreating east of the Montgomery district come morning leaving the city to this hoard. He would be joining them after his family got out safely.
Alexi knelt by the family altar in the great room alongside his three sons. The ornate wooden altar draped in deep red velvet was adorned with bits of grain, idols of the gods and various trinkets symbolizing prayers and offerings to the harvest gods. His hand guided four year old Nathanial’s hand helping the boy light the candles in the right order blue, green, orange, red then gold. While they were Oprians first and foremost, it was always important for Alexi to have his family keep the harvest gods of their ancestral homeland of Lo Irant. He wanted to be sure his children were never ashamed of who they were mostly because there would be those who would make sure they’d never forget their heritage. Times were changing, though and he was optimistic about his sons futures in a more progressive empire.
A loud blast shook the house, knocking the antique vase to the ground. The delicate porcelain shattered on the hardwood floor. Rebecca flew in from the other room holding 10 month old Grace on her hip to witness the damage.
"I knew I should have put it away," She frowned. "Do they plan on doing this all night? I can’t think straight!"
"Yes darling, I’ll call the Generals and tell them if they can hold off on the fighting so you can think." Alexi replied dryly without taking his attention off the prayers.
Rebecca rolled her eyes and let her husband finish indoctrinating her sons. She didn’t want him to give up the gods completely. She still kept to the Harvest gods, but the way he kept them felt so backward. Normally she’d lecture him on why most Oprians were so uncomfortable with Iranti-borns and how he was inviting scrutinity into their lives, but she thought the prayers might do them some good on this night so she put her thoughts away for another time.
She turned to go back to finish getting the rest of the house in order, but another blast caused plaster dust to rain down as the ceiling in the foyer buckled under the weight of the swaying chandelier. She hugged Grace tight and felt the sudden urge to stay with her husband and sons.
"The fighting is still miles away. We are well within the city walls. The mountains will protect us, just as they have for over two thousand years." Alexi checked his watch, the transport was due in less than an hour. "But, I think a good story is in order to get our mind off things."
He browsed the shelves past the dry histories and pulled a worn copy of the Itara, the holy book of the Harvest Gods and Lo Irant. He sat down on his big arm chair with Nathanial on his lap. Ten year old Devon and seven year old Gregory sat crosslegged eagar for their father’s attention.
"So what shall we read tonight? Tryn the Stone? Mark and the Bear?"
"Nellis!" Shouted Devon. "I like that one."
"Nellis? Are you sure?" Alexi asked gazing over the rim of his glasses.
The boys nodded eagerly.
"Very well," he licked his thumb to turn to the page "To know the story of Nellis, you must first know how the gods and humanity came to be. A time long ago, a time when the old ones and the ancients inhabited the world, the First Father conquered these lands and took three brides. His first bride was the sky and she bore him nine children, the sky gods. He gave them the lands of the mountains so she could watch them grow up and learn all her secrets. His second bride of course was the ground, she gave him thirteen children. He gave them the plains of Lo Irant so she could give them all of her bounty. His third wife was the Ocean, and she bore him five children. He gave them the lands of Kyrant so she could be close to her children-"
"But he had a mistress too!" Devon inturrupted.
"That’s right, son. The First Father fell in love with the sister of his first wife, the Sun. She refused to let him marry her, but she bore him two sons. Fearing her sister’s wrath, she hid them deep in the belly of the world. So they wouldn’t get cold, she gave a piece of her fire to them. Their names were Malrus and Ismarlin, the gods of fire. When the gods were grown. The first father gave each of his legitimate children a gift, a drop of his blood so he could make children of their own to worship them and humanity was born. Ismarlen were jealous of this gift, so he had a plan to make his own children. Ismarlen took a drop of his own blood and mixed it with a razor wolf. Ismarlen’s children ran wild across the land, devouring the children of the gods."
Another blast knocked out the power, leaving the family in darkness save for the dying flickers of the altar candles. Rebecca lit a lantern and the room was bathed in its soft glow. Alexi closed the book.
"It’s too dark to read, Devon, would you like to continue?"
"The first father was so angry at Ismarlen that he killed all of his children. Ismarlen wanted revenge so he convinced Malrus to help kill the first father, but they had to drain his blood from themselves so they could do something so evil. Then they killed him ,but Ismarlen felt bad, so he kept a few drops of his father’s blood and tried to put it back in his body but it burned. Malrus then went super evil because he didn’t have any of who he was before inside of him went nuts and created an army of apostates. Those are monsters" Devon said to Gregory. "There was a big war and everyone was dying and stuff but the gods couldn’t kill each other so it went on for thousands of years. Then the harvest god of iron, Nellis, he came up with this idea that even though he couldnt destroy Malrus, he could swallow him and his army and keep them imprisoned in his iron stomach forever. So he did and the gods made nine hells so Malrus and his army could never get out forever and ever."
"That’s right, but do you remember what happened to Nellis? The most important part of the story?" Alexi prodded sitting back in his chair.
A bright white flash and a loud bang blew out the windows interrupted the family’s moment.
The room was dark and empty, Nathanial saw no sign of his mother anywhere. Panicked, he climbed over the debris caused by the explosion, protecting his ears from the noise of the sirens.
"Mama! Papa!" Nathanial screamed, but his voice was drowned out by the battle raging outside. Cold rain pelted him through the shattered windows as he ran back to the great room looking for his family. He heard her call out for him, but he couldn’t find his way through the maze-like hallways.
Sharp cracks of gunshots peppered the chaos and another explosion shook the pictures off the walls. He could hear the cries of baby Grace get louder and his mother’s voice calling for her sons. Large hands wrapped around his torso, lifting him off the ground. The room spun around with him.
"I found him! He looks okay." His father wiped a small bit of blood from under the child’s nose, checked him over and carried him to the front door where the rest of the family were waiting.
He reached for his mother, who shoved a hat onto his head. Even amidst the danger, she couldn’t shake the habit of licking her thumb and wiping dirt off her son’s face. Her nose crinkled as she frowned with concern.
"Is this blood?" she asked her husband. "I thought you said he was fine."
"He is fine," his father snapped. "The transport is outside, ready to take you and the boys out of the city. I need to stay here." His expression softened and he gently stroked his wife’s face.
Her eyes protested his decision, but she dared not speak against her husband.
"Mama, I’m scared." Nathanial cried for his mother’s attention. Another explosion rocked the house. This time he felt it shake in his chest.
She smiled at him and kissed him on the forehead. "Hush now, little bird. It’s going to be okay."
The lights were out, but the fires throughout the city bathed the streets in a flickering red glow. An armored transport idled outside of the family’s home.
"Sir," the soldiers addressed his father. "We need to go now." Standing in the doorway, the family said their goodbyes.
"I want to stay and fight with you father," Devon said.
"I need you to protect your mother, Grace and your brothers. Understood soldier?"
A screaming hiss barreled down the street, the man grabbed his eldest son’s arm and dragged his family back into the safety of the house. In a hummingbird’s heartbeat the transport was reduced to a ball of flaming wreckage. Nathanial caught a glimpse of the destruction just before his father shut the front door.
"Everyone get to the basement!" Alexi yelled.
While bolting down the hall in his father’s arms, Nathanial heard the same hiss and scream as before. The blast sent the child flying. He hit the floor hard and debris tumbled on top of him, plummeting his world into darkness.
He was only unconscious for a half a minute, but when he awoke couldn’t see anything, hear anything or feel anything except the pain that made his head spin and his stomach want to throw up. The light came back first. He focused on it until he could recognize the shapes he was seeing from under the ruble. If he tried he could hear beyond the loud ringing and if he focused on his other two senses hard enough, the pain faded.
The first face he saw was baby Grace’s. She was on the floor right in front of him on her belly, red-faced and crying, her yellow blanket soaked with blood. The ten-month-old’s lip quivered between heavy sobs. Their eyes met, and he stretched his arm out to reach his baby sister, wiggling out from under the rubble.
He was only a few inches away when the bit of rubble he was still under came down on him, sucking the air out of his lungs and crushing his little body. If the large boots hadn’t let up when they did, he would have popped under the enormous weight of the creature. More boots followed, but they stepped around the hidden child.
Grace howled. He saw several pairs of the black boots amass in the hallway around the crying baby. There wasn’t enough visibility through the cracks to get a good look at who was in the boots. The second attempt to reach for his sister failed, the pile crushing down on him once more.
They spoke in grunts, low hisses and clicks. Their boots tromped through the house as the ringing in his ears subsided. His mother was screaming somewhere. He struggled to pull himself out from the pile on top of him to no avail. The sound of the boots faded off to where the screams were. There were two shots, then no more screams. He focused his attention back to baby Grace, still sobbing on the floor. She saw him, and he tried to coax her to crawl to the safety of his hiding place.
"C’mon Gracie, come to me." He beckoned with a forced smile.
The baby girl rocked back and forth on her hands and knees unable to coordinate her amidst her cries. Out of frustration she rolled to a sitting position, stretched her arms out and wailed. The boots came closer, until they almost completely blocked his view. He could smell the mud and leather.
One of the creatures clicked and gently kicked baby Grace over. Nathanial’s view was still blocked and only part of Grace’s head was visible. He could see the black leather boot pressed softly against her cheek, toying with the infant, like a child would a rubber ball.
Grace’s shrill screams made him wish for the ringing noise again. He watched, hopelessly trapped, while the monster’s boot came down hard on his sister’s skull, crushing it, embedding her soft peach skin in between the treads of his soles. Grace was silent. A glob of blood-soaked flesh and a tuft of blonde hair was left stuck to the floor after the monster passed.
The boots were somewhere else in the house now, leaving the boy in terrified silence. When his brothers found him, his hands were still clasped tightly over his face.
"He vomited," Gregory pointed out as his younger sibling was pulled out from the wreckage.
"Shh, it’s okay." Devon dismissed as he brushed off their trembling little brother. "We need to find Grace and get to the basement. Do you know where she is?"
With a small shaking finger, Nathanial pointed to a pile of battered flesh wrapped in a once-yellow blanket. Tears rolled down his face.
The boys made their way down the hallways of the servants quarters undetected.
"I forgot Juno, Devon!" Nathanial stopped and franticly searched his person. Juno was Nathanial’s stuffed dog and best friend.
Devon tugged on his arm. "Forget it, we got to go!"
"I’ll get her! I saw her by where we found you." Gregory was already halfway down the corridor.
"Wait here," Devon said, putting his younger brother in the small service elevator. It was designed for laundry or dry goods, but the boy was small enough to fit inside.
Alone in the dark, the child waited. Sounds of the house being ransacked and the fighting outside were muffled in the tin box where he was hiding. He poked his head out to see if his brothers were coming and to look at something else other than a silver wall. The hallway was barely recognizable, glass and debris everywhere. Amazingly, the stained glass window in the door of his mother’s painting room was still intact. The flames from the burning city danced in the distance behind the colorful glass.
Devon came back to the elevator, out of breath and white as a sheet. "When you get to the basement, I want you to stay there okay? Don’t get out until someone comes for you." He got out in between heavy breaths and tossed Juno inside. "She will keep you safe."
"Where is Gregory?"
Devon didn’t answer, just looked down at the red bits on his shirt.
The moment was broken by the loud thuds of boot steps and the snarls of an angry creature. Devon slammed the door of the elevator shut and hit the button.
Devon never looked away from his brother, even when blood spattered the glass and the life faded from the ten-year-old’s eyes. Two glowing orange eyes of the creature that killed Devon peered down at him. They were last thing the boy saw before the elevator descended into the darkness.
It had been six months since the attacks on New Empire and several other Oprian cities. The cost was the lives of over twelve million people in New Empire alone. Six months of fighting a war and still so little was known about this new enemy. Despite forces being able to push them beyond the borders of Opree, the whole Empire was at war with the Navat in Kyrant. Theories about their origins ranged from a race of people who had adapted to life on the Fire Plains, demons spawned from the fiery pits of hell, to the King’s own men in using the war as a power play against the Senate. Whatever these creatures were, they managed to alter the face of the entire Empire in less than a year.
The rebuild effort was already underway; damaged buildings were rapidly climbing back into the sky. The need for labor skyrocketed and the economy just began to stabilize. Petty feuds between houses and castes were forgotten almost overnight. The tragedy was a commonality that, at the time, strengthened the connection they had to the one bloodline they all shared as humans.
A well-dressed member of the High Born caste walked into the home for Vistany caste children orphaned by the attacks. He had received a message that he had a family member, a son of his wife’s niece (twice removed), who needed to be retrieved.
According to the Senate, orphanages and refugee homes were becoming a painful reminder, hurting the recovery of the Empire not only emotionally but financially as well. They ordered all children placed into the care of their next of kin, no matter how far removed.
The line of people waiting to pick up their new charges at the orphanage wrapped around the building. Some were upset at the fact they now had to take care of the children of veritable strangers, but most were just elated to have kin who survived. As a High Born, the man got preference in line and walked right up to the front desk.
The sounds of children playing and laughing were disturbingly absent. For a moment he became lost in the sad silence, children still bandaged from wounds. A little girl in the corner no older than eight was just rocking back and forth in the corner hugging her knees to her chest. Trapped in some terrible memory, her eyes focused on the invisible horrors that replayed in her mind over and over again.
For the first time the man worried that the child he was supposed to get was broken like these kids were. After going through such an ordeal, how could he not be? His wife had died in the attacks and they were childless, he knew nothing of being a parent.
"Mr. Demetri Montclair, here is Nathanial’s case file. He is just collecting his things and will be out in a minute. I am Kendra Allister, the social worker assigned to him." Kendra was a middle-caste woman in her mid-thirties. Demetri thought she’d be pretty if she didn’t look so tired.
"Thank you," he said, flipping through the file. "How is the child?"
"He is still unable to fully understand what happened, which is a good thing. Younger children tend to be more resilient in traumatic situations. He didn’t sustain any physical injuries in the attacks. He lost his mother, father and three siblings when the Navat attacked their house. They found him hiding in a utility elevator, three days later." Kendra was numb to the gory details and every ounce of sentiment in her voice was disingenuous. If she allowed it, she’d drown in the sadness that these children brought with them. "Normally placing a child is a process that takes months of preparation and counseling. Now we’re lucky to have twenty minutes before we hand these delicate and traumatized children over to veritable strangers." She realized she was beginning to rant and composed herself. "Do you have plans for the child? We have parenting classes available. It says in your file that you are a widower with no children, might want to look into that, just so the transition goes smoothly."
"I’ve made arrangements for him to attend Penderghast. I recognized his father’s name in the paperwork you sent me. He was a very well-respected General and I figured it would be a good fit." Demetri said uncomfortably.
Penderghast Military Academy was an elite and prestigious school. It was rare for anyone who was not a member of the High Born aristocracy to gain admission. Nathanial’s military pedigree, in addition to the hefty grant Demetri made to the school was enough to gain him acceptance.
Nathanial was in the room that he had been sharing with dozens of other boys, his few belongings already packed ready to go. He was excited. Miss Fairview, the lady at the front desk, told him his family was finally coming to get him. He missed them so much. Those were the best words he had ever heard in his whole entire life. Miss Kendra said his family had died and was up in the great fields of the Harvest Gods, but they weren’t dead. They were here. Miss Fairview said it herself. He couldn’t wait to show his mother how he learned how to read and do math but first, above everything they were going to the zoo. He could hardly contain his excitement as he fidgeted on the bed waiting for Miss Kendra.
"We’re finally going home, Juno." He whispered into the ear of the tattered stuffed dog. Juno said nothing.
The door opened and there was Miss Kendra and an older man Nathanial did not know.
"Is my family here yet Miss Kendra? Can I see them now? Miss Fairview said my family was here, but I can act surprised when they come if you want me to." Nathanial asked eagerly.
Kendra’s heart sank as she cursed the dimwitted Fairview for being so careless with her words.
"No, sweetheart, I’m sorry, but we talked about this remember? Your Mother, Father, Devon, Gregory and Grace died. They are all up in the Great Fields with their gods; they are not coming back." The hardest part of Kendra’s job was explaining what death was to the little ones. For months children like Nathanial would constantly ask about parents, siblings and friends, as if she were able to control the answer and somehow make it better.
"But, Miss Fairview said they were here, we were going to go to the zoo."
Nathanial looked up confused and lost, with his big blue eyes welling up with tears.
Kendra wasn’t withholding this child’s family like they were a piece of candy hidden in her pocket, but Nathanial couldn’t understand that. Guilt crushed the little strength she was holding on to and the tears she thought had dried up months ago flowed again.
The boy stopped himself from crying by biting his lower lip. Kendra comforted him and explained how Demetri was his uncle and was going to bring Nathanial to a new school. After the explanation, the boy was calm and composed. He understood now. Nathanial took a moment in the silence to let it sink in that his family was never coming back. The painful reality started to rise up in his throat like a large hot rock and he swallowed it, pushing it back down deep into his belly.
"Miss Kendra says I’m going to be a soldier. Is that true?" The boy asked his uncle, looking up with big hopeful eyes.
Demetri just nodded. After such a terrible introduction, the man was at a loss for words. As they walked out Nathanial didn’t hesitate or look back. None of the children ever looked back.