The sounds of the battle raging on the outskirts of New Empire City were getting closer, but Rebecca and Alexi Harker had made a point to act like it was just a normal day for the sake of their four small children. Alexi, a retired general in the imperial army had been briefed of the situation and was confident the skilled and technically advanced military could handle the invading forces.
Rebecca was not as sure as her husband. According to the papers, these mysterious invaders calling themselves the Navat came over from the desolate Fire Plains, destroying the entire colony of Kyrant in a matter of weeks. Now this force was on their doorstep. The servants left at the first news of the invasion. Alexi had given them permission to go. Her husband’s compassion left a bitter taste in Rebecca’s mouth. All transports and routes out of the city were blocked with the chaos of people fleeing New Empire in droves. There would be no way out of the city tonight.
A loud explosion, the loudest yet, caused the fine china in the cabinets to rattle. The proximity of the blast was unsettling and Alexi reassured himself that everything was going to be just fine. Throughout its thousand-year history, the Empire of Opree had never once been defeated. They were the most unified and unstoppable force in the world.
Alexi helplessly paced his study reviewing the latest news from the city gates and then reviewed them again. It was fortunate that he still had contacts in the military that were keeping him informed of the situation. 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. He was unaccustomed to just sitting around his house like a broken tool. It had only been six weeks since the Senate forced him into retirement. There was a bitter dispute about how to address the situation in Kyrant. It ended in harsh words about the General’s Iranti heritage and a physical altercation between himself and a prominent Senator. The incident could have landed him a Court Martial, undoing a remarkable twenty-year career, 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. Every half hour or so, a loud boom or blast would shake the house a bit. After awhile, the family would hardly notice. Rebecca rocked her ten-month-old daughter, Grace, while Alexi led the boys in their evening prayer ritual. Despite keeping the language and social customs of Opree, it was always important for Alexi to have his family keep the harvest gods of their ancestral homeland of Lo Irant.
The power had gone out shortly after dinner and the great room was bathed in candlelight. The sounds of the blasts were getting louder. All transports out of the city have been disabled and exits sealed, leaving millions still trapped including the Harker family. He quietly cursed himself for his stubbornness.
He kissed his wife’s hand as her arms wrapped around his shoulders and he lost himself in his wife’s beauty. Fifteen years and she was still just as stunning as the day they met. His moment was interrupted by another loud bang, triggering the cries of Grace, who now demanded her mother’s full attention.
*****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, Nathanial wandered over to his mother and kissed a crying baby Grace on the cheek.
“The Navat 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 Navat. 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.
*****It was almost midnight and the boys were sprawled out on the floor. Alexi had received yet another call and was locked away in the study. He would be furious that the boys were still awake. Rebecca wasn’t used to dealing with the children without the servants. Letting them stay up was easier than fighting to get her anxious sons into bed.
A bright white flash and a loud bang blew out the windows interrupted the family’s peace.
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.