Thank you for reading! Me and my coauthor Darinost are gradually combining forces and blogs, so the joint comment section for our stories is currently located on discord! Come on in and let us know what you thought, we don’t bite.
This, like most of the Noctis Sector Chronicles, are canonical side stories of alien races from the Dark Star Universe, written by fans and friends of the blog. This one is by InBrightestDay, and chronicles the fall of his species, the Umbrals, to the Kthid harvest. Come on to the discord and let him know what you think!
They were coming.
A little less than an hour ago, seismic sensors had picked up the vibrations. They were quiet, enough so that none of the undercity’s defenders could hear them at the time, but the sonic profile was unmistakable. The invaders were making their way in.
The soldiers on watch were already in position, while the others were just now leaving. The noncombatants—the children, the elderly and the males—had been gathered into living quarters close to the designated shelters days ago. Now they were all being moved into defensible positions. The one Selara was outside of now had once been nothing more than storage, an enclosed structure designed to keep the cave animals from getting to food stores. Now it was the best hope the civilians had left.
Best hope. The thought made Selara cringe.
“Are you alright?” Ki-leth asked, his voice soft. “Is anything wrong with your gear?” The question brought Selara back to the present, away from darker thoughts.
“My equipment is fine,” she said, doing her best to smile. A moment later, she added “Are you alright?” Ki-leth’s ruby-colored eyes, so much like her own, shifted away, his mouth opening to say something, and then shutting again. He swallowed, nodding anxiously.
“Come on, little brother,” Selara said, trying to put a semblance of humor into her voice, “you know you were never able to lie to me.” Ki-leth looked back at her, smiling apologetically. His wings spread and closed behind his back as he attempted to settle.
“It’s just that we’re…we’re here now, and I wish there were more I could…” His shoulders slumped, and when he met her eyes again, she could see him blushing, his face lighting up in infrared as blood rushed to his cheeks. “I know it’s stupid, but I wish I could fight.” Selara’s heart twisted, and she put a hand on Ki-leth’s shoulder.
Physically, Selara and her brother were on the tall side, but otherwise fairly typical for members of the umbral species. Both had the same near-white skin and red eyes, as well as the same silver-white hair, albeit Ki-leth’s was cut short, while Selara’s long hair was woven into a warrior’s braid. Both of them were built for flight, with large, membranous wings sprouting from their backs, the membrane of each leading from the single, long wing finger down their bodies to merge with the steering vanes of their slender tails. There were even similarities in their facial features, and even with Selara being clearly the elder, while Ki-leth’s features were still boyish, the family resemblance was obvious to an observer.
But they also displayed the typical difference between the sexes. Selara, like other females of her kind, was tall and powerful, her form covered in toned muscle, while her brother had a traditionally masculine build, three quarters of Selara’s height, his body slender and graceful.
Their family had a proud legacy of military service, and Selara had followed in her mother’s footsteps as a soldier. Ki-leth had taken the path of most umbral males. Less fit for combat, males often leaned toward scientific or artistic pursuits, and Ki-leth had lent his talents to military engineering. Umbral civilization had been at peace for decades now, but their career choices had still been considered an honorable tradition.
Then the invasion began, and suddenly it wasn’t just a matter of honor. Suddenly it was life or death.
And Ki-leth thought he couldn’t help.
Selara squeezed his shoulder before letting go.
“You are fighting,” she said. “It was the Engineering Corps that figured out how the invaders’ shields work and how we could use that. More than that, the nail guns were your idea.”
“It was a group effort,” Ki-leth said, doing his best to be modest but failing to completely suppress a grin. “I hope they work as well as the tests indicated.” He looked down at her weapons, before finishing with “I wish you had one.”
“There weren’t enough for everyone,” Selara replied, and then indicated the sword sheathed at her hip. “I shouldn’t need one anyway; my team is blade-focused.” She smiled and added “Luvira has one, though.”
“Oh,” Ki-leth said, perking up noticeably. “I…I hope she likes it. Well, I mean I hope it serves her well.” He blushed again. “I was tempted to give her one myself, but…”
“That was very sensitive of you,” Selara replied. Her baby brother’s feelings for the priestess were hard to miss, but presenting her with a gift, making his affection more open, was something he didn’t feel right doing. They were all hurting, some more than others. “Luvira will be ready someday. Maybe, after this is all…”
After this is all over. She couldn’t bring herself to finish the words, unable to look ahead that optimistically no matter how hard she tried. Ki-leth nodded, looking away once more. In the silence, he seemed to deflate again, shrinking under the weight of what was coming.
“You should get going,” he said, so softly she could barely hear him. “If you have a message, if you have…something you would like me to tell Mother and Father—” Selara didn’t let him finish, rushing forward and seizing her brother in a tight hug. She brought her wings forward and wrapped them around him as he started to shudder, squeezing his eyes shut and laying his head on the chest plate of her body armor.
“Listen to me, Ki-leth. You’ll see Mother and Father again, but only after you live a long, full life. I’ve been watching over you since we were children; I am not about to stop today.” His face still pressed against her armor, he managed to nod.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be sorry.” Stepping back, she squeezed his shoulders again. “Now go and stay with the others in the shelter.” With a final nervous smile, Ki-leth left her and headed inside. As she turned away from the shelter entrance, Selara took note of the few other soldiers just now leaving. Like her, they had been trying to reassure loved ones. Mothers held small children, daughters reassured parents, and more than one soldier shared a last kiss with her lifemate.
Stop it, Selara told herself. She shouldn’t think of any of these interactions as “last” anything. Sighing, she spread her wings and took off, leaping from the ledge by the shelter and soaring above the buildings of the undercity of Lijekai.
This single gallery wasn’t the entire undercity, of course, just one of a series of caves that had once served as a thriving metropolis. Still, the chamber was massive; one of the grand skyscrapers of the overcities could have fit into it and just brushed the ceiling. The buildings here, from the geothermal plant at the back to the homes for the plant workers, had been kept much shorter, providing room for the citizens to fly and leaving plenty of empty space for temple access. The temple itself was one of the oldest parts of Lijekai; at nearly the exact center of the gallery, a dense cluster of stalactites and stalagmites had joined, the natural pillar thickening over countless millennia. When the cavern had first been colonized for habitation six centuries ago, the temple of the All-Mother had been carved into the living rock, homes for the clerics and attendants built beneath it. The ornate glass windows and intricate wall carvings were a testament to what umbral civilization had been capable of even so far back. In a way, the entire undercity was too.
The world of Penumbra circled a small red star, close enough that tidal forces had locked it in place. One side of the planet was forever bathed in light, the other always dark. This rendered much of the planet unlivable, either dry and hot as the orange-red sun beat down on it, or frozen over in the eternal night. It was only between these two extremes, near the line separating day from night, that life had come to be. Great forests ringed Penumbra at the very edge of night, extending onto the day side until it became too hot, while things that were not quite plants grew on the night side, fading away as one headed farther from the sun and the ice began to cover everything.
The umbrals had evolved in the habitable darkness near the horizon. As far as scientists had been able to determine, their ancestors had been winged hunters, swooping down out of the black sky to seize their prey. Evolving in that environment had given the people of the shadows their pale skin and crimson eyes, and to hunt in darkness those eyes had adapted to see different forms of light, both the orange-red light one could see peeking over the horizon and the infrared that made warm bodies glow in the dark.
As they spread across the habitable band of their world, their great cities expanding, the umbrals had been faced more and more with the limited room they had to live in. Made for the darkness, they could not abide the stinging light of the day side of Penumbra, and had seemed trapped. Necessity, however, is the mother of invention, and the people of the shadows had looked underground, where the eternal rivers that flowed from the night side of Penumbra out into the daylight had sometimes run beneath the surface, carving out great caverns. These were colonized, and the undercities were born; Lijekai had been one of the first, in fact. It was a triumph of architecture and engineering, doing this so many centuries ago, but as far as Selara was concerned, it wasn’t their greatest triumph.
She always believed her people’s greatest achievements were the sky cities.
The first of the overcities were ancient, the undercities younger, but construction of the sky cities had only begun a few decades before Selara had been born. The umbrals had existed under the night sky for as long as they could remember, and as their science advanced, the stars overhead beckoned to them. In space, their explorers had found a new frontier for their people. Passing asteroids were captured and towed into orbit above Penumbra, mined for their resources, and new cities were built in the void. There were twelve of them now, and each of the vast, ring-shaped habitats spun to generate gravity within, comfortably housing tens of thousands of citizens.
Selara’s father had taken her to visit a sky city back when she was a child, and she could still remember the sense of awe at how immense the torus had looked, at the city within, the ground curving up in either direction and the view of her planet out through the transparent ceiling.
At the time, space and everything in it had seemed so wondrous.
But it had been the sky cities where things had begun to go wrong.
Selara was nearing her destination now, approaching the far end of the massive gallery where the ceiling sloped down to meet the floor. Here a single large tunnel led away into darkness, the near-infrared lights inside it having been deactivated. During the retreat from the other caverns of Lijekai a month ago, all tunnels that the enemy could use to breach this gallery had been completely collapsed, save for this one. Demolition charges had only brought down one section of this tunnel, making it the invaders’ most obvious choice to enter through.
Making use of this, the military had turned the entrance into a chokepoint. The highway that emerged from the tunnel mouth was now bordered on either side by pipelines with multiple openings, and farther back, rubble from dismantled buildings had been piled on the sides of the road, causing the open space to narrow the further in one went. The rubble walls enhanced the bottleneck effect.
The pipelines were to show why backing your enemy into a corner was a bad idea.
Multiple ranks of umbral soldiers had massed not far from the mouth of the tunnel. Those in the first line, standing nearly shoulder to shoulder, carried heavy shields almost as tall as they were. The shields were crude, little more than large, rectangular pieces of sturdy metal with attachments on the back for the wielder’s arm, but these weren’t traditional weapons. Umbral combat tactics took advantage of their flight, and Selara knew from her military history schooling that shields had only rarely been used, mostly to block hallways when fighting inside of buildings. The idea of using them in a formation like this was new, but they’d had more than enough time to fashion the devices and practice with them. Training was one way to distract from the ever-increasing sense of dread as the invaders pushed them farther back into the undercity.
Beating her wings to slow her descent, Selara touched down near the front line of shield bearers, where Commander Lyrena was talking with one of their intelligence officers. Half a head shorter than Selara, Lyrena nonetheless radiated authority, her bearing and speech composed and confident. The commander was dressed in a set of body armor similar to the one Selara wore, with hard plates covering the chest and other key spots, while an advanced tactical weave protected the rest of the body and kept everything light enough for flight. Selara’s armor was nondescript, however, while the officer’s was decorated with strategic inlays of metal in the composite plates: the symbols denoting her rank. Approaching, Selara bowed slightly. Lyrena returned the gesture.
“How close are they, Commander?” Selara asked.
“Close,” Lyrena said, looking toward the mouth of the tunnel. “Seismic sensors indicate they’ve dug through the collapsed section and are moving troops in. We’re keeping an eye on the sensors though, and we should have enough time for Luvira to say a few words before you get into position.”
“Understood, Ma’am,” Selara said quietly. “The others should appreciate that.” Other soldiers were indeed gathering around, waiting for the priestess to arrive.
“I don’t suppose we’ve heard from any of the other undercities,” Selara probed. Lyrena sighed and shook her head.
“No. The last transmission from Sarikai didn’t sound good, though, and that was two weeks back.” Sarikai had been the only other undercity that was still fighting, from what Selara remembered. If it had gone dark two weeks ago…
“Well,” Selara said, doing her best to give her commander a wry grin, “I guess we’ll just have to sort this out ourselves.” Lyrena chuckled, and then turned to speak to some of the other soldiers. Alone with her thoughts again, Selara couldn’t keep her eyes from straying back to the tunnel, looking into the darkness for the invaders.
The sky cities had seen them first. Above the obscuring clouds, the tori had made excellent platforms for studying the vastness of space, and telescopes gazed out on the cosmos from the orbital habitats. They studied the other worlds of Penumbra’s solar system and tracked asteroids and comets, assessing each to see if it threatened to collide with the sky cities or Penumbra itself. Orbital platforms mounting thermonuclear missiles or particle accelerators were used to destroy asteroids large enough to be dangerous but too small to be harvested, or to deflect those large enough to be mined, allowing them to be captured and towed into a stable orbit. The telescopes even looked farther out to try to detect planets around distant stars.
A year and a half ago, they had spotted a swarm of objects at the edge of the solar system. There were scores of them, all throwing off massive amounts of radiation, and approaching at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Cautious by nature, the scientific community sought out every possible explanation for the objects approaching from the outer darkness, every explanation save one. As the weeks went by, however, as the objects crossed the solar system and it became impossible to miss the fact that they were decelerating, the scientists had no choice but to settle on the one explanation they had been avoiding: these objects were starships, braking as they approached Penumbra.
First contact had been made.
Selara remembered the feeling that had gripped them all in those early days. Watching the alien ships, each more than 30 times the size of an umbral asteroid mining vessel, in the broadcast footage had provoked a small amount of apprehension, but primarily awe. Ki-leth was excited about the ships themselves, speculating about what their propulsion systems must be like. Selara had spent several nights listening to her excited little brother and his friends suggesting what kind of drive might have both the thrust and exhaust velocity necessary to allow ships that large to brake so rapidly, and how the approaching fleet could use anything that threw off that much energy without any visible radiators. Their father, meanwhile, had just wanted to know what had brought the visitors; what they had come to say.
He was far from the only one wondering, as the people of the shadows began broadcasting messages to the ships shortly after they settled into orbit around the sun, issuing greetings in multiple languages and trying different frequencies, from microwaves all the way up to laser transmissions, to be sure the visitors were receiving them. The alien ships never responded, and the longer the silence went on, the more the fear in their mixed emotions grew.
This only got worse when a second wave of ships was detected at the edge of the solar system. Releasing less radiation from the propulsion drives as it slowed, this force was four times the size of the vanguard, and as it drew closer, gradually slowing, the true purpose of the vanguard was revealed. The second force was braking with what appeared to be fusion drives, rather than the unknown, unfathomably bright rockets the vanguard had used, but judging by the energy released compared to the rate of deceleration, and by the heat bloom coming off the vanguard ships, it seemed the purpose of the first wave was to fire lasers at the ships of the second, which caught the light somehow and used it to slow down.
The umbrals continued to broadcast to the ships, both groups now, but the military began to worry, and the government started evacuating people from the sky cities. Selara’s mother was a high-ranking officer involved in strategic command, and she had grown more unnerved as time had gone by. Finally, during a family dinner, she’d put it into words.
“Explorers would only need to send one ship. There are two hundred of them up there.”
That wasn’t her only concern. Fully seven tenths of the combined fleet consisted of what had to be freighters, so incomprehensibly vast that each could swallow dozens of sky cities. High Command hadn’t settled on an explanation for the purpose of these massive ships yet, but leading candidates were combined troop transports and supply vessels…or colony ships.
The truth, impossibly, was worse.
As the second wave approached Penumbra, the smaller vessels of both groups revealed themselves to be warships when they released a volley of missiles. Propelled by more of those unthinkably bright drives, they accelerated to roughly one tenth the speed of light, arriving before any response could be made. The orbital defense platforms were destroyed in a matter of seconds, while smaller missiles crippled mining ships and destroyed the shuttle docking platforms on the sky cities.
Then, as the massive second wave swung past Penumbra to curve around its star, the aliens spoke for the first time. The commanding officer formally declared war on the umbrals, claiming them as property of his people, the Kthid. The idea was almost impossible to believe; even in their worst case scenarios, the people of the shadows had feared the invaders would want their planet, not the umbrals themselves. For as bad as that was, a last desperate transmission to the alien fleet, trying to understand why they would do such a thing, prompted a spiteful rebuke. That rebuke plunged Selara and her species deeper into their waking nightmare. The Kthid only wanted female umbrals. They had no interest in slave labor.
They were here for breeding stock.
The secondary force was still moving too fast to join its orbit to Penumbra’s, so after its initial strike, it swept past, curving around the red star and using its gravity for the final stage of deceleration. It took three months to complete the process, and for Selara and her sisters in arms, it was a race against time.
Of the approximately 250,000 umbrals living in the sky cities, three quarters had been evacuated before the alien fleet had opened fire. The remaining citizens were trapped, able to feed themselves thanks to the tori’s agricultural modules, but unable to return to the planet without shuttle access. The umbral military had been greatly reduced in the decades of peace, remaining primarily as a counter-terrorism force, and it simply lacked the resources to mount any sort of rescue for them in the time they had left. As hard as it was, those trapped in the sky cities would have to stay there.
Instead, as the invasion fleet spiraled closer and closer to the planet, High Command ordered as many people as possible evacuated into the undercities. The civilians would be safer beneath the surface of Penumbra than they would out under the hostile sky, and so Ki-leth and the others in the Engineering Corps set about making more room in the undercities for housing while Selara and the other combatants split their duties, some escorting the refugees in while others braced for the enemy’s descent. Their mother took her place at a fortified military base, keeping their father by her side where he would be safe.
Working together, they managed to move hundreds of millions underground, but billions remained in Penumbra’s overcities when the invading fleet settled into orbit overhead. Transmissions had been sent and received from the sky cities non-stop over the last few months, and now family members sent what might be their final messages, as the Kthid warships swarmed the tori like hungry predators.
Shortly thereafter, the last transmissions came in. Through the background din of weapons fire and a chorus of screaming, frantic voices described the rape of thousands of females, and the slaughter of males and children.
Then the sky cities went horribly silent.
Back on the surface, evacuations continued, but Selara grew frustrated. Her unit was one of those assigned to help guide civilians into the undercities, and then to remain with them to keep them safe; a surprisingly large number of soldiers had been given that task. She understood the importance of her job, but at the same time, just about everyone felt some desire to be among the troops above ground, bracing for the invaders’ descent. The mass rape and murder in the sky cities had lit a fire in the hearts of soldiers across Penumbra—a profound desire to strike back—and for all that they had been helpless in space, that wasn’t the case on the surface.
The people of the shadows had moved beyond fighting between nations by the time they truly began to colonize space, so there had never been a need to craft weapons of war for the void. However, peaceful for decades though they may have been, they had not done away with the tools or knowledge of war on the surface. Their electromagnetic rifles could fire bullets at extremely high speed, most soldiers were at least proficient with blades, and there were great engines of destruction left over from the final war.
Selara had been a very young girl when the last war ended, but she’d still had opportunities to see the combat mecha, either in museums or actually being flown at educational events. They were things of terrible beauty, titanic constructs of metal and composite material, powered by the most efficient nuclear reactors science could design and bristling with weaponry. Their main guns were massive charged particle cannons, drawing their power directly from the reactors; the beams of synthetic lightning could shear steel like paper.
Scientists estimated that the Kthid ships had magnetic shielding of some kind, necessary to protect them from particle radiation during their relativistic spaceflight, and Selara had been rather curious about testing the limits of those shields. If they wanted to harvest female umbrals, eventually the invaders would need to descend, and Selara hadn’t been the only one positively eager to see how well their defenses would hold against a direct shot from one of the war machines’ main guns.
But the enemy didn’t descend.
Looking back on it, Selara imagined High Command must have known what was coming. They must have anticipated what it would mean if the enemy controlled the high orbitals, and that was why they had sent so many troops, including some high-ranking officers, into the undercities. Her mother in particular had given the order for Selara’s unit to take its position underground.
Selara thought about that a lot afterward.
She and Ki-leth had been at the surface entrance to Lijekai when it happened. Ki-leth had been taking inventory of supplies coming in while Selara watched for any security threats, and from their location had a decent line of sight to the military base where their parents had taken up residence. Selara had been idly watching the glittering specks of vehicles coming and going from it in the distance. Above them, however, the Kthid must have decided the time was right. The invading fleet had reached the right altitude and position.
And the missiles came streaking down out of the dark sky.
Selara actually saw the attack that killed her parents. She caught sight of the projectile descending, resembling nothing so much as a shooting star. She barely had time to realize what was really happening before it struck the military base and the complex disappeared in a massive ball of thermonuclear fire, and Ki-leth and she were forced to squeeze their eyes shut. The blast was unspeakably powerful; the very rock heaved and shattered under its terrible might. Even from so far away, Selara had felt the ground shaking beneath her feet, her skin heating from the explosion’s light.
More missiles came down. Fusion warheads annihilated military fortresses, detonating on impact with the surface to ensure they collapsed bunkers and subterranean command centers, while smaller attacks, solid objects hitting with pure kinetic energy, destroyed power plants, communication hubs and government buildings.
Formations of troops above ground were struck with tactical nuclear airbursts. Umbral soldiers fell from the skies, screaming as their flesh burned, before the shockwaves shattered their bones and threw their broken bodies like toys.
The great war machines were all destroyed in their hangars.
The umbral military above ground was completely decapitated in less than two hours. Then the invaders descended and the harvest of the overcities began.
During that sleep cycle, Ki-leth slept in bed with his sister for the first time since childhood. His body wouldn’t stop shaking, and Selara wrapped her wings around her little brother and stroked his hair. Long after he went still and his breathing slowed, she was awake, thinking. She couldn’t stop thinking, wondering about what had happened to their parents. Had the fireball eaten deep enough into the ground to reach them, scorching them to blackened ash? Had the blast wave simply collapsed the area they were in? Did that kill them quickly, the unfathomable weight of the rock crushing their bodies into paste, or were they trapped in a small pocket of air, clawing for breath even now?
Selara stared at the wall, the thoughts running through her mind over and over. When she finally did fall asleep, it was from pure exhaustion.
From what she learned afterward, the harvest of the overcities happened quickly, as the invaders scooped up refugees fleeing clouds of radioactive fallout and combed buildings to hunt down those still hiding in their homes. After that, however, the war had really begun.
For now the Kthid moved to harvest the undercities. They couldn’t use another orbital bombardment, lest they collapse the undercities entirely and lose all the wombs they meant to claim. No, the alien monsters had to enter the undercities on foot.
And there, in the darkness, Selara and her sisters in arms were waiting for them.
Commander Lyrena’s voice brought Selara back to the present, coming from where she stood a short distance away, as well as from her earpiece, the commander broadcasting to the assembled troops.
“The shield wall needs to hold as long as possible,” Lyrena said. “Fall back only as you must. Rifle-bearers, remember, do not fire until the enemy hits the shield wall. Any farther out and you’re wasting ammunition.” She turned to Selara next. “Blade teams, what are your jobs?”
“Blind and harass, Ma’am,” Selara replied, and through her earpiece, she heard the other two blade team leaders agree. The commander nodded.
“Last thing: nail guns are for the invaders wearing armor, and only the ones wearing armor. One of you wastes any ammo on a berserker, rest assured that if the enemy doesn’t kill you, I will. Is that understood?” A quick series of affirmatives followed. Lyrena might have added something else, but something behind Selara caught her eye, and she nodded respectfully and stepped back. A second later, Luvira glided in, passing above Selara to land in front of the assembled troops.
“I’m sorry, Commander,” she said. “I woke later than the rest of you, so getting ready…” Lyrena waved the concern off. Selara understood why. Luvira was the resident priestess of the All-Mother, and before the last sleep cycle she had been busy performing last-minute marriages and personal blessings.
The priestess wore armor like the others, and as with Commander Lyrena’s, there were small strips of metal inlaid for special markings. Unlike the simple, angular marks denoting the commander’s rank, however, Luvira’s armor was adorned with graceful organic patterns, including the complex, interlinked form of the lifeweave: the holy symbol of the All-Mother. Her hair was drawn back into six elaborate braids, distinguishing her from the other warriors yet again. She had the same look on her face, though. Just like the rest of them, she was visibly tired.
“I’ll return to the command post and check up on seismics,” Lyrena said, taking off and turning the floor over to Luvira. The priestess nodded respectfully and turned to face the gathered troops. Shutting her eyes, she took a slow, deep breath, held it for a moment, and then quietly released it, and it was as though she physically changed.
Selara and Luvira had been friends for years, and she’d seen this trick before. “Trick” wasn’t really a fair description, of course; what Luvira did took just as much practice and discipline as Selara’s use of a sword or Lyrena’s commanding persona. The holy woman practically gained an aura, shedding all signs of exhaustion. Her expression was serene, and quiet strength radiated from her. Bowing her head, she folded her hands before her chest, while behind her, her pale wings spread to their full length.
“All-Mother,” Luvira began, “maker of all things living, in shadow and light, your children call to you in this dire time. Ward us against despair, and help us know what peace we may.”
“Help us, in these hours of horror, to see more; to see the good in the world. There is heroism all around us even now, not only from those called to serve, but from those who have stepped forward of their own accord.” Lifting her head, she looked across the gathered soldiers. “We give thanks now for our new brothers in arms, and for their bravery in joining us on the field of battle.”
Umbral males were smaller than females and more lightly built. Since time immemorial, they had been more vulnerable to beasts of prey, and so their mothers, sisters and lifemates had been there to keep them safe. Seeing a male come to harm was painful, and so even when they wished it, it had been difficult to even begin to allow them into the military. Slowly, those who wanted to serve had been worked into support roles, but frontline combat had been a step too far.
Now, though, the umbrals faced a threat like no other, and the Kthid had shown all too clearly what they would do to defenseless males. As the aliens had encroached deeper into the undercities, more and more males had decided that if they were going to be killed by the monsters, they would rather die fighting beside their sisters. By now, perhaps a tenth of the assembled troops were male. As the priestess talked, Selara saw more than one female rifle-bearer give the male at her side a supportive pat on the shoulder, or elbow him good-naturedly.
Selara spared a thought for her baby brother, fighting in his own way, and smiled ever so briefly.
“To all of you who have joined us here, know that we are forever grateful.” Taking her attention away from the soldiers, Luvira bowed her head again. “We have all trained hard, committing ourselves to our duty: the defense of those who cannot defend themselves. Now, All-Mother, we ask that you grant us the strength to see that duty through. For those who fight, we ask for your blessing and your favor. For those who…”
The priestess stopped speaking, and for just a moment, Selara saw her old friend forcing her composure to hold.
“For those who suffer,” she finally said, “we ask that you grant strength to endure.” She drew a deep breath, released it slowly and finished the prayer.
“As the dark sends the rivers to the light, and the light sends the clouds and rain in return, we ask, weaver of life, that you provide for your children, of every kind. Help us to face our trials and move forward into the future, until all is made new.”
“Until all is made new,” the gathered soldiers echoed. Luvira folded her wings again and walked over to join Selara as the troops rushed back to their stations.
“That was well done,” Selara said. “I know it got a little difficult at one point there. How are you holding up?” Luvira smiled, but it was somewhat forced. A few weeks ago, during the retreat from the last battlefield, her lifemate and two children, the twins no more than ten years of age, had been cut off, and the military had had no choice but to leave them behind as the Kthid closed in.
No one could confirm what had happened to them, but everyone knew.
“I…” the priestess began, took another deep breath, and then continued. “I will see Na-ren and our children again. My task is to endure until then. I know that may sound silly to you, but—” Selara cut her friend off, putting put a hand on her shoulder and giving her an empathetic smile.
“I’m not saying what you believe isn’t true,” Selara said. “I don’t know myself, but rest assured I don’t think what you believe is silly in the least.” Luvira managed another smile.
“They’re moving,” Commander Lyrena’s voice emerged from their earpieces. “Tunnel breach is estimated to occur in five minutes. Everyone to your positions.” Selara and Luvira glanced at each other, and Selara nodded quickly. Spreading their wings, the two of them took off and headed for their position.
Not all the buildings in the undercity were on the floors of the great caverns. As the umbrals could fly, the architects had carved into the walls as well. The warehouse-turned-shelter at the rear of the gallery was built into the wall like this, and there were several levels of homes running up the sides by the tunnel. Walkways provided space to move in front of the doors, and it was on these that the blade teams, Selara’s included, were taking up position.
“Dousing lights; going to infrared.” A moment after the commander’s announcement, the red lights that had been illuminating the city went out. Selara could see, of course; they all could. The city ran on geothermal power, after all, and the rocks all around them glowed softly with warmth. Even against that background, the umbrals radiated brightly, and Selara watched as the remaining blade wielders flew up to perch on the walkways around the entrance. Below, the shield wall closed tight, rifle bearers standing ready behind them. For the Kthid coming down the tunnel, though, the faint red glow of the city would have just vanished.
Good. Let the monsters press forward into hostile darkness. The fighting in the undercities had been going on for nine months now. The invaders’ first entrance had been met with a storm of gunfire, all of which had shattered harmlessly against invisible barriers—Kthid foot soldiers, the defenders had learned, each had a personal version of the shields that protected their ships—and after that Selara imagined the aliens must have felt fairly confident.
But while the Kthid had overwhelming numbers, and their armored warriors had superior technology, the umbrals knew every city, every gallery and tunnel. This was their home. And they were born to hunt in darkness.
After the first few engagements, Undercity Command and the Engineering Corps had worked out how the enemy shields functioned, and even as the battle lines had fallen back from cavern to cavern, the umbrals had begun to draw blood. Even as more and more of the Kthid appeared, their numbers seemingly endless, umbral soldiers switched to blades as their primary focus. They made use of the darkness, striking hard before vanishing back into the shadows. Explosive shockwaves would bounce off the shields, but that didn’t save the monsters, even their armored elites, when umbral engineers detonated charges and collapsed tunnels and caverns, bringing the ceilings crashing down on entire formations of invaders.
The monsters had won an easy victory on the surface…and then tens of thousands of them had died in the undercities.
Selara didn’t know what these aliens felt, but she hoped they were developing a fear of the dark.
Looking over quickly, she caught sight of Luvira checking her nail gun. Ki-leth’s invention was essentially a breech-loading rifle with an extremely heavy barrel. A pack of the metal spikes that served as ammunition was secured to the priestess’s waist. There hadn’t been enough time to manufacture many of the anti-armor weapons, so as she’d told her brother, Selara didn’t have one. Her linear rifle was a deadly weapon, but useless against the invaders, at this range anyway. That was fine. Again, as she’d told her brother, it wasn’t what she’d be relying on now.
Reaching down to her hip, Selara drew her sword. The weapon had been designed and commissioned by her father and offered to her mother as part of his marriage proposal. She had carried it for decades, until Selara graduated from the military academy. That day, her mother had passed the sword to her, and it was rare nowadays that Selara went anywhere without it.
Able to be used either with one hand or two, the single-edged blade was a traditional design, straight along the back side, but bearing more organic curves on the cutting edge. It flared out somewhat toward the front, the increased mass adding more power when it struck an opponent. It wasn’t a cutting weapon exclusively, of course, and the sword narrowed to a lethal point at the end. Holding it up, Selara traced a finger along the engraving on the blade: the characters for her mother and father’s names, and finally of hers, written so as to flow into one another, the passage of the sword from one hand to another in written form.
Selara shut her eyes and sighed. Despite the situation, a tiny smile appeared at the corners of her mouth. Her parents were gone, but in a way, she was still connected to them.
“One minute to tunnel breach,” Lyrena said. “You swore oaths. Uphold them now.” A moment later she finished with “It’s been a privilege serving with all of you.”
There were no more updates, but Selara didn’t need them. Her four narrow ears pricked up as the noise from the tunnel grew louder and louder, the pounding of countless feet on the stone mixing with the monsters’ war cries. Seconds later, the berserkers erupted from the tunnel and poured into the cavern.
Selara didn’t know what they called themselves, but she thought of this type of the enemy as berserkers, committed to a sort of battle fury that verged on animalistic. They wore no armor, clad only in loincloths and the belts that apparently projected their personal shields, but otherwise seemed typical of their race. A head taller than the average umbral female, the aliens were bipedal; short tails thrashed back and forth behind them as they ran. Their bodies were built for power, bulging muscles rippling beneath their scaly hides. A set of horns projected from the rears of their skulls like a macabre crown, and red eyes sat above an elongate muzzle, lips now curled back to reveal sharp teeth.
The savagery they radiated was reflected in their armaments. Part of the reason Selara thought of them as berserkers. Just as they wore no armor, they also carried no firearms, instead wielding heavy maces, hammers and crude, simplistic swords. Some of them bore no weapons at all, content with their claws and fangs.
The berserkers rushed from the tunnel, hundreds upon hundreds of them. As more emerged, Selara could see bright, flickering lights dotted among them, the torches in their hands flaring with near-infrared. As the horde charged, Selara kept careful watch on the torchbearers, and she knew the rest of her team was doing the same.
Taking a step toward the edge of the walkway, the soldier spread her wings. From behind her came the barely audible sound of a dozen other blades whispering from their sheaths.
“You heard the commander,” Selara said to her team, “so I won’t add much. You all know what you’re doing.” Below, the berserkers continued to surge forward, closing the distance to the umbrals bearing shields. “No speeches; we all know what happens here. I’m just going to give you one order.”
The foremost berserkers charged on all fours, jaws open wide as they roared.
“Make them bleed for it.”
Down in the street, the flood of scale and fang slammed into the shield wall. The raw momentum of the charge caused the defensive formation to buckle. The soldiers holding the shields were strong, but the berserkers piled up on one another, and though Selara could see the shield-bearers digging in their heels, they were still pushed back a few steps. The shield line bowed inward…but it held, and the berserker charge came to a stop.
Selara sprang from the walkway, wings catching the air, and her team followed. Their descent from the ledge had been carefully rehearsed, and not one among them beat her wings. Altering their courses with nothing more than careful adjustments of their tail vanes and wing profiles, a dozen umbral huntresses swept in toward the mob of invaders.
Below them, the berserkers seethed in frustration, battering at the shield wall with their weapons. Sparks flew from where swords and axes struck the barriers, and the heavy maces and hammers pushed the defenders back. One unarmed berserker managed to get his paws on the edge of a shield and pulled, ripping it away from the soldier holding it. The aliens around him made enough room for him to grab hold of the soldier and yank her forward. Selara was still some distance above, but she saw the sudden fear on the woman’s face as she was dragged into the monsters’ clutches, scaly fists striking her like hammers. The berserker grinned savagely…at least for a moment. From the void left by the fallen soldier, a rifle bearer stepped forward. The male jumped over the prone form of the battered soldier and brought his weapon to bear.
Based on battle data, the Engineering Corps had learned that the shields all Kthid were equipped with were immune to infantry weapons, but they had two weaknesses. One of those was that the shields weren’t flush against the skin; the invisible barriers were a short distance, perhaps an arm’s length, from the body.
The young umbral thrust his linear rifle in through the shield, aiming up at the tower of fang and muscle looming over him. He pressed the barrel against the berserker’s throat and before it could grab the gun and pull it away, he fired. The back of the invader’s neck exploded in a mist of hot blood, and he toppled over backward. Selara saw the male retreat back into formation, others dragging the unconscious soldier back to safety, and the shield wall withdrew down the narrowing highway, closing the gap the berserker had opened. The defensive line had fallen back, and the berserkers redoubled their efforts, more of them looking to repeat their fallen comrade’s trick.
Before they could, however, Selara and her team descended on them.
The first weakness of the alien shields was their vulnerability to point blank attacks. The second, however, was something else the young rifleman had demonstrated. Reviewing combat data had indicated not only where the shields were, but also that they were sensitive to the speed of an attack. Anything above a certain velocity would be stopped, but slower-moving objects would bypass the force field as though nothing were there. An explosive shockwave bounced off. A bullet shattered.
A gun barrel—or a sword—went right through.
With no warning beyond a rush of air, Selara and her team swooped in and passed directly over the berserker mob, their blades slashing across necks and faces. At least nine aliens dropped, either limp from severed spines or clutching frantically at slashed throats, and Selara and the others pulled up and away, vanishing back into the darkness. Mere seconds later, before the enemy could get their bearings, the second blade team hit them from a completely different direction, and then the third after that, just like they’d practiced.
Selara beat her wings and climbed, ascending back to her original altitude, and then she and her team angled their wings and glided down silently, like cutting shadows.
As they descended toward the berserkers again, Selara heard more gunshots; saw more of the aliens fall as other rifle-wielding soldiers aimed out between the shields and fired point blank into the crush of enemies. Farther back, more of the monsters pressed forward, eager for their chance to hit the umbral line. Every time a blade team raked them, they would either hunch down in an attempt to protect themselves or lash out with weapons or claws.
They struggled to hit any of the attacking soldiers, though, and not just because of the speed with which they flew overhead. As Team Three made its latest attack run, Selara saw two of the enemy’s torches go out. She still wasn’t sure exactly why the berserkers never carried a light source more advanced than a burning stick, but it didn’t matter.
What did matter was that every one of those that the umbrals destroyed brought the light levels in the cavern closer and closer to total darkness.
Selara and her team came in low over the front line, and she took aim at a torch-bearing monster at the very front. Mindful not to swing too hard and exceed the Kthid shield’s speed threshold, she brought her sword around just hard enough, adding her airspeed to the blow. The berserker was so focused on the shield wall in front of him that his first awareness of Selara came from her blade striking his torch near the top, causing the controlled flame to explode in a shower of sparks and dissipating fuel, and then to vanish completely. As she passed, Selara looked back and saw the berserker trying to follow her with his eyes, before the nearest rifle bearer stuck her gun through the shield wall and shot him twice in the chest.
Luvira and the others hit their targets as well, killing monsters and breaking torches, and the cavern grew still darker.
Still the berserkers pressed forward, relentless, stepping over their own dead, and the shield wall steadily gave ground. Snuffing out the torches hadn’t slowed them at all. They remained focused on the shield wall, the enemy they could see…which meant that the torch-extinguishing tactic was working perfectly.
The highway, as planned, was a bottleneck, the walls of rubble narrowing so that the shield wall could contract as it gave ground. That modification had been made last, and hadn’t taken too long. What had taken far longer to build were the pipelines running along the sides of the chokepoint. There was one of them to either side of the road, partially buried in the rubble wall. The side of each pipe that faced the road was studded with circular openings, all of which had been left uncovered, as had the circular handles on the tops of the pipes.
The alien monsters might have noticed them if the lighting were a little better. As it was, between the ever-dimming light, the obvious target of the shield wall and the harassing attacks by the blade teams, they didn’t even notice the dozen umbral soldiers dropping into position and taking hold of the valve handles. Reaching up with her free hand, Selara activated her throat mic.
“Alright,” she said, “the shield wall’s fallen back to about the perfect position. One more attack run and we spring the trap.” Following her lead, her team swept down on the enemy again. Blades and hammers swung up at her, and a forest of clawed hands grabbed for the umbrals as they passed overhead. Selara brought her sword down on one, and the alien screamed as the limb was almost completely severed. Luvira tilted her wings and angled her tail vane, arcing to the side and evading another grabbing lunge. The soldier behind them wasn’t so lucky; Selara heard a cry of alarm and twisted her head back in time to see one of her team members, a younger woman named Mirella, stall in the air as a berserker seized her tail. The woman beat her wings frantically, but the monster below held on, and when she kicked at him another one grabbed her ankle. Continuing to scream, she was dragged down and vanished beneath a mass of scaly bodies.
“Blade teams, pull back,” Commander Lyrena ordered through the com link. Selara reached up to reply, but she could still hear Mirella screaming, and a glance down showed the knot of berserkers that had swarmed her. Between the muscular forms covering her, flashes of pale skin were revealed as the berserkers tore away body armor and clothing.
“Commander, we have a team member down,” Selara said. “We can’t abandon her.”
“We can’t hold off on the trap. I’m sorry, but you have to leave her.”
Selara understood. It sounded cold, but Mirella was only occupying a small group of the berserkers, maybe five or so. The others were still pressing the shield wall, and waiting too long would result in too many of them being out of the trap’s area of effect when it was activated. Mirella’s death would not be painless, but under the circumstances Selara couldn’t really argue the logic.
She was just one soldier. She had to be left behind.
Below, a brief opening in the mass of bodies showed the monsters’ paws closing over Mirella’s firm breasts, squeezing brutally. Her screams rose with the pain, and then were cut off as her mouth was filled.
Selara gritted her teeth, and then reached up to her throat mic again.
“Commander,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “give me ten seconds.” As the team reached the top of their arc, she signaled them.
“All team members, vortex formation; center it on Mirella. I’ll retrieve.” A chorus of affirmatives followed, and the umbrals descended, their formation incredibly dense as they all angled their wings for a spiraling flight path.
A few heartbeats later, they hit the enemy hard, the battlefield gang rape cut short by a cyclone of beating wings and razor-sharp steel. The rapists collapsed, blood spurting from deep slash wounds. Still more Kthid were forced back as the winged soldiers spread out into the tightest circle they could fly, carving open a bloody wound in the berserker mob and holding that perimeter.
It wasn’t a line they could maintain—they’d pushed back the aliens with a combination of actual damage and shock, and the shock would wear off soon—but it would last just long enough. Selara dropped straight down through the center of the tornado, flaring her wings out to brake as she landed hard right next to Mirella. The younger soldier coughed, expelling gobs of semen, and tried to curl into a fetal position. Selara didn’t let her, instead heaving Mirella onto her feet and holding her tightly beneath the arms.
The vortex formation broke apart, the rest of the team retreating to a safe height, and Selara beat her wings as hard as she possibly could, lifting both Mirella and herself into the air. The berserker horde closed, roaring with fury, but weren’t quite fast enough, and both umbrals got clear just in time. As she climbed higher, Luvira flew in beside her and grabbed hold of Mirella, freeing one of Selara’s arms. The team leader immediately touched her throat mic.
“We’re clear, Commander! Now, now, do it now!” Lyrena didn’t reply, instead apparently signaling the soldiers on the pipes. All of them went into action, turning their valve handles as one.
Penumbra orbited its small red star very tightly, and the star’s gravity acted on its core, the tidal forces producing intense heat deep within. The umbrals had known of this for countless generations, flying over the thermals that came off geysers and hot springs and watching lava flow down the sides of volcanoes. When they had turned their minds to applied science, geothermal energy had been harnessed to power most cities. Lijekai was no exception.
That was what the pipes were. The Engineering Corps had managed to run water from the primary loop of the geothermal plant into them, letting it fill the long metal tubes. Drawn up from the scorching depths of the world, the water was at more than twice its boiling point, sheer pressure the only thing keeping it in its liquid phase.
And then the handles were turned, the valves opened, and there was no pressure anymore.
A sound like cannon fire filled the gallery, echoing off the walls as jets of superheated steam exploded from the openings in the pipelines. The jets coalesced into two great clouds, walls of steam that washed over the berserkers and came together, closing like the jaws of the Devourer itself.
As it first left the pipes, the vapor was moving extremely fast, and it bounced off the Kthid’s personal shields. That speed didn’t last forever, though, and as it slowed it passed through them and enveloped the aliens, each wearing nothing more than a loincloth.
The berserkers closest to the pipes died almost silently, the only sound the thud of their bodies striking the ground and writhing feebly, skin burning, bubbling and then sloughing wetly off of muscle. Those farther away screamed, very briefly, and then paid for it as the steam clawed its way down their throats to scald their lungs.
Selara and her team caught the updraft off the expanding steam cloud, riding it back up to the ledge as the shrieks of agony below became hoarse gasping, and then trailed off into silence. As the cloud dissipated, it revealed a mass of hideously burned corpses, the entire berserker horde slain, save for the few lines pressed up against the shield wall.
The blade teams and rifle wielders made short work of those.
The population of the sky cities had been massacred; civilization on the surface hadn’t lasted much longer. They’d lost contact with the other undercities weeks ago, and they were now backed into the last gallery of this one. By any measure, the Kthid had the umbrals cornered.
And there was nothing more dangerous than a cornered animal.
“Satisfying as that was,” Lyrena said through Selara’s earpiece, “we’ve got more incoming. Valves are sealed and the trap is re-pressurizing, so be ready for the next round.”
“Understood, Commander.” There was a pause, and then…
“How’s your rescue?” Lyrena’s voice held no condemnation, and Selara took a moment to look over at the far end of the ledge, where Luvira and one of the other soldiers were tending to Mirella. The young woman was covered in bruises and scratches, and there were some small tears in the membrane of her left wing, but it was nothing that wouldn’t heal. Physically she was alright.
Of course, given what had just happened to her, the physical was only part of it.
“Hey, Mirella,” Selara said, keeping her voice soft as she approached and knelt by her battered teammate. “How are you?” Mirella didn’t seem to want to make eye contact with the others, and she wrapped her wings around herself, covering her nakedness. Raising her head for brief moments, she made intermittent eye contact with Selara.
“I’m…I can…” she started, and then shut her mouth. She swallowed, and Selara could see her eyes welling up. Without making eye contact again, the young soldier shook her head quickly.
“It’s alright,” Selara said. “Just stay up here; we can handle this.” A few of the others voiced their agreement, and Selara touched her throat mic as she walked away.
“Commander, our rescue’s doing well, considering what she just went through, but she’s in no shape to keep fighting.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Lyrena answered. “So you’re down to ten?”
“I’ll leave Surissa up here with her, so yes. Don’t worry; we’ll still do the job.”
“Good, because the next wave of those damn aliens will be coming out of the tunnel any minute now.” Lyrena couldn’t see it, but Selara nodded. Making eye contact with the rest of her team, she gestured with her sword, ordering them forward and into position.
Down below, the shield bearers were regaining as much ground as they could. They’d need to be pushed back again before the trap could be set off again, but the farther back the Kthid had to push them, the more opportunities the rifle wielders would have to fire, the more passes Selara’s team and the others could make, and the more of the invaders would die by bullet or blade.
Moments later, the second wave of berserkers crashed into the shield wall. Behind the shield bearers and rifle line, other soldiers moved alien corpses, doing their best to ensure that the front lines didn’t have to retreat over treacherous ground.
Selara led her team in for another swooping attack, Luvira behind her and to her right. As the priestess swerved to avoid a berserker reaching for her, she quickly adjusted her nail gun, tightening its strap to keep it from swinging around as she maneuvered. She hadn’t had a reason to use it yet.
Selara’s brow furrowed at the thought. She touched her throat mic.
“Commander, any sign of the armored warriors?” The command post had been set up in the most hardened of the nearby buildings, and from it Lyrena and her assistants would have a clear view of the battlefield, in addition to the information airborne soldiers sent her.
“No one’s reported seeing one so far,” she said.
Selara supposed she should be grateful no one had seen an armored foe yet…but deep down, she didn’t like that. The Kthid had proven over and over that they were savage, but not stupid. The armored warriors weren’t just stronger combatants; the enemy employed them tactically, using them in minimal numbers but to maximum effect, always in a way that enhanced the effect of the berserkers. If the elites hadn’t appeared yet, there was a reason for it.
Still, there was nothing they could do for now, so Selara focused on the task at hand. She and her team hit the enemy and faded back into the dark, again and again, as blows rained down on shields and rifle fire cut into scaly flesh. It was grisly, but it was also familiar.
At least, it was for a while.
Selara caught sight of it during her team’s fifth attack run. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something emerging from the tunnel entrance, something that broke up the uniformity of the berserker horde.
“Luvira, is that what it looks like?” she asked as they ascended. As they reached the top of their trajectory, the team landed on the nearest ledge to observe more closely.
“It is,” the priestess said. “I guess they’re allowed more than torches after all.”
Emerging from the tunnel, one after another, were covered groups of the Kthid. A group of berserkers worked together to hold an irregular sheet of metal above their heads; Selara guessed it might obscure a dozen of the aliens if they clustered right. The sheets looked to be pieces of wreckage, cut out of buildings in other galleries and hauled in by the berserkers. If she dropped down and landed on it, Selara figured she could stab through one of those, but she knew she couldn’t cut through it. At a guess, that was what the pieces of metal were for: to shield some of the berserkers from the blade teams.
“What should we do about those?” Luvira asked.
“Nothing we can do,” Selara answered. “Not really, anyway, but it doesn’t matter. Those things might keep us from hitting the berserkers underneath, but they won’t save them from gunfire when they reach the shield wall and they’ll be worthless against the steam.” She took a breath and then finished with “just keep cutting around them.”
Dropping off the ledge, they rejoined the battle. At Selara’s direction, the team narrowed its focus to the ranks in front of the covered groups, cutting down the aliens in front to bring the “protected” ones forward faster, into range of the rifle bearers. The message made its way to the other blade teams, and soon all of them were hitting the same area, more and more of the invaders falling.
It didn’t have the effect they’d expected, though, and as she watched what happened instead, Selara began to feel worse and worse about the covered groups. They weren’t advancing beyond a certain point. Instead, all six of them came forward until they formed a line across the berserker horde, stopping perhaps ten ranks away from the shield wall. When berserkers ahead of the covered area fell, they were replaced by others coming around those shielded by the scrap metal.
“The shield wall is almost in position again,” Commander Lyrena reported. “We’ll release the steam when they are. Blade teams, what are those clusters under the scrap?”
“Not sure,” one of the other team leaders said. “It’s probably a way to keep us from hitting them from above.” While that had been what Selara had thought, the way they’d assumed a formation, combined with the fact that they weren’t moving anymore…
“I’m not sure about that,” she said. “I think maybe…maybe it’s camouflage, so we can’t see what’s underneath.” She thought for a moment, and then addressed her team.
“Wedge formation,” she said. “Let’s go in low by the closest covered group and see if we can get a look underneath.” Selara took the lead, the point of the wedge, with four soldiers trailing off to her left and four to her right. One final team member brought up the rear.
The huntresses swept out of the darkness and leveled off just above the berserkers, slashing at throats and arms and cutting a bloody swath through the Kthid. The final, trailing member of the team flew low, through the evanescent safe zone the attack had created, to look as closely as she could at what was below the metal sheet.
She didn’t say anything, but Selara was watching the woman’s face as they pulled up, which was how she saw the sudden expression of terror.
“Nail guns!” the panicked soldier cried out. “Use the nail guns now! They’re here THEY’RE HERE!” Dread coursing through her, Selara reached for her throat mic, to notify the command tower; to signal the other teams.
It was far too late.
Before Selara could say a word, the metal sheets were cast off, and with a loud hissing noise, the Kthid beneath launched themselves into the air.
These warriors were as tall and powerful as the berserkers, but the resemblance ended there. Rather than bare-chested and suicidal, these ones were clad head to toe in metal. The armor wasn’t simply defensive, Selara knew from combat recordings, but was mechanized, enhancing the aliens’ strength, and the hissing noise came from what looked almost like artificial wings mounted to the warriors’ backs, where jets of advanced make bore them aloft. Finally, while swords were sheathed at their hips, each of these aliens carried a heavy, twin-barreled rifle.
These were the elites, better trained and more disciplined than the berserkers, and outfitted with technology far in advance of umbral science.
And there were two dozen of them.
The armored monsters hung there for a few seconds, and then took action. Moving as one, a dozen of them spun in midair, took aim with their rifles and fired, beams of scorching red energy lancing out to strike the handles on the pipelines. The circular handles blew apart, sparks and shards of metal flying, and there was no longer any way to release the steam.
At the same time, another six raised their own weapons, and Selara realized that they were holding something beyond their usual rifles: heavy, shoulder-fired missile launchers. A heartbeat later they discharged, the explosive projectiles streaking over the umbral lines and heading for the buildings behind them. Each missile turned out to be a cluster weapon, breaking apart into a handful of sub-munitions that hit different parts of the same buildings. The buildings, Selara realized, that were the heaviest; the best protected.
The best command posts.
Commander Lyrena’s last orders ended in a burst of static as eight of the sub-munitions hit the command center, the explosions rippling through the structure from bottom to top, blasting it into a collapsing mass of fire and rubble.
As the missile troopers chose their next targets, the other eighteen warriors focused their rifles on the battlefield below. Rather than the killing beam, each one made use of his rifle’s secondary barrel, which fired some sort of disabling pulse, a visible shockwave of air. The focused volley came down on the umbrals in the front line, their shields useless against an attack from such a high angle. A line of eighteen soldiers fell bonelessly to the ground.
Berserkers poured through the gap, the leading edge of the attack descending on the rifle wielders. Selara caught sight of a sudden, strobing outburst of gunfire as many of the Kthid were shot dead at close range, but then they rolled over the umbrals like a flash flood, claws and blades coming to bear, maces shattering bone. Other parts of the berserker advance curled outward, hitting the shield bearers from their exposed sides.
The shield wall collapsed.
They had trained for this eventuality, and the retreating umbrals immediately took flight; Selara saw the young rifleman from earlier grabbed by one of his sisters in arms and hauled into the air. The disintegrating shield wall broke away from grounded combat and began to fall back to their assigned secondary positions.
The armored monsters weren’t about to let them do that, however, and they immediately began firing on the retreating soldiers, stun blasts hitting the umbrals highest in the air and sending their limp bodies crashing down onto those still trying to take off.
Watching it, Selara understood now how the Kthid had drawn their battle plans. Throughout the fighting in the undercities, the umbrals had been evasive, fighting as their ancestors had. They had been the teeth in the darkness, closing just long enough to kill, and then pulling away. When the invaders’ elites had given chase, they had been lured into carefully prepared traps, their armored suits crushed beneath collapsing ceilings or fried by webs of precisely laid power cables. In the case of one foundry battle, ten of them had even been submerged in molten metal.
Here, in the final gallery of Lijekai, they couldn’t hit and fade as before. A massive berserker advance had to be stopped to protect the civilians, which meant a defensive line. That was why they had sent the berserkers in first: the shield wall allowed the umbrals to stop the Kthid and inflict vicious casualties, but it also took the evasive, highly mobile umbral soldiers and pinned them in one spot, a shooting gallery for the armored warriors’ first strike.
Now the elites would keep firing, swatting the umbrals from the air as they tried to retreat, keeping them on the ground where the berserkers could reach them.
Selara took it all in as she circled the cavern, flying near the walls in horrified silence. Her eyes were wide as she took in the collapse of the defenses, the gleeful savagery of berserkers seizing fleeing soldiers and the steady, precise fire of the elites’ weapons. For a moment, her breath came faster and faster through her open mouth, her heartbeat accelerating as she stared at her race’s imminent defeat.
And then she clamped her mouth shut, blew out a breath and touched her throat mic.
“All blade teams, target the armored warriors!” she called out. “Anyone without a nail gun, distract the bastards or knock them off guard for someone who does have one; we have to take the pressure off the retreat!”
The enemy missile strikes had killed multiple officers by now and the chain of command was in chaos; no one stopped to question Selara’s authority. Instead, the orders went through the blade teams like an electric current, and all the umbrals who’d been circling in shock or watching from their ledges began pulling away from the gallery walls and accelerating inward.
Selara didn’t give any more general commands. Perhaps she trusted each blade team to operate independently, or perhaps she just didn’t have time to come up with a coordinated attack plan. She glanced back at her team quickly, gave them a hand signal, and then ascended, wings beating hard as she climbed to the very ceiling of the cavern, stopping just below the hanging forest of stalactites. At the peak, the ten umbrals angled their wings and plunged toward the alien warriors, picking up speed all the way down.
The invaders weren’t taken completely by surprise. Team Two had opted for a straight charge, and the warriors must have caught them in their peripheral vision. Six or seven of the armored monsters turned to face the charge and opened fire with their stun weapons. Selara saw one, then another, of the umbrals go limp and tumble toward the berserker horde, others managing to evade the shots. The Kthid were forced to break formation, then, as the blade team blew straight through their ranks. After that, Selara saw Team Three fall on the missile troopers like a hammer as she kept accelerating and her field of view narrowed rapidly.
“Brake for the attack run!” she called out, and then shifted her wings to catch as much air as possible, twisting her body to come in feet first. Wind whipped past her as she slowed, and the strain on her flight muscles almost hurt.
But by the time the armored monsters happened to look up and see the attack coming, it was too late to do anything about it.
Selara’s target brought his rifle up just as her boots collided with his defensive shield. The collision brought her to a stop, a painful shock jolting up through her legs, and there was a brief flash as the alien barrier shed light at the point of impact. The moment she stopped, Selara lashed out with her sword, swatting the warrior’s gun out of the way, and then she allowed herself to fall just slightly past him.
Luvira had been right behind Selara, braking as instructed, and waiting for her friend to give her an opportunity.
The geothermal energy that had powered the steam trap was plentiful on Penumbra. Harnessed properly, the scorching water served a city’s electrical needs well, but it was useless in space. In order to venture out among the stars, the umbrals had harnessed the power of the atom, mining fissile metal as they excavated new parts of the undercities. Refined uranium had provided excellent fuel for the asteroid mining ships, but of course the refining process left most of the substance behind. It was no good as fuel, but it was poisonous, as heavy metals are, it was strong, and it was incredibly dense.
As the military had weighed its options against the invasion, the engineers had suggested a few new uses for the depleted uranium. Ki-leth had personally designed the nail guns: a weapon of desperation, to be sure, but these were desperate times.
Now, just as Selara dropped out of the way, Luvira hit the Kthid warrior she had been occupying. Landing much like Selara had, the priestess thrust the nail gun forward, pressing the thick rifle barrel against the monster’s armored chest, and pulled the trigger. Selara heard the sharp, loud bang; saw the recoil of the weapon actually push Luvira back a little, as the weapon fired a depleted uranium spike almost the length of her forearm into the alien at a little over the speed of sound.
The Kthid warrior lurched back, almost staggering in midair, as the pyrophoric stake tore through armor, flesh and bones and erupted from his back in a shower of sparks and boiling blood.
His features were invisible behind his helmet, but the surprise came through in the way he stared down at the burning metal impaling him. He raised a single hand, as if to touch it, and then the hand fell away, and the dying invader plummeted to the ground.
Pulling away, Luvira cracked open the breech and begin loading another spike, as Selara cast about for their next target.
The blade teams were hitting the enemy from every angle, plunging from above, striking from all sides and even, in a few cases, flying low above the berserker horde to come up at the armored warriors from below. Holding their position wasn’t an option anymore, and neither was maintaining fire on the umbral retreat. The Kthid formation broke apart, individual warriors turning to face the new attackers. In that sense, the teams’ last-ditch attack had been successful, and even as a second monster was slain, a nail gun shot punching through his neck and almost decapitating him, Selara saw the retreating umbral lines regain some measure of coordination, more and more of them taking flight and escaping the berserkers.
The focus of the elites now fell upon the blade teams, and their heavy rifles snapped up. At first, that meant more stun blasts, but as a third uranium spike found its target, a number of the monsters must have decided on harsher measures. Selara inhaled sharply as the warrior she was diving toward brought his rifle up, and beat her wings once, jerking to the side just before the bright red particle beam fired, scorching through the air between Luvira and her. Luvira banked away, but Selara was still on course, and reached out with her left hand, grabbing the alien’s shoulder. Her own momentum swung her around to his back, and Selara wrapped her sword arm around his throat, her weight and the thrust from her beating wings dragging him off balance. His jetpack “wings” were still firing, and the shift in position meant they weren’t fighting gravity anymore, instead pushing the two of them through the air.
The umbral soldier and the armored monster fell through the massive cavern, tumbling over and over in a tangle of gleaming metal and pale wings as the wind rushed past them. Selara’s field of view spun rapidly between the gallery ceiling and the air battle and the river of berserkers as the armored warrior threw an elbow back at her, and she twisted to avoid the worst of it. She couldn’t avoid completely, not this close, and winced as the off-center attack still bruised her left side. She let go of the enemy’s throat and brought her sword back, trying to press the tip into something in the helmet, into the small gap in the armor where the alien’s horns protruded, only to see him angle his rifle toward her. Selara pulled her head to the side and the beam tore past her, her right ears ringing with the thunderclap of its passage, and was vaguely aware of the beam striking the berserker horde beneath them.
Just before the point of no return, the ground rushing up toward them, the two fighters broke apart. Selara lost sight of the invader as she spread her wings and strained to level out. Air whipped across her body and she gritted her teeth with the strain, but she succeeded, and her uncontrolled dive became horizontal flight a hand’s breadth above the berserkers. She worked to catch her breath as she ascended.
Where did you go? She thought, craning her neck to try and look back. It was difficult to work out which of the enemies she’d fought. The gallery was now a maelstrom of flying combatants, the darkness broken by the hot red of energy weapons and the less frequent muzzle flashes of the nail guns. Selara couldn’t make out all the members of her team, or see where Luvira was, but she didn’t have time to do that anyway. She had to watch the aliens; keep track of where they were moving.
That effort was why she saw one specific enemy skimming just above the berserkers, and saw when he looked up and leveled his rifle at her.
As the barrel rose, Selara jerked right, evading the shot, a stun blast this time instead of the killing beam. She banked away, trying for more distance, but a quick look back showed her that the armored warrior wasn’t about to let her get away, climbing to her altitude while lining up his next shot. Selara couldn’t try to get in close anymore, and she fled, the winged soldier and her pursuer weaving through the darkness. The monster had switched over exclusively to the stun weapon now, likely having seen that Selara wasn’t carrying a nail gun, and the barely visible shockwaves blew past her as the chase left the open air and moved in amongst the buildings of Lijekai, the two arcing over and beneath walkways and curving around taller buildings.
Selara veered left, then right, and then came almost to a complete halt as her pursuer opened fire with the particle beam, a three shot burst aimed not at Selara, but at a building under construction ahead of her. The bolts of red energy tore apart a critical chunk of the scaffolding somewhere beneath them, and everything above it collapsed, structural support rods and composite boards falling through the air in front of her. She tried to turn left, but another burst from the particle weapon cut in front of her, hitting windows and blocking her path with a shower of molten glass. Hearing the stun weapon discharge again, Selara folded her wings and dropped like a stone, the stun pulse passing above her and slapping against the wall of the residential building directly ahead. Opening her wings immediately, she leveled out and another stun pulse went through the air she would have fallen through a split second later. The speed of Selara’s fall had translated into forward motion, and now she had only one direction to go.
Directly into the closed door on the balcony in front of her.
Selara gritted her teeth, squeezed her eyes shut and folded her wings around her body for the impact.
The door was ripped from its hinges, falling inward and sliding well into the room, and Selara’s momentum still caused her to roll off it before coming to a stop. She’d managed to take as much of the collision with her shoulder as possible, and she didn’t think anything was broken, but hot waves of pain radiated from her left shoulder, and she moaned unconsciously as she rolled onto her back. She took deep breaths, focusing on just taking the air in and letting it out, and tried to get a sense of where she was.
The city’s near-infrared lights sent a soft illumination spilling in through the door, and from that it looked like she’d crashed into a residential building of some kind. This was a welcoming area, with the aerial access door she’d broken through, and off to her left was an opening to a walkway, an uncovered bridge, that connected to the building across the street. The picture on the nearest wall showed a small family: a woman, her lifemate and their young daughter. Once upon a time, this had been someone’s home.
There was a series of loud noises from the undercity outside, rapid fire concussive blasts, and then the entire building shook, dust falling from the ceiling and furniture rattling where it stood. That would be one of the secondary traps, Selara thought. Demolition charges had been attached to the buildings flanking the street ground troops were most likely to use. The invaders were pushing the attack, and the charges had just been set off, causing the buildings to fall into the street, centuries-old historic architecture used as a weapon to crush the aliens.
Selara looked back at the photograph on the wall, at the parents holding their child, and quickly wiped tears from her eyes. Later, not now. Cry later. It was just…none of this was fair. She wiped her eyes again.
And then the light from the doorway went dark.
The metal-clad form of the warrior filled the entrance, bending down slightly to step through it and into the room. The thin line of his suit’s optical sensor glowed slightly as it focused on her, and he took a step forward. He muttered something, and while Selara couldn’t speak his language, the disdain in his voice was unmistakable. He put both hands on the rifle and began taking aim, and Selara looked at him…and then quickly at the ground between them.
As he brought the stun weapon to bear, she wedged one foot under the broken door. She threw all the power in her lithe form into the effort, powerful leg muscles flexing, and launched the door up, kicking it almost vertical between them. She couldn’t help but grin as she heard the stun weapon discharge harmlessly against the barrier.
As the monster grunted in surprise, Selara tensed her core muscles and levered her wings back against the floor, pushing back up onto her feet, and grabbed the linear rifle from where it had been strapped to her body armor, turning the dial for the highest muzzle velocity. It wouldn’t get through shields, of course, nor the tough metal armor, making it almost useless against the invaders.
As the armored warrior threw the door aside, Selara lunged in close, stepping inside of his protective shield, pressed the barrel of her rifle against the side of his, and fired.
The magnetically accelerated bullet hit at triple the speed of sound, and there was a crack and burst of sparks as some internal component of the alien weapon was shattered. The warrior stepped back, looking at his broken firearm with palpable shock, and Selara followed, jamming the linear rifle against his throat, trying to wedge the barrel against the seam at the base of his neck.
See how bulletproof you are at the joints…
It was possible the joints really were vulnerable, because the alien warrior flinched and dropped his smoking rifle, hand immediately going to his other hip, and then coming back up, fast, in a flash of razor-sharp metal. It was Selara’s turn to leap back now, the move keeping her from losing any fingers. Instead, the heavy cleaver-sword cut the barrel away from her linear rifle. Hissing in frustration, Selara stayed back, watching for her enemy’s next move.
She was surprised when, after a moment’s silence, he released a sort of sharp, chopped hissing. Lowering his blade slightly, he spoke again. At first, it was unintelligible as ever, but then something happened, and Selara could actually understand him. There was a strange quality to his speech, though, and a moment later she realized she could still hear his original, hissing language underneath the one she could understand.
“That was impressive,” the alien warrior said. “I am Ahresh, and I must congratulate you.” He brought the sword back up, taking a step toward her. “You have proven yourself worthy prey!”
Reaching down, Selara tore her own sword from its sheath.
“Oh,” she replied, not even trying to keep the sarcasm out of her voice, “I’m thrilled.”
The warrior advanced, and Selara backed away, maintaining distance. How was she going to do this? Her rifle was gone. The sword was sharp, but not sharp enough. There hadn’t been enough nail guns for her to get one, which hadn’t been a problem before now. She didn’t have any explosives on her, and…
The armored monster, Ahresh, couldn’t have grasped its meaning, but the tiniest smile appeared on Selara’s face.
Ahresh fired his jetpack thrusters, leaping forward for a downward slash. Selara beat her wings once, pushing herself back and out of the way. He landed close, though, and his follow-up was a vicious punch aimed at her face. She turned with the blow, and it only grazed her cheek, sparking a burst of pain but nothing more serious. He swung again, the cleaver blade coming at her from the side, and she got her sword beneath it just in time, swatting it up and causing the attack to arc over her head. She replied with a lateral slash of her own, hitting Ahresh in the face, sparks flying from where her sword struck his helmet.
She couldn’t hurt him—she knew that—but that wasn’t the point. She retreated as she fought, out through the opening to the walkway, until they found themselves on the open bridge. The two broke apart, the ringing of blades coming to a halt…
…And Selara threw herself off the bridge, wings catching the air as she took off down the street. Looking back revealed that Ahresh was not happy to have been robbed of his prize, taking to the air and following her once again.
That’s right, you bastard. Chase me.
The air in the cavern was hot now, rising currents glowing in thermal infrared, and as she flew, Selara could see why. Large parts of the undercity were burning, the city lights dim, nearly invisible, in comparison to the eye-stinging heat off the massive fires. It was hard to see at all, her eyes struggling to adjust, but squinting, she thought she could just barely make out what was happening: the berserkers were using their torches, setting building after building ablaze as they went. Umbral defenses on the ground seemed to have melted, the soldiers struggling to fight while the fires burned agonizingly bright behind the Kthid advance.
Looking up, away from the blinding flames, Selara tried to estimate the number of soldiers still fighting in the air. She didn’t have time for an accurate count, but it wasn’t necessary, and she felt her heart sink at the knowledge that more than two thirds of the umbral soldiers were missing from the aerial battle now, and the Kthid hadn’t taken anything close to the same number of casualties.
She ripped her gaze away from the losing battle as a loud hiss of rushing air announced Ahresh’s next attack. He came flying out around a burning building, sword aimed at Selara’s right wing. She folded both wings and dropped again, spreading them and leveling out a second later. The alien growled in frustration and plunged after her, their blades clashing in midair. As they broke apart, Selara arced around the next corner, flying low to the ground, and then pulled up hard as she came toward a sheer wall ahead. It was far too steep a climb to make with wings alone, and she half-flew, half-ran up the wall ahead of her, coming to a halt at the top of the bombed-out ruin, surveying the street on the other side. It was a route High Command had thought the invaders might use, which meant it wasn’t precisely as it appeared.
With a roar, Ahresh landed on the blasted rooftop with her. He grabbed for her sword, and she stepped back out of reach. He followed, his blade flashing. She blocked one slash, then two, and then stabbed at his chest, the point of her sword stopped by his armor, the force of the attack pushing her back again, over the edge.
Selara opened her eyes wide, pinwheeling her arms, and then dropped. Her wings slowed her fall…somewhat, but then the ground was rushing up at her and she folded them, but not completely. She hit hard, then again and again, tumbling across the street like a stone skipped across water, finally coming to a rest near the front of what had once been a restaurant. Her entire body throbbed with pain now, and she let every little bit of it show as she rolled over onto all fours, and then stumbled to her feet.
Ahresh landed softly across the street from her, and Selara’s left wing spread to its full length. Not her right one, though. Her right wing hung low, twitching every time she stretched it. It was obvious to anyone looking that she had injured it in her fall.
That was why Ahresh saw no need to use his thrusters, simply walking across the street after her.
It was why he didn’t seem to notice the purpose with which she moved to the restaurant door, where a small remote control device had been left earlier.
It was why he didn’t pay any attention to the recently disturbed, carefully smoothed dirt of the street itself.
Not until Selara picked up the remote and hit the “Arm” button, anyway, and Ahresh’s foot landed on one of the patches of soft dirt, and there was a soft but unmissable noise.
The hulking, armored warrior looked down at his foot and gasped as he realized what he’d stepped on, and then the anti-armor mine detonated.
The Kthid elite vanished, replaced by a sphere of bright light as his shield trapped the full might of the explosion. The bubble of compressed fire held for nearly a second, and Selara had time to crouch down and shield herself before the forcefield generator gave out and the blast shook the street and knocked dust off the buildings.
Slowly, the smoke cleared, and the heat of Ahresh’s body became visible. Selara watched him struggle to push himself upright, making it to one knee. The fact that he was still moving was a testament to the monsters’ technology.
But the fact that he couldn’t get all the way back onto his feet, that one leg was a brutalized ruin, and the pieces of the armor on his torso that had been ripped away to reveal bruised flesh, showed that such technology had limits.
As Ahresh coughed wetly, planting his sword against the ground to keep himself upright, Selara stood up, folded her perfectly functional wings behind her, and walked up to him, her vision able to pick out the warmth of the buried mines easily enough. He saw her coming, and brought his sword up feebly, his wrecked armor spitting sparks. She easily parried one slash, then another, and then stepped down on his sword and pinned it to the ground. Grabbing the invader by the throat, she lined the tip of her sword up with a gap in his abdominal armor and drove the blade in to the hilt.
The sharp metal pierced up through his torso, likely stopping somewhere near his heart, and the sigh from his punctured lung was music to Selara’s ears, as was the gristle-crunching sound when she twisted the blade around inside him. She tore the sword free and stepped back, watching a river of hot blood pour from the wound. Ahresh looked down at the blood, and back up to her.
“Congratulations,” Selara said. “Looks like you were worthy prey.”
Ahresh swayed back and forth, and then slumped forward onto the dirt.
Selara whipped her sword through the air, casting the blood off, and then sheathed it. She walked over to the nearest wall and leaned against it. She needed a moment.
Losing her balance and injuring her wing had been acts, but Selara hurt; that much she hadn’t had to fake. Her muscles were sore, and she winced as she touched face where she’d taken that grazing punch.
Just a minute. I just…have to take a minute.
As she stood there, allowing the aches in her muscles to fade, at least a little, she started to realize just how hot it was. The hot air coming off the burning undercity had nowhere to go, and the temperature inside the gallery was rising. Even from where she stood, not looking directly at any of the fire, it was getting harder to see.
Up above, if she squinted, she could make out four figures moving through the air: one of the armored warriors with three umbrals in pursuit. Selara recognized two of them as members of her team: Annala and Liesa. Luvira and the rest were missing.
One of the remaining umbrals, Annala, pressed the attack on the Kthid warrior, her flight path curving back and forth across his, allowing her to bring her sword to bear again and again. She wasn’t trying to hurt him, but to create openings for Liesa and the other soldier, both of whom carried nail guns.
This particular warrior was skilled, though, and in spite of the agility advantage the umbrals had, he was evading their attacks, engaging Annala when she struck, but always sliding out of the flight paths of the gunners just as they closed in.
That changed when Annala gambled, actively grabbing ahold of him and slashing at his face, at the optical sensors. She broke away less than a second later, just before he could catch her in his iron grip, but it was enough for Liesa to reach point blank range, inside his shield. He grabbed the nail gun and pushed the barrel up, away from his chest, so she changed her target and fired at his head, the warrior twisting to avoid the attack. There was a flash, sparks and shrapnel, and he fell away. Selara grinned.
The grin froze on her face as he stopped his fall, turning to reveal that he hadn’t been hurt, no more than superficially at any rate. A large chunk of his helmet was gone—Selara thought she could see his left eye—but he’d pulled aside just enough to save his life.
The huntresses weren’t about to stop there, however, and all three came at him at once, Annala from below, Liesa from above, reloading as she dove, and the second gunner from the right. Selara could see his head moving, looking between all three. He focused his attention on Annala, ascending and keeping his distance, cleaver blade at the ready.
It didn’t make sense. He knew about the others, Liesa and her nail gun, striking from above, would reach him first and he was just ignoring her. It didn’t…
Selara’s eyes widened. She couldn’t know exactly what he was about to do, but she knew somehow that what was happening was what he wanted. She took off, sore muscles be damned, and opened her mouth to call out, to give any warning.
And then, almost too fast to take in, it happened.
While Annala was still closing, Liesa hit the Kthid in the back, jamming the barrel of her nail gun up against the armor, and the alien monster used the attack, angling his thrusters and twisting his body, even using the force of impact to turn, spinning and moving out of the line of fire just as the umbral huntress pulled the trigger. She supersonic projectile streaked past him, tore down through the intervening air in the blink of an eye, and hit Annala just below her rib cage, obliterating her spine and exploding from her back. She went limp and dropped from the sky.
Liesa froze, horrified that she’d just killed her friend, but the alien didn’t, his spin accelerating, and he added that movement and the power of his armor to a lateral slash that cut both of her arms off at the elbows. The last sound she made was a panicked whimper, barely audible from this distance, before the warrior brought his sword down on her head, splitting her skull with the force of the blow and embedding his weapon in it.
The last gunner cried out, in anger or horror, Selara couldn’t tell, but she didn’t have time to do anything. Without so much as looking at her, the warrior brought his rifle up with his free hand and snapped off a shot with the particle beam. It struck the woman’s nail gun and the weapon, and the spike inside, detonated. The gunner screamed her throat raw as shards of burning uranium ripped through her torso and shredded her wings.
The Kthid warrior pulled his sword free of Liesa’s skull, the gesture almost contemptuous, and calmly sheathed it as the mutilated umbrals fell from the air.
Selara’s ascent stopped, and she landed on the roof of a building. She thought she might throw up. Squeezing her eyes shut, she swallowed, focusing on breathing in and out. In and out. When everything inside her settled, she opened her eyes and looked up again.
The armored warrior wasn’t moving. He was lower in the air now, and Selara had ascended a few stories, so she could make him out better, and could guess at his line of sight. He wasn’t looking at her, but rather past her, down to the street below. Selara traced his eyeline to where Ahresh lay in a pool of blood.
Looking back up, Selara found the warrior’s exposed eye fixed on her. At his side, his hand opened and closed, and then he reached for his sword. Selara tensed for another fight, already trying to work out how to draw him down into the minefield, but then he stopped, and his hand instead went to the side of his head, a gesture almost like holding in an earpiece, probably reflexive. He must have received orders or some sort of progress update, because he stared one last time at Selara, that one eye locking with hers, and then he fired his thrusters and flew away. Selara tried to work out where he was headed. Based on where in the gallery she was, there were a couple of things in his direction, but only one made sense.
The civilian shelters.
“Any members of Blade Team One,” she said, touching her throat mic, “status report.”
“This is Surissa. There are three of us here at Shelter Two.”
“Is Luvira with you?” Selara asked. On the other end, Surissa hesitated before answering.
“We don’t know where she is, Ma’am.” Selara sighed.
“Alright, I’ll be there soon.”
Taking off from the rooftop, she winced, squeezing her eyes almost shut. Nearly half of the city was on fire now, and the heat was striking her directly. Her eyes stung, and it was hard to make out much below her, but after a while, her vision began to clear. She didn’t remember enough from school to know if it was her eyes or her brain, but contrast seemed to sharpen, the difference between the hottest and coolest objects becoming more evident. She still couldn’t look directly into the fire, but as she crossed the city, she could make out the never-ending stream of berserkers advancing, the armored elites jumping from rooftop to rooftop in the same direction and, as she got closer to the elevated shelters, the large ramps being brought forward, rolling through the streets, to give the berserkers access.
Ignoring all of that, Selara descended to the ledge now, the balcony in front of the shelter doors, where Surissa and a young soldier approached to greet her. As she landed, she realized it was the male she had seen near the start of the fighting.
“Welcome back, Ma’am,” Surissa said, offering a quick salute, and Selara nodded in reply.
“Where are the others you mentioned?” she asked.
“We sent Mirella into the shelter. Lavena is taking position with the other defenders.” Selara nodded.
“Who’s in command here?”
“Oh,” the young male said, “that’s Noressa over there.”
“Alright,” Selara acknowledged, and then smiled a little. “I’m glad to see you here, at any rate. I saw what you did earlier in the battle, when one of the shield bearers was attacked.” He smiled, blushing.
“Thank you, Ma’am.” Selara meant to say more to him, but then caught sight of another male, standing by the shelter entrance.
“Ki-leth!” His nearest ears twitched at the voice, and when he saw his big sister, his entire face lit up.
“You’re alive!” he cried out, and dropped the welding tool he’d been working with to run over and wrap her in a tight hug.
“I am,” she said, kissing the top of her little brother’s head. “How are you holding up?”
“Oh, um…” Ki-leth let go of her and picked up the tool he’d dropped a moment earlier. “I’m alright. I’m helping shore up the defenses, welding braces onto the doors here to make it harder to push them in. Most of the soldiers from the retreat are inside now. “Looks like we’ll be…fighting room to room now.” Looking around the balcony, Selara could see only two dozen umbrals, forming an arc around the doorway as they readied for the aliens’ approach. She returned her attention to her brother.
“Ki-leth…” she began, but he cut her off.
“I know,” he said, forcing a smile. “It’s…it’s not over until it’s over.”
“I’ll keep you safe.” She told him, her voice firm, trying to impress the idea on him. “No matter what it takes, I’ll keep you safe.”
“Ramps approaching!” one of the other soldiers shouted. Looking out at the city, Selara was forced to squint again, the heat from the fire painful to look at. She could just barely make out the tops of the battle ramps rolling up to the balcony’s edge.
“Engineers, back inside!” the commanding officer, Noressa, called out. “Li-ten, you understand what you’re doing?” Looking back to the other male, Selara saw him nod quickly. He spread his wings, but stopped when Noressa, who Selara now realized was the same one who had carried him away from the front lines during the retreat, approached him. Bending down to his height, she cupped his face in her hands and drew him in for a deep kiss. A few seconds later, they broke the kiss, their foreheads touching.
“I love you,” she said gently. “Be brave.” Then, so quietly Selara could barely hear her, she added “die proud.”
The male, Li-ten, swallowed and nodded. They separated and he took off, flying up to perch on a small ledge between the doors and the stone roof overhead. Selara looked at the female soldier.
“I’ve never had a lifemate,” she admitted. “I never had the time…” Noressa smiled, wiping tears from her eyes.
“Neither did I, until now,” she said. “The priestess married Li-ten and me before the last sleep cycle. I guess we all have things we didn’t get to do.” The two of them were silent for a moment. It felt like the wrong thing to end on, but Selara couldn’t think of anything better to say.
And then there was a pop and whistle as something was launched into the air.
Selara looked out to the city, squinting against the brightness of the fires, and saw something streak up into the air and burst in an even brighter spot of light and heat. Looking away from it, down to its source, she saw one of the armored Kthid on a rooftop, an armor-mounted launcher folding back into place on his forearm.
The elites didn’t need those; Selara knew they had helmet comms, which meant it was to signal…
“Berserkers!” she called out, and as the sounds of the horde charging up the ramps grew louder, the front line of soldiers leveled the polearms they’d been equipped with. Selara knew there were shields up here—she’d seen them being brought up before the battle—but they must have been inside, to be used in the traditional manner. The two dozen umbrals outside had decided the enemy would charge into a line of sharp spears. Selara didn’t have one, and neither did Surissa, but that didn’t particularly bother her. They drew their swords and waited.
They didn’t have to wait long, and the berserkers roared up onto the balcony, doing their best to push through the line of sharp blades. Some were stabbed to death immediately, while others managed to bat aside the spears and push deeper, reaching for the soldiers holding them. Selara and Surissa moved among the spear wielders, and wherever there was a breach they brough their swords to bear on the advancing Kthid. Gunshots rang out, and there were bright flashes from the shields of some of the aliens. Above the doorway, Li-ten had set his linear rifle for lower muzzle velocity and higher rate of fire, aiming for the monsters’ faces. The bullets would never penetrate, but they would cause the forcefields to shed the energy as light, the berserkers momentarily blinded by their own shields. Easier prey for the soldiers with spears.
The desperate stand held for one minute, then two, then five.
And then there came the loud noise of jet thrusters, and two of the elites landed farther down the balcony.
Immediately the stun weapons came up, and a section of the defenders had to break off to engage the armored warriors, dropping spears to raise swords and nail guns. The defensive line thinned, the berserkers broke through again and again, and Selara and her teammates had to rush from place to place to beat them back, muscles burning with the effort.
The sound of the door opening behind her pulled her attention away from the enemy, and she tensed with fear when she saw Ki-leth emerge from the shelter.
“What are you doing!?” she cried.
“It was an accident,” he stammered. “I left the welding tool outside…didn’t want them to cut their way in—”
“You can’t be out here! I…” Something in the corner of her vision caught her attention, and looking down the length of the balcony, she saw the Kthid elite. The one from before, with the missing piece of his helmet. He was looking at her, at them…
“Get back inside, baby brother, RIGHT NOW!” Thankfully, Ki-leth did as he was told, retreating into the shelter just as four of the berserkers punched through the weakened lines behind her. They moved to encircle her, or to go after her brother; she couldn’t be sure which.
The lead one closed with Selara, a heavy mace coming down from an overhead strike. Selara sidestepped it and swung low, slicing the tendons behind the monster’s knee. He dropped down on the knee, and she slashed his throat. As he collapsed, two others tried to move around either side of her, and Selara lashed out with her tail, wrapping the limb around one alien’s foot and pulling back with her body, yanking the Kthid off balance. As he tried to regain his footing, she drove her sword into his chest, and as the other rushed at her from behind, she turned slightly, extended her right wing and plunged the spike at the end of the wing finger through his eye and into his brain.
The fourth alien was too close now, but his shield flared suddenly as Li-ten opened fire, and he stopped for a moment, covering his eyes. It was the opening Selara needed, and she lunged in and drove the sword up through his jaw and palate, the tip emerging from the top of his skull.
Selara pulled back, breathing heavily, and Li-ten continued firing, doing whatever he could to help push the enemy back, focusing his attention on several who were attempting to mob his Noressa. The officer ended up practically surrounded by a halo of strobing flashes as bullets rained down on forcefields.
But beside her, the berserkers parted, and another elite emerged from the crowd, raised his rifle and fired. The red particle beam streaked over the barely functional line of umbrals and struck Li-ten in the chest.
The young male’s upper torso detonated, flesh exploding like a bomb. Selara was splattered with blood and bone shards, frozen in horror as severed limbs and wings struck the ground amid a shower of steaming gore.
The elite’s intent had no doubt been to help the berserkers advance, and in that sense he succeeded. Part of the umbral line came apart immediately…just perhaps not the way he’d expected.
In the blink of an eye, the armored warrior all but vanished, swarmed by Noressa and four other female soldiers screaming in raw, homicidal fury. He stumbled back, metal form barely visible beneath the mass of beating wings and clawing bodies, berserkers scattering out of the way. He managed to throw one of the soldiers off, but she launched herself at him again, and then it was too late for the monster, because three of the others brought their nail guns to bear. One uranium spike tore through his leg at the knee. Another pierced his gut. Noressa saved hers for last, hissing at her lifemate’s murderer through bared fangs before she pulled the trigger, and fired the stake into his head.
The alien collapsed, lifeless, and Selara could see Noressa take a deep breath…and then one of the soldiers fell, and then another as stun blasts came in from the left. The three umbrals with nail guns took off, flying toward the enemy: the warrior with the broken helmet; the glaring eye. Selara and Surissa made to follow them, but as they did two more of the berserkers closed with them. Selara beat her wings, hitting one of the brutes in the face with them, confusing him long enough to open one, and then two deep wounds across his torso. The second one didn’t quite reach her before Surissa aimed down and stabbed him in the groin; he shrieked for a moment before she brought the sword up and stabbed him in the throat.
By the time they were past the berserkers, Noressa’s group was nearly upon the warrior, and five seconds later the fight was over.
The warrior fired a three-round particle burst into the ceiling above, shattered stone raining down in front of Noressa and cutting her off from her two companions. He dropped his gun as the first reached him, sidestepped her attack and seized her by the head. Almost too fast for the eye to track, he slammed her face down into the floor, her nose breaking and her body going limp from the concussion. Without rising from the crouch he was now in, his other hand flashed out and caught the second umbral by the arm. Yanking her toward him, he stood up and kicked her, slamming his armored shin into her torso and splintering her ribs. As she fell, he snatched his rifle up again, fired his jetpack thrusters and launched forward, meeting Noressa just as she got through the shower of rock, jamming his rifle against her stomach.
The stun blast threw body against the near wall, and she hit the floor in a boneless heap. Turning around, almost casually, he stunned both of the others for good measure, and then kept advancing.
More Kthid warriors were appearing now, stun weapons firing, and the defensive line was falling apart. The berserkers pushed through, and Selara and Surissa were pressed further and further back until one the invaders managed to knock Surissa’s sword away. She tried to escape, but with the ceiling above she couldn’t fly, and four of the monsters grabbed her, pinning her to the ground as she screamed. Selara killed one, but more and more poured through the gaps, separating her from her teammate. She soon found herself in a loose semicircle of the aliens, with the wall at her back. All were armed, but they seemed nervous about stepping into range of her sword.
Then she heard the sound from the left: slow, steady, armored footsteps. The encirclement broke up, and from behind them appeared the warrior, a vision of death, his armor splashed with umbral blood, the burning city behind him, and that single eye locked onto her.
Emboldened by his presence, the berserkers grinned and began to approach, but he stretched an arm in front of them, and the entire group stopped at once. Holding his rifle up, the warrior pointedly dropped it on the ground, then reached down and, very slowly, drew his sword, the cleaver blade rasping as it slid from the sheath. The eye, its pupil contracted to a sharp slit, burned into Selara’s.
And then he extended his free hand, and with a single finger, beckoned her toward him.
Selara looked around her, at the last of the defenders being beaten into submission by the berserkers; at the elites attaching blasting charges to the shelter doors. The same thing must be happening at the other shelters.
The burning city was still throwing off enough heat to make her squint. Every single muscle in her body hurt, sore from overuse, and she could even feel slight tremors of exhaustion. She was outnumbered now, dozens to one, tired, sore and having trouble seeing. The thought she had been fighting down since she’d first spoken to Ki-leth, right here before the battle, forced its way to the surface, refusing all denial.
This is the end. This is where you lose.
Selara looked around at the fires, at the berserkers and the elite in front of her.
Gripping the sword with both hands, she glared into that hateful eye, took a combat stance, and spread her wings out behind her.
The berserker group spread out further, making room, and a second later, Selara and the armored warrior flew at each other, sparks flying from their clashing blades.
They broke apart, Selara beating her wings to retreat. The elite gave chase, boosting forward with his thrusters, sword coming down from overhead. Selara parried, knocking the blow to the right and slashing up along the length of his arm. She thrust at his chest, and he swatted the blow aside. She used the momentum, folding her wings against her body to accelerate her spin, sword coming back around to hit him in the side. Every movement set her muscles on fire, her arms and legs quivering, but she pushed herself further, because she wasn’t really trying to hurt him, not yet. She knew that a sword fight usually went for three to five exchanges, maybe a little more, and then someone made a mistake, and there was an opening. She would have one chance, and for it to work, she needed the monster to think she didn’t know what to do when the opening presented itself.
Another exchange. She feinted, going for a high left attack, which he made to block, and then again, acting like she was going to come at him from his right side. He countered with a wide, full-strength lateral slash, and Selara dropped into a low crouch, not even attempting to parry, the blade passing over her and going wide from the warrior’s body.
And there was her opening.
Pushing with her legs and beating her wings, she sprang over to his left side, where he was open…and thrust the sword directly at his exposed eye.
That eye widened, genuine fear visible as the tip of Selara’s blade plunged toward it.
At any other time, the fight would have ended there. The sword would have pierced through the eye and into the creature’s foul brain.
But Selara had been fighting for a long time, and as she attacked, one of those small tremors ran through her arms.
The tip of the sword barely missed the warrior’s eye, skipping off his helmet with a tiny spark.
Selara screamed, tears of frustration welling up in her eyes. The elite backed away, the eye narrowing, reassessing her. Cursing herself, Selara attacked again, and the Kthid elite responded. One exchange of blades, then two.
Then a small tube, the collapsible launcher from before, unfolded from along his forearm, and he fired a signal flare into the ground at her feet.
The sudden flash of brightness clawed at Selara’s sensitive eyes, and she screamed in pain. She staggered back, her vision destroyed, as the sounds of the warrior’s footsteps drew closer. Desperate, she slashed in the direction of the noises, and her attack was deflected with ease. The flat of the cleaver blade hit her in the skull, ringing her head like a bell, and she cried out again. Weaving back and forth on unsteady feet, she lunged at the sounds again, and an armored fist slammed into her gut, lifting her off the ground briefly, and then waves of agony erupted from her abdominal muscles. Running on instinct now, she took off, not even thinking about the ceiling above her, and metal-clad fingers closed around her tail.
The alien pulled down hard on her tail, slamming her to the ground, and consciousness disappeared in a flash of pain.
“Do you think Mom and Dad are gonna be mad at me?”
“They won’t be mad, Ki-leth. You’re going to do fine.”
“How do you know? I fell last time…”
“Everyone falls the first time,” Selara replied, “including me. Besides, you’re only ten.”
“Yeah,” Ki-leth said, scratching his head, “but most umbrals can do it at ten. They said so in school.”
“Well, then this might just be your moment.” She smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Come on, we’re almost there.”
The siblings had been moving uphill for an hour now, and shortly after they stopped talking, they crested the ridge. Selara heard her brother gasp, and she could understand why. The view was breathtaking.
The area was part of a volcanic mountain range, with rock faces either built from lava flows or pushed up by magma beneath the surface. In one direction, they could see the lights of the nearest overcity, and farther away the faint red glow of sunlight peeking over the horizon. In the other direction, at the very edge of visibility, were what looked like white cliffs. Selara knew those were the faces of massive glaciers on the night side of Penumbra. Rivers flowed from the dark to the light, and not too far away a cluster of geysers blew steam into the atmosphere. Warm winds from the sunlit side blew across the landscape constantly. That, the altitude and the lack of air traffic made this a perfect spot.
“Alright,” Selara said, “first we check for reapers.” Ki-leth looked a little nervous, and Selara squeezed his shoulder.
“It’s alright,” she said. “We’re not near any animals big enough to be prey for them, so they shouldn’t be hunting here. This is just to be sure.” For all her reassurance, she took her responsibility as her little brother’s protector seriously, so she did a very thorough search of the sky, looking for any of the massive, four-winged shapes. A few minutes later, she nodded.
“We’re clear. First, let me see you catch the wind.”
Ki-leth nodded, taking a few steps back. Biting his lip, brow furrowed in concentration, he turned into the wind, straightened his tail out behind him and spread his wings. The wing membranes caught the air immediately, and he was lifted up. He wasn’t separated from the ground by more than one body length, but she saw him making the necessary adjustments, consciously or not, to stay in the air.
“See that?” she asked as he settled back onto his feet. “You’re going to do great.”
“I was barely off the ground,” Ki-leth said, blushing.
“If you can do it there, you can do it farther up. Now come on.” Selara and her brother approached the edge of the rock face, and she got behind him and wrapped her arms around him.
“Alright, this is just like any of the times I’ve carried you, so remember, if you fall…”
“You’ll catch me,” he said. Selara smiled and kissed the top of his head.
“Ew, gross. Now I’ve got female germs on me.”
“Oh no,” Selara said in mock horror. “We might have to call this whole thing off.” Ki-leth giggled in her arms.
“All the way back to the hospital,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s serious, doctors. I gave my little brother female germs. What have I done?!” She waited for him to stop laughing before asking “You ready?”
Ki-leth nodded, and Selara leapt off the cliff face and into the air. She gradually climbed up to a satisfactory altitude, and then checked with her brother one last time.
“You want to count to three?” He nodded again.
“One…two…” He paused for quite a while, before taking a deep breath and “Three!”
Selara let go of her brother, and he began to fall. He spread his wings immediately, his descent slowing. Suddenly, part of the steam cloud from the geysers washed over him, and Selara couldn’t see him anymore.
For a few nerve-wracking moments, she wondered if she should dive through the steam after him. She didn’t want to embarrass Ki-leth, but if something really had gone wrong, she needed to catch up to him now.
Then the ten-year-old burst up through the cloud on her right, not only fine but flying better than she had at that age. Selara couldn’t help but laugh at the wide-eyed excitement on his face, and the huge grin he wore.
“I can fly, Selara! I can FLY!”
“You sure can!” Selara replied, grinning right back at him. “Now, let me show you some things.”
Over the next fifteen minutes, she taught him the basics of outdoor flight, like how to use the wind to move faster in on direction, and how to cut across it diagonally rather than try to fly straight into it.
“What else can you show me?” he asked. Selara thought for a moment, and then looked down at the geysers.
“Hmm,” she said, tapping her chin, a sly smile creeping onto her face. “I don’t know if I should…”
“Please please please please!”
“Ok,” Selara managed through laughter, “you talked me into it. Follow me.”
They dove toward the ground, Ki-leth following his big sister’s lead and watching what she did with her wings and tail. The dive brought them closer and closer to the geysers.
“Okay, spread your wings all the way when I say so!”
Just before they passed directly over the geysers, Selara spread her wings and leveled out, her brother following suit. A moment later, they caught the updraft off the geothermal vents. The hot air current sent them soaring back up into the sky, Ki-leth squealing with joy all the way.
The siblings spent much of the night like that, diving and soaring; playing hide and seek among the lowest clouds. Both had school the next day, but going home could wait. For now, lesson and play became one as they danced through the warm, dark skies.
Selara woke slowly. She didn’t remember exactly what was going on at first, just that she didn’t want to leave the memory. She wanted to hold onto every detail of that night so many years ago.
Ultimately, though, she couldn’t. The memory faded, and she woke into the nightmare.
She wasn’t outside the shelter anymore, but instead somewhere down in the city streets. At first, she thought she’d been taken back onto the surface, with dark clouds above her. Looking closer, though, showed her the tips of stalactites far above. The ceiling of the cave was shrouded in a thick cloud of smoke. There were sounds too, horrible sounds she wouldn’t have heard so well outside: screams and bestial roars echoing off the walls of the gallery.
“We’ve finished extinguishing the fires, Sir. We shouldn’t have much trouble moving the usable slaves out now.”
Selara rolled over onto her front. Her head still throbbed, but she was still able to bring it up, making out five or six of the aliens around her, two of them armored warriors, talking not far away. One still wore his helmet, but the other had taken his off, revealing his tapered snout, sharp teeth flashing while he spoke.
“Do we know whose idea it was to set the buildings on fire?” the unmasked warrior asked. Looking down, Selara saw that he was holding his helmet in the crook of one arm, and a piece of the left side was missing. This was the warrior from before, the one who’d killed Liesa and Annala and who had beaten Selara unconscious.
“I think it was one of the casteless,” the other elite said. He flexed several of his fingers, perhaps interacting with some sort of virtual reality system in his helmet. “Okvesh seems to be his name.” The unmasked warrior nodded.
“Be sure the Huntmaster hears of him. Okvesh’s tactic blinded many of the enemies and brought us a swifter victory. His quick thinking should be rewarded.” His speech had that same strange disconnect as before, and now able to see his face, she knew why. The movements of his lips matched the alien language beneath the one she could understand. Some system in his armor must have been translating, and then synthesizing a voice in her tongue. It probably did the same thing in the other direction so he could understand her.
Selara tried to push herself up onto her hands and knees. Moving her bruised limbs sent a current of pain through her, and she groaned. The unmasked warrior looked over at the sound, slitted pupils fixing on her.
“Well, well,” he said, “it seems the little barbarian is finally awake.” The warrior set his helmet down and strode over to her. “My name is Avraks, but you will address me as ‘Master Avraks’.”
“I belong to no one,” Selara bit back. All the nearby invaders, armored or not, chuckled audibly. Selara looked around, and then back to Avraks.
“That’s what they all say,” he explained. “Don’t worry, though, little albino savage. We will help you learn. You, and all of your people, will learn to serve us properly. From this day forth, this is your only purpose.”
“Purpose?” Selara laughed mirthlessly. “This isn’t purpose; it’s an atrocity. What could you possibly think gives you the right to—”
“We have every right,” Avraks cut her off, “granted to us by the blessing of the Dark Star.”
“What is that?” Selara asked. “Your god?” Avraks snorted.
“I’m not one of those superstitious fools,” he said, circling her, hands folded behind him as he spoke. “Nonetheless, we have created gods, throughout history, as projections of our idealized selves. The blessing of the Dark Star is the will of Kthid civilization, the perfect civilization, wrought with our might and intellect. By strength, intelligence and determination, it is our right to cast out among the stars, and to subdue and harvest the savage races we find.”
“Savage races…” Selara had witnessed so many horrors at the hands of these aliens, these monsters, that she felt she had gotten used to it, but somehow this still appalled her.
“We ended war,” she said. “We stopped the destruction of our planet, learned to live in balance with our environment. We split the atom, we built cities in orbit…”
“And in so doing, your species drew the attention of those infinitely your greater.” Avraks walked out in front of her again. “We surpass you in ways you can’t even imagine.” Selara held his gaze.
“If you’re so much better than we are,” she said, “then why are so many of you dead?” Avraks’s expression hardened, slightly but noticeably.
“Now we come to it,” he said. “Tell me, albino cunt, does the name Ahresh mean anything to you?” Selara thought for a moment. It did sound familiar, now that he mentioned it, but where…
The other elite. The one I killed in the minefield.
“Your expression suggests you know who I’m talking about. Good.” Avraks brought his arms out from behind his back. “Ahresh and I were sired by the same father, born of the same slave womb. We passed our blooding trials together; earned the right to wear our armor together; fought side by side, on world after world. And after all of that, you killed him.”
“You killed my parents,” Selara said, almost laughing. “You killed my friends. You’re killing my planet. If you’re expecting me to feel bad for you…”
“Of course not!” Avraks responded quickly. “No, I don’t expect you to understand. You have no idea what it feels like to lose a brother.” He smiled then, very subtly, and to Selara it was the worst expression imaginable. It wasn’t because there was no joy in it, but because there was. The expression was joy and hatred in equal measure. Very slowly, never breaking eye contact, Avraks raised his hand, and snapped his fingers.
From off to her left, two of the berserkers stepped forward and threw Ki-leth into the street with her.
“Fortunately for you,” Avraks said, “it’s never too late to learn.”
Selara’s mood had changed completely, the anger from just seconds earlier replaced with real panic. Her brother’s clothes were torn, his lip split, and one of his eyes was swollen shut, and yet somehow when he saw Selara, he seemed relieved.
“You’re alive,” he managed, a tear forming in his good eye. “When they broke into the shelter, I thought…”
“It’s okay,” Selara tried. “Don’t talk. It’ll…it’ll be okay.” As Avraks walked over to her baby brother, she tried to think of something, anything to stop what he was about to do.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve noticed over many harvests that our host species always have…equivalents to us in the male sex. They never look the same, but the build is always similar, the musculature, even their pitiful little cocks, as though nature only allows so much variation. They are all smaller than Kthid, of course, and weaker.” He stepped up beside Ki-leth, towering over him. The young male was tall for an umbral of his sex, but he still barely came up to the alien’s chest. “Rarely, however, do I see males so pathetic as they are here. So tiny and fragile they look like they’d shatter with a single blow.” He stood beside Ki-leth, met Selara’s eyes, and then slammed an armored fist into the male’s gut. Selara gasped, almost feeling the blow herself, as Ki-leth wheezed, clutching his stomach before doubling over and vomiting on the street.
“Apparently it will take more than one blow,” Avraks said, looking back at Selara. “I wonder how many.”
“Monster!” Selara shouted, surging to her feet. “Stop it!”
“Why?” Avraks asked, sounding deeply amused.
“Just…please! I’ll…I’ll do anything.” Selara’s mind raced, looking for anything that would save her brother, and only one thing really came to mind. “I’ll be your slave, like you want.”
“You already are my slave. Your choice is irrelevant.”
“Maybe, but it could be…” Selara looked down, her pale cheeks flushing pink. “It could be far more…pleasurable for you.”
“S-selara,” Ki-leth tried, “you don’t have to—”
“Remember what I said earlier?” she asked him, and then looked at Avraks as she finished. “No matter what it takes.” The monster considered it for a moment, before smiling again.
“Show me.” Selara hesitated for a moment.
“Here?” she asked. “Now? I…surely you would want somewhere more private…”
Avraks leaned down and grasped one of Ki-leth’s wings with both hands. He twisted them in opposite directions, and the limb bowed horribly, before the bone broke with a sound like a tree branch cracking. Ki-leth screamed, dropping to the ground and sobbing with pain.
“I’m sorry! Please don’t hurt him any more!” Selara swallowed and added “Master Avraks.”
“Well then,” the alien warrior said, “don’t be so shy. Show us all that lovely body of yours.” Selara looked back and forth between Avraks and Ki-leth, and nodded.
Reaching up to her shoulders, she released the fastenings on her torso armor, allowing the rigid shell to unfold and be pulled off over her head. Next came the tactical weave, revealing her milky white skin and toned form, her well-formed arms and defined abdominal muscles. Taking a deep breath, she released the chest binding, and her large breasts fell free, light pink nipples hardening in the open air. Finally, she slid the leggings and underwear off, baring her powerful thighs, the smooth lips of her sex, and the small patch of silver-white hair she left above it. It was mortifying to be naked in front of her little brother like this, but Selara knew that if she so much as put an arm over her breasts, things would get even worse. It did pique Avraks’s interest, though, and he left Ki-leth to examine his prize more closely.
“An interesting contrast,” he said. “Hard and powerful in some ways, far more than the males…” he ran a hand up along her abs, “and yet so soft in others.” The hand came up to one of Selara’s breasts, lifting the heavy mound from her chest. Selara grimaced as he squeezed it brutally, metal-clad fingers digging into the pliant flesh, causing it to swell and spill out around them.
Selara’s breasts had always been extremely sensitive. When she pleasured herself, she could sometimes even reach climax just by massaging them in the right way. Now that sensitivity turned to torture as Avraks’s fingers closed on a nipple and brutally squeezed, as though he meant to crush it. She almost squirmed away, but he held fast, free hand seizing her other breast, mauling the sensitive orb as aggressively as its mate.
“Soft and pale,” he said, chuckling as he finally released her breasts and dragged his gauntleted hand up to her throat. “It’s appropriate, with all of you waiting for us in these caverns, squirming down here in the dark. You really are like wriggling little cave worms, aren’t you?” The iron grip closed around Selara’s throat, and for a moment she feared he might strangle her right there.
Instead, he gripped her throat and pulled her down, forcing her to her knees. Taking a step back, he flexed the fingers of his right hand, like she’d seen the other warrior do. Rather than activating some kind of display, though, part of his armor moved, a seam opening at the groin, and a moment later, his monstrous phallus sprang free.
Selara’s eyes widened with fear at the sight of it, so thick she might just be able to get her fingers around it, longer than anything she was meant to take and covered in rasping scales. Nothing like this could have evolved, could it? It was like something designed to torture females.
Avraks chuckled at her expression. “Have you never seen a cock before, cave worm?” Selara blushed, staring at the ground. She had never found the time to search for a lifemate. She’d fantasized about some of the males she knew, but it had never gone farther…and her little brother could hear all of this. She couldn’t bear to look over at him, or to answer Avraks. Based on her reaction, though, he obviously knew the answer.
“You are fortunate, then. You will bear only Kthid children; your womb will never be tainted by the seed of a lesser race. Now show me how grateful you are for it.”
The thought of wrapping her lips around the thing, and then biting down, sinking her sharp teeth into the hideous member and hearing Avraks scream, crossed her mind. She couldn’t do it, though. If she did, Ki-leth would be killed immediately, she was sure of it.
Instead, Selara pressed her face against the hot shaft, feeling its weight resting across her cheek and nose. Opening her mouth, she extended her tongue and ran it along the length of the alien cock. The rough scales were like sandpaper, not the silken skin she imagined a male would have, and they scratched at her tongue as she licked, but she didn’t stop, sliding the wet muscle up to the tip before pulling back. Opening her mouth again, she fastened it around the end of the monstrous organ, trying to force her head down while keeping her teeth clear of her rapist’s skin. When the bell-shaped head pressed against the back of her throat, she gagged and pulled back, starting to work herself into a rhythm. She had never done this before, but she wasn’t naïve, and had an understanding of what a male would like.
At least she thought she did.
Avraks grabbed Selara by the back of her head and pulled hard, and the massive rod drove past her mouth and down her throat, her gullet distending painfully. A panic response caused her throat muscles to contract, trying to clear her airway, all of which only meant the warm socket rippled around Avraks’s cock, pleasuring her rapist more fully. Keeping his hands on her head, he pulled it back, and then drove forward again, sliding her throat along his erection, her nose bashing painfully against the armor around his crotch.
The street filled with the sounds of Selara gagging over and over, and the wet slick noises of the monster pleasuring himself with her. Again and again he pulled her head back, and then forward, masturbating himself with her throat. Strings of drool began to leak out around the imperfect seal the soldier’s mouth had formed, running down her chin and dripping onto her breasts.
It kept going and going, and Selara began to feel, with rising panic, that she was running out of air. She tried at first not to resist, knowing what it might mean, but eventually her body took over, and out of sheer instinct she pounded her fist against an armored thigh, trying to push him away. It didn’t work, the strength of the warrior and of his armor ensuring she wouldn’t breathe until he let her. Selara’s vision began to tunnel, darkness pressing in from the sides, and her struggles grew weaker.
Just as she felt she would black out, Avraks pulled her off his cock, long strings of drool stretching between them. Selara gasped frantically, never having felt so good to just breathe again.
“You obviously have much to learn,” Avraks said, watching Selara cough on the ground, “but I can train you properly. For now, though, while your throat is pleasingly tight, I think I should sample more of what your body has to offer.” Her brain still recovering from the oxygen deprivation, she didn’t really catch what he’d said, or at least what it meant, until she realized he wasn’t standing in front of her, and felt his hands grip her thighs and pull them apart. A heartbeat later, the head of his scaled cock pressed against her pussy lips.
“Wait,” she rasped, throat still sore. She wasn’t…
That brutal cock pressed forward, and she never finished the thought. She wasn’t aroused in the least, completely dry, and her sex lips still closed, but he battered his way in with pure force, her pale pink sex stretching horribly around the scaled shaft.
Selara’s mouth opened wide, her eyes bulging, and a thin, keening sound escaped her throat. She wasn’t ready for this, wasn’t made for this. For all that umbral females were tall, they had evolved with smaller males, and their vaginal passages were sized appropriately. Some males were larger than others, but the cock currently splitting her open might be twice the size her body was meant to take. Her abused channel sent constant streams of white-hot pain up to her brain as it stretched far beyond anything short of childbirth. Her muscles spasmed, trying desperately to force the invader out, but Avraks would not be denied, and plowed forward, his shaft pushing into her furthest depths, her resistance, once again, only making the experience more enjoyable for him.
On the first thrust, she whined quietly. By the second, she was much louder.
When the thick head of the cock battered the door to her womb, she screamed.
As her whole body shook with the agony of her cervix being stretched, Avraks leaned down, putting his snout nearer her head to speak to her quietly.
“While you enjoy my cock, cave worm, why don’t you tell your brother what it’s like?”
“Wh-what?” Selara had been trying not to even think of her little brother watching this. She couldn’t do this.
“Let him know what it is to be bred by the superior species; how we compare to him.”
“Ju- AH!” The umbral soldier choked back a scream as he punched deep inside her again. “Just please don- AUGH! Please don’t hurt him.” Avraks chuckled, a deep rumble she could feel through their joined bodies.
“It can only help his chances.” Slipping his hands under her breasts again, Avraks picked Selara up, bringing her vertical. Shifting his grip to her hips now, he begin lifting and then dropping her on his cock, the new angle driving his length through her cervix on every stroke.
“Tell me, cave worm,” he said, loud enough now for everyone to hear, “how do you imagine your males compare to the feel of Kthid cock?” Selara couldn’t. It hurt too much; she just couldn’t…
“It’s so much better!” she cried out. “Our males must be so pathetic! You’re AAAHNNG!” She did her best to try and shape her scream, making it sound like a pleasured noise. “You’re so much bigger! Reaching places they never could! I could never be satisfied by one of their tiny dicks now!”
She wasn’t even sure where this was coming from. She didn’t believe a word of it, and it wouldn’t matter to her brother, not the way it was supposed to, but she hated herself with every word that spilled from her lips, every moment of degradation. That was probably what it was really for.
“Well, pale slut, since you love my cock so much, I think I should give you your reward!”
Avraks intensified his fucking, lifting Selara up and slamming her down now, her breasts bouncing on her chest, the scales on his cock scraping her insides raw. Every savage thrust battered at her cervix, forcing it open wider, and Selara was sure that it would never close up again, that her body was being molded into a fitted meat socket for him with each plunge. She was crying now, tears streaming down her face from the sheer agony.
Then he slammed her hips down on his, metal bruising her pale flesh even further, and came.
Selara’s eyes went wide again, and she screamed, loud enough that she was sure it echoed off the cave walls. The monster’s semen was scalding hot, and it just kept gushing out of him. Her womb swelled, inflating until she almost looked pregnant, the pain of it making her writhe in his grip.
Finally, the flow of boiling semen stopped, and Avraks let go of his slave, dropping her to the ground. His cock pulled out of her with a thick, sucking sound, and a moment later a backwash of come spilled out and pooled on the stone. Selara couldn’t see it, but she could feel her pussy twitching feebly, a cavern trying hopelessly to close.
And then, somehow, it did. She didn’t understand it, but the awful sensation of air inside her gaping sex began to fade, and a few minutes later, it was gone. It was almost reassuring at first, but then the reality set in.
I’ll stay tight for him. It’s going to hurt just like this every time he rapes me. Selara buried her face against the ground and shuddered.
When she looked up, the Kthid elite was before her again, his dick hanging limp in front of her face. He stared at her for a long moment, the instruction clear.
Selara rose up until she could bring her head to his crotch, and took his soft cock in her mouth, sucking it and cleaning it with her tongue.
“You are a filthy little creature, cave worm,” Avraks said. “I never even asked you to do that.” Selara realized he actually hadn’t, and once more flushed with shame. She kept at it, though, doing her best to clean and pleasure at the same time.
The stream of hot piss caught her by surprise. She coughed, droplets of it coming out of her nostrils and burning her nasal passages, but when she saw the smile on Avraks’s face, and how his eyes stayed on hers, she held still where she was, and swallowed. Using all her determination, all of her discipline as a soldier, Selara gulped down the horrible liquid, feeling it pool hot and nauseating in her stomach. Her body tried to rebel, and she fought back the urge to vomit. Finally he backed up, his length slipping from her mouth so the stream of piss hit her in the face. She squeezed her eyes shut, the urine running down her face, some of it slipping in at the corners of her mouth, and she was forced to taste it again.
The Kthid around her all laughed deeply at the sight.
It was horrible and disgusting, but it was done. As the stream trickled down to nothing, Selara opened her eyes and saw Avraks tuck himself back into his armor, and the seam closed.
“Very good,” he said. “You have room to improve, but that was a good start for you, my little Cave Worm.” Selara nodded. He began to circle her again, clearing her line of sight, and for the first time since her degradation had begun, she looked at her brother again. He was still there, kneeling on the floor, one arm gingerly holding his broken wing. His cheeks were wet; Selara could see the warm streaks where tears had been, and he kept his eyes on his sister’s face, giving her what modesty he could. He swallowed, and then said just two words.
Selara’s eyes burned with tears, and she nodded. It wasn’t a question; her baby brother was reassuring her.
“I’m alright,” she said back. Her voice cracked, but she said it anyway. She had just been violated in ways she hadn’t even imagined until now. Piss was drying on her face, and Avraks’s seed was still inside her. She could wash herself for hours, scrubbing with soap and hot water, and she wasn’t sure if she would ever feel clean.
But she’d kept her brother safe. She didn’t know what would happen now, but at least one more time, she’d made it safe.
“It will be time to depart soon, Cave Worm,” Avraks said as he circled her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him reach down and scoop up her discarded combat outfit, tossing it farther down the street. “You won’t need these for your new life. Worms don’t wear clothing, after all.” Continuing on his path, he approached the other warrior, who handed him a weapon. It took Selara far too long to realize it was her sword. Her mother and father’s sword. In spite of everything, she started to reach out for it. Avraks shook his head, snorting derisively.
“This doesn’t belong to you,” he said. “A blade like this belongs to a warrior, and I don’t see one of those here. Worms don’t have personal possessions.” Avraks handed the sword back to the other warior, who walked off with it. Selara let her hand fall to her side, heart twisting inside her.
“Hmm…” Avraks said, tapping his chin as if thinking of something for the first time. “Something else just occurred to me.” His circle had now come back to where Ki-leth was shivering on the ground, holding his broken wing. The invader’s armored hand flashed out and grabbed a fistful of the young male’s hair again, pulling his head back to expose his vulnerable throat.
No, no, no no no.
“Do you know what else worms don’t have?” Avraks casually asked, drawing his cleaver blade and bringing it to rest against Ki-leth’s throat. Selara could hear her brother hyperventilating, and her own blood ran cold with horror. She shook her head, unable to form words but trying to plead nonetheless.
Avraks looked into her eyes, his lips curling back in a fanged grin.
“Worms don’t have families.”
In one smooth, effortless motion, he drew his blade along Ki-leth’s throat, and the boy’s pale skin parted like air.
Hot blood gushed from severed arteries, pouring down Ki-leth’s chest like a crimson waterfall. His hands flew to the gaping wound, rasping, gurgling breaths escaping as the blood ran down his severed trachea and into his lungs. He flailed back along the ground, face contorting with fear and tears running from his eyes as he tried vainly to stop the bleeding. He collapsed to the ground. Blood pooled on cold stone.
Selara screamed and threw herself forward, only to be stopped short when Avraks planted a foot between her shoulder blades and stepped down, pinning her in place. She ignored the crushing weight and kept trying to claw forward. She could see the pain and the fear on her baby brother’s face and she had to get to him; he needed her to stop the bleeding or to help him or calm him and he was dying and she needed to hold him while he died.
She was an arm’s length away and she couldn’t reach him. All she could do was scream.
Selara screamed as Ki-leth’s struggles slackened and faded. She screamed as the blood stopped flowing from his slashed throat. She screamed as the light went out in his eyes. She screamed and screamed and screamed until her throat was raw, her cries of anguish echoing off the cavern walls.
The only thing louder was the monsters howling with laughter.
Selara was quiet as she was led out of the undercity, as they were all led to the surface. Metal cuffs bound their hands together in front of them, while collars encircled their necks, with cords attached for their new masters to use as leashes.
As the slave procession emerged onto the surface, the umbral soldier could hear the sound, not just from those around her, but carried on the wind, a sound she would never be able to forget.
The sound of pain.
The wind carried the wailing of mothers who had lost their children; who had seen them murdered before their eyes; it brought the lamentations of widows and orphans. From closer by, Selara could hear the soft, muted crying of soldiers who had lost their brothers and sisters in arms, as well as fragments of prayers for the dead. Other women were just trying to deal with the rapes they had suffered, the sadism the invaders had poured out on them, and the knowledge that this was to be their future.
“A captivating sound, isn’t it, Cave Worm?” Avraks asked from the other end of her leash. He was looking out at the horizon, his expression like he was taking in something sacred. “It’s a melody we only hear at the end of a harvest, a privilege only the successful warrior can earn: the sound of final victory.”
For just a moment, even after everything he’d done to her, everything that had happened to her, despite the void she felt within her, Selara’s lip curled, and a tremor ran through her muscles. It wasn’t enough for her to say anything, though; not enough for her to strike him. Selara just didn’t have the energy to do something like that anymore.
With the sounds of a species in agony ringing in her ears, she followed her owner across the open ground, to the waiting transport shuttles.
The transports ascended, borne aloft on pillars of flame, clouds streaking past and the sky darkening until only stars stretched out above them. There weren’t windows, not precisely, but certain panels on the wall served as screens, and views from external cameras could be displayed on them, allowing master and slave alike to see the shuttles, great swarms of them, approaching the vast ships above. Most of the transports were converging, like streams flowing together into rivers of gleaming metal, as they approached the titanic freighters, the slave ships Selara knew would each carry tens of millions of women back to the monsters’ homeworld. The transport Avraks and she were on, however, wasn’t headed for one of them.
Instead, they were closing in on a smaller vessel, one of the alien warships. Smaller, of course, didn’t mean small, and as they approached the long metal form, with its blade-like prow and projecting hull sponsons back near the thrusters, Selara guessed that between three and four sky cities, laid end to end, might stretch the length of the ship.
“The Empty Night,” Avraks said by way of explanation, “a triumph of Kthid engineering. I serve aboard that vessel, and as my personal heitera you will be permitted aboard it, rather than being thrown into one of the freighters with the unclaimed masses.” Selara watched the ship in numb silence. Avraks’s eyes narrowed.
“You don’t seem sufficiently honored,” he said. It took Selara a while to manage a response.
“I am honored to be allowed aboard such a ship, Master Avraks,” she said, effectively pushing the words out. She was trying to sound appreciative, but the empty space inside her made that difficult.
“Not so enthusiastic now,” Avraks said. “What happened to all that passion you had earlier?” He smiled. “Don’t worry; we’ll work on improving your attitude.” Selara felt a muted sort of dread at the familiar mix of anger and glee in his voice. He didn’t say anything more, and she looked away, finding suffering in every direction. All around the interior of the shuttle, former soldiers were either being pressed against walls, fucked against the cold metal by the invaders, or were being forced to actively degrade themselves. Her vision wasn’t as clear as it could be—even the dull red lighting in the shuttle was uncomfortably bright to umbral eyes, forcing her to squint—and it took Selara a moment to realize that the woman kneeling closest to her was Luvira.
The holy woman was nude now, as they all were, her elegant ceremonial braids crusted with dried semen. As with Selara, patches of the foul substance clung to her skin. Selara remembered that she’d thought Luvira looked tired before the battle; compared to how she looked now that state had been vibrant and energetic. Luvira was looking off into the middle distance, but Selara almost felt as though she could see a sort of void behind her eyes, like a part of the priestess had been hollowed out.
Selara wanted to say something to comfort her friend, but she couldn’t. There was nothing to say.
Eventually, the transport docked with the warship, what Avraks had called the Empty Night, and the slaves were led into the larger vessel. Selara passively took it all in: the corridors that stretched off into the distance, the strangely flat orientation of everything—as far as she could tell, the floor didn’t curve, so the Kthid ship lacked any kind of centrifuge; Selara couldn’t guess how they generated gravity—the hexagonal paneling on the walls and the same omnipresent red light from the transport. Many slaves were hauled away down side halls or through open doorways, but Luvira’s new owner gestured to Avraks, and the armored warrior saluted.
“Come now,” Avraks said to Selara. “Karvaak Thron has invited us to a very special sendoff, and I wouldn’t want you to miss it.” Dull pain filled Selara’s chest as she followed Avraks and the others now, knowing that whatever happened next wasn’t merely going to be a religious or military ceremony. Everything these monsters did seemed to revolve around causing pain. Sadism was their primary cultural virtue, and if Avraks wanted her to see something, it was only so he could live up to that virtue.
Eventually, they all gathered in a relatively large room, perhaps fifteen Kthid warriors and their umbral captives, facing a blank wall. The slaves were forced to kneel, and after a moment, the wall seemed to turn transparent, another of those viewing panels that projected camera feeds from outside. The viewing wall had clearly been designed for Kthid eyes, and the only infrared that came off of it was general waste heat, rendering the image less vibrant and colorful than what Selara was used to seeing, but she could still discern the void of space outside, the stars shining in it, the night side of Penumbra…and the sky cities.
The alien ships were far enough away from them that Selara couldn’t make out the finer details, but there was no mistaking them for anything else. The twelve tori formed a ring around Penumbra, evenly spaced along their orbit, so six of them were visible now, the wheel-shaped habitats turning slowly in the vacuum. Large solar panels projected from the axis of rotation to power everything inside, and a secondary ring of small agricultural cylinders encircled each torus.
Selara swallowed. The emotions welling up inside her couldn’t be sorted out; happy childhood memory, admiration for the feat of engineering and sorrow at the knowledge that they were as far as her people would ever get all swirled together now.
“As I recall,” Avraks said, “you seemed rather proud of those amateurish little habitats of yours.” Still grappling with the emotions, Selara almost nodded.
“All the more reason for you to see this. Pride is one emotion a slave shouldn’t have.”
Outside, something streaked into view. Selara was confused for a moment, before she realized it was one of those missiles, the kind that had been used to destroy the orbital defenses when the invasion began, propulsion drive shining painfully bright. As it shot through her field of view it was joined by others, dozens and dozens of them, and she drew a sharp breath at the knowledge of what was happening.
The wave of missiles crossed the distance to their targets in the span of a few seconds, and then Selara had to shut her eyes as the nukes hit the sky cities and detonated. Even at this distance, the explosions were incredibly bright, like tiny suns, and Selara could pick up some of the light even through her eyelids. When she forced her eyes open again, the orbit around Penumbra was filled with thousands of tiny, glittering pieces of metal and composite materials, all spinning away from each other. Selara had no doubt that a similar scene had taken place on the other side of the planet.
It had taken umbral civilization decades to build the sky cities. In a matter of seconds, they had all been reduced to a rapidly expanding debris field.
Inside herself, the umbral soldier felt something crumple and fall away. She took another breath, and it came out shaky. Somewhere else in the room, a woman sobbed, and Selara’s vision began to blur with tears. Avraks and Luvira’s master were making small talk now, but she didn’t bother paying attention. As she looked away, from both the monsters and the shattered sky cities, her gaze settled on Luvira again, and after a moment she realized her friend was looking at her as well.
“I’m sorry,” Luvira said quietly, and Selara nodded. She opened her mouth, and then shut it, emotions boiling up from somewhere deep inside her.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Selara managed. “We were supposed to…I was supposed to…” She couldn’t finish, the lump in her throat forcing her to stop talking, her eyes growing hot. Finally, she looked at Luvira again and said “Ki-leth is dead. I was…I was there.”
“I understand,” Luvira replied, nodding gently and smiling, just a little, in support. “I know what you’re feeling.” She sat up a little straighter, rising just slightly on her knees, and Selara saw her take on a little of the clerical persona from earlier. There were cracks in it, though, the effort Luvira had to spend to maintain it plainly visible.
“I know you, and I know it may not help,” Luvira said, “but for whatever it’s worth, your brother was a very kind soul.” Her own eyes glistened with tears. “I believe the All-Mother loves her children, and that Ki-leth will be cared for.” She looked like she wanted to say more, but their masters had evidently finished their conversation, and the crowd dispersed, the soldier and the priestess pulled in different directions.
The ship felt every bit as large as it had looked from the outside, and it was a long walk, following Avraks through twisting halls and up an elevator between decks. Finally, they reached a doorway leading into rather spacious living quarters.
“Welcome to your new home, Cave Worm,” Avraks said, and Selara stepped inside. There lighting fixtures in the room, but they were all off now, and Selara got just the slightest amount of pleasure from that, as her strained eyes began to relax. Her vision clearing a little also allowed her to examine the room. It was large, but furnished in a rather sparse manner, presumably what Avraks saw fit for a disciplined warrior. There was a computer console of some sort—an access terminal for the ship’s internal communication system, perhaps—and on the walls hung banners depicting conquests on alien worlds. A large bed served as the centerpiece of the room. Selara looked at the bed for a long time before she dared to look back at her owner. Avraks chuckled.
“You will receive the honor of my bed when my child grows in your belly,” he said. “Until then…” he pointed to a spot on the floor, “worms sleep on the ground.” Selara didn’t reply. She’d expected to be raped again, or made to service him with her mouth, so she was honestly surprised when he turned back toward the door. He looked back over his shoulder at her.
“Vigilance is a warrior’s duty,” he said in answer to what she imagined must have been a surprised look. “My team and I spend much of the day either patrolling for security or running drills, that we not lose our edge before the next harvest. Later, when my shift ends, you and I can properly celebrate the end of a successful campaign.” Stepping back out into the brighter hallway, he turned around one last time, facing her while silhouetted in the doorway.
“The Empty Night is a large vessel, almost a city unto itself. Given its daunting size, I understand it can be easy for a slave to get lost.” He tilted his head, meeting her gaze. “Don’t worry, though. Should you ever go missing, little worm, rest assured…” Ambient light reflected off his eyes, and the corners of Avraks’s mouth turned up in a smile.
“…I will find you.”
And with that, the door slid shut, and Selara was alone in the darkness of the room.
Walking over to where Avraks had pointed earlier, the umbral soldier curled up in her designated spot, drawing her knees up to her chin, her tail curling around her on the floor. She sat there for a long while, staring at nothing.
She thought about Liesa, and Annala, and Li-ten. She thought about her people, about the culture that had been destroyed, the families that had been torn apart and the future they didn’t have. All of their males were dead, so there would be no more children. The time they had left was the lifespan of one generation, a century and a half, maybe a few decades more for the younger females, and then there would be no more.
The umbrals were extinct. They just weren’t dead yet.
Somehow, this was all less upsetting to Selara than seeing her baby brother’s pleading expression in her mind’s eye. No matter what else she thought about, it kept coming back. She reminded herself about what Luvira had said, about what the priestess believed. She told herself that Ki-leth had been a good person, a kind-hearted young man, that that had been enough, and that he would find his way to the All-Mother’s embrace.
And then she sobbed, loudly, because no matter how badly she wanted to, she wasn’t sure she believed it.
Selara didn’t know how long she sat there, crying into her folded arms, before she was interrupted. The room jolted and the winged soldier was pressed back against the wall. The Empty Night was accelerating, using that unknown drive. After a moment, the backward pull lessened, maybe from whatever the Kthid used for gravity compensating for the acceleration, but Selara knew they were still picking up speed. The fleet was heading for deep space, leaving an empty world behind, only ghost cities remaining to prove the umbrals had ever existed.
Selara took deep breaths, doing her best to stop crying. Slow breaths, in and out, as she worked to regain her composure. As she thought about her brother, about her friend, about her people and her world, her breaths grew longer and slower.
As she thought about these aliens, these monsters, laughing at their slow-motion genocide, glorying in it, her lips curled back, and her last calming breath came out as a long, slow hiss between sharp teeth. Tremors ran through her muscles again, and as before it wasn’t from grief. Her posture didn’t change, but above her folded arms, her eyes hardened, becoming shards of red ice.
She looked back at the door Avraks had left through. She tried to remember the halls she had passed through, the viewing area and all the other rooms. She pulled back the images she could, and then forced them to sharpen, hammering the details solid in her mind. Over the coming days, she vowed, she would learn more. She would learn every bit of this ship. It would take a long time, but she would be patient. Avraks had his collar on her, and she was at his mercy, but sooner or later, he would make a mistake.
They all would.
Selara would never see her home again. She knew this. She would never know the embrace of a lifemate. She would never help a friend raise her children in the undercities. She would never again feel the rain kiss her skin or the air rush past her as she flew under the open sky. She would never teach her own child to use a sword as her mother had taught her. Selara would never know happiness. The monsters had closed that path to her.
But she had many long years ahead of her, and she would be patient. She would wait for her moment, and when it came, she swore she would not miss it.
Selara could never have happiness, but if she was patient, if she waited long enough, she could have something else.
She could have revenge.