A Crown of Blood and Ash – Chapter 1.

Streaks of green flame slid through the darkness of the sky, leaving an ever changing trail of colours in its wake. The stars around it shimmered and distorted like reflections across disturbed water. Mallan Rilarendir watched it idley from the rooftop where he was laid. Vague thoughts crossed his mind, but mostly he was content to just enjoy the view. It was rare to have a clear sky.

“You ever think it’s strange how the past never really goes away. It’s always here in some way or other. We lay here and look at the sky, watching as chunks of a once powerful civilisation drifts through space, and we know all about it even though it happened long before we were born. It’s like they didn’t want to be forgotten so they keep drawing our attention to them, whispering for us to remember them.”

From Mallan’s side, Lilarith Rilarendir snorted. “I think you think to much. Of course the past is here for us to see. Every second becomes the past, becomes history. Us waiting here now, talking about nothing, is history. Maybe in the future someone will think we’re important and look back to this moment. That’s what decides the past. Nothing more than what people in the present believe deserves remembering.”

Mallan shrugged and continued to watch the comet split the sky asunder. He was only a young boy, but to him the great war was something that fascinated him. Even trying to imagine the scale and power involved as titans clashed was something beyond his comprehension. Yet it happened. The fragments of alien worlds were a constant reminder of it.

“But believe me,” Lilarith continued. “People will remember us. I’ll grab destiny by the horns, and with your help we’ll tame it and ride it on to victory after victory. Just you wait.”

The conviction in her voice was captivating. She believed every word she said with every fiber of her being. So did anybody who listened to her. She was just that kind of person. She commanded belief as easily as she breathed. Mallan knew that if she said everything would be okay then he’d run straight into an unwinnable fight without hesitation. Lila was the one constant in a swirling world of fear and violence.

Lila yawned then flipped onto her feet in one swift movement. She stretched then glanced around her.

“It looks like it’s going to be a bit longer before Kass shows up. You want to play a game?” she asked.

Mallan got to his feet himself with a smile. “What have you got in mind?”

“I’m thinking a game we haven’t played in ages. I challenge you to stone throwing! Kass isn’t here to win so it’s anyone’s game. Go on, I’ll let you pick the target.”

“Sure,” Mallan nodded. He stepped up to the edge of the rooftop and scanned the city. Sherham was a mess of buildings with little thought towards street planning. Half a prewar church stood beside a wooden shamble complex built in the last few years, while an imposing tower of concrete from the war itself loomed over them from the other side of the road. Few buildings were from a single period of time, additions, extensions and repairs were haphazardly slapped across just about everything in sight. 

Further away, his eyes were drawn to the large ring of the stadium that was built around one of the many craters from the war. That was far more than a stone throw away though. Beyond that, encircling everything he had ever known was the cloister, a grand wall that protected the city, its surface curling inwards like a half dome. Closer to them stood The Office. It was a large, squat building of brown stone that served the city council’s public offices. It was made distinctive by the ancient relic that was securely fastened to the roof: A large plastic ring that still bore faded pink paint. Some of the locals said it was a symbol of avarice, others that it was an old world symbol of law enforcement. To Mallan, it looked like a perfect target.

He pointed to the object, noticing that Lila had already gathered an armful of various sized rocks. Stones and general rubble was the one thing that Sherham had in plentiful supply. She handed him one then motioned with her head for him to take the first shot.

Mallan sized up the target then threw the stone. It clanked heavily into the ring and bounced to the street below. Lila placed the stones in a neat pile then grabbed oner for herself. She threw it almost instantly, taking no time to measure up the distance, yet it still hit the plastic just a few inches from the hole. She made a slight frustrated sound then stepped back.

With the next stone in hand, Mallan took his time to carefully aim. Lila had won the last three games and he didn’t want to make it four. There was no coming back from something like that. He took a deep breath then swung out his arm. The stone flew straight through the hole and clipped the wall of the next building. He grinned, then controlled his features. It was too early to celebrate.

He had been right to stay reserved. Lila cast her stone clean through the ring and returned his grin with interest. The pressure was on now. All he had to do was replicate exactly what he had done on his last throw. He looked over the pile of stones and selected the roundest one he could see. Seconds ticked by as he tried to line himself up exactly as he had been before. He released the stone and watched as it dipped and skidded across the rooftop below the ring.

Lila scooped up a stone without looking and stepped up to the ledge. She made her through almost instantly and Mallan could tell from the moment it left her hand that she had won. The stone sailed through the centre of the ring then smashed a window somewhere on the other side.

“You overthink things,” she said with a slight shrug as she stepped down. “The world’s only as complicated as you make it. I remember my dad telling me that once.”

Mallan frowned. “That doesn’t sound true.”

Lila just shrugged again in response. That was the way she was. The girl had a natural luck about her. Things always tended to work out how she wanted it to. It was one of the reasons that Mallan was drawn to her. She had convictions, and against all odds, she saw them through.

He blinked as a stone whistled past his head, followed closely by two more. Without turning he watched all three follow a perfect path through the ring.

“It doesn’t count if you use your eve,” Mallan muttered. He turned to see a taller boy with dark skin and long black hair standing behind them. It was his best friend and third member of their family trio, Kassim Rilarendir. He held three more stones in one hand, maneuvering them between his fingers in complex patterns with a casual ease.

“No eve use here. I’d have looped them around the ring a few times for extra points if that was the case.” One of the stones rose up from his hand and circled Mallan’s head a to emphasise his point. “I just have a feel for these things, you know?”

Lila approached the boy eagerly. “Yes, yes, we all know how the mighty Kass is the greatest at flinging dirt. Let’s get to the real news. Is everything ready?”

“As ready as it can be. The warmups have already started so most folk will be inside. Main gates are well guarded but the tunnels only have a single guard. We should be able to slip past him nice and easy down there.”

“What are we waiting for then?” Lila exclaimed. “We’ve got a show to see. Come on!”

She jogged across the roof then hopped down onto a wall below, disappearing from sight. Kass gave Mallan a knowing look then followed suit. Kass was older and took to most things he tried with ease, but just like Mallan, when it came to Lila, he was a follower along for the ride.

The twisting streets below were all but empty of humans. Dogs barked and stray cats lazed on just about every surface, sauntering around like the city was theirs. Mallan was surprised by just how quiet it was. He’d known that the match would draw a lot of people, but to think so many had saved enough for entrance was impressive.

Their goal was the stadium that dominated the ruined skyline of the city. The Champions Stadium served as the centre of modern life in Sherham. The competitions and sports played within was a big draw, and today’s match promised to be the best seen for a long time.

“We’re definitely going to make it in time, right?” Mallan asked. 

“Of course we will!” Lila declared with her usual confidence. “I’ve planned everything out. Even if we have to face down an angry guard we’ll still have time to spare. Such an important match is going to have a lot of lead up. You think I intend to miss this?”

They ran on, vaulting over low walls and skidding around corners without slowing. Their path led them veering away from the stadium to the outskirts of the city were a small pipe connected with a sickly stream. The fetid water was green and smelled bad but the three children jumped straight in. The stream didn’t even reach the top of their boots.

The pipe itself was about a foot wide with three rusted metal bars sealing off the entrance. Kass bent down and grabbed the central bar.

“I just want to stress how difficult this was,” he said in an easy tone. “I didn’t even know I could use gravel liker that until I tried. Controlling tiny particles of grit to errode the pipe around the bars took a long time. You’ll be happy to know that I Used a rock to scout out the tunnel. It opens up after about thirty yards into the main sewer. Not bad, eh?”

“Not bad at all,” Lila said with a devilish smile. 

Kass twisted his grip and the bar came loose. He passed it over to Mallen then removed the other two, keeping one for himself and giving the other to Lila. Without any question or complaint, Lila got down on her knees and slid into the tunnel. Mallan went next, steadying his breath as they were immersed into darkness. 

“Hey, Mal,” Lila started. “I don’t suppose you want to manifest an eve right about now? Like fire, or maybe just the ability to glow in the dark?” 

“Afraid not.”

“I’ve told you,” Kass said. “Mal’s eve is that he doesn’t feel fear.”

“That’s not an eve, that’s psychological scarring. Something like that anyway.”

“I’m right here, guys…”

The good natured jabs didn’t really bother Mallan. Not much did. It was true that he didn’t feel emotions in the same way that everyone else seemed to. That been said, the fact that he had yet to develop and kind of eve at his age was something that played on his mind a lot. It wasn’t exactly uncommon, but it made life markedly harder.

Kass was able to control earth. At first he had just had a good sense of the land. Then he could move individual stones slightly. Now he could direct rock and dirt with easy. It was an ability with unlimited uses if you had the imagination. This power alone had helped the trio get to where they were today.

Just as Kass had said, the tight pipe opened into a wider tunnel that was knee high in slurry. Mallan took a flintbox from a pocket and lit a small lantern that hung from his belt. It didn’t do much to dispel the darkness. He glanced around through the gloom. 

“If I’m right, which I am, then down that way is the locked gate. There’s no way past it in here but they neglected that little hole. If this section of the sewer is the same as the outer city then there should be a way to come out right at the stadium,” Lila explained.

Kass picked up where she left off. “I spoke with old Gungil. He worked down here years ago and says the tunnels are a mess. The crater cut straight into pre-war basements and sewers. Some collapsed, others were joined to newer tunnels. Walking around the stadium, I’m pretty confident that there is a half collapsed pathway from the sewers into the stadium’s waterways. From there we sneak past one guard then find the small rain grate that looks into the arena.”

“Easy as that?”

“As easy as that.”

They moved through the sewers quickly, backtracking several times as they familiarised themselves with the layout. Under Kess’ guidance, it wasn’t long before they found themselves in a crumbling section of tunnel that looked to be long abandoned. It ended abruptly where a wall of rubble blocked the path.

Mallan watched as Kass scrambled up the rubble. The fickle light of the lantern barely reached the roof of the tunnel, leaving his friend obscured in darkness. They waited in silence for a moment until Kass skidded back down. 

“The rocks here are old. They’ve been under a lot of pressure. We’ll have to be careful. Stay back until I say.”

Kass approached the wall slower this time. He placed the palm of his hand on each rock for several seconds. 

“Here,” he muttered. His hand was resting on a large rock that was midway up the pile and rested on the right-hand wall. “This is the only rock here. If I can move it without displacing anything then we’re in luck.”

He took a deep breath, placing one hand on the rock in question and the other on the rubble beside it. There was a deep rumbling sound. The very walls of the tunnel shook. Dusty rained down on them. Neither Mallan or Lila moved an inch. They had complete faith in Kass.

Little by little, the rock edged its way out until it final tumbled down to land dangerously close to Mallan. Kass motioned them through the hole. As Mallan passed he could see the strain on his friend’s face. Sweat was rolling down his face. No sooner had they passed him, Kass shuffled through the gap then collapsed into the grime.

“You okay?” Mallan asked as he helped Kass back up.

“Yeah, just took a little more effort than I thought. Holding that much weight in place is apparently not easy. I had to shift some around a little too to prevent it all falling the moment I let go. Not too bad an effort, if I do say so myself.”

The section of tunnel here extended a few dozen yards then stopped. There was only a single passageway leading from it, but unlike the usual mossy stone, the archway around the passage looked much newer and was in the simplistic style of postwar construction.

Lila approached the door slowly. “That’s got to be the way under the stadium. No talking from here. Keep your eyes open for guards. Mal, shutter the light.”

Mallan snuffed out the flame, plunging the dank space into darkness once more. Kass took the lead while Lila motioned that she’d cover the back. Mallan found himself in the centre of the small group without any real role to play. That was how things usually worked out. 

They crept along as quietly as they could, although any attempt at stealth was ruined by the splashing of water that accompanied their every step. The poorly made cement that marked buildings constructed over the last century was not made for constant water exposure. A spiderweb of cracks ran along every surface. The lightest of touches sent chunks tumbling noisily into the water.

The waterways snaked and branched off without rhyme or reason. Even Kass’ sense for the earth was having trouble choosing the right paths to take. He came to a stop and held up a hand for them to be quiet. On the edge of hearing was the distinctive sloshing of footsteps. 

“We won’t be able to sneak past any guards with this water,” Kass whispered. 

“I’m not turning back.” Lila hissed. “Take him out.”

“You sure?”

She nodded decisively. Kass frowned but did as she asked. He took a stone from his pocket and waited as the approaching splashes grew louder. A shape emerged from around a corner surrounded by an aura of light. It was the shadow of a man. Then a stout man in the basic grey uniform of the city guard followed. In one hand he held a lantern, in the other a small pistol. A metal baton also hung from his waist. The man noticed them immediately. Without hesitating he raised the gun. 

“Hands up! What the snazz are you doing down ‘ere?”

All three of them obeyed, lifting their hands above their head. Mallan noticed that the stone floated out of sight behind Kass’s back. The boy’s finger twitched slightly and the stone shot forward. It kept low, skimming over the water until it visibly turned and dove upwards, curving at the last second to slam into the guard’s temple. He made a sharp grunt then fell to the floor.

“Quick! The match is going to start any second!” Lila said, completely unperturbed by the violent crime they had just participated in. She was already jogging past the guard.

Mallan and Kass followed, Mallan pausing long enough to position the guard with his face out of the water. They now sprinted through the tunnels until a new sound started to reverberate through the stone. 

At first it was a physical force, something felt rather than heard. Then it became a low rumble that rose in intensity until it became the clear sound of thousands of voices cheering in unison. Up ahead a beam of light cut through the mirk. The children clustered around it like their savior. 

Mallan allowed Lila and Kass to press their heads up close to the small grate that was set in the wall at the perfect height for them to see through. He positioned himself so he could see over Lila’s shoulder.

The light resolved itself into a desert landscape. His view was limited but Mallan could see the sandy ground and large boulders that dotted the circular space. Beyond the sand rose a large wall that transitioned into a series of steps that sloped at a gentle angle outwards. People stood tightly packed along the steps, all of them focussed entirely on the arena below them. 

“We made it in time!” Lila laughed triumphantly. “We finally get to see them.”

A horn blowed and the cheers of the crowd became even wilder. A mechanically enhanced voice cut across the noise.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the time has finally arrived, and boy are you in for a show tonight. I want you to offer a warm welcome to the heroes that have graced us with their presence here. We have two esteemed teams ready to put their skills to the test for your entertainment!”

The cheers were near deafening now. Some unseen signal called the crowd to be calm. The voice continued.

“Our first team today are known far and wide across the world yet hail from this fair land! This year marks their ninth as Reclaimers. With six stadium wins, nineteen migrations and a total of over twenty six thousand logged hours in the Scorch, this is a team with a proven pedigree. Please show some love to the Scarlet Arrows!”

The crowd was going wild. Mallan bobbed and twisted his head to try and see the entrance way but was blocked by one of the boulders. Then three figures walked into the centre of the arena, soaking in the adoration of the people. They each wore red bodysuits beneath chainmail and leather armour. An assortment of pouches and items hung from wide belts. It was only the weapons that were different, one having some kind of metal crossbow, another a sword and shield, while the third had what looked like a flamethrower.

“You see their arms?” Lila asked. “Those metal things have arrows in them. The hooded guy with the crossbow is Robin. Say’s he’s Robin Hood reborn. With his eve he could be. He controls localised air currents and can direct things like arrows with ease. He’ll stay back and try to keep the other team pinned while the other two move to flank. I guarantee it.”

The Scarlet Arrows returned to their side of the stadium as the announcer continued.

“Our second team are relative newcomers to the Reclaimer scene but have left a big impression in that time. Travelling here from across the Ship Graveyard, these three have racked up three migrations, twelve thousand hours in the Scorch and two stadium wins. This will be their first appearance in Sherham’s Champion Stadium so give them a warm welcome. I present to you, The Future Rains!”

Mallan could see the entrance at this end. He saw another three Reclaimers enter the arena to the roar of the crowd. These three were very different than the last team. Each wore different armour without any central theme flowing through them. At their centre was a shorter man with two pistols and a large coat. Flanking him was a large woman with an equally large hammer, and a tall man who didn’t seem to be carrying any weapon at all.

“They’ve won,” Lila announced confidently.

“You think?” Kass said. “The Arrows have way more experience. They’ve mastered their technique.”

“That’s why they’ll lose,” Lila answered. “They do what they do well. And everyone knows it.”

Mallan considered this. “So you think these Future Rains know what to expect and will have a plan? But doesn’t everyone know what the Arrows do? Why would this be different?”

“Look at them. They’re all kinda ugly, right? They aren’t here for the fame. They aren’t here on good will or glamour. Their stats say the same. In two years they’ve done as much as the Arrows did in five. Every story I hear about them in battle is different too. They adapt and they survive. The Arrows are here to put on a show, the rains are here to win.”

“Is everybody ready!” shouted the mechanical voice. “Then let the match begin!”

A screeching airhorn sounded then bolts began to fly. Mallan watched as a dozen bolts wove and weaved through the air, approaching the Future Rains from several directions. He didn’t have Lila’s faith in the team but he have faith in Lila. The match was now a game of seeing not if the underdog team would win but how.

Flames erupted from the tall man’s hands, incinerating the bolts in a heartbeat. More bolts followed though before the man could ready another blast of fire. The woman, Jayne Farstride as Mallan recalled, had already started a direct charge forward. The bolts ignored her and aimed straight for the shorter man, Lampron. He didn’t move. The bolts passed straight through him without the slightest flicker of emotion crossing his face. There was no blood, nor any holes in his clothes or flesh. 

Lampron stepped forward, unfazed by the attack, and sedately approached the closest boulder as the taller man, Tim Tallow, strode towards the opposing team with fire streaming out from his hands.

“That’s a hell of an eve,” Kass said admiringly, his eyes following the waves of flame.

“Yours is better,” Lila answered without looking away from the battle. 

The two teams exchanged attacks in a terrifying display of power. It was obvious why these men and women were regarded with such reverence. The Reclaimers were the best of the best, the strongest humans that put their lives on the line to protect any that needed to cross the ashes between cities. Their reputation had made them into celebrities, and now many worked as much for entertainment as they did for utility. 

Mal watched the two teams clash. It was the first time he had seen Reclaimers in action, and the sight filled him with amazement and doubt. He couldn’t ever imagine being at that level. 

Then, just as Lila had predicted, The Future Rains came out on top. The stadium erupted with cheers as the match ended. Lila laughed derisively. “I expected better from them. Both teams, to be honest.”

“Are you disappointed?” Mal asked her.

“No. It just added to my excitement. These guys are considered some of the best in the trade yet they fought like that? Hah! That just proves that we’re going to be the best Reclaimers ever!” Lila grabbed Mallan and Kass’ hand without looking away from the stadium. “Just you wait. In a few years we’ll be out on that sand, all of those cheers and chants aimed at us. We’re gonna shoot straight to the top. Believe it!”

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