Chapter 3. (A Crown of Blood and Ash)

Despite his early night, Mal woke up late the next morning. He wasn’t used to having uninterrupted sleep. The main house was basically empty. No doubt that most of the children were already out scavenging or in lessons with Doctor Ritner. Mal quickly left and headed down the street toward the bulky structure known as the Works.

The building was ugly even by Sherham standards. It was the largest post war building in the city and it was clear that the slapdash construction of the Knighted Kingdom wasn’t suitable for something of that scale. Doctor Ritner had told them that it was built to imitate prewar office blocks. It served as a single building filled with hundreds of individual businesses. Doctor Ritner’s clinic was one such business.

Mal entered the building, receiving a scowl from the sullen guard that stood by the door. The children were considered as half a step up from vermin. If not for the doctors lessons, none of them would likely have been allowed inside. It wasn’t like they had money to spend and they did have a reputation for thievery. 

The ground floor of the Works was a semi-open space filled with stalls and traders pushing their wares. Dozens of smells intermingled in the air and there was a constant chatter of voices. Mal ignored them and headed straight for the stairs. Doctor Ritner’s clinic was on the second of three floors.

This floor was the opposite of the last. Mal stepped out into a narrow corridor flanked on both sides by dozens of doors. Each had a sign proclaiming some service or another. Over a hundred small offices were crammed together here. The doctor’s room was bundled away in the far corner.

Mal quietly opened the door and slipped in. A small window lit a room that was filled to the brim with objects. Shelves and cupboards lined the walls while the doctor’s cluttered desk took up the space beneath the window. Three pews dominated the rest of the space, each one tightly packed with fidgeting children. He spotted Kass and Lila at the back. They pushed and shuffled until there was just enough space for Mal to wiggle in.

Doctor Ritner stood in front of a chalkboard that was hung on one of the cupboards. He was a lean, middle aged man with milky eyes and a shaved head. His clothes were simple but neat. A pair of silver glasses sat across the bridge of his narrow nose.

“Ah, Mallan, good of you to join us. I’d complain at your tardiness, but I have been trying to get you to have a full night’s sleep. Luckily you haven’t missed much. We’re just going over eves, at Miss Lila’s request.

“To recap, eves are mutations of our DNA after the war. High levels of radiation and a whole cocktail of dangerous chemicals covered the surface of the Earth. These caused our DNA to become unstable. Over a few generations these mutations began to have a profound effect on our species. Can anyone remember why we called these mutations eves?”

Lila raised her hand. “It started as a shorthand for evolution.”

“Correct. Psychology and lexicography go hand in hand. Mutations sound bad, whereas evolution sounds good. They both essentially mean the same thing, although evolution is usually associated with a positive change. Do you know the other reason?”

Lila shook her head. Nobody else made any effort to answer. 

“What few pre-war records we have access to tell us that there was a mighty god that created humanity. Eve was the name of the first woman, the mother of all humanity. She was the dawn of life, but also the originator of sin. Just as our eves can be used to further our survival, so too can they be used for evil. Hmm, sadly, there are few other details of or progenitor. The records suggest that we evolved from apes, so historians are unsure if Eve was an ape that birthed humans, or if she and Adam, the first man, were created as the first Apes. There is so much knowledge that we lost to the war.”

Kass was looking uncharacteristically interested in the lesson. He raised his hand.

“But how do they work? There are so many kinds of eves, most of which don’t make sense biologically. Super strength or night-vision make sense as evolutionary traits in humans but my connection with the earth hasn’t evolved from an existing human trait.”

 “Nobody is sure. Maybe we had the technology before the war to look deep into our own DNA, but again, most of this has been lost. The prevailing theory is of Snap Survival Evolution. Each person’s eve is a genetic ball of evolutionary energy. Where normal evolution increases species survivability over generations, our eves release a stored pool of genetic material into our bodies to help with immediate survival.”

“That makes sense,” Kass muttered to himself. “So because I was trapped under rubble as a child, that energy evolved into the ability to manipulate stone?”

“Basically.”

Mal considered this. “Is that the only way to unlock an eve then?”

“No, my boy,” Doctor Ritner answered quickly. It was clear from his face that he hadn’t thought through telling a group of children that coming close to death could give them power. “Most don’t happen that way. At least not directly. “My eve for example allows me to see the electric currents and pressure points that run through the human body. It makes me an excellent doctor but isn’t much good in a life or death situation.

“These days, most eves are more stable. They will often develop along similar paths to that of the child’s parents. Others unlock gradually over extended repetition of a task.”

The lesson continued with a discussion of famous eves and their applications. Mal always enjoyed Doctor Ritner’s lessons, and this topic was one close to his heart, but today he was filled with nervous energy as he waited to speak with his friends. When the lesson ended he pulled the two aside.

“I’m in,” he told them. “We’re family. That means that your dreams are mine. So I’m going to do everything I can to get you there.”

Kass didn’t look as happy as Mal had expected. The older boy looked strangely sad. “That isn’t something of your own though. You-”

Lila cut him off. “It’s a good start. Helping others is a noble dream, and maybe he’ll find something more personal along the way.” She turned to Mal. “Glad to have you aboard.”

Mal smiled at her, but he was feeling nervous.

“I do have some conditions though.” Mal was never the one to set rules or tell Lila or Kass what to do. If he wanted to keep them safe though it would have to be something he learned to do. “We’re talking about doing really dangerous things. Every step forward we take could kill us if we go wrong. That means we get one shot at everything. If our dreams are life or death then we need to be prepared.”

Kass nodded. “What have you got in mind?”

“Nothing extreme. Just that we have a carefully thought out plan, a backup plan for if things go bad, and for each of us to be at a set physical standard. That means we need to be able to run fast, run far, climb, and fight.”

“We’re already fit,” Lila said with a slight edge to her voice. “And we might not be as strong as a full grown man but together we can take one down.”

“Mal’s right. Sure, we can take one man down if we’re together but what if we get seperated, or if we have to face more than one man. Things could go bad real fast.”

Lila bit her lip and scrunched her face up. “You boys always underestimate what we are capable of. But waiting an extra week or so won’t hurt us. I accept your proposal. If we’re going to do something then we might as well do it right.”

The three headed back home and set to work planning immediately. The attic had become the children’s planning room. Not just for Mal, Lila and Kass, but for all of the orphans. There was a constant flow of food heists and robberies to plan, schedules to learn and escape routes to arrange. A crudely drawn map of the city covered one of the walls. 

Kass stood beside the wall, grabbing a stick to point at the different building, imitating the way Doctor Ritner taught. 

“The plan’s simple. We need weapons to train so we go steal some. If we can get more than we need then we can sell them on and make a nice little profit on the side. We’ll be taking the weapons from the pogs.”

“That’s kinda risky, don’t you think?” Mal asked. “The pogards are hardly going to turn a blind eye to us taking their stuff.”

“That’s the beauty of it though. They are the easiest group to work around. Every time there’s a big match at the stadium they spread themselves thin everywhere else. If they’re all out guarding the rest of the city then they aren’t exactly going to have a lot of people sat around guarding their station. It’s like you say, nobody would be stupid enough to break into the pogs home base, so they wouldn’t be expecting it.”

Lila gave Mal a cocky grin. “Your concern was already in hand. We need a busy day to make our move, and no day is going to be busier than the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war. That happens to be in two weeks, giving us plenty of time to prepare.”

Mal should have known that they wouldn’t have jumped into something this serious without giving it plenty of thought. “Everyone knows the pogs’ armoury is locked. How are we getting in?”

Lila gave a sour expression. Kass kept his composure better, even going so far as to give Mal an easygoing shrug. 

“That’s the less easy bit. We need to borrow the key from the Keeper. That means we have to break into his house, steal the key, get a copy made, then return it before he knows it’s gone.”

“As simple as that?” Mal asked sarcastically.

“Don’t worry about it. We just have to find out who the Keeper is, follow him home, scope out the place, then sneak in and grab the key.”

Mal could see that this was already getting out of hand. With Lila and Kass looking at him with excited eyes, looking for his approval, he was finding it hard to keep his resolve. 

“Fine. We find out about this keeper then see what happens from there. Any time I feel like it’s a step too far though and I call everything off.”

“Deal,” Kass nodded.

Lila grinned broadly, brimming with energy. “Yes! We’re finally going to do it! We’re going to become Reclaimers! Thank you, Mal!” She calmed herself and quickly donned her royal airs again. “Let’s not celebrate yet. It’s time for us to pay the pog station a little visit.


Previous – Chapter 2.

Next – Chapter 4.

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