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?”


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.

Chapter 2. (A Crown of Blood and Ash)

Mallan sat in his usual corner in the cluttered building known as The Club. It was a rundown building without a use that the city orphans had claimed as their own. There was a large gathering of children there to listen to Lila’s exaggerated tale of their daring break-in to the stadium. Mal was content to let her claim the centre of attention.

“It sounds like you didn’t really do anything, Princess,” shouted one of the older boys. Gant Draylor had been the de facto leader of the orphans but had lost a lot of support to Lila since her arrival two years ago. “Kass did all the work. Even Mal thought to bring a lantern. You just bossed them around.”

Lila stuck her tongue out at him. “It’s called leadership. Maybe if you practiced it you’d still be in charge.”

That struck a chord with him. His face flushed red with anger. “You think you’re so much better than everyone else, don’t you?”

“No. I don’t think anything. I know. It’s called divine providence.”

Gant spat. “There you go again with that royalty rubbish. You’re just another unwanted nobody like the rest of us. I think you’re just all talk. That you don’t even have an eve. All you do is lie.”

Lila stood up a little straighter and surveyed the room as though it was her kingdom. “I am Lilarith Elsan Keydrag Rilarendir, Star of the North, Royal Bearer of the Sacred Blood, and first in line to the Knighted Kingdom’s throne. One day you shall bow to me and weep.”

“Even if that was true, which it isn’t, the Knighted Kingdom doesn’t even exist anymore. The king was overthrown and the family killed. They say it was an absolute bloodbath. Say you were a princess and you somehow survived the slaughter. What exactly are you inheriting, your highness?”

“As long as I’m alive so is the Knighted Kingdom. You’ll see. I’m going to become the greatest Reclaimer the world has ever known. Then I’ll use that money and power to rebuild everything that my family worked hard to create!”

“You’re delusional. Everyone knows you have to see Doc Ritner every week ‘cos you’re a headcase. Nobody’s brave enough to say it to your face but people know you as Loopy Lila.”

Lila snarled at the older boy then marched out of the room without a word. Mal stood up to follow her but Gant stopped him.

“Why do you trail after her like a lost puppy? You don’t honestly believe all of that guff do you?”

“She’s my friend. No, my family. That’s why,” Mal replied curtly before pushing past him.

Mal didn’t know his family. All of his memories before meeting Kass were an indistinct blur. Lila had come into their lives when all three happened to break into the same building on the same night. The girl had a contagious intensity, but more than that she had aspirations for the future, something that Mal had never even considered in this bleak world. She was the youngest of them but had a gravity about her that sucked everyone else in.

He found her in the attic staring out of the cracked window. She didn’t look upset, but then Mal couldn’t recall ever seeing her be sad. She turned to look at him. There was that same intense fire burning in her eyes.

“Actions always speak louder than words,” she said softly. “Rulers are judged on what they do, not what they promise. That’s how you’ve got to live your life.”

“What are you thinking?”

“They don’t believe me so I need to prove them wrong. I can’t do anything about the status of my royalty but we can make a move to become Reclaimers.”

Mal frowned at her. “How? That was always a plan for when we were older.”

“Yeah, well waiting to get older is getting us nowhere. We can’t even use our time preparing because we don’t have the equipment. That’s why we’re going to steal some!”

“You want the three of us to steal weapons?”

“It’ll be easy.”

“Lila, we’re children. I don’t even have an eve yet. We can only rely on Kass so much.” Mal decided not to bring up the questionable existence of Lila’s eve. 

“We’re only as weak as we allow ourselves to be. That’s another thing my father used to tell me. And anyway, I believe in all of us, not just Kass. Once we have real weapons we can start real training. Only then can we start pushing towards our dream!” Lila paused for a moment and looked straight into Mal’s soul. “What is your dream, Mal?”

The question took him aback. He’d never really thought about the future. “I don’t know. I’m happy now, I guess, so I’d just like to keep things the way they are.”

“They won’t,” Lila said bluntly. “The world is going to kick you until you want to give up. You need a dream so you have a reason to keep standing back up.”

“Sure, but I don’t want to see you or Kass get hurt. To risk everything is crazy.”

Mal instantly regretted his choice of words. Lila’s fists clenched and hurt anger clouded her face.

“Never call me crazy,” she spat, each word coming out with the violence of a bullet. She threw open the window and jumped out. 

Mal knew there was a ledge just below the window, but the first time she had done that had terrified him. He sighed and dejectedly began to wander through the building. There was no point chasing her when she was in that kind of mood. Kass might have been able to calm her, but then he had a way with words that Mal didn’t. Up until meeting Kass, he had barely spoken at all. 

His life had been miserable before Kass and Lila came into it, and while they might joke that he had no fear, the thought of going back to a life without them plagued his dreams. He wanted to help Lila achieve her dream but knew that he didn’t have the strength necessary.

“You seem down. Thinking too hard again?”

Mal shook himself from his thoughts to see Kass standing in a doorway. He had two wooden swords in his hands. He passed one to Mal without comment. 

“I heard Lila left again.”

“Yeah. Gant upset her. I went to talk with her and just upset her more. I don’t know that I’ll ever get the hang of being around people.”

Kass clapped him on the back. “Baby steps, Mal. You talk to me okay. If you can do it to one person then you can do it with more. I’d say you’re there with Lila too, however she might act. She respects your opinion because you’re more rational than she is. She might not like it, but she does listen. In a few years she might even be able to hide her emotions a little better and you’ll see just how much she listens.”

They walked down into the basement as they spoke. It was a large space with stone walls and an unyielding chill. Other than for storing any excess food, none of the other orphans came down there often. Lilas had wanted to turn it into a training room, so it had been. 

The two boys stood facing each other, the wooden swords held at the ready. Kass nodded, then the blades clashed. They moved through their self-taught forms, the swords clacking rhythmically as they circled one another. 

“Let me guess,” Kass said between sword strokes. “Lila wants to move forward with the robbery?”

“You know about it?”

“I told her about the place.”

“So you want to go too?”

“It isn’t about wants. It’s about opportunities. I’m not going to say yes or no. We all know what we want to do, and we know how we need to do it. The question then becomes: When? Do we just wake up one day and know its time? Are we working towards a certain skill or ability that we have to have before we try? When would you say to do it?”

“I don’t know. Just not now. We’re kids. We can’t fight against adults. They’re naturally stronger than us. I don’t have an eve either so I’m putting us at an automatic disadvantage. Then Lila…”

“Don’t worry about Lila. What she can and can’t do isn’t our concern. She would try anything out of her depth if it could end up getting us hurt. That means she has to be confident in her skills. As for you, don’t worry about it. Eves aren’t the be all and end all. You’d be the best fighter of the three of us if you didn’t always hold back.”

Kass suddenly twisted a slash into a sharp lunge aimed at Mal’s throat. Mal sidestepped it then parried in a single flowing movement.

“You see? You avoided that easily and left me wide open. You just never followed it up with a finishing hit.”

“Yeah? And how many times could you have smashed the back of my head in with a flying rock?”

“Detail, details,” Kass laughed. Look, at the end of the day, if I had to choose anybody to have my back then I’d choose you, eve or no eve. You do remember when we first met, right?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well there ya go. You saved my life back then against the odds. Just because I’ve grown a lot since then doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly anything less than you were back then. Remember, you don’t have to live day to day anymore. We have a future now. You’re allowed to want more, to have ambition. Lila might be too driven by her dreams, but she’s right about having them.”

Mal raised his sword for another round but Kass shook his head. “I’d better find Lila before it gets dark. Put that brain of yours to use and figure out what you want from your life. Nothing is set in stone, but a direction to guide your actions is nice. I’ll follow you to Hell, just like I would Lila.”

Kass left, leaving Mal alone once more. It wasn’t late yet but Mal made his way upwards to the roof. A lone tent was set up between two bulky ventilation units that Mal called home. The other children slept inside in clustered dormitories. Mal had a tendency to have bad dreams that disturbed anybody near him, and sometimes would instinctively act with violence if he was woken. So he exiled himself at night. He didn’t mind too much though. Staring at the stars always calmed him.

He sat at the entrance of the tent and stared up into the grey void above. There was nothing inside the tent to pass the time with. Other than a thin cover and a lumpy pillow, Mal didn’t own anything. Was he happy with that? Did he want more from life?

Before meeting Kass he had wandered alone without purpose. Each day was a quest for survival and nothing more. It was a blurry time of constant pain to him. Now he had a family, a place to stay, and while food wasn’t plentiful, they always had enough to get by. 

Lila wanted to become a Reclaimer to try and take a throne that no longer existed. Kass wanted to become a Reclaimer to show the world his worth, and to prove that he was the best. Both dreams were crazy, near impossible, but it didn’t matter to them. 

Mal thought about what he wanted from life but his mind kept looping back to Kass and Lila. Then he realised that maybe he did have a dream. The thing he most wanted from life was to see his friends be happy. So that would be his dream. 

“My dream is to make sure that my family’s dreams come true. I’ll be Mal the Dreammaker.”

Speaking the words aloud brought a smile to his lips. It was no great revelation. Nothing about the way he lived had changed. Now he could put words to his feelings though. That was strangely a weight off of his mind. He’d work hard and do whatever was needed to get their little team into the ranks of the Reclaimers. It would be dangerous, but it was now on his shoulders to rise to the challenge and keep them all safe.

Content that the future had been neatly wrapped up, Mal crawled into the tent and nestled into the cover. Tomorrow was a new day, and for the first time ever he felt like giving it his all.

Previous – Chapter 1.

Next – Chapter 3.

Chapter 1. (A Crown of Blood and Ash)

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 one 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 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 like 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 being 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 ease. 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 blew 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 from 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 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 did 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!”

Next – Chapter 2.