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.

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.