Blood welled from twelve deep gashes in the dying woman’s chest, pooling into a disk of muddied blood around her. Cold shadows strained to reach her, bound only by a single sputtering torch embedded in the basement wall. Sharp, pained gasps quavered through the room but not a scream or whimper escaped the woman. An honorable end. Perhaps it would be enough to redeem her in the next life.
It was a shame really. Chemists of her caliber were hard to find and she had proven herself an exceptional resource. Unfortunately, her loyalty wasn’t nearly as exemplary.
"Cual, you…" Blood bubbled from woman’s mouth as she tried to speak. Her words came slowly and clipped. "You don't understand."
Cual looked in the woman’s eyes. No hope could be found within them; it had fled long before the first stroke of Cual’s knife. Neither could joy, pride, nor love be seen. Those had been lost with their country. Even fear and pain hid as death approached. Only anger remained. Anger at the Teletians for forcing them into a life of squalor. Anger at the Angels for abandoning them. And, Cual supposed, anger at her for ending the pitiful existence she clung to.
"What don't I understand, Klaine?" Cual asked, leaning to better hear the traitor’s rasping whispers. “That you stole drugs from us or that you thought you could leave?"
Anger finally faded from the traitor’s eyes, leaving only an empty haze that seemed to look past Cual. "I didn’t…” She lapsed into eternal silence.
Cual slammed her knife into the corpse, a single tear glistening in her eye. She wiped it away, staining her face with blood, and walked out of the execution chamber.
Vivid light assaulted her as she stepped into the large warehouse. Stacks of steel crates filled the massive room creating a maze of steel. Shouts and the scraping of metal on concrete echoed as men loaded crates onto a barreled transport wagon.
"Is she dead?" Mal asked.
The grey haired man could almost pass as a native Teletian. A skill more essential to survival than any other in this angel forsaken nation. His skin was slightly too dark and he spoke with a slight accent, but he made do. Cual could never know that luxury. Dark tattoos snaked down her arms and chest, marking her as a Caldorian warrior. She also kept her head shaved and barely spoke the native tongue.
"Yes," Cual said, walking away. "I’m going to search her room."
Mal followed exactly two paces behind her. Like she was royalty and he her adviser. Even among the forgotten, some habits of their former lives lingered. Cual often wondered who Mal was before the war. He would never speak of it, not even to her.
"Two of my men already are. Mostly just tools and plants, but we did find a sample of the drugs she was peddling," Mal answered.
"What are they?" Cual commanded.
"We don’t know yet," he answered. "Our chemists are working on it now."
Cual led them through the back of the warehouse until they stood before a freight shaft. A metal disk large enough for half a dozen men to stand upon laid in the middle of the shaft. The two of them stepped onto it and Cual formed a conduit. Heat rushed into her. It raged within, threatening to burn her to ash. She seized control and focused it into the plate.
The disk scraped upward, spraying dust into the air. Violent wind ripped around them, and tore at their robes. Cual slowed their assent as they neared the eighth floor and channeled energy into four metal levers on the walls. They flipped down becoming parallel with the platform. Cual lowered the platform gently onto the rods. She released her excess energy churning within her, sending a gust of wind down the narrow hall.
"Her room was that one," Mal said, pointing. "I'll take care of the body."
Cual stepped off the platform and he descended back down the shaft. Electric lights lined the ceiling, fully illuminating the stained and pitted brick walls. She walked down the hall and stepped into the traitor’s room.
Leaves, bulbs, and an assortment of fruits hung from the roof. Vials of opaque liquid and black firerocks stood upon a slightly charred table. Cual’s nose burned from the acrid stench that permeated the room. Two robed men stood by the foot of Klain’s bed, rummaging through a chest. They stopped upon Cual’s entrance and turned to face her. One of them had a vine like beard dangling from his deeply lined face while the other didn't yet look old enough to shave.
"Tell me what you’ve found."
"Not much," the bearded one said, his voice hesitant. "Nothing here you couldn't also find in the drug lab. She was obviously doing experiments she didn't want anyone else to know about. But she didn’t leave any notes so we don't know what they were."
"What was she selling to the Skulls?" Cual asked.
"We don’t know. We're running tests in the lab but it takes a while to get the results back," the young man said.
Cual ran a hand over her head. The stubble of a few days’ growth and dried blood scratched against her callouses as she did so.
"So you know nothing."
"That's not true. We know that it’s derived from the merete fungus and that the Southern Skull thugs call it ‘the living dream,’" the younger looking man said, his face flushed with anger. "We’re not idiots. These things just take time."
A firerock lifted from the table and floated toward Cual's open hand. The black stone levitated above her palm spinning slowly in place.
"You’re new?" she asked.
"I’ve been here for over three months now," he answered. "And my name's Javen."
The older man took a step away from Javen, muttering under his breath. Javen glared at Cual, his eyes blazing with defiance. Dust subtly drifted around him as if caught in a small whirlwind.
A force cocoon, Cual noted. So he isn't completely worthless.
"You know who I am then," Cual said. The black rock above her palm cracked into four pointed pieces. She kept them spinning around each other.
"I’m not afraid of you, bitch.”
The shards of rock shot toward him. A second before reaching him, they caught in his cocoon and deflected to the side, shattering against the wall.
“You think you can kill me that easily?" the man asked, a grin spreading across his face. "Careful or one day you'll pick on someone who doesn't put up with petty bullies."
Cual smiled. In a blink, she covered the distance between them. Her hand shot forward, tearing through the unseen vortex that protected him. Before he could react, she lifted him at foot in the air by the neck.
"A petty bully? Have the stories of my brutality already faded?” Cual asked. “I’ll have to do something about that."
Javen's only reply was a strangled gasp. He clawed at her arm, tearing white lines into her flesh. Cual felt warmth rush toward him. She flared her conduit, drawing in all the room’s heat. His eyes widened.
"Do not question me again," Cual said, her breath clouding in the air between them.
She dropped him and he collapsed onto the floor, gasping and shivering against the cold. Cual slammed her foot onto his hand. Bones snapped beneath her boot. He screamed.
"Who has tried this drug?" Cual asked the older man.
"No one," he answered, over Javen's weeping.
Pathetic. She couldn’t understand chemists. They were more interested in seeing how a drug worked than in what it did.
"Give them to me. I’ll tell you what they are."
"You should wait until we finish our testing," he said, wringing his hands behind his back like a child.
Cual glared at him. “Your testing is taking too long.”
"Well, I guess since the Caldor Skulls have been using it, we know it's not deadly," he stammered, and pulled a metal box from the pouch at his side.
“No one buys poisoned drugs,” Cual said.
The box ripped from his hand and flew across the room. Cual caught it and released the tempest raging within her. The room grew warmer but to her it felt as if a chill had set in.
She flicked the box open. Inside, three chalk blue pills sat upon a cotton swab. Probably some form of opioid or a depressant, both were specialties of Klain’s. Cual took one of them, tossed it in her mouth and swallowed. A chalky residue coated her throat.
She waited. Several minutes passed. Nothing happened.
"How do you feel?" the elder man asked.
"Nothing,” Cual said, and stormed out of the room.
Electricity seemed to tingle in her mouth as she approached the freight shaft. She ignored the sensation and stepped off the ledge, falling eight stories into the dark. As she neared the bottom, she focused angel heat downward, slowing her descent, and landed lightly.
Cual blinked. She stood at the edge of a cliff. Mountains loomed behind her, reaching into the dark clouds. Below her, the sea smashed into the cliff, repeatedly trying to crest the ridge. Everything seemed hazy but familiar. Like gazing at the world through liquid glass.
An explosion rocked the mountains, throwing her to the ground. She pulled herself up as a battle materialized around her. Bullets whizzed by, colliding into soldiers as they grew out of the haze. Lightning bolts struck the ridge, forming into conduits, men and woman emboldened with angel light. The conduits rained fire upon the battle and shook the earth with their might.
Cual reached for her sword. It wasn't there. It hadn’t been for years. She ducked out of the way of a boulder and drew upon the heat of angels. Her muscles tightened, moving harder and faster than should have been possible. She leapt onto the nearest conduit and drove him into the ground. His face collapsed under the force of her blow, staining her arm red. She stood, blood dripped down her body. Rings of crimson swirled around her, caught up in the vortex of energy that shielded her.
Boulders the size of coyotes fell from the sky. Cual stood before them unmoving, chest heaving in anger. She motionlessly shattered the boulders. Pebbles rained upon the earth.
Fire engulfed her. She forced the wind to explode outward, driving the roaring flames away before they charred her skin. Over a hundred soldiers circled around her. Fading in and out of the haze. She killed them, one by one, and yet somehow all at once. A hundred Cuals rushing forward, bringing with them only death.
The ground rippled around her, distorting like the sea. Waves of earth carried the blood and bodies away before solidifying into a new scene. One she recognized. Caldor Pass.
Two cliffs stood on either side of her cut into the naked mountains with knife-like precision. A smooth stone path, wide enough for ten men to walk abreast, snaked between them. Carved centuries ago by Caldorian conduits to bridge the mountains and foster trade with Teletel. A majestic roadway worthy of the angels. At least, it had been. On this tide, roaring flames charred the cliffs and grimy blood stained the pathway crimson.
Cual blinked and the haze swirled. Two armies faced each other between the cliffs. She stood among the defeated one. Soldier after soldier fell to their knees in surrender. They couldn't win. Not now that their world shaper was dead.
The ground shook and cracked. Fire leapt from gouges in the earth, tearing screams from the soldiers. Lava soon followed, swallowing any unfortunate enough to have survived the flames.
Cual screamed and rushed the nearest Teletian soldier. Pillars of flame and molten earth reached for her but none found her. She was fury and vengeance incarnate. A fire burned within her hotter than any the earth could muster. Cual’s fist slammed into the soldier but the blow didn’t seem to faze him.
Fire danced in the soldier’s eyes and spread across his entire face. Orange and red fissures cracked across his body, blackening his skin and spewing forth wisps of flame and steam. A terrible gurgling scream erupted from him, and lava poured from his mouth.
The creature grabbed Cual’s wrist. Fire lanced up her arm, tearing gouges into her flesh and boiling her blood. She slammed her other hand into the monster. Lava erupted from the thing’s chest but Cual was able to pull free. She gritted her teeth, refusing to scream. The Teletian monsters wouldn't get the satisfaction.
Cual converted angel heat into motion, sending herself gliding backwards. Molten creatures now comprised the entire army. Their sizzling forms shambled toward her. Cual could feel their heat a hundred yards away. She kept herself moving until they faded into the distance. She paused, struggling to catch her breath.
The haze shifted again and they were upon her. They surrounded her with lava dripping from their outstretched limbs. Cual struck, grabbing the nearest one’s head. She ignored the molten pain coursing through her and twisted until its neck snapped. Its body exploded, coating Cual’s arm in lava. Molten bone and earth splashed upon the ground.
The haze shifted again dragging the monsters with it. A woman approached Cual, who moved with the grace of a prowling panther. Smoke wafted off her singed black hair and her deep blue eyes flared with the intensity of lightning. Rage boiled within Cual. The molten monstrosities were but kittens before this woman. Cual’s entire tribe was dead because of her.
"What's become of you Cual?" the light breaker sneered. "You beg for scraps from the Teletians and grovel before the Malameans. Look at what your father’s hubris has wrought."
She placed a hand under Cual's chin. Cual snarled and tried to bat the woman's arm away but her limbs wouldn’t obey. The monster glanced at the stump of Cual's arm and smiled.
If Cual had been stronger, she could have stopped her. If only she’d trained and discovered her power sooner. Perhaps then her tribe would still live.
“No,” the woman snarled. “You were always destined to fail, Cual. You’ve failed to prevent this every cycle and you will continue to fail until Malienja’s slumber ends.”
The haze shifted a final time. A scaled creature stared into Cual's eyes, its claws digging into her chin and drawing blood. The creature hissed, a snake-like tongue darting from its mouth.