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Short story

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    Abrielle
    @abrielle

    Hi guys! I recently finished a short story (though it is technically a little long for a ‘short story’). I was wondering, would anybody be willing to give me feedback on it? If your willing to read it but don’t have time for in-depth criticism, my big question is, is it worth turning into a full length novel?

    Well, here goes.

     

    Crow

    The bright, mirrored room appeared empty, but the child seated in the middle of the floor knew that it was not truly so. There were strange beasts lurking in the corners, hovering in the air were keen eyed beings, some friends, some foes, and a journey awaited her just outside. The child’s world was vibrant and alive, beautiful and dangerous, and she liked it that way.

    In the narrow corridor outside, a small group of adults whispered worried words, oblivious to the magic surrounding them. With only a little imagination, the child could feel their thoughts, bumpy with concern beneath her fingers. The child knew they were afraid for her, but she laughed at their fears. Didn’t they know that this was her world, and nothing could harm her here?

    Then the chaos of her thoughts hid the adults from her view and the child lost herself in the world of her mind. Strong arms lifted her up off the floor. The child smiled up at the being above her, not quite sure if she was looking at the tired, anxious face of the woman called Lillian, or the gentle, leathery face of her dragonish guardian.

    Sounds washed over the child like waves, words barely discernable beneath the surface. Closing her eyes in bliss, the child smiled at the coolness of it on her skin.

    “Child . . . listen . . . family . . . siblings . . . please, God . . .”

    Rushing wind replaced waves of sound as the child and her guardian left the mirror room.

    A soft click heralded their arrival at their destination. For the first time, the child’s fantasies faded away, leaving a holy stillness to fill the room along with the golden sunlight that streamed down through skylights.

    The child’s bright black eyes studied the room as it truly was, taking in the white cribs that lined the opposite wall, the skylights above, the soft carpet beneath. On the edges of her mind, she could feel a multitude of quiet, fuzzy thoughts that laced the atmosphere with a hush of peace. These had called her out of her imaginings.

    The woman Lillian still held her, but when the child squirmed, Lillian set her gently down.

    Padding softly over to the nearest crib, the child peeked in curiously. A baby slept within, a boy with pale skin and a completely bald head. Solemnly, the child regarded him for a moment before turning to the next one, also a boy. This one had skin the color of dark chocolate and black hair as wooly as his sleepy thoughts.

    “My brother,” the child said, still looking at him, each word carefully precise. “Reuven.”

    Lillian caught her breath, afraid that the least sound would make the child retreat back into her shell. With something that was almost reverence, the child reached through the bars and stroked the boy’s curly head. Then she moved on down the line, looking in on each infant, sometimes stopping to say in her clipped little voice, “my brother,” or “my sister,” and a name.

    At the end, she finally turned to gaze at Lillian. Spreading her arms to indicate the children she had chosen, the child said, “My brothers. My sisters.”

    Lillian provided the missing word.

    “Your family.”

    That child’s name was Crow.

    She was the last of the Archangels.

     

    “Incoming missile!” Kimball shrieked from atop the bookshelf.

    “Get down!” Reuven threw himself to the ground, narrowly missing bashing his head on the coffee table. Above him, Kimball mimicked the piercing wail of a siren and the thunder of exploding bombs.

    Selah launched himself onto the chaise and struck a heroic pose. “Attack!”

    “Don’t stand on the sofa!” Corie’s voice came from down the hall, where she had taken shelter behind an open door.

    “Leave him alone,” Crow commanded from around the corner. “Kimball’s sitting on the bookshelf, after all.”

    Ignoring the two girls, Zyaire made a very realistic imitation of a shot, and Selah reeled backwards and tumbled down beside Reuven.

    “Avenge my death,” he moaned dramatically, his hand clasping at an imaginary wound and his eyes fluttering closed.

    Reuven stared at him for a moment, then bounded to his feet and vaulted over the chaise. “Death to the invaders!”

    “Seraphim to the rescue!” Kimball cried as she flung herself off the bookshelves and followed him into the hallway. The scene exploded into chaos as the children grappled in surprisingly vicious hand-to-hand combat.

    At the end, only Crow remained standing.

    “That’s not fair,” Reuven complained, getting to his feet. “You can’t win. The Seraphim are supposed to win.’”

    “But you’re the Seraphim and you obviously didn’t win,” Zyaire crowed triumphantly, spread eagled on the floor. “Ha! Iria is ours!”

    Kimball, lying near Zyaire, kicked him in the shins. “This was only one small battle. You still have to conquer the entire army and there’s only one of you left.” She gestured to Crow.

    From behind the couch, Selah’s head appeared, crowned with its usual bush of unruly brown hair. “And I was only pretending to be dead, so you haven’t won yet!”

    Crow took a step towards him. “I can come over and kill you now,” she suggested.

    Selah’s head disappeared. “No, that’s okay, I think I just bled out.”

    “Knock, knock,” a quiet voice called at the door.

    “Mother!” Kimball jumped to her feet and rushed to greet the woman who stood in the entry, followed closely by Zyaire.

    Beaming down at them, Mother Lillian allowed the duo to lead her into the living room. “My, what a mess,” she commented in her light, friendly voice. Privately, Kimball thought she looked exactly the way an angel would look, with her halo of dark, frizzy hair and laughing eyes.

    Crow seemed to remember herself and clapped her hands twice. “All right, everybody, let’s get to work.”

    Whooping with excitement, the boys dashed down the hall towards the bedroom to collect blankets.

    “Mother,” Crow said, almost shyly, as if she weren’t quite sure how to relate to the older woman. “Selah needs your help with an assignment.”

    With a smile, Mother Lillian turned to intercept the boy in question, who was just returning with an armload of blankets. He gazed up at her with a serious expression and reproachful grey eyes. “Well, then, why don’t the rest of you finish setting up and pick a story while Selah and I take a look at it.” Reluctantly, Selah followed her, giving the others a grotesque grimace.

    “Pick something good,” he whispered. “Something exciting.”

    Zyaire winked at him as the children got to work.

    “I want an Archangel story,” Corie announced, panting slightly with effort from dragging school desks into the middle of the room.

    “No!” Crow exclaimed, her voice slightly muffled by the blankets she was attempting to wrestle into something resembling a tent.

    The group lapsed into silence. “What about an explorer story? You know, like that Vine guy who discovered a whole new continent,” Corie suggested at last.

    “That’s not exciting enough,” Kimball retorted promptly, thumping an armload of books down to emphasize her words and anchoring a blanket in place. “Let’s hear about one of those ancient cities. The lost ones, full of gold and jewels.”

    “But there are so many war stories we haven’t heard yet! Stories about heroes,” Reuven said as he helped Corie arrange pillows into a comfortable nest.

    “And villains.” Zyaire piped up from under a desk, his naughty grin audible in his voice.

    Crow stepped in. “Corie gets to pick, it’s her turn.”

    Before Corie could say anything, Crow added, “But no Archangel.”

    Satisfied, the children stepped back and surveyed their handiwork with satisfaction. The living room had been transformed into a sort of tent complex. There were places for all six of them to sleep and a spot in the middle of the floor for a larger person to sit.

    By the time Selah and Mother Lillian finished, Corie had settled on a story about the founding of Iria.

    Mother Lillian laughed when she heard. “Such a long story,” she said. “We’d best get started.”

    And she settled down on the small mountain of cushions prepared for her. The children rushed to their spots, curling up on oversized pillows like cats and gazing at her with wide earnest eyes.

    Dimming the lights, Mother Lillian began. She spoke softly, telling of a time before cities and nations. She told of a young man and his wife, the only survivors of a raid on their village, how they walked for a year and a day, and at the end, they climbed to the top of a mountain and looked out to see a lush landscape guarded by a narrow channel. Behind them lay the remnants of a life destroyed, and before them was all the world to discover.

    These two were the first inhabitants of Iria.

    The shadows lengthened in the children’s room as Mother Lillian spun her tale. Night had fallen when at last she described the battle on the beaches that repelled the first invaders and cemented Iria’s status as a nation in its own right.

    There was a collective sigh when she fell silent, her story finished.

    “Another one?” Selah murmured, half asleep.

    Mother Lillian considered for a moment. “Here,” she said softly, almost to herself. “Here’s one just for you.”

    Then she told a story different from all others the children had heard. They found it strange (those of them that were not asleep did, anyways), for there were no battles, no villains, no heroes. There were only children, playing at adventure in the gentle woods, sharing meals and laughter, watching the stars in the night sky and the creatures in the woods.

    When it was over, Kimball commented flippantly, “That one was a little boring, Mother.”

    Mother Lillian did not reply, but her eyes met Crow’s solemn gaze. The girl blinked and nodded, just once, and Lillian knew that she, at least, had understood the purpose.

    With a sigh, Mother Lillian got up and gave goodnight hugs and kisses all around. She paused next to Crow, knelt down to whisper in the girl’s ear.

    “Wake the children early tomorrow,” she said. “I’ve got a new game to teach you.”

    Crow nodded in acknowledgment, and, with a rustle and the soft click of the door, Mother Lillian left the children to their sleep.

    Only Crow did not sleep much that night, for her mind was filled with the story Mother Lillian had told and the memory that had come with Lillian’s command.

    When she did sleep, she dreamed of watching the children from the story and being unable to join them in their play.

    In the background, Mother Lillian’s voice spoke softly, insistently. “They’re just children. Why can’t you just let them be children?”

    A man answered, “No, Lillian. They are not children, they are Seraphim. They are clones, created for war.

    “They will never be ‘just children’.”

    And Crow was surprised by how much the man’s words hurt, and by how much she missed something she had never experienced.

    She woke from the dream with a sense of loss. It was still early, far too early to wake the others. Quietly, she disentangled herself from the blankets and tiptoed to the room she shared with Kimball and Corie. Night had already fallen; the room was shrouded in shadows. She glanced at the light switch, then shook her head and climbed up on her bunk, leaning back against the wall and hugging her knees. Finding the dark oppressive, she looked around for the candle that usually sat beside Kimball’s bed. With a flick of thought, she sent a flame springing from the wick to set the shadows dancing.

    She had wondered, when she was smaller, whether something that seemed so like magic could truly be only a gene in one’s DNA. Now, she had accepted the magic as part of life, like the way she could read minds, call to wind, summon water.

    Kimball could do it too, the fire part, anyways, but she had to touch the thing to ignite it. So could Mother Lillian. It wasn’t exclusive to the Seraphim, but something – Crow didn’t know what – made it stronger in them.

    For a long time, she sat in the dim light of the candle, thinking about nothing in particular.

    The sound of the door squeaking on its hinges broke the silence, and Corie slipped in, bleary eyed with sleep. Crow did not acknowledge her, seemed not to even have noticed her.

    “Crow?” she whispered hesitantly, letting the door fall shut behind her.

    From where she sat, Crow could see the glow of the solitary flame on Cories face, reflecting in her eyes. Something in her manner, in the way the younger girl looked at her, expressed an awe towards Crow that she hadn’t noticed before.

    It scared her.

    “What?” she asked coldly, wishing Corie would just go away.

    Taken aback, Corie hunched in on herself and repeated, softer, “Crow?”

    For a moment, Crow felt torn. She didn’t want to play mother to this child, it wasn’t her responsibility. She didn’t owe Corie anything.

    Yet . . . The child needed her.

    And Crow had chosen her, just as she had chosen each one of her siblings.

    With a sigh, she moved to make room on the bed.

    “Come on,” she beckoned.

    Corie beamed up at her. Clambering up, she snuggled in beside Crow, who wrapped an arm protectively around her.

    They sat in silence, gazing into the magical flame.

    “Crow,” Corie whispered, shifting to look up at the older girl. “Tell me the story of how you chose us.”

    Crow’s mouth curled up in a smile. “I’ve a different story for you tonight,” she murmured in reply.

    “Once, there was a girl who was given the gift of choosing her family. She chose them for reasons she didn’t yet understand, gave them names with meanings she didn’t yet know.

    “Being part of a family was harder than she’d ever imagined. These children, she loved them, but…

    “Sometimes, they frustrated her, because she was not like them, and she could not understand them.

    “But there was one little girl called Corie.” Crow smiled down at Corie, who giggled and snuggled closer. “She understood her siblings in a way her big sister never would, and because she knew what they needed, she could give them what Crow could not.”

    Corie was quiet for a moment. Then she mumbled sleepily, “I don’t understand.”

    “That’s alright,” Crow breathed, almost to herself. “When it matters, you will.”

    The two spent the rest of the night there, curled up in the circle of candlelight.

     

    The sun was just beginning to brighten the tops of the canyon when Mother Lillian led the children out onto the canyon floor. Some of them shivered in the chill air, but the others were too excited to notice. They had all been given little laser guns and army jackets; the boys in particular strutted about as if they ruled the world.

    From there, Mother Lillian showed them through the canyon’s twisting, curving passageways until they came to a wide, open space.

    “There,” Mother Lillian’s voice seemed strangely harsh against the hush of the desert. She pointed to a low cave in the rock opposite them. “That is the other team’s base. Your goal is to capture it.”

    The younger children nodded excited understanding, but Crow frowned.

    Hesitantly, she touched Mother Lillian’s hand. Startled, the woman glanced down to see Crow’s serious little face gazing up at her.

    “Mother,” Crow whispered with a glance at her siblings and the cave that was their mission. “The game . . . It’s not. . .”

    “Not fair?” Mother Lillian guessed. “No. It isn’t. Just as life won’t always be fair to you, Crow.

    “This isn’t life,” Crow returned. “The game should be fair.”

    Sighing, Mother Lillian knelt down to look in Crow’s eyes, allowing the worry she normally hid behind a smile to show through. “Child, this isn’t a game,” she said softly. The others had fallen silent and were listening curiously.

    “This is training, so that when life doesn’t go your way, you know what to do.”

    Crow’s bright eyes showed no more emotion than her unreadable face, but she nodded slowly.

    Mother Lillian hesitated a moment, then dropped her voice and added, “And don’t forget, Crow, when life is the game, some things are more important than winning.”

    As she got to her feet and stepped back, she noted Crow’s vacant, thoughtful expression and knew that she had not understood. Ah, well, she thought ruefully. One day.

    “We’re gonna win, right Crow?” she heard Corie asking as she walked away.

    “We can try, anyways,” came the reply.

     

    “What are we gonna do?” Selah asked eagerly, his wide green eyes lighting up with anticipation.

    “We’ll never be able to kill them all while they’re in the cave,” Reuven stated matter of factly.

    “What’re we going to do?” Kimball echoed.

    “We’ve got to lure them out,” Zyaire said, looking very proud of himself for his superior vocabulary.

    “What is ‘lure’?” Kimball demanded.

    “We could wait,” Reuven suggested. “They’d have to come out at some point.”

    “But that’d be so boring,” Selah protested.

    Crow vetoed that idea. “Anyone else?”

    “We could make them think they’ve won!” Zyaire exclaimed suddenly.

    Surprised, Crow glanced at the younger boy, eyes glittering. “That’s exactly what we’ll do.”

     

    The little cave was hot and stuffy with five boys crowded into it.

    “See anything?” Sim called to the two sentries at the entrance.

    “Nope,” Drey, the youngest of the group, replied.

    “Ugh, they’re taking so long,” the other boy, Murry, complained.

    Sim wanted to tell them to hush, but inwardly, he agreed, so he kept quiet.

    “They’re never gonna win,” the boy next to him said confidently.

    The others chorused their agreement.

    At that moment, a cacophony of war cries came from outside and a barrage of shots could be heard.

    “They’re coming!” Drey shouted unnecessarily.

    Silent now, the boys waited for the enemy to appear. They overran the sentries easily and appeared silhouetted in the entry.

    Eagerly, the boys unleashed their pent-up impatience in firing wildly at the figures.

    All too soon, it was over.

    “All right, all right, we’re dead already!” The girl Sim remembered as Crow snapped, sounding frustrated.

    Several of the boys groaned, disappointed.

    “Seriously?” Sim asked incredulously. “That was the best you could come up with?” Slipping out into the entrance, he looked the attackers over. They seemed a smaller group than he had expected.

    “Where are the rest?” he asked.

    “Your sentries got them,” a little redheaded girl said pertly.

    The rest of the boys filed out. “That’s it?” one demanded.

    “This is stupid,” Corie said over her shoulder, following Crow out into the open. “I give up.”

    Glancing at each other in confusion, both teams trailed out of the cave.

    “Hey, Mother isn’t here,” Drey commented.

    Suspiciously, Sim turned in a slow circle, surveying the hollow. Something was wrong. He caught Crow watching him, and she flashed her teeth at him in what was most decidedly not a smile. Then she raised her gun and fired at him, once, twice, three times, shouting as she did so,

    “For Iria!!!”

    Reuven and Zyaire, waiting eagerly on a ledge above the cave, heard the cry and echoed it, sliding down to cut off any attempts to escape back that way. With joyous ferocity, they fired shot after shot at their stunned opponents.

    Crow and the rest, who had only been pretending to be dead, did the same, relishing their victims’ looks of shocks as one after another fell before their onslaught.

    Only one reacted faster than the others. Drey, seeing Sim’s defeat, turned, ran headlong away from the cave, and ducked through a narrow fissure in the rock. In the heat of the moment, Selah gave chase. Crow glanced around once, then leapt after him. The other children broke off one by one and followed, leaving Sim’s little group blinking at each other in confusion.

    The fissure was only barely wide enough to admit Crow’s skinny frame, but it continued on, deeper into the canyon. Occasionally, she caught glimpse of Selah’s tousled head disappearing around a corner, or heard one of her siblings behind her. Most of the time, the only sound was her own breathing and the patter of her own feet.

    She came upon Selah at a place where the graceful rock curved overhead to form a cave that echoed with the drip of water into a small pool.

    “I lost him,” Selah said in disappointment.

    Crow was too winded to answer. Instead, she took in her surroundings, noting the many corridors breaking off from the cavern.

    One by one, the other four filed in and Crow took stock of their skinned knees, stubbed toes, and scratched hands.

    “You didn’t all have to come,” she chided gently.

    “Everyone else was already dead,” Kimball explained.

    “We’d have been bored,” Zyaire added.

    “Are we lost?” Corie asked.

    A shrill whistle cut through the chatter and a red dot glowed briefly on Crow’s jacket.

    The children scattered.

    Selah was still shrieking in a shrill voice, “Where is he?” When the next shot finished him off, though he’d already been mostly dead anyways.

    Out of all of them, it was Kimball who spotted Drey, lying flat on a ledge halfway up the wall. Quietly, she crept along the edge of the cave and hauled herself up. Before Drey knew what was happening, Kimball popped over the edge, snatched his gun away, and neutralized the threat.

    At which point, she was the only one left standing.

    “I did pretty good, didn’t I,” Drey chattered merrily as he clambered down.

    Even Selah grudgingly admitted that it had been pretty good.

    A dull boom sounded in the distance, shaking the ground.

    In the hush that followed, Crow thought she heard a scream that made her blood run cold, followed by another boom.

    “Maybe it was a cave-in,” Kimball suggested, voice trembling.

    “And we’ll be trapped in the wilderness forever,” Zyaire elaborated. His voice trailed off as Crow started back the way they had come, face pale and set.

    “Crow?” Corie asked fearfully.

    Crow did not answer, gave no sign of having heard. Instead, she broke into a trot. The others followed on her heels.

    Soon, Crow was practically flying along, fear lending wings to her feet. More than once, she tripped and fell, only to pick herself up and keep running.

    She stumbled on the search party in a wider section of the canyon. They looked up to see a girl as pale as a ghost appear around the corner.

    As more children filed out to stand around her, the girl asked, “Mother Lillian?”

    The adults shot each other sorrowful glances, none wanting to answer.

    “We’ve got to get you kids out of here,” one said at last, holding out his hands towards her.

    The girl’s face hardened and she dodged around him, ignoring his surprised exclamation. Before anyone could stop him, Selah leapt after her, and the two vanished into the maze.

    Selah’s eyes watered with the smoke that hung heavy in the air. The taste of it coated his tongue in bitterness paired with a sickly sweet smell that he didn’t recognize. The air grew warm as he came out into the open space where they had left Sim. A dull roar filled his ears as he spotted Crow walking into the passageway that led back to the compound. Cautiously, Selah followed her through the narrow canyon.

    Crow didn’t notice he was there.  As she walked, she felt strangely calm, her hair waved gently in a hot breeze.

    It was not until she came out of the passageway that the full force of the heat hit.

    The entrance was opposite her, the glass of the door lay in shards across the ground. Over the building, roaring flames licked the sky, reflected in Crow’s dark eyes. Smoke billowed upward in waves, pouring through the ruined entrance as from a dragon’s mouth.

    Mother Lillian is in there, she thought, and ran forwards.

    Not wanting to be left behind, Selah followed her in.

    Smoke parted before Crow like water and a pocket of cool air protected her from the blistering heat as she made her way unerringly towards the dining hall.

    Breakfast time, a part of her reasoned. Mother Lillian would be helping the littles. Perhaps she already knew the futility of what she was doing, but she pressed on.

    Flames mixed with the smoke; the slight wind of Crow’s passing sent them twisting in strange shapes. Although it was dark in the hall, Crow dared not touch the walls, for she could feel the heat emanating off them.

    The dining hall was an inferno. Not even her little pocket of air could completely protect her from such rage; her skin felt dry and tight across her face.

    Stretching out her hand, Crow made a fist and the flames died abruptly, mirroring the sudden emptiness she herself felt.

    The pressure of holding so much energy back made her hands tremble as she walked slowly to the center of the room, weaving around the twisted remnants of tables and chairs. She stopped on the edge of the crater that the bomb had made and looked around. There were not even any bodies; they had long since been consumed by the fire. Only ash was left.

    Crow felt cold, the empty room made the emptiness inside hurt worse. She trembled, not from effort, but from a feeling she could not identify.

    Let go the flames, something inside whispered. Let them warm you.

    Let go the flames, it rang in her head. Let them fill you.

    Let go the flames. She could feel the voice itching beneath her skin, where the fire waited. Let them be a sign to whoever has done this; you will come for them.

    Crow opened her eyes and spread her hands as the embers lit the room in intense red light.

    And the flames bounded towards the sky.

    “Crow!” A shrill, frightened voice shouted her name and she saw a familiar figure bounding towards her.

    Crow, Crow, CROW.

    A white crib and a beam of sunlight.

    The touch of fuzzy baby minds.

    Her own voice saying “my brothers. My sisters.”

    “Your family,” from a voice she already missed so badly.

    Crow wrapped her arms around Selah and dragged him after her into the crater as the fire engulfed them.

    The search party found them there hours late, after the flames had been tamed, weary and singed, but alive.

     

    A bright moon shone above the sandstone canyons, glimmering on the graceful, curving rock and casting strange shadows. Within several such shadows, a deeper darkness lurked, invisible to all but the keenest eyes.

    “I’ve got a visual, Crow,” Kimball’s perky voice came through Crow’s earbud. “I dunno, but it looks pretty abandoned to me.”

    Crow shifted position; moonlight caught momentarily on the dull black of her helmet. From the ledge on which she perched, she could clearly see the charred black remains of the facility in which she had grown up. The sight did not bring up memories the way she had thought it would, and the only thing she felt was a vague sense of unease.

    Resisting the urge to shake her head to clear it, Crow replied to her team, “Command was positive their info was good. Let’s move in, get a better look.”

    As she started down, she shot off their old question; “What’s our mantra?”

    “No one left behind,” the others recited the answering vow. If she listened closely, she could pick out each individual voice: Reuven, Corie, Selah, Zyaire, Kimball, even quiet Drey, who had joined them after the explosion.

    “What’s our watchword?” the ritual continued.

    “Everyone comes home,” they all finished together.

    Seven shadows detached themselves from the canyon walls and flowed down towards the ruined compound like water.

    It was dark down in the building. Try as she might, Crow could find nothing familiar or nostalgic in the fire scarred hallways. Under her feet, glass from the broken skylights crunched and glittered in the moon’s feeble light.

    “No booby traps,” Selah noted, “Also no tech of any kind.” He stood beside her, the matte black dome of his helmet tilted to one side as he scanned the surrounding building.

    “Same here,” Reuven grunted. He and Kimball had entered on the other side of the building. Corie and Zyaire would be somewhere in between the two groups.

    “Strange?” Drey quested from his position behind Crow.

    “Naw,” Selah replied. “Gov probably sent in teams to salvage anything that still worked.”

    A chuckle came over the line from Kimball. “They certainly didn’t leave Seraphim cloning equipment lying around for anyone to find.”

    “Cut the chatter,” Corie commanded wearily. Crow wondered what kind of memories this place resurrected for her.

    “Let’s move in,” Crow said. “And be careful. This place looks like it was built for surprise attacks.”

    There was a soft rumble of acknowledgment from the others and the line fell quiet. Holding her gun at the ready, Crow led the way towards the lab where she had been born.

    On their way, they passed through the ruined dining hall. Only for a moment, Crow imagined she could feel heat, hear the cries of the dying, taste her tears. Then the moment was gone, and the open space was still and silent except for the sound of her own breathing. Drey paused in the doorway as they left and glanced back at the place where his whole family had gone up in flames.

    They saw no sign of life between there and the lab; sand lay thick on every surface. As the group neared the closed door, Reuven’s voice crackled through the line.

    “Corie and I are in position,” he informed Crow.

    “Good,” she replied. “Zyaire?”

    “My scans are empty,” he said promptly. “There’s no one alive in there.”

    Selah gave his report without any urging. “There’s some equipment in there,” he informed them. “Not much though.”

    “Let’s get in there,” Crow commanded, hefting her weapon and nodding to Drey. He stepped past her, holding a card identical to the ones scientists would have used back when the lab was operational.

    “Whenever you’re ready,” Crow told him.

    Slowly, Drey swiped the card through the slot in the door hand. A small light blinked first red, then green, and the heavy doors slid ponderously open. All three relaxed slightly.

    “Glad that worked,” Selah commented. “Woulda taken ages to cut . . .”

    “Everyone in the lab,” Crow cut in, voice tense and quiet. “Now.”

    Selah and Drey knew better than to question her. With a quick glance at each other, they slipped through the half open door as Crow spun on her heel and fired rapidly at something down the hall. Then the high-pitched whine of a gun powering up filled her ears and she made a dash for the door. Plucking a button-like device from her sleeve, she dropped it to the ground. The whine became a shriek as Crow joined the boys and glanced back to see the hall explode into an inferno of flames. A thin membrane of crackling blue light was all that held the firestorm back.

    Reuven bounded to her side. “What’s going on?” he demanded.

    “Other than the obvious?” Crow returned. “I have no idea.” Stalking over to where the rest of the group stood, she snapped orders. “Get those doors closed. Corie, get a distress signal out.”

    “Corie Anderson, do not move,” a soft voice commanded. Crow jerked around to see a man step out from behind an empty filing cabinet at the back of the room. He was a small man, his black hair peppered with grey, but he carried himself like a soldier and his eyes were bright behind his glasses.

    “Crow,” the man smiled at her. “Tell your sister to move her hand away from the button on her wrist or I shall be forced to cut down all of you where you stand.”

    Crow found that she was barely breathing, her eyes locked onto those of the man, who she did not know, but who seemed so familiar. “Reuven, don’t shoot,” she said, voice soft, tense. “Corie, do as he says.”

    They obeyed wordlessly.

    “Now what?” It was Selah who voiced the question.

    With a laugh, the man broke Crow’s gaze and turned towards Selah.

    “Selah, isn’t it?” the man asked. He raised his eyebrows in a knowing look. “I told them when we designed you, ‘watch him. He’ll be smart’. The fact that Crow picked you proves it.” After a moment of silence, he added, “Remove your helmets, if you would be so kind.”

    Crow could feel her siblings’ eyes on her, waiting to see what she would do. Slowly, she did as he asked, and the others followed her lead.

    The man smiled again when he saw her face, which was paler than normal and tense. “Do not worry, you and your family will not be harmed,” he assured her. “I am only here to pick up someone.

    “Zyaire!” he called out, looking past Crow. “I trust you have not changed your mind?”

    Something in Crow broke at those words. She could hear it echoed in the sharp gasps from her siblings, in Kimball’s quiet, vulnerable question; “Zyaire, what does he mean?”

    There was no answer Zyaire could give her. Hunching in on himself, Zyaire fixed his eyes on Crow’s back and replied hesitantly, “No, sir.”

    The man chuckled and beckoned. “‘Doctor’ will do. Doctor Dune.”

    Slowly, dragging his feet, Zyaire shuffled past Crow towards the doctor, glancing wistfully at her once. Still, she would not look at him.

    “What?” Doctor Dune spread his hands in astonishment. “No goodbyes? At the very least, Crow deserves something; she’s done such a good job raising you.”

    Hesitantly, Zyaire glanced at Crow and took a step in her direction. At last, she met his eye, face an impassive mask.

    “I’m sorry,” Zyaire tried, taking another step.

    Crow shook her head, almost imperceptibly. “What good are your apologies? You betrayed us.”

    Hurt flashed in Zyaire’s eyes and his face crumpled.

    “How can I fight for a country where I am not free? For a cause that I don’t believe in?” he pleaded, willing her to understand.

    The shadows in Crow’s eyes deepened. “I could care less about the politics,” each word as sharp as a knife. “Since when has that been what matters?”

    With another quick step forward, Zyaire exclaimed passionately, “But Crow, have you never imagined a world where this family didn’t have to fight? Where Kimball could just be an artist and Selah didn’t have to build weapons?” He was close enough now that Crow had to look up at him. Tears clung to his eyelashes, his eyes were bright with his dream, his thoughts spun with his desperation to make her see.

    “Crow, war is all we’ve ever known, and you’ve made a place for yourself there. I’m not like you; I can’t do that. I hate fighting. I have dreams that I want to share with the world, and maybe in Andom I can finally do that.”

    For a long moment, Crow held his gaze, and Zyaire imagined that maybe there was a hint of forgiveness in her expression. Slowly, hardly daring to breathe, he leaned forward and brushed her cheek with his lips.

    “I’m sorry,” he whispered. He backed away and Crow dipped her head, perhaps in acknowledgement.

    “Hurry, Zyaire,” the Doctor said softly, insistently.

    Zyaire started towards his siblings, but Doctor Dune called him back. “We need to leave.”

    There was pain written on Zyaire’s face as he followed the Doctor to the door; Crow remembered that he was still barely more than a boy.

    “Wait!” Corie called. “What if we never see you again?”

    Pausing in the doorway, Zyaire smiled shyly back at them.

    “You will,” he promised. “Peace is coming. You’ll see.”

    With a hesitant wave, Zyaire turned his back on his family and followed the Doctor on to a new life.

     

    Peace did come, as Zyaire had said it would. It took time, as all good things do, but a year after his defection, the first bridge between Andoma and Iria was dedicated. Cutting a shimmering white swath through the ocean, the bridge was broken in the center by a shining building, a monument to peace between the two countries. It rose out of the water, its glass surface bounding in graceful curves towards the sky like waves from the sea.

    Despite the sun streaming through the glass walls, it was cool inside the building on the day of the dedication. A large crowd had already gathered; the cars filled the parking lot outside.

    Seraphim and soldiers of Andoma lined the walls within, maskless in honor of the occasion. Others flanked the podium from which the leaders would give their speeches.

    Crow stood by the podium opposite Corie, her short black hair pulled back with sparkling barrettes, her expression as impassive as ever. She mistrusted this newfound peace, of course.

    “How much longer?” Selah’s voice came through her earpiece, soft enough that only she could hear.

    “You’d better not be fidgeting,” Corie threatened. Her own hair was done up in an elaborate crown and she was growing uncomfortable in her dress uniform.

    Crow’s eyes sought out the place where Selah stood, beside the entrance.

    “He’s not,” she assured Corie.

    “I can’t,” Selah explained. “I’ve got an Andoman giant next to me who glares every time I so much as twitch.”

    Crow allowed herself a chuckle.

    “Good,” Corie muttered.

    “I am bored,” Kimball chimed in from her place on the balcony. “What’s taking so long?”

    “Imagine the soldier on your right starts shooting into the crowd and the one on your left attacks you,” Drey said. “What would you do?”

    “Call you,” Kimball laughed. “And tell you to deal with it, ‘cause you’re the one on the lookout platform.”

    “Shh,” Corie hissed, standing abruptly at attention. “President’s here. Don’t talk during the speech, it’s bad manners.

    The team rumbled acknowledgment as President William Redek stepped onto the platform and applause rang out.

    President Redek was an older man, his hair white with early age and his eyes deep with years of wisdom. He had led the country well during its war-torn years, and now, his face creased in a weary smile as he looked on the fruits of hard earned peace.

    “People of Andoma, people of Iria,” his voice boomed through the building. “Today we come together to celebrate the first peace between our countries in almost three hundred years. It has been a long, hard road to this place; we have, each of us, dealt our fair share of hurts and injustices.”

    Crow listened to the speech with half an ear, the rest of her attention focused on scanning the crowd for potential danger. As far as she knew, no one in the crowd had been permitted to bring a weapon. Neither country had quite trusted the other enough to promise not to arm their soldiers, so they all bore weapons. Then there was also the bomb she carried in her satchel, the one Selah had built. She prayed she would not have to use it.

    “Crow,” Drey’s voice whispered in her ear. “I have a potential sniper.”

    “Where?” she breathed, resisting the urge to look around.

    “Behind you, in the balcony above Kimball.”

    “See him,” Selah confirmed.

    “No one’s supposed to be up there,” Reuven rumbled.

    “Stand down,” Crow commanded. “They have to be the ones to make the first move.”

    “And if their first move is to kill Redek?” Selah asked.

    “I’ll take care of Redek.”

    The President’s words, the rustling of the crowd, faded into the background, leaving a strange hush. Crow was not tense; she never was before action. But she was ready. Every moment stretched out as every sense strained, seeking the signal that now was the time to act.

    As she watched Redek, Crow found she pitied him – an old man who might not live to see peace.

    He lifted his hands in benediction over his people, and Crow heard it: the muffled pop of a silenced rifle. Before the sound was gone, she was already moving. Leaping up beside Redek, she shoved him roughly out of the way as the bullet cut a stinging furrow across her cheek.

    For a moment, all was stunned silence. Crow touched her cheek and held the bloody fingers up, proof of what had almost happened.

    Motion caught her eye: an Andoman soldier raising his weapon to level it at her. Selah took him down before he could fire and everything exploded into chaos. Corie had taken up position by President Redek’s side and was saying something inaudible over the panicked crowd.

    As Crow turned to join her, she paused and glanced at the still watching cameras.

    “Zyaire,” she called impulsively. “Zyaire, if you’re watching, tell me; is this the peace Andoma promised?”

    All along the wall of the building, Seraphim grappled with their enemies for control of the weapons. The people surged towards her, desperate to escape. Corie and her charge had disappeared.

    “Crow, get down,” Reuven’s tense voice came. “You’re too exposed.”

    She obeyed, just in time, for several bullets cracked the glossy finish of the podium.

    “Report,” she snapped, drawing her twin pistols. They hummed in her hands as she coolly fired a beam of brilliant blue light, instantly killing an Andoman soldier.

    “Reuven, with Kimball on the balcony.”

    “Corie, in the basement with Redek.”

    “Need support?” Crow asked.

    “No,” Corie answered shortly.

    “I do,” Selah broke in. “By the door. These nutcases don’t seem to realize that if they don’t get away from the exit, we’re all gonna get trampled, guns or no.”

    “Drey’s closest,” Crow said, ducking behind a pillar as bullets rattled around her.

    Drey’s wry voice was as calm as always as he replied, “My Andoman counterpart in the east lookout is setting up an uncomfortably large gun. My weapons are useless against his shields.”

    “On it,” Kimball volunteered.

    “Reuven, go with her,” Crow ordered. “Drey, help Selah. Everyone, they’re using old fashioned bullets, so shields are useless . . .” She trailed off and looked around with a frown.

    “Crow?” Drey prompted.

    “Does anyone else hear that?”

    “What?” Reuven asked.

    She did not answer, only whipped out another command. “Drey, eyes on the sky. What do you see?” As she spoke, she trotted towards a small side exit.

    There was a short pause and Crow heard it again; a dull whump, whump, whump and a far-off scream.

    Drey swore before adding in a tense voice, “Jets, copters, bombers. They’re launching a full-scale invasion here.”

    Crow flung open the door and came out onto a narrow ledge on the side of the building facing Andoma.

    “And we’re set to be their first conquest,” Selah said softly.

    The salty wind whipped at Crow’s hair and the sound of the surf filled her ears.

    “Please tell me Command is seeing this,” she called, breaking into a run along the walkway.

    “Comms are down,” an unfamiliar voice replied. “We have no idea how much they know.”

    “I’m outside,” Selah reported. “What do we do?”

    The scream of jet engines was clearly audible now, cutting through the crash of waves.

    “Crow, there’s a jet headed straight for us,” Selah pushed with a panicked edge.

    Crow had no breath to spare. She could see the jet – Nightmare model, a bomb visible under its fuselage.

    “Crow isn’t responding,” Selah shouted to the others.

    Nightmare model, standard combustion engine . . . which meant it was vulnerable to a spark . . . right . . . there.

    The jet exploded into a hundred fiery fragments.

    “I think Crow is fine,” Drey commented.

    “Get the civilians outside,” Crow ordered, ignoring the quip. “We need to evacuate. Corie, stay put. Redek stands a better chance is he isn’t an obvious target.”

    “Understood,” Corie replied. “And what about the army about to descend on our heads?”

    “I’ll take care of it.”

    “We,” Selah corrected. “She means we’ll take care of it.”

    With a grin, Crow bounded out onto the parking lot, satchel bumping against her hip.

    “We can’t save them all,” Kimball said quietly.

    Spinning to face the threat in the sky, Crow whispered, “Watch us try anyways.”

    “Crow.” It was Reuven, over a private line. “Don’t forget. No one left behind.”

    “Everyone comes home,” she returned. “I won’t .”

    Raising her guns, Crow squinted at the nearest threat; a transport copter carrying a maximum of a hundred fifty troops.

    Viper, she thought. Fuel line. She fired, and something exploded, damaging a rotor. The heavy copter spun into the water.

    “Crow,” Selah chided. “Stop messing around with those toys and get over here. Eastern edge of the parking lot.”

    She spotted him beside a light cannon that he’d just finished setting up and trotted over.

    Without speaking, she took hold of the gun and swung it to face her next target. The low hum built to a scream and another jet fell flaming from the sky. Selah activated one of his shimmering shields as other fighters returned fire.

    “We need a hundred of these,” Crow shouted over the scream of the gun.

    “We got ten,” Selah replied grimly.

    Crow gritted her teeth, firing shot after shot into the swarm of enemies. A jet roared over the platform, unloading its deadly burden. It went down a moment later, but the damaged was already done; the dead lay like scattered dolls around the radius of the blast.

    “Good shot, Kimball,” Reuven said.

    “Selah,” Crow snapped. “Get a team together and set up those guns as part of a blockade on the Andoma side.”

    On the far side of the parking lot, several civilian cars were cautiously making their way out onto the road towards Iria.

    “This is hopeless,” Drey muttered as bullets scattered the people still on the parking lot.

    “What’s the situation on comms?” Crow demanded. Aim. Fire. Aim. Fire.

    “Fifteen minutes.” The Seraphim who replied sounded harried.

    “Surely they can see what’s going on,” Corie said. “They just have to get the reinforcements together.”

    “And we’ve got to survive until they arrive,” Selah returned. “Which is not a given.”

    A hand touched Crow’s shoulder and she startled, sending her next shot wild. Kimball gave her a weary smile. “Let me take over.”

    With a nod, Crow stepped aside and surveyed the sky. She’d hardly made a dent in the attacking force; it seemed a wonder they were even still alive. Many of the aircraft had already passed overhead, on their way toward Iria.

    Cities would burn tonight.

    Crow closed her eyes, letting the sounds wash over her: screaming guns, roaring engines, thundering bombs. The smell of smoke was familiar by now. The sharp scent in her nose was salt, carried on a wind that tugged at her, pulled on her, called to her.

    Only a mother of all storms would stop Andoma now.

    Giving in, Crow urged the wind on, faster and faster, twisting and turning, dragging all other winds in its wake.

    Let us give them a storm such as has never been seen before. All other sound faded away; Crow was left alone with the wind, building the storm that might save her family.

    When she opened her eyes, she was on her knees. Reuven was hovering over her, shaking her, his good natured face creased in worry. Looking up at the scudding clouds, now dark and lit by flickering lightning, Crow barely heard his words.

    “The blockade is up, and we finally managed to get through to command.”

    With his help, she got to her feet.

    “Take me to the blockade,” she forced out, mouth dry.

    “Are you okay?” Reuven demanded.

    Slowly, wearily, Crow nodded. He followed her gaze upward toward the sky.

    “Some storm,” he commented. “Crazy winds knocked a bunch of their pilots out of the sky like flies.”

    “How long until reinforcements arrive?” Crow broke in, heading off the question she knew was coming.

    Reuven’s face grew solemn. “They aren’t coming, Crow. Our orders are to retreat to Iria.”

    Crow turned very white. As they walked, she took in the parking lot, scattered with the many dead and wounded, and the road back to Iria, crowded with civilians. Out towards Andoma, foot soldiers and armored vehicles streamed across the bridge like so many ants.

    “We can’t do that,” she said.

    Reuven nodded. “I know.”

    The two approached the make shift barricade; a haphazard assortment of vehicles turned on their sides, Selah’s cannons set up at intervals, a large shield shimmering over all to protect the two dozen Seraphim who muttered amongst themselves, eyeing the enemy anxiously.

    “Who’s in charge?” Crow asked softly.

    “No one, yet,” Reuven muttered.

    Sighing, Crow pulled herself up onto the barricade.

    “Seraphim!” she cried. A hush fell, and as one, they all turned to her.

    “Why do you wait?” she demanded. “Our orders are to retreat to Iria.”

    Uncomfortably, the Seraphim glanced at each other, and one spoke up.

    “Some of us have already gone,” he said. “But we wonder, what about them?” Gesturing to the parking lot, he continued. “Some of our own lie wounded there. And what of them?” He pointed to the crowd of civilians further down the road.

    “You have all been in battles before,” Crow challenged. “You all know the mercy of Andoma.”

    Angry murmurs met this statement.

    “Then we will not go!” someone shouted.

    As she scanned the upturned faces, Crow saw the same resolve rippling through them.

    “It will mean death,” she warned, pain flashing through her as her eyes sought out each of her siblings.

    “Perhaps it will mean life for some of them,” Selah returned.

    Crow nodded. A sound like thunder tore at the air and the shield above them flashed.

    The Andoman ground troops had moved into range.

    “Take your positions,” Crow ordered. “Let’s give them a fight to be remembered through the ages.” She raised her arm and twenty-five voices melded as they shouted their war cry.

    “For Iria!”

    In the bustle that followed, Crow turned outwards, gazing at the never-ending stream of soldiers from Andoma.

    It will mean death. Behind her, she could hear Kimball’s bubbling laughter, Reuven’s deep, rumbling voice. Crow slipped her hand into her satchel and felt the cool surface of Selah’s bomb. If there were twice as many Seraphim, the Andomans would still sweep them aside like so much dust. In the chaos of the moment, no one would notice she was gone. Stealing one more look at her family, who were all making their way to their posts, Crow slipped over the edge of the barricade. Another round of shots exploded against the shield as Crow stepped through it. Every muscle tensed; she knew how exposed she was on the white pavement. Awareness of hundreds of sharp, soldier minds pressed in on her, she could feel their eyes watching.  Gently, she pushed them away, walking to the edge of the bridge. As their attention turned away, Crow felt she became a ghost, ignored by both Seraphim and soldiers. Moments later, she was in the midst of her enemies, dodging around the soldiers and vehicles, none of whom paid any more mind to her than they would to a fly on the wall.

    A low hum vibrated through her feet, blocking out the chatter from her earpiece. Curiously, she glanced around for the source and saw a huge tank, still some ways ahead. Crow didn’t recognize the design. The sound built to a level that was almost physically painful, like a boombox turned on too high. A blindingly white beam of light shot from the muzzle of the tack. The resulting explosion shook the entire bridge, leaving a silence that hurt Crow’s ears.

    “Shield’s down!” Selah’s shout stopped her in her tracks and she whirled.

    The protective glow of the shield was indeed gone. Crow could see Selah, crouch over something atop the barricade, and Reuven, standing protectively over him, clearly silhouetted against the dark clouds.

    “What was that?” she heard Kimball demand. As Crow measured the distance with her eyes, she could hear the hum begin again.

    “Don’t know,” came Corie’s terse reply. “But another one like it will be the death of us.”

    The tank was still several meters away and Crow raced towards it.

    “I can’t fix it,” Selah said. “Crow, what do we do?”

    Crow swung the strap of her satchel over her head and dropped it to the ground.

    “Crow’s not here,” Drey snapped.

    Leaping up onto the vehicle, Crow drew her pistols and fired into the mass of troops. They turned on her as one, raising their weapons.

    Selah spotted her and jumped from the barricade, shouting her name.

    Crow shot with uncanny accuracy, dodged bullets with inhuman speed.

    Reuven grabbed his brother, held him back. Kimball, Drey, and Corie appeared over the top of the barricade. The hum continued to build.

    Snatches of memory danced in Crow’s mind while she fought, savoring a few more moments of being wonderfully, vividly alive.

    Selah, whose bomb would save hundreds.

    Reuven, who would be a far better leader than she.

    Corie, who had taken good care of all of them.

    Drey, who had given so much.

    Kimball, with the vision to push them forward.

    Zyaire, brave enough – stupid enough – to chase his dreams.

    Crow paused, found her family standing together before the barricade. With a smile, she reached for the sky, calling forth fire from heaven . . .

    And lighting a single spark inside the satchel on the pavement.

    As the flames blossomed outward, Crow flung her thoughts outward in one last message to the children she had chosen.

    Love you.

    When the smoke cleared, the battle was already over. A gaping hole broke the shimmering bridge, and the dark sea once more separated the two countries.

     

    The long room was empty but for the three men grouped at the end.

    “Well done, General,” one said savagely. “You’ve ruined the best opportunity we’ve had in years to conquer Iria. You couldn’t even pull off a relatively straightforward operation.”

    “I’d like to see you do better, Oligarch,” the General snapped. “You know as well as I do that no one expected an Archangel to be there, much less that she would be able to blow up a supposedly indestructible bridge.”

    “Peace, gentlemen,” the final man intervened softly. “The Archangel has a name. Crow is quite an interesting specimen of all that the Archangels could have been.”

    “Never mind that,” the General said dismissively. “The fact remains that while Iria has the Seraphim and Andoma does not, we are at a severe disadvantage.”

    “Which is why we are here,” the Oligarch put in. “Doctor, when you joined us, you said you had the key to countering the Seraphim problem.”

    Eyes glittering, the Doctor nodded. “Indeed. However, the committee shut down my projects almost a year ago.”

    “The situation has changed,” the General told him. “You are to have the same funding and personnel as previously.”

    “It’s time to see if you can live up to your claims.” There was a doubtful lilt to the man’s voice.

    “Don’t worry.” Doctor Dune pressed his lips together in a thin smile. “The Lucifer Project will not disappoint.”

     

     

    Okay! So I’m wondering, were the characters consistent? Did any of them feel especially flat? As for scenes, did they flow okay? Especially the action scenes, did they work? Did any of them feel unnecessary or just weird? Were any of them especially poorly written? I have a hard time telling with my own writing. Did I manage to get the mood across alright? Was the setting too vague? Did what was going on make sense? Did you care about the characters at all by the end?

    Don’t feel like you have to answer all – or any – of that. 🙃 I’m just throwing things out there. Thanks so much for reading!

    Do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will be anxious about itself.

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