Hatred can do wonders for destruction of the human race.
We are good at only one thing. Annihilating one another. We would kill each other with stones or spoons or anything for that matter. Unfortunately, some of us are gifted with sharp minds to invent more sophisticated weapons. The Great War showed exactly how things could be converted for manslaughter. High tech destined to protect turned into weapons of mass destruction. Nations turned against nations. People fought and people died. The nightmare was started by the two largest countries, Karm and Drell. Drell attacked. Karm retaliated. And just because they could they kept breaking the world. Until we were left with almost nothing left to break.
And here we are now, a hundred years later. Waging another war. Shattering the same world.
Eight months ago Drellians broke the peace treaty and stepped into our land. They counted on a blitzkrieg. They were vicious and they were starving. And that helped them occupy the entire South. Karmian forces were pushed back to the North. Civilians abandoned their homes, mothers lost their sons, Karm gave up Moneree, the southern capital, the Karmian beating heart. And just like a hundred years ago, the fate of my country depended on a group of people who were trained to kill and to die for Karm. Cardinals. Warriors and spies. Soldiers of frozen minds and lethal instincts. Faceless, nameless.
We are in Rotberry, a Karmian city, now captured by Drellians. I try to wrap my head around how I managed to get us that far. There are at least three Drellian divisions stationed here.
There are three bullets in my gun. Not many. I holster the weapon and scowl at the sun. It rises above the rooftops, piercing my eyes with pain. The sky is nothing but a blend of red, orange, and gold. It fills the morning with laziness and heat, completely oblivious to the misery brought onto our land. The street looks empty, safe. But I know better than to trust this calm. It will take one soldier to get us killed. We need to hurry. It’s a bad idea to stay on the streets anyway.
I turn to the children. “We move fast but quiet. Really fast and really quiet. Got it?”
Paxton points at my face. “You’re bleeding.”
I wipe the blood off my forehead. “Ready?”
They both nod.
We make our way toward a brownstone. A two-storied brick building with sun blinds and a sandy roof. It’s at the end of the street, three houses away from us. Not far, not close.
We enter through the back door, shut it behind us, lock it. My eyes scan the surroundings. My ears clutch the silence. There is only wind and noises from outside hushing their way in. The place is motionless, stuck in slumber.
The hall is wood and carpets with various arches and doors. It would be good to check the house first. But I need to clean my wounds, hide the children.
My stupid teeth wouldn’t stop chattering. I think it’s from shock. Or from pain. Or from both. I fold my hands into fists to stop them from shaking too. All I need is a bit of luck.
Cordelia holds on to my now-torn pants. Paxton looks up. Their big eyes tell me everything I need to know. They are hungry, exhausted, and so utterly terrified that no time can wipe what’s happened from their memories. War is all we know now.
I force a smile to make the children feel at ease. “Let’s patch me up first, shall we? Do you know where to find stuff for my battle wounds?”
Paxton smiles, buying my pretenses in his naive shy-kid way.
Cordelia relaxes a little too. But never lets go of my pants.
“Mom kept everything in the kitchen,” she offers.
I grin. “Lead the way.”
She guides me in the right direction. The place seems untouched. The sunlight pours freely onto a dining table. The marble counter has a layer of dust. Pots are still above the stove. Flowers, now dead and dried, are still in a vase.
It feels like some weight lifts off the children’s shoulders as we move about the room. Their postures relax, shoulders square a bit, breathing evens. They stay by my side, but they still look around, fumbling with familiar things. It’s their house after all. They had to abandon it when Karmian forces retreated from Rotberry. But it’s their walls. The walls where they grew up. The walls that still hold memories of their bedtime stories, their yells, and their laughs.
I swiftly check the drawers, find bandages and alcohol, cut the fabric into smaller pieces, and pull up my shirt to determine the state of disaster I am in. My abdomen looks fine, except for multiple small wounds where shrapnel hit. There’s too little time. There is nothing much I can do about it here now. I poor some alcohol onto the bandage, clean the tiny holes in me.
The children watch as I go through the motions. Whenever I press the fabric onto my skin, my flesh explodes with pain. I try not to wince. Instead, I smile a stupid fake smile at them, knowing full well nothing could make this state any better.
Cordelia stares at the mess of my stomach. “Will you be okay?”
“Of course I will. Had worse,” I lie. I have a feeling I might collapse any moment.
My abdomen is in pain, just like my left leg. I can barely stand. I nearly fell when we got to the house. And there is this god-awful ringing in my ears that prevents me from thinking clearly. Just as I bend to examine my leg, my eyes catch a movement on the street. A moving shade between farther houses. It’s minor things that precede a disaster. Shiver of leaves here, flashing of a glass there. If you fail to spot those tells, you end up at gunpoint of a Drellian. You end up dead.
I straighten, scoop the stuff for my wounds, turn to Cordelia. “Where is the box room?”
She stops whatever she was doing but never answers, just points to the left. As I rush them through the first floor, my mind swiftly brings memories of the house. I’ve been here several times before. The hall opens to a large living room with columns, chandeliers, and couches. Everything is ornate and very Karmian. We pass several rooms with pictures and carpets and marble tables. I hurry toward the end of the hall to a narrow place with a single oak door.
The box room. With large shelves and trunks on the floor. With old stuff and new stuff, with things to sell and things to forget. There is a couch in the middle. It swallows all free space like a hungry mammoth. I drop bandages and the bottle with alcohol into the corner, check the boxes first, make Paxton get inside one of the smaller trunks. Then hide Cordelia in an enormous chest with silky dresses.
Her eyes linger on my forehead. So I wipe blood off my face again.
“Will they kill us?” she whispers.
“Don’t make a sound, okay? It will be fine. Even if they check the house they will never find you. Just sit still.”
“Will they kill you?”
“No. Of course not. We will hide and they will leave, okay?”
I wish I had time to wait for her answer. But we don’t have time. So I close the top, knowing full well she is still terrified and unconvinced.
The box room is tiny for a place like this. It’s stuffed almost to the ceiling. There is a small window up at the top, showing the pavement of a deserted street.
I hear a squeak of the wood. Then another one. Muffled careful sounds of someone’s light walking. Inside the house. My heart gallops.
I draw my gun with my three bullets. I lean on a shelf behind my back to gain some strength. I am almost dead. I can barely stand. And I am so tired, so unbelievably tired that I wish to close my eyes and do nothing else. My ears register some shuffling. Closer now. More distinct.
I step to the left, hiding in the shadows. My hands tighten around the weapon. My breathing even. My body alert.
Someone’s here. Someone’s coming. But the house is deserted. And this is the most unfortunate place to face me. I count my blessings. The room is perfect for an ambush.
I wipe blood from my eye. All I ask for is some luck. Just a teeny-tiny portion will do. I am doing the right thing. I am saving innocent lives. I am not scared to die. I simply wish to die some other time.
I am who I am. I cannot just die. It must be epic.