Kiel Iram sat in the main mess hall at Swala Force’s compound. He chose a table in the middle of the room that could sit two. His black uniform with five chevrons on his shoulders had the young cadets giving him a wide berth. The mess hall was relatively quiet. It gave Kiel the convenience he needed to log in to the main network and report his findings on the previous night’s attack with command.
When he finished his report, Kiel pulled up the map of the Empire of Afrotheria. He sifted the information on the map to show the Theria Guild zone boundaries and their assigned Guardian forces.
Since the attack on Gathu Village in Teru Province, Commander Demus had been studying the movement of the Theria Guild teams in the surrounding zones. Teru Province had a weakness. The Swala Force stationed in this Oasis was largely made up of cadets and officers fresh out of training. The seasoned Sokwe Recon trainers were not enough to run a serious team. However, they managed to utilize the cadets to a satisfactory result. In any case, Swala Force should have been able to respond to a distressed village like Gathu in time to avoid casualties.
Kiel tapped his finger on the number of casualties in Gathu Village and let out a sigh. It was over fifty, which is quite a number for a village not near the barrier. Perhaps there was a breakdown in communication. Swala Force’s General was hard to handle but he would have taken a call to arms from Simba Force in Zone 7 without protest.
Kiel picked up a slice of ugali from the bowl next to him and chewed on it in deep thought. A message beeped and the notification appeared on the corner of his screen. It was from Commander Demus.
‘Instructor Kitonyi wants to recommend a trio of cadets to our side. Check them out. He’s a good friend with a good eye. He won’t ask for a favor without cause.’
Kiel replied with an affirmative answer, promising to talk to the three cadets. Demus Kiima rarely asked for favors. When he did, they were very important.
‘Thank you. They’ll find you in the mess hall.’
Kiel closed his glass tablet, folding it back into the size of a small cell phone. He slid it into his pocket and pulled out a pair of glasses instead. Pulling his tray of food closer, he concentrated on eating while he waited for his three guests.
Zev breathed out his anxiety as they reached the mess hall. It was a little past seven o’clock. Most of his fellow cadets had already eaten and rushed off to complete duties. The place was relatively quiet and empty. It was easy to spot the general sitting at a table for two in the middle of the dining hall. He sat with his back straight. His hair was cut very short and neat. He wore a black blazer with the gold chevrons of his rank. Five on each shoulder. Zev wondered when he would ever get there.
A gentle touch on his right shoulder had Zev turning to find Instructor Kitonyi watching him.
“General Iram will conduct an interview. Answer his questions without hesitation. The rest is up to how fast you get our twentieth battle,” Instructor Kitonyi said.
“Thank you, Sir,” Zev said, saluting the taller man. He then glanced at Saul and Noah. Then he nodded as he led the way to the General’s table.
Kiel was watching a surveillance video of the Gathu Village attack when three cadets reached his table. They saluted in a neat movement and greeted him.
“Good morning, General.”
“Mm. Good morning,” Kiel said, reaching up to touch the side of his glasses. The video paused and started a recording of the three cadets. Kiel cleared his throat and folded his arms against his chest, giving all his attention to the trio.
They looked young, barely twenty. Fresh-faced, eager, Kiel mused. They made him keenly aware of his own age. He was turning thirty-three soon. He had already stopped adding chevrons to his arms to mark his successful battles. They were too many now, and the gold chevrons on his shoulders were enough to mark his current rank. Still, he kept his qualifying twenty on his arms because they were a reminder of his days in training.
“At ease,” he said now to the three cadets. “Name, rank, left to right.”
“Staff Sergeant Zev Mablevi, Squad Leader.”
“Sergeant Saul Nkoba, team member.”
“Sergeant Noah Bala, team member.”
“How old are you?” Kiel asked.
“Twenty-two this year,” Mablevi said.
“Twenty-three,” Saul answered.
Twenty-four,” Noah said.
‘Interesting,’ Kiel thought, his gaze resting on Mablevi. The two young men didn’t mind following orders from a younger Squad Leader. Kiel studied them too for a second longer.
Mablevi stood in a standard military stance. His hands clasped behind his back, his back straight, his shoulders straight. He stood stock still, assured in his qualifications, unlike the other two who shifted slightly with nerves. Their gazes moved to Mablevi occasionally.
It looked like Mablevi had built a small pack. They probably worked quite well in a team setting.
“How many battles have you completed?” Kiel asked. “Staff Sergeant Mablevi, answer for your team.”
“Nineteen battles, Sir.”
“One more and you can qualify out of Swala Force. You can join Simba Force in Thuka Province or Tiger in Yole. If you qualify high enough, you can even join Sokwe in Kirit Capital. Why do you need to meet me?”
Mablevi glanced at his teammates before he answered.
“We’re hoping to join the Strike Force Team.”
Kiel hid a smile at the clear ambition in Mablevi’s tone.
“What if you can’t?” Kiel asked.
“Then, we’ll join Sokwe Recon, Sir.”
“You want to relocate to the capital, Kirit?” Kiel asked.
“We hope that once we join Sokwe Recon, we can find a way to enter the Strike Force, Sir,” Mablevi answered.
The Strike Force was a grand dream for any Guardian in the Theria Guild. To join it would mean working directly under Commander Demus Kiima and himself. Recruitment did not include joining Sokwe Recon. Instead, it was based heavily on unique ability.
Kiel did not divulge the truth of entry into the Strike Force to Zev Mablevi. Instead, he decided he wanted to see this little team in action.
“What you like to hear from me?” Kiel asked, wanting to catch a glimpse of Mablevi’s thoughts.
“Sir, we are one battle away from twenty chevrons. Once we return, whole and hale, please consider recommending us to Sokwe Reckon,” Mablevi said.
“What if the transfer separates you?” Kiel asked, narrowing his gaze. Mablevi looked qualified for Strike Force, but the other two did not seem ready.
Zev swallowed hard this time, but then answered. “As long as we are able to work up the ranks. It will be to our benefit.”
Kiel scoffed because he could see Mablevi’s unwillingness to separate from his team. Still, he admired Mablevi’s determination to move out of Swala Force.
“Alright, I’ll consider your transfers when you achieve your qualifying battle. I’m not promising anything. Your ability determines where you end up,” Kiel said.
Zev’s smile was fast. A quick curve of his lips quickly disappeared. He brought his right hand up in a formal salute, prompting the others to follow suit.
“Thank you for meeting us, Sir!” Zev said.
“Thank you, Sir!” Noah and Saul echoed.
“Alright, leave me to my work. You’re dismissed, Cadets,” Kiel said.
“Yes, Sir,” Zev and his team released their salute and hurried away, making their way to the buffet line.
Kiel chuckled at their obvious excitement once again wondering if he was ever that young. He pulled out his phone and called Demus.
“How do you feel about recruiting a gifted team leader?” Kiel asked.
“How old?” Demus asked.
“Twenty-two,” Kiel said. “He’s a natural adhesive holding together a team of two for now.”
Kiel studied Mablevi receiving a tray filled with food from Saul and grinned. “They seem to eat, sleep and fight together. He’s older than his teammates, which means they are following him after careful thought. It would be interesting to play with their dynamic and see how it fairs in the Wildlands.”
“He must be interesting to have you talk about him,” Demus said. “Forward their stats to the Strike Force recruitment council. Use their qualifying fight as a test.”
“I’ll find Instructor Kitonyi to set it up,” Kiel said.
“What about the Gathu Village roundup?” Demus asked, shifting to the reason why Kiel had needed to visit Swala Force.
“I have five men following the ghost wraith routes,” Kiel said. “The routes seem planned though I cannot explain how that is possible. Ghost wraiths should not be able to make a decision.”
“Unless there is interference,” Demus said, his tone thoughtful. “I’ll reach out to Nico Riithi at Strato. He will know what KISTech is working on. Keep at it. I want a clearer picture.”
“Yes, Sir!” Kiel said.
He waited for Demus to end the call before he focused on his food. After his meal, he went in search of Instructor Kitonyi to learn more about Mablevi.
Zubari Jelani wiped the sweat off his forehead with a pristine handkerchief. He took in a breath, and as he breathed out, an urgent need to take another deep one filled him. It felt like there was a finite amount of air in the backseat of his car. Breathing in deep, he frowned, as he wiped more sweat off his forehead.
The car slowed down.
Zubari glanced out at the heavy traffic near Sarit Center along Lower Kabete Road. They were heading to his Nairobi home in Peponi.
Zubari hoped a hot bath, a good meal, and a stretch on his bed would ease his discomfort. He rubbed his chest with his right hand and shifted on his seat, his gaze moving to the man in the front passenger seat.
Franco Mureu was his right-hand man, and the only person he trusted with his life. They were coming from a late meeting with a stakeholder in the flour mill Jelani Industries owned. A meeting Zubari asked for because it involved the renewal of a long-term supply contract. He was happy with their agreed terms. He was looking forward to signing agreements in the morning because it would mean money was coming into ease cash flow.
Zubari took in another deep breath, hoping to ease the tightness in his chest.
“Franco,” Zubari said when the uncomfortable feeling did not disappear. “Let’s go to Aga Khan Hospital.”
“Boss?” Franco turned to face him.
Seeing Zubari taking in fast breaths, sweat coating his forehead, Franco tapped the driver’s left shoulder.
“Twende Aga Khan,” Franco said, his tone urgent. (Let’s go to)
The driver increased speed, driving up a soft hill, reaching the small roundabout near the Somali Embassy. He turned right heading back to the Westgate Mall. Driving like a maniac, he tore through Mwanzi Road, overtaking where he could until they were on Ring Road. It was nine-thirty in the evening. Traffic was manageable; still, the driver overtook where he could.
Zubari took in deep breaths, aware of Franco’s concerned gaze on him. He must have looked like he was dying because Franco undid his seatbelt, and maneuvered his way into the backseat.
Franco undid Zubari’s tie, removing it, and then unbuttoned the top three buttons of Zubari’s tailored shirt. He opened the windows on both sides. Zubari took in deep breaths appreciating the cool April air filling the backseat. He felt better, but the discomfort in his chest remained. Franco reached for his phone and dialed Zubari’s family doctor, explaining Zubari’s symptoms.
The driver got creative, overtaking a few more times. It took him six minutes to get to the emergency room at the Aga Khan University Hospital.
Six minutes saved Zubari’s life. The doctors and nurses in the emergency room prevented a fatal heart attack.
Forty-eight hours later, Zubari’s main doctor entered his private hospital room armed with questions and a batch of test results.
“Zuba,” Dr. Oloo said, as she perched on the visitor’s chair on the right side of his bed.
Christine Oloo was in her late forties. Mother to two, and a talented doctor. She had taken care of Zubari for ten years now.
“This is the last place I expected to see you,” Christine said. “We had an appointment next week.”
Zubari gave her a small smile. He felt too tired to offer more.
Christine patted his right arm and got up to check his charts.
“You have luck, arriving here any later, and this would have killed you, Zuba,” Christine said, never one to sugarcoat circumstances.
“I’ll have to thank my driver. He drove like a man possessed,” Zubari said, his words coming slow.
“You should thank him,” Christine said. “Your blood pressure was too high on arrival. The doctor on call managed to lower it, avoiding a crisis. I’ve been checking the tests ordered. Your blood work shows a massive amount of anti-depressants. They increased your blood pressure to riotous levels. Have you started taking anti-depressants without talking to me?”
“No.” Zubari shook his head. “I’ve been in good health. Exercising, eating healthy, and following your guidelines. I’ve been going home early, not stressing over work. I only take the meds you prescribed. The day I came here, I had a case of heartburn at around ten in the morning . I asked the secretary to bring me a pack of Eno. I felt better for a time. Lunch was with an investor at a restaurant, and then I returned to the office. I felt fine until our drive home.”
“Hm,” Christine studied the reports in her hand. “This is very odd, Zuba. If you have not taken anything else other than what we prescribe, then when could you have taken in these amounts of antidepressants?”
Christine met Zubari’s puzzled gaze.
“Anti-depressants?” Zubari asked, confused. “You know I’m not depressed, Christie.”
“Yes, but your blood work shows you have ingested a large number of tricyclic antidepressants. These pills have components that can trigger your blood pressure. A small amount would not harm you, but at this level, high blood pressure is expected. The increased heart rate would strain your heart thanks to your existing heart problems, Zuba. A severe episode would lead to a fatal heart attack,” Christine said, shaking her head. “So, if you have not taken these pills of your own accord, then…”
“Someone tried to kill me,” Zubari said, his voice coming out rough on the edges, a bitter taste filling his mouth at the thought.
“Who should I call for you?” Christine asked. “You should talk to your wife—”
“Call no one,” Zubari said, shaking his head. “Christie, this should stay between us. At some point, I will need a clearer explanation of your diagnosis. For now, I’m at your mercy. Please get me back to good health.”
Christine studied Zubari for a full minute before she nodded.
“We’ll need a full battery of tests, and a legal guardian who can sign off on procedures as needed.”
“Agreed,” Zubari said, a deep frown creasing his forehead. “If you ask Franco to come in, he’ll bring you, someone, to sign off on the procedures.”
“Alright,” Christine said.
“I will recover from this, right?” Zubari asked, his gaze hopeful when he met Christine’s gaze.
“Yes,” Christine said. “You have been keeping a healthy lifestyle up to now. You need to be extra careful with your diet, stress levels, and meds. Before that, we need to observe you for another forty-eight-hour period before I can let you out. Just in case.”
“Okay,” Zubari sighed. “Thank you.”
Christine nodded and hurried out of the hospital room to get Franco.
Alone, Zubari stared up at the hospital ceiling, his thoughts filled with the reality of someone wanting to kill him.
“Boss,” Franco said, hurrying into the hospital room.
Zubari narrowed his gaze on his right-hand man.
“Find Ram,” Zubari said, biting back a chuckle when Franco shuddered. “Tell him to stop what he is doing, I need him here in Nairobi.”
“He will not come easily,” Franco said.
“Tell him I want to discuss the Mugumo Coffee Plantation,” Zubari said with a smirk.
Ram would commit murder to protect the plantation his mother called home. It also meant that he would protect Zubari with all his might if it meant gaining full ownership of the coffee farm.
“Tell him I want to settle the title deeds,” Zubari added when Franco started to leave. “That should bring him here at top speed.”
Zev returned home after finishing with Miss Leya at the academy. He carried a folder with his class change, and an admission letter to the Theria Guild Oasis closest to his home, which was the Swala Oasis. Zev’s parents remained in a state of grief when he got home. He could say nothing of his decisions to them.
Luca Mablevi had left Amare’s bedroom. He looked lucid again. Yet now he burned with the need to find Amare. He left the house in the morning and did not return home in the evening.
As for Zev’s mother…
Elina locked herself in Grey and Silas’s room. She paid no mind to Zev. She did not care what he was doing.
On the morning Zev left for the Theria Guild Oasis, he simply told his grandmother he was going to school. His grandmother nodded in answer and took a bowl of porridge to Elina who was sleeping on Grey’s bed.
No one dropped Zev off at the Swala Oasis. He took a public Mobibus. He carried one duffel bag with a change of clothes and a picture of his family.
Zev entered the Swala Oasis Training Compound mid-morning. It was raining. An officer in a khaki uniform received him at the gate. The training officer led him to the admission hall where Zev completed his registration into the guild.
After registration, he was taken to the disbursement center. Two happy officers issued him three sets of uniforms, three pairs of socks, two pairs of boots, two sweaters, and a Theria Guild Blazer. His name and officer number were stamped on a pair of tags and he was directed to the trainee quarters.
In a blink, Zev joined the most powerful army in the Afrotheria Empire at the age of seventeen. He had chosen to become one of those most feared and revered gangs of the land: The Theria Guild Guardians.
In his heart, he knew his choice had to do with the need to expend the rage that now ruled his life at the memory of watching a pack of ghost wraiths attacking his brothers and Gen.
If it weren’t for those ghost wraiths, he would have been there for Amare. He would have been able to keep her safe. A dark cloud of grief threatened to take him over.
Zev shook his head, pushing the constant grief aside.
His lungs burned for air, and sharp pain on his right side made it harder to run. Zev ignored the pain and powered through, his gaze on the red line drawn across the track ahead. He pushed his body harder and managed to run across the red line just as his body felt like it might collapse. He fell to his knees on the track and sucked in harsh breaths, hoping to relieve the pain. His t-shirt was soaked with sweat.
“Again, Mablevi! You’re too slow,” the instructor shouted, blowing his whistle. “One delayed second and you’re ghost wraith meat. Push harder. Get up and do it again!”
Zev glanced at his training officer standing on the sidelines caught between hate and worship.
Zev was in a class of fifteen cadets. Their instructor was a no-nonsense slave driver. The instructor subjected them to relentless running drills to improve their speed. Every part of Zev’s body felt sore, and his muscles burned. He took in air, his lungs desperate for it.
Zev worried he would never get up to run again.
A strong hand gripped Zev’s left arm, pulling him up before he decided to lay down on the tarmac and give up. On his feet, Zev tugged down his sleeveless gray t-shirt and turned to his left to find an older boy grinning at him.
“He keeps yelling until you stop collapsing at the finish line. Hi, I’m Saul. I joined a month ago The trick is to remain standing at the finish line.”
A second boy around his age came up on Zev’s right and gave him a nod in greeting.
“I’m Noah. I will pace you so that you cut your time,” Noah said.
They headed back to the starting line, and Zev was oddly glad that he was not doing this alone. Noah and Saul each took a spot on each side of him. The instructor blew his whistle and they took off, Noah and Saul running next to him in camaraderie. It suddenly felt like training might turn manageable.
Three days later, Zev decided he was in over his head.
Zev stood in a Santi Corp Simulation Training Room. He was dressed in his white cadet armor, smart VR glasses clipped on the bridge of his nose. He held a Santi Sword, the blade designed to work in the simulation world.
“Mablevi, you’re seventeen, and you’ve never been in a simulation room. That means you’re late to the party. You have to work harder to catch up. We are starting you at the basic level,” the instructor’s voice rang through the large dome-like room. “This is your first test. Scenario: A forested village in the hills of Teru is facing a ghost wraith reap. There is no way to know the size of the ghost wraith pack. You only know the pack is traveling fast heading to unprotected villages. Your goal is to take down any ghost wraiths coming your way. Mission Commence: Cadet Mablevi, Basic Simulation 001, Start.”
Zev had no time to think, as the room turned dark and vegetation filled his vision.
The call of birds filled his ears with the sun high up above him. Zev imagined if he closed his eyes, he might inhale the scent of fresh crisp air. He took one step forward, and a ghost wraith jumped out of nowhere. He had no chance. The ghost wraith crushed him and the simulation ended.
“You are dead,” the instructor said. “You have failed an entire village, Cadet. Only one rule matters: Stay focused, Mablevi. This is not a game. There is no one coming to save you. You are doing the saving. Do it again. Mission Commence: Cadet Mablevi, Basic Simulation 002. Start.”
Zev died ten more times in the simulation managing only two steps.
At the fifteenth session, he managed five steps, hoping by the thirtieth session, he would be able to see the ghost wraith coming at him. The realization of how fast a ghost wraith moved had Zev wondering if he could make it as a guardian.
Zev turned eighteen at the Swala Oasis.
Two messages appeared on his Theria Guild Console that day. A message from Officer Kwaro giving him status on Amare’s case. Two more girls had gone missing after Amare. No one knew why and not enough clues were left. The second message was from his father, Luca. It said, ‘We’re doing better. Happy Birthday, Son.’
Zev did not reply to either, instead, he focused on training. He had received his Theria Guild combat armor.
A guardian’s real armor’s heavy, Zev thought, touching the metallic material that hugged his chest tight. He hated the white armor he wore when he was a cadet. He wanted to outgrow it and take on the dark metallic armor qualified guardians wore.
After wearing the real thing, he realized he had needed the hours of simulation training to manage to wear the expensive piece of equipment that hugged and protected every inch of his body.
The metal and fabric used to fabricate the armor molded to his body, allowing him freedom of movement and absolute protection. It was also heavy.
Zev was invulnerable to a point. A ghost wraith’s bite was powerful. If a ghost wraith bit his arm and refused to let go, then he would lose the arm despite the armor. However, if he was fast, very fast, the armor’s material would help him escape severe damage. He would stay alive to keep fighting.
The armor came into two pieces: a vest piece and trousers. His feet were encased in military-grade steel boots that he had to learn how to run and fight in them. His hands were covered with fine black steel gloves lined with thick silk on the inside. A helmet created by Santi Corp protected his head. The helmet came complete with AI technology developed by Santi Corp for exclusive use by the Theria Guild’s military technicians.
All guardians used the helmet for communication. The helmet also used AI tech to monitor missions. Every second of their missions and combat with ghost wraiths were recorded. Santi Corp gave the footage to KISTech Researchers to study ghost wraiths, and to the Theria Guild who used it for training cadets and weapons research.
Zev was curious about the mechanics of his helmet but he had long given up on his technology passion. Now, he was a Theria Guild Guardian. His only mission was to protect the people and destroy ghost wraiths.
A cloak clipped on his shoulders topped off his armor. The color of the cloak changed with rank. Zev touched the silver clip holding his green cloak in place. The most coveted cloak in the Theria Guild was red.
It belonged to the Strike Force Squad, the holy grail of guardian teams. The Strike Force Squad only accepted elite guardians into their ranks. Their intake parameters were classified. No one knew how the members of the unit were recruited. All guardians knew was that the Strike Force Squad Guardians had unlimited freedom and access to unlimited resources.
Zev wanted into the Strike Force Squad.
For four years after his eighteenth birthday, Zev lived, breathed, and slept to join the Strike Force Squad.
It was a Thursday night.
Zev had just turned twenty-two years old.
The military-grade utility truck the Theria Guild used for transport drove over a rough bump, Zev kept his attention on his squad mates and the mission at hand. Their team was on a protection run to the open lands at the border of Thuka Province. Their target was near the steel barrier into the Wild Lands.
Guardian intelligence had called in a suspected ghost wraith attack at a weak point of the barrier. The villages closest to the barrier were under heavy surveillance and protection.
Simba Recon was stationed in the area. They had requested backup from Swala Oasis hoping for zero casualties in the villages.
“Squad Leader Mablevi, Sergeant Nkoba, and Sergeant Bala,” the Team Leader called out their names.
“Sir,” Zev said, Saul and Noah, echoing him.
Zev’s gaze rested on the man in charge of his four-man team. They called the Team Leader, Hunter. Zev was sure that was not his birth name. Recruits often changed their names when they first joined the Theria Guardian Guild. Most Guardians wanted to forget where they came from.
Zev had refused to change his name. He needed to remember his past. He wanted to find his sister, Amare. Zev kept his name in case she came looking for him.
“They are calling it a suspected attack, but we all know what to expect once our boots hit the ground. Ghost Wraiths play for keeps. Stay focused and don’t get eaten,” Hunter ordered.
“Sir, Yes, Sir!”
“Check weapons,” Hunter ordered.
Zev reached for the long blade on its scabbard on his right side. He used it most and was most comfortable in close combat with his blade. He wore gun holsters with two modified Santi Corp hyper-comp pistols. They boasted compact black slides and silver barrels.
Zev checked the clips of ammo along his outer left thigh and on his outer right thigh. Each bullet was filled with liquid steel, the technology calibrated by Santi Corp.
The bullet was designed to break on impact. The liquid steel melted the ghost wraiths’ green blood like acid burns through flesh. Ghost Wraiths healed fast. The steel bullet needed to hit a vital point: the head of a ghost wraith put it down for good. Alternatively, severing the ghost wraith’s head with the long blade worked too.
Satisfied he had as many bullet clips as he could carry, Zev gripped the handle of his long blade and looked at Hunter. He gave Hunter a nod to confirm the weapons check. There were no words to exchange with Hunter at the start of a mission. All they needed to know was that they had each other’s backs. Guardians always protected each other.
Their transport came to a stop and the driver’s voice filled the back.
“Strike Force Commander Reports: Sighting confirmed,” the driver said. “Three packs of ten ghost wraiths stalking village at the midpoint. Simba Recon has deployed to tackle the packs on the east side of the villages. Swala is to deploy to the west side and take out as many as you can. I have you as close to the border as possible.”
“Roger,” Hunter said, hitting the exit button on their transport doors.
Hunter jumped out first, his helmet locked in place, his pistol in hand.
Zev wore his helmet. He was careful to wait until he heard the soft hiss of the helmet clipping into place. He jumped out of the transport behind Hunter. Saul and Noah followed him.
A few feet away five other units from Swala stood in preparation.
Their transport had come to a stop on a road near a thick forest. The road led to the village. Ghost wraiths rarely followed a road. They preferred the thick forest, they used the leafy bushes on the forest floor to hide, and stalk their prey.
So, guardians had to go into the forests to find them.
Hunter gave the squad leader on his right a nod and the one on the left thumbs up, giving the go-ahead to enter the thick forest.
Zev took in a deep breath and followed Hunter, his senses alert, his helmet already recording the mission.
‘Proximity.’ The disembodied voice of the AI in charge of their mission spoke, filling his head. ‘Four hundred meters.’
Zev sheathed his blade. He reached for his guns. Making sure they were loaded, cocked, and ready, he fanned away from Hunter and focused on a stealthy approach toward the enemy. The first gunshot would expose their position. They all needed to make it count.
‘200 hundred meters.’
Zev kept moving. The sound of rustling leaves increased in the thick bushes ahead. This pack of ghost wraiths was large. He hoped they would manage to take down as many as possible before they had to fight them in close contact.
Zev glanced at Hunter who was walking ahead, his black cloak swaying behind him.
Hunter was a team leader with ten squads of four under his command. Zev looked forward to the day he got to wear the black cloak. It would mean he was ready to consider recruitment into the Strike Force Squad. Hunter stopped and crouched low, his gun aimed at a distant mark.
Zev returned his attention to the task and found a position to hide. It took him a minute to spot the pack of ghost wraiths. They were running, leaping from tree to tree, others on the ground.
Zev stared at their dark skin. It was slick and smooth. Shimmering like glass in the moonlight. Their tails were long and had spikes at the end reminiscent of a porcupine. Built with heavy muscle like a rhino, the most frightening feature remained their mouths. Ghost wraiths were blessed with rows and rows of sharp deadly teeth. Their mouths were large enough to destroy and powerful enough to decapitate.
The image of two of them attacking Gen filled his mind’s eye and he shuddered.
‘Focus.’ Hunter’s voice filled his head, and Zev shook off the memory. ‘Weapons at the ready. Fire in Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Mark.”
Zev aimed at the first ghost wraith he had a clear view and fired. His bullet hit the side of the ghost wraith’s head. The wraith dropped to the ground. Zev aimed at the next one. His fellow guardians shot as many as they could. The falling ghost wraiths had the remaining pack changing direction. The pack was now racing straight for the guardians, determined to deal retribution.
Holstering his guns, Zev reached for his blade and braced for a bloody battle.
Ghost wraiths roared their anger. Lightning danced across the sky, followed by heart-shaking thunder.
Zev gripped his weapon. His gaze lingered on the intricate markings on the long blade’s ornate handle. A flame shaped like a teardrop with short lines carved under it: the flame represented the Theria Guild, and the lines represented his survived battles. He had eighteen lines on his blade. Two more and he would have the option to move up a rank.
If he survived this battle, he would be a step closer to finding his sister.
‘Proximity.’ The disembodied voice returned in his helmet, and he braced himself. ‘Two meters. Prepare to engage.’
Zev waited until the ghost wraith was close enough he could feel its breath. He swung his blade with all his might. Cutting into slick skin, he forced the blade deeper into the ghost wraith’s neck until he severed its head. Green blood burned off his silver blade.
Zev jumped away from the dead ghost wraith, dodging the jaws of a second one. He swung his blade fast, catching the second one on its front legs, it fell forward and he stabbed his blade into its forehead. Zev sunk into a deadly dance, slicing with his blade, moving fast enough to keep out of the jaws of an angry ghost wraith. When the ghost wraiths rushed him in threes, he used one of his guns and shot them in the head.
Above, the skies turned dark, crackling with lightning, and thunder rose to a stunning vibrato.
Zev fought on, determined to survive the night.
Morning found him in a shower stall in his quarters at the Swala Oasis.
Hot water sprayed over his head washing away the gory nature of his chosen career. The green blood in the drain made Zev feel as though he was caught in a dream.
He never imagined that he would end up a guardian. This dream belonged to his little brother, Grey.
After Grey and Silas died, and Amare went missing, Zev had not seen another way out. His head was too filled with anger and a thirst for vengeance, and the guild was the only organization that could give him an outlet.
Thinking about Grey and Silas had him remembering Amare and her easy smile. He remembered her waiting for him outside his class. The bag of sugarcane she always brought him.
Pain slashed through his chest, and Zev let out a short breath. He leaned his forehead on the shower tiles. Heart pounding too fast, it took him a moment to gain back control. He prayed his sister was alive, that whoever had taken her had not murdered her.
Taking deep breaths, Zev slapped the shower button off and grabbed a towel from the shower stall rail. He dried fast and stepped out grabbing the second towel on the rack to dry his short locks.
On bare feet, he walked to the sink counter, peering into the mirror over the sink. He pulled the towel off his head and leaned in to look at the fine line on his neck.
Tonight’s mistake, he thought, running his index finger over the fine cut.
A ghost wraith managed to dislodge his helmet in the thickest moment of the fight. One of its claws scraped his skin as he fought to get free from under it.
Zev opened the medicine cabinet hidden behind the mirror. He found the cream the guild disbursed in abundance and applied it to the cut. The stinging pain ended and Zev closed the medicine cabinet. His hair was cut short on the sides with his locks growing long at the top of his head. The locks were four years old long. Four years since Amare went missing, Zev had promised himself that he would cut his locks off when he found her.
Zev picked up a leather tie from the sink counter. He secured his hair in a tight ponytail. Zev wore a t-shirt, boxers, and green shorts. He placed his dirty towels in the laundry bin under the sink.
Zev stepped out of the bathroom. He was surprised to see his two best friends, Noah and Saul, in his room.
Noah sat on his bed watching cartoons on the glass screen mounted on the opposite wall.
Saul sat at Zev’s reading desk playing a video game on his phone, his feet resting on Zev’s desk.
“Squad Leader sure takes long showers,” Noah teased, dropping the remote he held on his stomach. He turned his head to look at Zev.
“Did the green goop stick on your locks?” Noah asked.
“Shut up,” Zev said, grinning at Noah. “Why are you guys in here?”
“We figured you needed a health check,” Saul said, stopping his game, he placed his phone on the desk and stood up. He crossed the room fast.
Saul grasped Zev’s chin and peered at the thin cut on Zev’s neck.
“You almost got eaten today,” Noah commented, sitting up on the bed.
“Your head looks good on your shoulders,” Saul said, letting go of Zev’s chin. He met Zev’s gaze. “Try to keep it there.”
Zev sighed. He couldn’t fault these two for worrying. Battles were hard on guardians and citizens alike. Tonight, they lost three guardians from their team. Hunter was out there preparing their final rites. The Theria Guild would handle the funerals. Guardian Command would notify the parents of the three guardians.
Zev hated to imagine how his parents would react if a Guardian Command Officer showed up at their door. He had not heard from his parents in four years. His father had stopped sending him messages on his birthday.
Zev touched the cut on his neck. He did not want to put his parents through more pain. He needed to train harder.
“We lost three last night,” Saul said. “We are gaining two from the cadet qualifiers in the fourth squad.”
Zev wished he could complain about getting newbies but it was no use.
Hunter would give him, Noah, and Saul the job of tracking the newbies. They always got babysitting duties because their four-man squad was ranked first in Hunter’s team. They got the job of training the younger guardians, working with them to give them the experience needed.
Four years of this life had him used to the brutal nature of a guardian’s occupation.
“Pass them the new training schedule,” Zev said, moving to sit on an old couch in the corner of his room. He dropped on it hard. Resting his head back on the cushions, he closed his eyes.
“There is news from the main office,” Saul said.
“What kind of news?” Zev asked, his tone lazy.
“There is a Strike Force Commander in-house,” Noah said. “He stopped here on his way to the capital city, Kirit.”
Zev sat up fast.
“We can try and meet him in the mess hall,” Saul said. “We can ask him how to join the Strike Force. Or how to move to Sokwe Recon in the Capital. We each have one battle left. We strike twenty and we’re ready to leave Swala. We’ll be qualified to move up ranks.”
Zev’s gaze shifted to his arms. Black tattoos ran from his wrists to his elbows. Black chevrons to count the number of battles he had survived. Just like his sword, the chevrons reminded him of the number of times he returned alive from battle. He was two chevrons away from reaching twenty battles.
After last night’s battle, he needed to add one more chevron on his right arm to make them nineteen. This meant he only needed one more battle and he would be at twenty.
Twenty was a qualifying number to shift squads. Sokwe Recon would take him, Noah, and Saul. They would find a way to get into Strike Force once they joined Sokwe Recon in the Capital.
Zev got up from the couch.
“Isn’t it seven?” Zev asked, glancing at the clock on the glass screen on the wall. “Breakfast time. Let’s go to the mess hall. I’m sure he has to eat too. We might get lucky.”
Strong hands gripped his jacket at the shoulders, lifted him up, and dropped him on the grass. Zev found himself lying flat on his stomach, his mouth filling with the taste of grass and dirt. He turned his head to the right as strong hands held him down.
“Stay put,” a gruff order came from above him. “Alpha team, we have five targets surrounding the compound, unknown casualties in the cottage, one alive and in our custody. We need a suppression team.”
“My brothers,” Zev said, struggling against the strong hands holding him down on the grass. “My brothers are behind the house!”
“Possible survivors at the back of the house,” the gruff voice continued. “How old are they?”
“Seven and five,” Zev said, trying not to eat more grass. “They are with their best friend who is six.”
“The survivors are very young,” the gruff voice said.
“Let me go and I’ll help find them,” Zev insisted, struggling against the hands holding him down.
“We let you go, and you’ll go running into danger,” the gruff man said. “Your ax will accomplish nothing.”
“How do you know?” Zev asked, annoyed by the cold voice talking at him.
Zev was lifted up in much the same way they dropped him down. He found himself kneeling, his gaze on the house as he watched five men in green armor take on the ghost wraiths.
Theria Guild Guardians, he thought. Their suits were hard to miss.
Eyes wide, Zev watched one of the guardians jump on a ghost wraith’s back, the silver sword the guardian held crackled with lightning. The guardian sunk his sword deep into the ghost wraith’s neck. The attack was swift, faster than Zev could imagine. The ghost wraith dropped to the ground unmoving when it was over.
Ghost Wraith’s Fight
“Do you think your ax can manage that?” the gruff man asked, and Zev sank back on his haunches, trembling.
The death of one of their own had all the ghost wraiths in the compound screaming their anger. Lightning danced across the sky, thunder rolled and the theria guild guardians fought a pile of angry ghost wraiths.
Zev found himself with a first-class ticket to a gory play. Green blood flooded the compound from wounded and dying ghost wraiths. The thunderous cries of ghost wraiths were accompanied by screams from unlucky guardians who got their limbs crushed between powerful jaws. Five minutes of absolute violence ensued until abrupt silence reigned.
The hands holding him in place disappeared. Zev had no strength to get up. He stayed kneeling on the grass. Afraid to move closer to the house the guardians were now investigating. He refused to imagine what Gen looked like. He worried they would find his brothers.
“Kijana,” the gruff man called from Gen’s front door. “We need identification. Kuja hapa.”
The man calling him had his helmet in his hands. There was dark war paint around his eyes, and the red cloak clasped to hooks on his shoulders and falling on his back over his armor had ripped edges.
Zev swallowed down his fear and pushed himself to his feet. Anxiety had him breaking into a run. He reached Gen’s front door faster than he wanted.
The gruff man placed a strong hand on Zev’s left shoulder. Zev’s first instinct was to shake it off. But then, the guardian pushed him deeper into the house not giving him a chance. Zev stopped in the small hall that flowed into the living room. Gen’s living room was painted a sunny yellow, which made it look bright in the daytime. This afternoon, all Zev could see was rubble on the furniture and wood floor. The curtains were ripped. Glass shattered, and bloodstains were everywhere including on the damaged ceiling.
“W-where is Gen?” Zev asked, his voice shaky even to his ears.
“I’m sorry,” the gruff man said but did not elaborate more.
Zev still did not understand why the gruff man would be sorry.
“Why—?” Zev started to ask.
“Ghost wraiths leave nothing to claim for a funeral. Today is an exception,” a second guardian said, pointing to the small hallway leading to the kitchen.
The second guardian wore his helmet. All Zev saw was the black body armor stained with green ghost wraith blood. Zev followed the pointing finger and a shout wrenched out of him. He saw small sneakers, bright green: Silas’s favorite color.
Zev forgot the guardians and jumped over broken dining room chairs, his boots crunching glass as he entered the kitchen. He fell to his knees when he saw Grey lying still over Silas and Gen’s son by the open kitchen door. His brothers…there was blood…
Zev picked up the bright green sneaker, as a keening cry escaped his lips.
He didn’t hear anything else the guardians said, too lost to grief.
His family did not survive the reckoning meted out by the ghost wraiths in their Gathu Village. Zev forgot the voting exercise happening in the village hall, too lost in their family’s loss. Gen’s son and his two brothers were gone, just gone. The ghost wraiths took his brothers’ lives. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he watched the guardians manage the scene.
They moved Zev outside as they called in the policing department and the medical officers. Zev could not bring himself to explain the loss of his brothers to his parents when they arrived at Gen’s house. The Theria Guild officer in charge had to do the talking.
After Elina Mablevi screamed for hours as she held her two dead children, not even her husband could make her stop. Worried for Amare, Luca asked one of the policing officers to take Zev home.
Zev moved in a daze as he entered the Theria Guild utility vehicle. He had no strength left to show surprise when the officers stopped him in front of his house without direction from him. The only thing he managed was panic at the discovery of the broken front door of their home. He remembered locking the door and warning Amare not to come out.
“Amare!” Zev said, fear coloring his voice. He forgot to remove his shoes and ran deeper into the house. “Ama!”
“What’s wrong?” One of the guardians asked, standing at the front door.
“My sister is not here,” Zev said, shaking as he dashed into her room. He switched on the overhead light and panicked when he didn’t see Amare in her bed. “She’s not here. Amare is not here!”
The guardian behind him alerted his fellow teammates, and a search began.
Amare was gone.
Zev rushed outside into the darkening evening, heartbeat speeding with fear. His gaze returned to the damaged front door. The roof of their house was intact. The front door was broken…no, hacked to pieces. It was clearly damaged by a human…someone had taken Amare. Amare’s bag was still on the floor where Zev left it.
A long search began.
A search for Amare Mablevi who disappeared after a great reckoning visited Gathu Village. There were no signs of a ghost wraith attack in the Mablevi compound. Amare’s disappearance was suspect, but not critical, so the Theria Guild Guardians handed the case to the Gathu Village Police Station for investigation.
Profound loss seeped into the Mablevi home.
Despair took over Elina, Luca, and Zev. Each one of them felt devastated by the loss of Silas and Grey. The family buried the two boys three days after Amare’s disappearance. Many families held funeral services that day. The ghost wraiths left tragedy in their wake, and the Gathu Villagers were steeped in grief.
A New Elderon
In the Mablevi home, the added weight of Amare’s disappearance filled the house.
Unable to be at home with his parents, Zev camped at the police station in the village center, hoping the investigators in charge would find a breakthrough that would lead them to find Amare.
Two weeks after the election, Zev sat in the lobby at the police station waiting for the officer in charge. He stared at the large glass screen mounted on the wall opposite. The screen was lit up with a live coverage coming from the National Stadium in the capital city, Kirit.
All local media stations were running the swearing-in ceremony of the new Elderon and his Chancellor: Izra Taj and Kakura Jafar. Izra Taj had made a special tribute to the victims of Gathu Village after the reckoning. He had pledged to increase Theria Guild Guardians in the Swala Oasis. Zev wondered how that would help them now. His family was down to him and his parents. The thought made him feel sick to the stomach.
Zev watched as Izra climbed up to the podium. Izra placed his right hand on the oldest charter book the empire owned. He looked at the Head of Justice standing before him.
“I, Izra Taj, do swear with honor that I shall guard the founding charter of the Empire of Afrotheria…”
Standing behind him was a woman Zev assumed was Izra’s wife, and a young lady about his age. She had to be Izra’s daughter. Her long dark braids were in a tight ponytail. She was dressed in black as though mourning her lot in life.
Zev wondered what the Elderon’s daughter would have to be sad about. Her gaze was not on her father, but on the crowd of people watching the ceremony.
The electronic doors to the inner offices of the police station opened.
Zev forgot the new Elderon and his daughter. He focused on the officer in charge of Amare’s case.
“Have you found anything?” Zev asked, standing to meet him.
“Not yet, Zev. It’s been two weeks since your sister’s disappearance,” the officer in charge said, shaking his head. “We’ll keep looking, but the trail has gotten cold. We don’t have the resources the Theria Guild has to handle this case.”
“Why would you say that to me, Officer Kwaro?” Zev asked.
“I’m being honest with you. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but…,”
Officer Kwaro looked around the open hall in the police station. Zev was not the only one waiting for information. There was a family sitting on benches a few feet away, and an old woman in the corner. Their gazes were on the screen, even though one of the men in the family was watching Officer Kwaro with expectation.
Officer Kwaro took Zev’s right arm and led him outside to the parking lot. He did not speak until they were a safe distance away from the main hall.
“Zev, I know you love your sister. You showing up here every day, almost sleeping in the police station is a testament to that love. I understand your pain. I really do. So, I want to be honest with you,” Officer Kwaro said, his gaze filling with pity. Officer Kwaro’s pity filled the pits of Zev’s stomach with fear and a tight knot.
“Four girls have disappeared in our village, same as your sister, this year,” Officer Kwaro said. “They were home alone. The front door was hacked open, and there was no clue left to help us find them. We do not know how the culprit discovers they are alone…”
Join the Theria Guild
Officer Kwaro trailed off, and let out a soft sigh.
“Zev, we have not found them.”
“Are you saying Amare is one of those girls now?” Zev asked, his heart dropping to the endless pit of fear in his stomach. “Why is the Village Head not doing more? Why has Malachi said nothing?”
“It’s not my place to judge what Malachi is doing or not,” Officer Kwaro said. “I’m only telling you there is an open case in this station of four missing girls. Your sister makes the fifth. We have found none of them to date.”
Zev closed his eyes and shook his head, fighting panic.
“If you can’t find her, who should I turn to? I—where else can I go to ask for help with this if not the policing force?”
“The Theria Guild,” Officer Kwaro said his gaze hardening. “The policing force only has what we need to manage a small village. The guardians in the Theria Guild are different. They have access to resources that can help you track down your sister. I—”
“Zev, I’m not trying to scare you,” Officer Kwaro said, after a moment. “I promise I won’t stop looking for Amare, but—”
“You think I should join the Theria Guild,” Zev said in horror.
He was supposed to report to his Santi Corp Apprenticeship in a few days. He was a Tech Class student.
Zev thought of Grey. Grey wanted nothing more than to join the Theria Guild. It didn’t make sense that he was gone now. There was Silas who had not gotten a chance to decide. He closed his eyes and fought down the cry of pain filling him. Fates, his siblings ripped away from him, one by one.
“The Theria Guild is the only way for us to find Amare and the missing girls,” Officer Kwaro said, placing a hand on Zev’s shoulder. “I’ve tried to reach out to them with no luck. Our village has had no volunteers for the Theria Guild. We have no allies in their ranks. You know how wary everyone in the village is with Guardians. The Guardians are not comfortable working with us, or us with them. We’ll gain an advantage if you join. It will be different with you, Zev. I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry this is the best our station can do. You think about it. Meanwhile, I’ll keep working on the case. I will keep you informed if anything comes up.”
Zev thought about Officer Kwaro’s advice on his walk home. Everyone he met stopped to pat his shoulder, saying words of comfort to soothe him for his family’s loss and hoping for Amare’s swift return. Zev could see in his fellow villagers’ eyes that they did not think Amare would be back.
Most of them thought she was lost to the ghost wraiths that wrecked their village. Lost in the wild reckoning the ghost wraiths meted out on their people. He refused to think of Amare gone like Silas and Grey.
His little sister was alive. She had just disappeared. They would find her.
Back at home, Zev sat in the kitchen listening to his mother cry. She was in Grey and Silas’s room. His father sat on Amare’s bed in her room, not moving at all. His parents’ grief was so tangible that it filled the house. Zev could barely breathe at the pressure of it.
His grandmother, from his mother’s side, had moved into their house after the funeral. She moved around the house in silence too, tidying up and cooking.
Zev had no energy to find her and ask how his parents were doing. He drank a mug of warm milk in the kitchen and then decided to hide in his room for a while.
He logged into the Pink Piggy in the Luna VR.
Weru was waiting for him in their workroom.
“I’m sorry about your brothers, Zev,” Weru said, pulling him into a hug. “And Amare missing sounds unreal. How are you guys doing?”
“Not good,” Zev said, pulling away from Weru. He sat down at the work table and stared at his best friend. “How is school?”
“We are all doing final checks and balances,” Weru said with a shrug. “Miss Leya is waiting for you to show up to finalize the paperwork for your apprenticeship.”
Zev let out a shaky breath.
“What?” Weru asked, studying him.
“I don’t know,” Zev said, staring at the worktable he had developed over three years as he built the Pink Piggy. “I might need to find a different course for the future.”
“Zev—,” Weru said, his eyes wide.
“I can’t talk about it right now,” Zev said, not about to voice the decision dancing on the fringes of his mind. “When do you leave for KISTech?”
“Next week,” Weru said.
Weru grinned and let out a soft sigh.
“You should have let me visit your house instead of meeting like this,” Weru said.
“My house is…,” Zev trailed off, thinking about his parents and their varying degrees of grief.
It was hard to describe the level of pain in the Mablevi home. All he knew was that he needed to find Amare to ease the burden.
“I have to do something,” Zev said, wiping a hand down his face. “Look, I have to go. It was nice to see you. I will not be online for a while. I’ll call you.”
Zev waved at his friend and logged out of their shared space. Removing his Luna VR glasses, he found Dahlian’s UserID and sent her a message.
Pink_Piggy to Dahlian: Are you free to talk?’
Dahlian to Pink_Piggy: Now you show up. I’ve sent you several messages and you’ve refused to respond. WTH?’
Pink_Piggy to Dahlian: I’m sorry. I had…personal stuff going on. Do you have time?’
Dahlian to Pink_Piggy: Sure. Should I meet you at the pink piggy?
Pink_Piggy to Dahlian: No.
Zev glanced at the finished code on his tablet. He completed it the night before the elections. He had wanted to do more with the code, but the decision he needed to make now would mean he would not get the chance to develop it further.
The only person he thought might have use for it was Dahlian.
Pink_Piggy to Dahlian: Invite me into a private room. I have something to give you.
Dahlian to Pink_Piggy: Ok. I’ll send an invite.
Dahlian sent him a link to a private room right away.
Zev wore his Luna VR glasses and entered the private room. It surprised him to find the room modeled like a small café, complete with tables and chairs. Dahlian sat at a table by the windows showing off the busy streets of Kirit.
“Fancy,” Zev said, slipping into the chair across her, as he took in the café.
Dahlian glanced at him and chuckled.
“I wondered if you would keep the pink piggy mask. I’m glad you didn’t disappoint me. It’s nice to see you again.”
“You’re not wearing a mask,” Zev said, staring at the beautiful young woman sitting across him.
Her brown skin was warm in the artificial light. Her eyes were light brown and her braids fell down to her shoulders. She smiled at him, and he remembered the punch in his gut at her beauty clearly.
“This is my private space,” Dahlian said. “No one to discover what I look like and use it against me.”
“Aren’t you afraid of me?” Zev asked.
“No. If you were the type to sell gossip, your true face would have already been discovered.”
Zev chuckled and sat back staring out the windows to the artificial depiction of the capital city, Kirit.
“It must be so crowded,” Zev said
He stared at the number of people walking the streets and the MobiGaris clogging up traffic.
“It’s home to me. I would probably miss the vehicles and noise if I went somewhere quiet,” Dhalian said. “Are you not in Kirit?”
“No,” Zev said, returning his gaze to Dahlian. “I live in the countryside.”
“I would never have guessed it,” Dhalian said. “What did you want to tell me?”
Zev held out the digital card with the code.
“I’m sorry. I’m late giving you an answer,” Zev said, placing the card on the table when Dahlian stared at it in surprise. “I updated the code you want. I’ve added more to the original code in the database. I told you it was a work in progress. I’m giving you permission to use it in your research.”
“Oh,” Dahlian’s eyes widened and she picked up the card with visible excitement. She kept the card away and studied him. “This feels like a goodbye, Pink Piggy. Why?”
Zev shrugged, his gaze going back to the busy street. He would have wanted to be able to visit Weru at KISTech. That would have been a sight to see.
“I’m going away,” Zev said, letting go of a lifelong dream. He let out a soft sigh and faced Dahlian. “I’m closing the Pink Piggy.”
“What? No!” Dahlian gaped. “Why?”
“I can’t avoid it,” Zev said with a shrug. “My family is dealing with some stuff. I won’t be able to maintain the shop.”
“What if I hold it for you?” Dahlian asked. “You’ve given me your code, taking care of the Pink Piggy is the least I can do. We’ll just maintain your code products, update them if necessary, don’t close it.”
Zev broke off, wishing he could give over the care of the Pink Piggy to Dahlian. She seemed like a good person.
Still, the Pink Piggy reminded him of Amare too much. She had wanted to see the shop turn into a physical shop, and the thought left him breathless with pain.
“I can’t,” Zev said in a whisper. “The Pink Piggy needs to stay dormant for now. I have a task I need to complete. If I’m successful, I’ll bring the shop back. Maybe even turn it into a physical shop.”
Dahlian studied him for a while, and then she nodded.
“If that’s what you want,” Dahlian said.
“It is,” Zev said. “I wanted you to have the code I’ve been working on. In case it helps you find a breakthrough in the fight against ghost wraiths. Promise to work on it.”
“I promise,” Dahlian said.
Zev pushed his chair back and got up.
“Then, I’ll see you around, Dahlian.”
“Wait,” Dahlian said, getting up too. She hurried to his side and touched his right arm. “Something bad has happened to you, hasn’t it?”
Zev swallowed hard, unable to keep the tears from falling in the real world. He could not explain the absolute tragedy ravaging his family.
“I’m sorry it’s hard for you,” Dahlian continued when he didn’t respond to her comment. “This room is open to you whenever you want to escape. I won’t change the link code I sent you. You don’t have to tell me when you log in. Deal?”
Zev smiled and looked to the glass windows and the virtual view of Kirit Capital beyond.
“I suppose staring at the MobiGaris packing up the street is soothing in a way,” Zev said.
“I’ll update the street view to match the actual street often,” Dahlian said with a grin.
“Okay, it’s a deal,” Zev said. “See you, Dahlian. Good luck with your research.”
“You too, good luck,” Dahlian said.
Zev logged out soon after. He spent the rest of his night shutting down the Pink Piggy’s virtual store.
In the morning, he woke up first, not bothering to find his parents. He left the house and made his way to school.
Miss Leya was in eternal shock the moment Zev turned in his Change of Class form.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Miss Leya asked, her eyes filled with tears. “Zev.”
“This is what I need to do,” Zev said, smiling at her. “My mother calls it the change of tide. Please help me make this change, Miss Leya.”
“But moving from the Tech Class to the Protector Class is hard, Zev. Your peers in the Protector Class will have had years of training on you—”
“I don’t think I have a choice,” Zev said, hating the tears stinging the backs of his eyes. “My brothers would still be alive, and my sister would be with us if I was stronger.”
“You don’t know that,” Miss Leya said, shaking her head.
“I do,” Zev said. “The guardians held me down as they fought off ghost wraiths. I need to be stronger.”
Miss Leya sighed and stared at the form on her desk.
“What about the apprenticeship with Santi Corp?” Miss Leya asked. “You’re a rare talent, Zev. I hate to see you throw it away like this.”
“I’m not throwing it away,” Zev said. “I’m repurposing my talent to the Theria Guild. I will be the best Guardian ever known in the protector class.”
Miss Leya could not help her heavy sigh as she picked up her stamp and authorized Zev’s migration to the Protector Class. He was effectively becoming a cadet in the Theria Guild.
“Zev Mablevi,” Miss Leya said, getting up. She held out her hand to him, meeting his gaze. “This is the last time you and I will meet as civilians. You will be in the guild, I’ll have to defer to your full authority.”
Zev took her hand with a nod.
“May the almighty creator guard your steps,” Miss Leya said.
“And yours,” Zev said.
Miss Leya nodded, let go of his hand, and handed him the authorized Change of Class Form.
Afrotheria votes and Dalia supports her father amid personal fears. An unexpected reckoning comes to Gathu Village.
The Gathu Village Reckoning
Zev and Elina
The sun rose high on voting day in Gathu Village. Zev woke first. He dressed up for the day and left his room. He found Elina in the kitchen busy making breakfast. She placed a mug of milk tea, and a plate with two slices of toasted brown bread and scrambled eggs before him.
“Mama,” Zev said, drinking his tea as he watched her prep vegetables for lunch.
“Yes, Zev,” Elina said, pausing to look at him.
“Do you really think I shouldn’t join the apprenticeship at Santi?” he asked.
Elina grabbed a kitchen cloth and used it to wipe her wet hands. She returned to the kitchen table and sat next to him.
“Zev,” Elina said, placing a gentle hand on his left shoulder. “I have my own views about a company so large it has become vital to every household in Afrotheria. They do provide jobs to the people, but…”
Elina smiled and shook her head.
“I’m just worried,” Elina said. “I know how smart you are, Zev. Of all my children, you’re the best when it comes to technology. You’re gifted and I do believe Santi Corp would give you the opportunity to explore your talents. All I ask is that you don’t put all your time into Santi Corp. Like you run the Pink Piggy, you can make your own company later and…try helping out ordinary people with tech.”
“Okay,” Zev nodded and then smiled. “I will graduate from the apprenticeship and make the Pink Piggy come to life in the real world.”
“You can also change the name when you have a chance,” Elina said. “I don’t see myself shopping at the Pink Piggy.”
Zev chuckled and ate his slice of bread.
“At least I’ll have a shop, what are you going to do about Grey?” Zev asked. “Guardians are not easy characters.”
Elina sighed and ran her hand over the top of his head. Her fingers sank into his short hair.
“I don’t know what we’ll do about Grey,” Elina said, shaking her head. “I’ll give him time to grow a bit. Theria Guardians look cool to kids because of their armor and the weapons they carry. In time, he might change his mind.”
“You hope,” Zev said with a grin.
“I hope,” Elina said, with a nod. “You used to want to work in the greenhouses at the village center when you were his age. Look at you, now preferring to code. It’s called the change of tide. You’re seventeen, turning eighteen soon. I bet in a few years, you’ll have a different set of priorities. Do you know what will remain constant?”
“What?” Zev asked, looking into Elina’s dark brown eyes.
She smiled and leaned in.
“You amazing me,” Elina said. “No matter what you’ll choose to do with your life, Zev. You always amaze me. I’m proud of you.”
Zev grinned when she leaned in and hugged him tightly. She rubbed his back and got up.
“Eat your breakfast,” Elina said. “Malachi called to make sure you would arrive in time. The voting doesn’t start until eight in the morning. He wants the voting assistants to arrive by seven o’clock. It’s only six-thirty. You will make it to the village center before then.”
Zev nodded and ate his breakfast, watching his mom start washing vegetables at the sink. After breakfast, Zev took his backpack from his room, bid his mother bye, and ran out of the house.
The Village Center was a fifteen-minute walk to the east of his home, it usually took him ten or less, if he ran. The academy he attended with Amare was ten minutes from his house to the west of the main road. Zev emerged from his street and joined the main road heading east to the village center.
Dalia stared at the voting console and the list of names that included her father. Izra Taj for Elderon, and his running mate Kakura Jafar as Izra’s chancellor. She had half a mind to vote for the opposing party. She was sure if Izra won, her life would change. The way people looked at her at KISTech was already different. She did not want to think of what her life would be like when her father became Elderon.
Her parents’ voices filled her head then.
Family comes first, her father said. When one member of the family wins, we all win, her mother said.
Closing her eyes, Dalia took in a deep breath and pressed the tick next to her father’s name. Unable to fight her parents’ constant advice. Shaking her head, Dalia finished voting by signing her name with the stylus pen on the voting machine’s screen. She submitted the signature, and waited for it to verify. When it did, the vote was complete and she could step out of the booth.
A photographer took her picture, and her phone beeped in her pocket.
Dalia looked around the large voting hall filled with fifty voting booths. They were in the city center hall. Voters made lines according to their last names. Hers was Taj, so she was at the ‘T’ booth. She caught a glimpse of her best friend at the ‘D’ booth and smiled when he waved at her.
“Dalia,” her mother called her name.
She turned to her right and saw her parents waiting on the side near the exit. Her father was careful not to greet or smile with anyone in the hall. He had his arm around his wife’s waist. He watched Dalia with expectation. Forgetting her best friend, she crossed the room to her parents.
“All done?” Sophina asked when Dalia reached her.
“Yes,” Dalia said.
“Then we should head out,” Sophina said.
“Yes,” Izra agreed. “It would be nice if we kept track of the process even if it’s on the screen-,”
“No,” Sophina said, cutting her husband off. “You’ve done all you can until now. Today is for family. We’re going to the hotel to have a good meal, watch a show or swim. The next hours are family time, Izra Taj. No talk of politics.”
Dalia grinned when her father stared at Sophina, then nodded.
“You’re right,” Izra said, rubbing his stomach. “I’m starving. Food sounds like a great idea.”
“I’m always right,” Sophina said and held out her hand to Dalia.
Sophina led the way out of the voting hall. She did not slow down until they reached the slick, modern, black-armored vehicles they were using to move around these days. There were two. One for Izra to use and a second car packed with four black ops guardians. It was a standard government issue for candidates campaigning for the Elderon office. Afrotheria was peaceful, but there were still passionate political individuals who took opinion to the extreme. Izra had faced a dozen death threats in the past week alone.
Once in the backseat of their vehicle, Dalia pulled out her phone from her pocket and frowned when she saw a picture of herself coming out of the voting booth. She was dressed in a white trouser suit, her braids in a tight ponytail. She had tried to look conservative, even wearing flat shoes.
‘Taj’s only daughter at the polls looking utilitarian. She’s one to watch even as we wait for voting results.’
Dalia shut off the screen on her phone and wished she could hide under a rock. She truly missed her obscure life before this election campaign started. Dumping her phone in her bag, she hoped her father would not win. At least then, she would return to worrying about research results and nothing else. The weird articles about her style choices would also disappear.
Shaking her head, she wondered if the Pink Piggy had made his decision.
Was he out there voting too? Would he choose her father?
The Village Head’s Son – Jiru
Zev’s work as a voting assistant was easy. He answered questions from voters, explaining how to use the voting machine, and sign the votes. He hauled in bottles of water from the store for other voting assistants and worked with the security forces to make sure there were no problems in the lines.
On a trip to the village hall’s store, Zev noticed the shelf holding the bottles of water was shaky. He found a power drill, an electric screwdriver, and bolts from the tools shelf and busied himself with securing the shelf to the wall.
Zev gripped the electric screwdriver and crawled under the shelf to drive in the last bolt. He was tightening the screws securing the shelf to the wall when something bumped his left leg. He couldn’t see what it was from under the shelf, so he called out.
“Who is there?”
When no answer came, he cursed under his breath and made sure the screws were tight before he scooted out from under the shelf. He bumped his head on the corner of the shelf and grimaced as he rubbed his left temple.
Looking up, he scowled when he saw Jiru, son of Malachi the Village Head, and Zev’s non-friend.
Jiru was a conundrum.
Zev was never sure whether Jiru wanted to be friends or to bully him.
“What?” Zev asked, still rubbing his forehead.
Jiru grinned, perched on top of the worktable holding baskets of bread buns for the voting assistants. Zev was supposed to take the basket to the voting hall and distribute the bread buns. Jiru’s fine black leather boots rested on the only chair at the worktable. He was dressed in all black, his hair in a high box cut fro. Zev always thought he looked like a cartoon.
“I heard you’re going to join Santi Corp’s apprenticeship at the Swala Oasis,” Jiru said, his tone caught between interest and mockery.
Zev sighed and got up from the floor. He undid the bits on the screwdriver and moved to return it to the toolbox on the tools shelf. He glanced over his shoulder to see Jiru scowling at him.
Zev hid a smile and shook his head.
“Do you want to join the Tech Apprenticeship too?” Zev asked, closing the toolbox and stretching his arms above his head to ease his muscles.
“No,” Jiru said, crossing his arms against his chest. “Will you see the Theria Guild cadets while you’re there?”
Zev dropped his arms to his side and leaned on the tools shelf.
“No, actually,” Zev said. “All I saw when I visited for registration was their transport vehicles.”
“That’s a shame, I’d go find them if I were you,” Jiru said, his tone smug.
Jiru’s entitled tone made Zev nervous.
Zev tried to stay away from Jiru or spend as little time with him as possible. Sticking to that motto, Zev pushed off the tools shelf and picked up the basket of bread buns.
“I need to take these to the voting hall. After, I have to find your dad,” Zev said, keeping it polite.
“He’s in the control room at the tech center,” Jiru said, jumping off the table.
Zev bit back his sigh of frustration when Jiru moved closer to him. The black shirt Jiru wore looked too tight. Zev wondered if it would tear if Jiru flexed his muscles. Hiding a scoff, he turned toward the door. It annoyed him that Jiru followed, but there was not much he could do. This was Jiru’s turf.
Zev carried the basket of bread buns, heading to the main hall. It was a sunny day, and the center was filled with people who were coming to vote. His parents were somewhere on the ‘M’ line. Amare could not vote yet, so she had to be watching his brothers in the children’s center. The playground at the children’s center allowed kids to play football. He too loved the field behind the children’s center. He and Weru sometimes played when they got time. They hadn’t been able to play of late, too busy with planning the future.
“I met your sister earlier at the children’s center,” Jiru said, as they walked along the corridor to the main voting hall. “She’s helping out with babysitting kids for parents.”
Zev gripped the basket filled with bread buns tighter.
“She is so nice to talk to,” Jiru continued. “I heard she wants to join the education class. My father has connections to the apprenticeship sponsored by our academy. I can talk to him and get her in.”
“Amare will get in on her own merit,” Zev said, refusing to think of being in debt to Jiru.
“I’m just saying I’d like to help her,” Jiru said. “Maybe she’ll look at me with kind eyes.”
Zev stopped, turning to face Jiru.
Jiru was two years his senior. He was nineteen to Zev’s seventeen. The thought of Jiru thinking of Amare when she was only fifteen made him want to punch the hell out of Jiru.
“Don’t glare at me,” Jiru said, grinning at Zev. “Amare is cute. You must have noticed all the boys at the academy are interested. I’m just saying I can help her secure her future.”
Zev stepped into Jiru’s personal space and met Jiru’s smug dark gaze.
“Amare is off-limits,” Zev said, the words coming out between his gritted teeth. “Stay away from my little sister.”
“Make me,” Jiru said, his smile making Zev feel like he might turn murderous.
“Zev!” Malachi’s voice rang in the wide hallway.
Zev swallowed down his anger and stepped away from Jiru. He turned to find Malachi watching them, and continued toward the village head. His first instinct was to get his sister out of this place. When he reached Malachi, the village head placed a calming arm around his shoulders.
Zev looked behind him to find Jiru still standing where they had been facing off.
Jiru smiled wide, making Zev scowl. He allowed Malachi to lead him into the voting hall.
“Did you finish with the shelf?” Malachi asked, leading him to the staff refreshment table.
“I did,” Zev said, placing the basket on the table.
“Give me your token card,” Malachi said, glancing at the time on his watch. “Your parents finished their vote. They took the boys home but left Amare to help out at the children’s center. Since it’s almost four, I want to release you, so you can walk her home.”
Zev reached into his trousers pocket and got his token card. He handed it to Jafar who took it and swiped it on the side of the cell phone he held.
A second later, Zev’s token card lit up and Malachi pulled it out and handed it back.
Zev swiped his thumb over the surface of the card and smiled when he saw his total tokens had increased to four thousand. He had been counting on the amount paid today so that he could make his upgrades.
“Thank you, Sir,” Zev said, giving Malachi a wide smile.
“You do good work, Zev,” Malachi said. “I know Jiru gives you a hard time, but he’s just trying to be friends. Be more patient with him.”
Zev nodded though he did not agree. Malachi was blind to his son’s wrongness. Jiru was a bully, and it worried him that Jiru’s eye was now on Amare.
“Then, I’m going to wait for Amare,” Zev said, pointing to the exit doors, that would lead him to the children’s center.
“You’re a good big brother, Zev,” Malachi praised. “Go ahead. I’ll call you when the village center has another job for you.”
“Thank you,” Zev said.
Malachi patted his back in encouragement and urged him to leave. Zev swiped two bread buns from the basket and left Malachi with a quick grin. He navigated to the exit doors, crossed the street, and entered the gates into the children’s center.
He headed straight to the painting room and stood at the entrance watching Amare moving among five round tables filled with kids. They had water-based paints on the table, and it covered their hands, and paintbrushes, as much as the papers before them.
Zev unwrapped one of the bread buns he held and leaned on the doorjamb. He waved in greeting when Amare noticed him and waved in excitement.
“Want to help?” Amare asked. “When was the last time you played with paint?”
Zev finished the bread bun he was eating in three bites, and went to the sink in the corner of the room to wash his hands. In minutes, he was kneeling on the floor having found space at a table with a group of six-year-olds painting doodles on paper.
Amare supervised his work and threatened to paint his hair with green paint. His attempts to escape her had all the kids laughing, especially when she finally succeeded and painted his left eyebrow, his cheek, and ear.
The Reckoning – Ghost Wraiths Attack
When it was time to go home, Zev carried Amare’s paint supply bag and his bookbag with his upgraded tablet. They walked home at a slow pace. Zev listened with rapt attention as Amare gushed about working with the children.
“By the way, Zev, will you still run the Pink Piggy when you start going to the apprenticeship?” Amare asked. “I heard mom telling you to make it a real shop. Would you open it at the village center, or find a place closer to the Theria Guild oasis?”
“I’m still thinking about it,” Zev said, hiding the fact that he was anxious about becoming an apprentice with Santi Corp.
If he chose to stay with Santi Corp, he would need to close the Pink Piggy. Santi Corp was proprietary about code development. If he did well, Santi Corp might even offer him a long-term contract working with them. However, it would restrict his creativity. All code made under Santi would belong to Santi.
“I think it would be fun to have the Pink Piggy as a real store,” Amare said, making him look at her in surprise. “Your ideas are always the best. You help a lot of people create code for gadgets used around the house. It would be fun to see our Gathu Village filled with little gadgets made by you.”
“You’re too biased,” Zev said, shaking his head.
“I’m your sister,” Amare said. “I’m supposed to be extremely biased. My brother is the best no matter what.”
Zev chuckled at her blind faith in him. A man on a motorcycle approached from the front, driving too fast. Zev pulled Amare to his left side to protect her from the rising cloud of dust. They were five minutes away from home when a loud thundering siren filled the area.
Zev looked in the direction of the village center and panic filled him when he saw the dark clouds above. Lightning danced across the sky and then thunder rumbled.
Amare stood frozen on the side of the road.
Zev grabbed her right hand and jerked her into a fast run. They needed to get home. Zev held his sister’s hand tight and started a punishing pace that had Amare tripping three times. Each time, Zev slowed, helped her up, and pushed her even harder.
His heart squeezed when he saw the black Theria Guild utility vehicles speeding past them toward the village center on the main road.
Zev had no time to think of what had descended on the Village Center.
They entered the access road and ran to their gate. It didn’t matter if the gate was open or not. Ghost wraiths could jump very high. Zev pushed his sister into the house, where she collapsed on the floor panting hard.
Zev dropped the bags he carried next to her and ran deeper into the house.
“Grey! Silas!” Zev called out, glancing at the digital clock in the kitchen. “Mama, Baba?”
It was just after five o’clock. Their parents should have already returned by now.
Zev ran to his brothers’ room and slammed their door open. The bitter taste of bile filled his mouth when he found their room empty. His parents’ room was empty too. They weren’t home yet.
Getting his cell phone from his pocket, he paused in the corridor when he found a message from his mother. They had dropped the boys at their neighbor’s house. His mother needed to return to the conservancy center, and his father was meeting a supplier in the next town. Zev and Amare were to pick up the boys from Gen’s house.
Zev wished he had checked his phone earlier. Running back to the living room, he found Amare had gotten up, though she was clearly shaky.
“Are they home?” she asked when she saw him.
“Not yet,” Zev said, rushing to a closet in the living room.
Zev pulled out a long heavy jacket. It was heavy on his shoulders when he wore it because it was lined with delicate silver netting. It was meant to protect skin from the bite of a ghost wraith.
Zev could not be sure it worked. He could only hope. Picking up an ax from the same closet, he closed the door and turned to find Amare shaking her head.
“You’re not going out there, are you?”
“I have to,” Zev said. “Grey and Silas are at Gen’s house. Baba is in the next town. Mama returned to the conservancy center. She asked us to pick Grey and Silas. I need to go get them and make sure they are safe.”
“I’m going with you,” Amare said, rushing to the closet to get a jacket of her own.
“No, you’re not,” Zev said, heading to the console near the front door.
Their dad had installed strong security netting around the main house. The silver netting would stop ghost hounds from breaking through the roofing and the walls to enter the house. Zev brought up the controls to activate the netting.
“You stay here and wait for us. Also, to wait for the boys in case I miss them on the way,” Zev said, turning to Amare. “You need to be here to open for them if they come back first.”
“Zev,” Amare said, shaking her head, tears filling her eyes even as she struggled to pull on her heavy jacket.
Zev sighed, leaned his ax on the door, and hurried to help her wear the jacket. He made sure it was zipped closed and hugged Amare.
“I’ll be right back. Be brave for me, sis,” Zev said. “I’ll be back with Grey and Silas before you know it.”
Amare nodded, tears still tracking down her cheeks.
Zev squeezed her right shoulder then turned and headed to the front door. He grabbed his ax and came out of the house. Closing the door, Zev was glad to hear it lock. He was glad to see the silver netting crackle with electricity, engaging around the building.
The siren was still ringing. Frightened screams rose from the direction of the village center. Zev could see smoke rising over the trees. He hoped their parents had found shelter. It was up to him to get to Silas and Grey.
Zev broke into a run, gripping his ax tight as he left their gate headed up the access road to the main road. He turned left toward the village center.
Gen’s house was five minutes away from their home. She was a family friend and she had a son the same age as Grey. The boys liked playing together, so their mom often left Grey and Silas at Gen’s house.
Zev ran like a madman ignoring the growing screams. He was breathing hard when he reached Gen’s gate. The sound of hefty stones dropping sent his heart to his throat.
A blood-curdling scream came from Gen’s compound and Zev tore through Gen’s open gate and came to an abrupt stop.
Gen’s cottage had a large hole in the roof. A larger crack broke the walls of what he knew to be the living room in half.
Thunder rumbled and Zev gaped as he stared at the largest ghost wraith he had ever seen in his life. It was as tall as Gen’s house, its dark skin slick and seeming to shimmer in broad daylight. The tail was long and had spikes that reminded him of a porcupine on its end.
Zev stood frozen, unable to move forward or back. His hand gripped the ax tighter as the ghost wraith turned to him. Its mouth stained red, the sharp teeth gleaming in the evening light. Zev could not look away from the deadly teeth on the wide mouth. The ghost wraith opened its mouth wider and Zev realized the sound it made caused the lightning and thunder.
Fear gripped him, sinking deep into his bones, his breath lodged in his throat.
A horrified scream came, and Zev’s gaze shifted from the ghost wraith to the crumbling stones of the living room. That’s when he saw Gen. Blood covered the front of her blouse as she fought off a second ghost wraith with a lampshade. It broke away and she grabbed onto a dining chair, throwing it at the ghost wraith, desperate to survive. She took the second chair and brought it down over the ghost wraith’s head. She turned to run and must have seen Zev because she shouted.
“Zev!” she said, her voice strained with pain. “The kids….in the back.”
Zev started forward, shouting to warn Gen when the ghost wraith she was fighting went for her back. The ghost wraith’s mouth opened and came down on Gen’s left shoulder hard. Gen screamed for a second, and then the sound was cut off as the second ghost wraith joined the first.
Zev’s scream lodged in his throat as he watched the savage wraiths tear into Gen. Anger replaced shock and all he could think was that he had to get the damned ghost wraiths off Gen. She was like a second mother to him; all he knew was that he had to get to her. He ran toward the house in a mad dash to avenge Gen, or to save her.