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.”