Kera’thun, a planet on the fringes of Pegasus Galaxy, remaining a neutral zone in the Wraith factions. It was home to a facility which housed young Wraith in a time when it was dangerous for children to be kept with their mothers. Hives were being destroyed by both the Lanteans and the in fighting amongst their own kind.
With Death looming over them all, the facility shut down most of their outgoing transmissions, limiting them to emergency supply orders. Only those mothers who left their children in a desperate attempt to protect them knew of the location. To others it was simply an out of commission cloning facility.
This large, desert continent was Ash’s home. She was the eldest of the females, and thus inherited the job of caretaker for the fruit fed toddlers and the few helpless infants. The facility was supplied enough so that the few clever men and blades who maintained the functions of the systems and prepared the meals had enough humans to keep them alive. Ash posed a problem; she was a young adult and needed to feed more often than a Wraith in their prime.
Sitting outside, alone in the dry air and dying light of the sun. The three moons were already visible in the purpling sky. Ash looked out, past the perimeter fences surrounding the facility. One was a visible metal fence and a couple of paces within was an electrical force field to ensure the safety of the precious occupants.
Just over the first dune she watched two slim figures stand on the crest. One was taller than the other. She noticed there was no clothing billowing in the wind. Even with her enhanced vision, adapted for desert life and seeing long distances despite the harsh sunlight, Ash could barely make out their outlines. They were black blurs against the darkening sky.
Soon the figures turned, dropping to all fours and vanishing over the lip of the dune. Ash frowned. She had never seen a human move like that, not that she had seen many that were not cocooned and prepped for feeding, but those she had seen moved on two legs.
Humans were rare on this continent. Most of the inhabitants lived across the narrow sea where it was more hospitable. Here water and plant life were few and far between. The nearest oasis was an hour’s travel by dart.
The small population who chose to live here benefitted from the silt dug from deep beneath the sands where the red rocks grew. They would excavate the dark sand, sealing the outside walls with cement to prevent the tunnels from collapsing. The silt, a rusty red substance, was consumed raw or pounded into a cake, mixed with water and baked. It was addictive and detrimental to the health of the consumer, often shortening their already brief lives by decades.
“Dirt eaters” was what her handler, Firstlight, called them with disgust. Those who were affected by the silt could not be consumed without adverse side effects.
Ash buried her bare feet in the sand. Firstlight would come looking for her just before third moon was over the dry mountains. The air was cooling rapidly and felt wonderful on her skin. She was more yellow than green, her skin adapting as she became better suited for the planet’s conditions. Her lashes were long, thick and dark to protect her eyes from the sun. She applied black kohl every morning to further prevent sun damage and sensitivity, even if she did not plan on venturing outside.
“It is nearly dark,” a deep voice said behind her.
Ash felt Firstlight behind her. The blade was past his prime and old enough to remember the true Death’s daughter before her demise. His heavy, long fingered hand came to rest on the crown of her head. Short clipped claws, filed smooth to avoid scratching the delicate skin of younglings, vanished in the dark brown waves of her hair. “Come inside. You have charges to attend.”
“What, chase them down for sleep because you’re too decrepit to do it yourself?”
His laugh was still rich and it made him seem so much younger. With a shake of his head, he turns back to the open door. “Well then, will you help this feeble old blade wrangle a flock of unruly children.”
Ash and Firstlight finished getting all of the children settled for the night. The older groups needed far less sleep, going for up to three days, but the toddlers and infants slept just as human children. It wasn’t uncommon to see a child taking a nap in the middle of a corridor, or a crevice in the wall, exhausted from their games.
Ironheart greeted the two when they entered the common area where three adolescent males were in the far corner, hunched over a game board. The cleverman remained so as to be able to break up a fight if needed. Until their first feeding, males were prone to violent outbreaks towards one another to assert dominance. It would prepare them later, when vying for the attention of a Queen.
“I see you are both in one piece.” Ironheart said, his pale, still sharp, yellow eyes never fully leaving the group.
Ash joined him at the game board he had taken. The game he played was more for the calming repetitive movement than actual strategy, and sat unfinished when they joined him. “I saw humans today.”
This caused alarm in both of the males. She could practically taste the emotion they gave off.
“Are you certain?” Firstlight asked.
“Fairly so. They stood on two legs. I couldn’t make out their features.” Ironheart moved a piece to the center of the board as she watched; “It was strange…they walked upright, but when they ran, it was on four.”
Ironheart frowned and she felt uncertainty from Firstlight. “Were they human?” She asked, pressing in hope to find out why they worried so about two humans, if that was what they were.
“Probably, those who are on the affects of silt act not as a human should.”
Ash nodded, accepting the information. Still, it pulled at her. Firstlight was always cautious, but Ironheart was difficult to shake. For a cleverman he had the unyielding soul of a blade. She would let them speak to one another in private then get the information from Firstlight later.
He was often willing to bend to her, more so now that she was a budding adult. Prior, he was the indulgent handler, giving her extra pieces of sticky sweet fruit before she went to sleep. His attention had shifted as she aged, instinctively she knew he was contending for her attention, whether he did so consciously or not.
Firstlight remained behind as she went to the chamber where their wards slept. Their slow, soft breathing welcomed her into the room. She still slept in the place where she had been assigned upon her arrival. If one of her charges needed something, she was close. Tired as she was, having last fully slept a week ago, she sank into the bed.
Asleep within moments, Ash found herself being shaken awake by Firstlight sooner than she would have like. Disoriented and irritable, she sat up and let her eyes adjust to the light. The milky white membranes slid back, taking what vestiges of sleep left with it.
“Get up, we need to get the children to the upper levels.” He urged her, taking her wrist and pulling her from the bed before she could protest or ask why.
“What is happening?” She asked, beginning to rouse sleepy, uncooperative younglings.
“We’re being attacked.”
“No. They are coming in from below. Hurry, child,” he shouted aloud.
All the children were out of bed within moments, detecting the air of danger and state of alarm as the facility began to awaken as a whole. Firstlight was forced to carry two who began to get upset. Ash had one by the hand, and another who clung to her skirt with plump fists. The child whose hand she grasp wanted to know why everyone was afraid. She did not cry, but held on to Ash for stability. Unable to find an answer for her, Ash tried to reassure her with a thought of bravery. She had to set an example as a prospective queen. To keep her composure in the face of the unknown.
As quickly as two adults with eight young children in tow, they began to make their way to the nearest transport. The alarm had begun to screech when they passed the common area. This meant, whatever was attacking had breached the main level. Ash willed away the cold fear that gripped her core for the sake of the two who held on to her.
Ahead, Firstlight had the remaining four lined behind him in two rows with Ash bringing up the rear. When he stopped, the children immediately clustered close to the wall at their left. Releasing the two he held, Firstlight barked an order to go through the common room.
Ironheart stood before them, holding a door closed. His claws dug deep into the chitinous surface to prevent them from sliding open. “Go, now,” he shouted at her. The children were already in motion, filing past her.
She followed, looking back before disappearing into the room. Her last sight of Ironheart and Firstlight was haloed in brilliance of stunner blasts. The door had opened.
Ironheart’s shout of: “Leave me. Don’t let them get through that door,” died with the sound of the wet ripping of meat from bone. It still pulsed in her mind, as did the feeling of hatred that washed fire over her mind . She wanted to curl in on herself, hide in a corner, but the eight younglings watching her for instruction depended on her ability to repress that. If she couldn’t keep her charges safe, then what good would she be as a ruler?
The door opposite the one they entered led to the corridors that housed the adults who maintained the facility. Past that, adjacent the room that belonged to the commander who ran this facility, was a transport. It was a long trek for young children who were hindered by fear. Ash didn’t want to risk leading, where she could not keep an eye over them all.
She opened the door, checked for any signs of life. This side of the facility felt dead. The silence unnerved her. Ash hoped that it was due to the state of alert.The old blades would be tasked with eliminating the threat while the clevermen sought to secure the breach.
“Who knows where to go?”
One of the boys, Nightwind’s seventh son whom she called Sweets, nodded. “Haze showed me.”
“You lead, I will take the rear, but,” the boy stopped, “let me go through the doors first.”
He bowed his wispy white crown and started ahead. It took some stride adjustments before she stopped stepping on the heels in front of her. Over and over she ran through a list she began compiling after Ironheart’s voice went silent. They would need desert gear, just in case, as well as plenty of food for the younglings. The cold empty pit within her core that sent cold fire to her limbs reminded her that she too needed sustenance. The human cargo was on the floor below. It would be a week before starvation truly set in. She hoped the problem would be contained before she would have to venture below.
The door to the commander’s chamber was open. Ash had her charges halt while she investigated. Inside she could smell blood and a sharp, fetid odor. Deep green, near black blood smeared the floor in great sweeping arches. A stunner lay in the middle of the mess. Placing a hand over her nose, Ash pressed against the wall and leaned just enough to look into the sleeping quarters.
A lean, knotted, patchy black furred back. The leather edge of a coat was beneath it. Ash pressed harder against her nose and mouth, fighting not to hiss. The great thing moved on long, sinewy limbs. As it did, Ash knew the fate of the commander, Blade’s Edge. Ironheart was next in line for the position if Blade fell, and Ironheart was probably dead. By tradition,Jeweltongue would have the position if he still lived.
The thing turned and Ash saw its awful face. Teeth stained with Blade’s life and eyes like piercing gold reflected in the dim light, a bright flash from within. Thin lips pull back, wrinkling its long snout. The growl shook her bones and rattled her teeth.
“Ash,” one of the girls shouted, jarring her from the fright. Scooping the child up before she could see the horror inside, Ash grabbed the abandoned stunner and fled, closing the door behind them. A thud causes them all the start. It was trying to get out, and Ash did not want to remain to see if it could manage. Several children began to whimper. “Hurry, all of you. This way,” she said to prevent any from freezing in place. "It’ll be alright." She tried to assure them, though could not express the confidence, and the younglings picked up on it. They clustered around her as they reached the upper level.
When the door slid open with a hiss, Ash’s breath caught in her chest. Four of those unspeakable creatures were crouched in the hall. The remains of blades were scattered, awash with their dark blood, growing black in the cold air. One could take out a seasoned commander, Ash could only imagine what they could do to a child. The door closed before they could so much as flash their ugly teeth.
“Where are we going?” The question bounced in her mind as the group looked at her with expectant, fearful eyes.
“Aren’t those things down there?”
“I don’t know. That’s where they came in. Maybe they’re all on the other floors, now that they’re in. We can get out how they got in.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t. Now stay close to me and be shadows.”
This floor was dark. In the state of alert power was drawn from this section to strengthen the shields and security on the floors above. Ash hoped she could spare the moment to feed before they escaped.
The younglings were herded into the supply room where Ash began to hand out desert suits. “Put them on quickly,” she ordered them, stripping and squeezing in to her own. The suit prevented the sun from scorching the flesh, the sand from ripping it, and water from leaving it. Three had to be helped into their’s, and Ash pulled their tunics back over it.
“It’s hot,” one complained as she shuffled them out, stiff legged in the unbroken in black membranes.
Looking for the breach in the hull was priority, should have been priority, but Ash wanted to feed. Starving to death before help could reach them would do little good. It felt selfish in the face of danger, but being able to call on the strength to defend her wards and herself surpassed escape as the immediate option.
Several husks lay in the hall and not far were what she assumed, as there was little left to identify them, the remains of several blades. The younglings pressed close, hindering her movement as they clung to her legs and cloak. The cocooned humans were in various states of the feeding process. Blood staining the thin membrane holding them in place caused Ash to pause before she lifted her hand. She peeled away the sticky threads and found a bite on the arm of the woman in stasis.
The others were the same. All had at least one bite on various limbs. The strangeness made her frown. Did those things try to eat the humans and find them not to their liking? Shaking the thought away, Ash chose a strong male and took her fill, leaving a withered husk where a man once stood.
“Where to now?”
“We need to find where they got in.”
Again Sweets led them. Closer to the ground, he would be able to see any openings more efficiently than Ash, who stood over all but three blades and two clevermen. Several of the children were becoming relaxed, lagging and talking amongst themselves. She watched as they would grab one another to speak privately. Letting her disappointment spread outward, she watched as they straightened and moved apart, filing behind Sweets.
“Here!” She saw the boy beam at her, seeking approval.
“Good. Move aside and let me check ahead. Wait here. I will not be long.”
Crouching down, Ash crawled into the space. Once she got past the hull, the tunnel opened enough that she could nearly stand upright. After a few meters she could see a pinpoint of pale light. It wasn’t far from the surface. For a few moments longer she ventured ahead, to make sure it was the moonlight, and not leading them into further danger.
With confidence she made her return, so sure that her wards would now be safe until aid could arrive. She unfolded herself from the entrance, with a sharp grin, and prepared to give the good news. Her stomach dropped and bile rose in her throat at what waited for her. The younglings lay in pieces, hardly eaten. Sweets, what was left of him, lay in front of the rest. As the eldest, he tried to protect them. As the eldest, there was less of him to identify but for the fine hair that his mother was so proud of.
Once her grief subsided, fear took hold. Where did those creatures go? She had not been gone long, nor had she heard screams. Younglings would instinctively screech when frightened to alert the nearest adult.
Above her a low growl made the hair on the back of her neck stand. Ash didn’t look, she couldn’t bear to. She didn’t want to see the entrails of her failure hanging from its jaws. She failed them all in her selfishness. In her need to feed, and her stubbornness to check first. Sweets could have gone while she stayed behind.
If they wanted her, they would have to work for it, burn the energy gained from the younglings. So she ran; ran until her lungs burned and her legs grew weak. She ran until she no longer heard footfalls behind her, until the stench of rancid, hot breath faded.
She had reached the commander’s quarters. The thing that had been in the room had left nothing but bloodied bones, leather, and pieces it didn’t like. Proud Blade’s Edge would be nothing but shit before the sun rose. Sadness clouded her vision as she slipped between his coats, concealing herself as best she could.
Later she would go back to the breach, and if they weren’t guarding it, she would escape. Someone needed to know what happened, even Death.
She hoped Firstlight still lived.
Those unnameable, terrible things slept with bellies full. Ash watched, still and quiet from an opening in the wall where she had wedged herself into one of the ventilation ducts. Faces ending in narrow snouts stained green-black with dried blood, flaked onto the floor where younglings should be playing. Even the infants were not spared. The ones whose mothers gave them up, too young to be weaned, in the hope that Death would not find them.
Crawling on her belly, Ash hoped to reach the communication deck without detection. It was on the highest level, located at the center of the facility. The default system would not send a distress signal unless the user input the request directly. If she could get the signal out, perhaps rescue would come. Perhaps there were others that escaped notice, covered in black, tired, and afraid just as she. She closed her eyes and hoped.
It had been selfish of her to want to escape, leaving this death trap to the unsuspecting. A warning and a call for help should be sent out. None should be forced to go in blind.
When she reached the first teleport, Ash dared to stick her head out in the open. She had shaved her hair in the quiet of the central ventilation shaft, leaving nothing but enough to identify the color. Long hair, even pulled up and off the neck would give those things something to grab. She had cried over the pile of glossed waves that lay at her feet, knowing it would be years before it returned in full.
The hallway appeared empty. Carefully she slid out and onto the floor, letting out a shaking breath when nothing came to greet her. Everything was so silent, she felt empty and alone. Ash wished against all odds, that Firstlight was alive. She wanted to be comforted by his warm smile and good humor, to be told that everything would turn out well at the end.
When the transporter took her to the upper level, Ash began to feel a prickling fear that ran down her neck, moving over every raised ridge of her spine. The dark hallway before her opened like a hungry maw, filling her sensory pits with hot, yellow air. A shiver shook her, and she wanted to retreat back to the safety of the facility’s interior. No she thought, lifting her chin and straightening her shoulders. I will do this.
The communications deck was just ahead. It was rare that any of the crew went there for anything other than maintenance, or to update the systems. Those things had no reason to be there. If she could make it, she would be safe until rescue came. Once she stepped into the black there was no return, she would fail her wards, Firstlight, and Ironheart’s death would be for nothing.
Ash broke into a frantic run. Her long legs flew, not hindered by doubt, but fueled by terror. The door slid open as she stopped, panting in the empty room. With only one way in or out, she locked the door and sought out any air vents. There was one large enough for her to squeeze in to just above the diagnostics display.
As she approached the console, Ash saw that a distress signal had been activated. She nearly screeched when a hand suddenly fell on her shoulder.
“Did you get them to safety?”
She turned to see Firstlight. The left side of his face had been nearly torn away. Shining white, his cheekbone stood out stark against the ragged wound. The eye hung limp from it’s socket. Feeding would repair the worst of the damage, but even regeneration could not prevent scarring.
She looked away, not from the grotesque wound, but from shame. “No.” Her mind was open to him, sharing the loss and anger at herself for leaving them alone, unprotected, for a moment too long.
“Do not blame yourself. You will be a Queen, remember that.”
“Do you think we will survive this?”
“You will survive this.”
Ash wouldn’t stand for it. To her knowledge, she and Firstlight were the only survivors of the attack, and he had the audacity to suggest sacrificing himself? She refused to hear it.
“So will you.” She lowered her forehead to his and felt him let out a deep, weary breath. For a moment he looked his age. The lines of worry and fatigue were etched deep. “Promise me you will try?”
Just a hint of a smile lifted the dense air from pressing on her shoulders. “Someone has to make sure you behave yourself.”
“Precisely. You’re the only one I will listen to, so for the sake of my future hive, please do not die.”
With a resigned sigh, he settled in beside her. They had positioned themselves under the lip of the console closest to the large ventilation duct. If the creatures managed to get through the door, they could escape relatively quickly. The opening was wide enough that Firstlight could fit through if he removed his coat. The shoulder armor and stiff leather would make squeezing through difficult.
It worried her that his wound was showing no signs of healing. Even if he had not fed in a few days, there would still be some indication of regeneration. The edges were ragged and thick black blood oozed. Ash had removed the short cape around her shoulders to press against his face. It was doubtful that she would need to utilize it to shield her newly shorn head from the sun.
“I don’t think we can save the eye.” She told him.
Firstlight reached into his coat, pulling out a concealed rondel dagger. It was a short, smooth, slender blade designed to hide in sleeves, or just inside the lapel of a coat. The function was the pierce rather than cut. To kill a Wraith with a dagger, you must puncture a major artery. “Cut it off.”
“Why can’t you?”
“I can’t see, Ash. You have to do it.”
Taking the offered blade, Ash bared her teeth in a grimace. “I don’t know if I can. Can this blade cut?”
“It’ll have to, or just leave it as it is.”
“We both know it can’t be left. If there’s any chance it will try to regrow…”
“Then do it, child!” He snapped, clacking his teeth in irritation.
Sucking in her breath, Ash tensed her body and rubbed her fingers together. The worst she’d ever dealt with until the attack was the occasional upset stomach of a youngling who ate too much. She would be a queen, she had to be prepared to see and experience things that repulsed her.
Exhaling slowly, Ash brought the blade up to level with the exposed socked. Her hand shook as she gripped the optic nerve. I can do this. It’s to help Firstlight. If I don’t, a new eye cannot begin to form. The blade tip pierced through the cord easily and her handler hissed in pain. One more poke from the dagger allowed her to tear the eye from it’s socket. She placed the cloak over the damage to prevent the seeping pus from dripping over this face.
Firstlight’s hand covered her’s, pressing the cloth tighter. His nostrils flared as his breath came in short, hard bursts. “The worst should be over,” he said and clenched his teeth.
“Let us hope.”
Watching the door in shifts allowed Firstlight to sleep and Ash to attempt to relax. It had been more than three hours since they last heard movement from outside. Focusing on deep breathing, Ash didn’t notice when Firstlight failed to let her know that it was time to switch. She was oblivious until the stomach turning sound of bones popping roused her from meditation.
The leather clad back shook as is from silent laughter. Ash sat up and reached for her handler. “Firstlight? Is all well?”
“Fine.” She heard him grunt. His voice was thick and unlike himself.
Ash placed her left hand on his back, and felt the shoulder blades shift in an unnatural way. Unsure as to what she should do, Ash chose to lean against him, resting her forehead against the base of his neck. She remained there until the shaking stopped and Firstlight sagged against her.
“I do not know.”
Ash pulled him back so that he rested against her. Both arms encircled his broad chest while her off hand stroked his forearm. With her chin on his armored shoulder, Ash closed her eyes and listened to his heart slow to a steady thump. It felt weak, close to human rhythm. “You’ll need to feed soon.”
“There are no humans left in the facility.”
“Did it need to be said?”
“No. I’m afraid, Firstlight.”
“As am I.”
Her long fingered hands had worked to rip the cloak into a bandage that could wrap over the wound without covering the undamaged sensory pit. He was not completely blind on that side. His skin was unnaturally warm under her fingers as she smoothed his hair away from the freshly bandaged area. All her worry and disappointment in herself was evident through her touch, as she felt his stoic resolve and- She withdrew her hand and sat back on her heels.
Forgetting time and the surroundings was simple when his lips caught her’s. The suppressed urges from the hope that she would take a hive and a consort of her own broke free. Ash, unsure of what to do, let him lead.
Typically it was the female who initiated, and the male was often shy. Young queens tended to take consorts close to their own age as a hive was teaming with those seeking her favor. Firstlight was older than the one who sired her, and had fathered children, one of which had been residing at the facility. His second eldest son, Fallenstar, made lame from a complication during birth, watched over the oldest group of males. Ash did not want to think of his fate. For the sake of Firstlight, she tried to clear her mind of his name.
She writhed against him. He was hot against her belly and tasted of the musk sap used to hold braids in place beneath her tongue. Teeth grazed her neck, sending shivers to her loins. Her climax relaxed her body, allowing his. Fullness gave way to pressure, then bliss until he subsided and withdrew. Her hands were warm under his open coat.
Claws that trailed down her spine suddenly cut into her flesh. Ash sucked in her breath and exhaled with a warning growl. When she looked down at Firstlight, she saw his face contorted in pain. Claws that dug deeper, preventing her from moving for fear of tearing her skin or damaging her sensitive spinal ridge.
She could only watch. Blood soaked through the bandage, and his fine, angular features shifted and bulged. Wet pops and snaps entered the rush of blood that filled her ears. She heard nothing else, not his cry of pain or her own screech of terror. Claws that had been smooth, cut short for handling younglings hooked into her flesh like talons.
She begged him to turn loose. Whether by acquiesce or the spasm that suddenly caused him to arch his back into a bow, Firstlight released her. Now free, she backed herself against the wall, far enough to avoid being struck but close enough to help. Squeezing her eyes shut, Ash listened as the sound of fabric ripping and leather tearing deafened everything around her.
It was only when a heavy silence overcame the room, did she open her eyes.
Where her handler had lay, something terrible crouched. It’s dark, nearly black, mottled green bulk heaved with labored breath. Every exhale wheezed like a sickly human through grey, chitinous fangs. Her body froze, watching the unnamable beast as it rose on four trembling, long limbs ending in black tipped talons as long as her fingers. It stretched, ridged back bending into a deep U, and opened it’s long maw in a terrible yawn.
Unlike the other creature, hair did not cover this beast. A mane of white ran from the base of its skull to mid back, and the narrow chin ended in twin braided strands. The small golden hoops Firstlight wore at their ends still glimmered in the dim light.
It swung it’s terrible face towards her. One side shone bone white where the wound had been. The empty socket was a black void, while the other held a terrible red glow that shone behind the eye.
“Firstlight?” She whispered, pressed against the wall and bunching her legs beneath her.
The thing paused in mid step, as if it was fighting an internal conflict. Using the confusion, Ash sprung forward, her body gliding over the knotted, oil slick back of the thing that once was Firstlight. The gurgling roar behind her answered her question: Firstlight was no more. Whatever had been left of him ended in that moment’s pause.
She could still feel the sticky heat in her loins and ached to know that he would be gone. Some small hope flared that whatever afflicted him could be cured, that he could return to his self and comfort her.
Atop the display panel, Ash was able to jump over the charging monstrosity and grab the lip of the ventilation duct. A clawed hand raked over her calf as she slithered into the narrow opening. A yelp caught in her throat as she pulled herself to the main airway. Crawling onto the lip, she curled into a ball, holding onto her injured leg. The four gashes burned like fire, sending a throbbing pain up the length of her thigh, to settle just in front of her spine.
Again she cried for the pain, for Firstlight, and for everything. Her world had crumbled to nothing, just as black as that empty socket staring into her soul. It had found the core of her and knew all that she feared. It knew her, somewhere in its warped and changed mind, intimately. Only moments he had shared her, tasted her. Now she lay naked, afraid, and injured. She did not want to think of the engorged member than hung between the shredded remains of leather trousers.
Was being alone worse than what would have been if she had not escaped?