Gods of Rust and Ruin
Seeds of Chaos Book 2
Eve has a number of problems. The power of Chaos is dissolving her from the inside, and she can’t tell anyone about it. One of her team members has been mind-controlling her on NIX’s behalf. And the alien imprisoned in NIX’s basement refuses to talk to her, despite the mysterious quest telling her that if she doesn’t form an alliance with him, she’ll die. There is no place on Earth for her to run. Luckily, she has access to another planet…
To save herself and her teammates, Eve must overcome the deadliest odds of her life, and maybe even a god or two…or they may all end up in unmarked graves.
Gods of Rust and Ruin is the second book in a dark and deliciously violent adventure series that combines science fiction and game elements. If you like electrifying action, flawed characters, and kick-ass heroines, then you’ll love the second book in Azalea Ellis’ Seeds of Chaos series.
Buy Gods of Rust and Ruin now, before the darkness swallows it.
Available as an Audiobook:
No one but Night, with tears on her dark face, watches beside me.
— Edna St. Vincent Millay
I sat up abruptly, choking on my own blood. I jerked out of the little cot tucked into the side of the wall and spat the liquid onto the floor in a dark splatter. The heavy iron taste in my mouth added to the terror of the nightmare I’d been yanked from. My claws slipped out and I sliced through the empty darkness, lashing out at a nonexistent enemy.
A second of flailing later, I got control of myself. I was alone. The only enemy attacking me was also the thing keeping me alive, now that I lived within NIX’s compound. The Seed of Chaos made me powerful enough to be valuable, while literally eating away at me from the inside.
I gagged and coughed, trying to staunch the blood flow with one hand while fumbling for the backpack shoved underneath my mattress with the other. The only light in the room came from the small diodes on a couple of sleeping electronics, but it was enough for my augmented eyes to see. I pulled out a small pouch and fumbled for one of the large, marble-like Seeds within. “I wish I was more Resilient,” I mouthed almost soundlessly, pressing it to my neck. I was long past flinching at the pinprick. I sighed in relief as the Seed injected its contents into me and took hold, stopping the bleeding.
Birch, my little monster-cat companion, woke, either from the noise I’d made or the smell of my blood dripping everywhere. He let out his scratchy little meow, the sound lilting upward at the end in an obvious question. He hadn’t yet displayed the ability of his late mother to share thoughts through touch, but he was far from stupid.
“I had to take a Seed,” I muttered to him, my voice low in case something was listening. “I was bleeding again, but I’m okay now.”
Birch bumped me with his head and licked at the blood on my forearm with his prickly tongue.
I withdrew my arm before his tongue accidentally removed the top layer of my skin, and moved to the shower in the tiny bathroom stall. I was the only one of my teammates with private quarters. The others were sleeping in a small barracks-like room across the hall from me, stacked two bunks high. I’d glanced at their room the night before, and then promptly passed out from exhaustion onto my own private little cot.
Behind me, Birch grumbled and moved to lick up my blood from the cold hard floor. He had an excessive and disturbing penchant for raw meat and blood. Especially my blood.
I turned on the water at a temperature most kindly described as “scalding” and let it wash away the sticky red residue, along with the lingering creepy feeling from my nightmare. I’d been waking up with nightmares, from nightmares, for a while. But they were getting worse than ever before, and I rarely went a night without them.
Sometimes, it was the monsters of a Trial coming for me, ready to rip me apart and dance with my entrails. Sometimes, it was the last time I saw my team member China, as the light went out of her eyes and she died. And sometimes, the nightmare had no form. It was the creeping mass of decay and putrefaction devouring everything in its path. A shudder, a feeling, a smell.
When I exited the shower, Birch had finished cleaning all the blood from the floor. My sheets and pillowcase still glistened with the dark liquid, but luckily, they were black. I took them back into the shower with me and cleaned the synthetic material as best I could. No one would know what had happened.
Birch called to me from the doorway of the shower, his meow still scratchy from sleep.
“It’s getting worse,” I murmured.
The cub padded past the open shower door and under the spray of water, then licked my knee and peered up at me with his green human eyes. Water splashed down on him and his translucent second eyelids closed sideways for protection. He spread his downy wings to better catch the warm water.
“I’m afraid,” I whispered, knowing that he couldn’t reveal my secret, and the rushing water would cover any other surveillance that might have slipped through my search. “The Seeds aren’t working for as long as they used to.”
The Seed of Chaos grew continually stronger, as Behelaino had warned me it would. I just hadn’t thought it would happen this fast. Every time I was forced to use it, it grew stronger, but being able to display it was the only thing keeping me—and the team—safe.
The meditation technique Adam had taught me helped control Chaos, too, but I could only do so much without more Seeds. A lot more. Without them or some other way to heal myself, the outcome was obvious. I had wanted to keep my condition a secret, but I would need to reveal it to Sam, and hope that he could help me until I could find a way to fix myself.
“I’m dying, Birch,” I whispered with terrible certainty, the words no more than a breath on the air.
I buried my past under a sheet of old earth, and hoped it would not rise up to follow me again.
— Ilium Troia
“I’m going to have to find another way to fix this,” I said, voice hardening as an angry determination pushed back the fear. The words came easily enough, but I had no idea how to actually do anything about the black Seed eating away at me.
I exited the shower, turned on the lights to my room and sat on the floor, ignoring the water still beaded on my skin and slicking my hair down. Fear pounded through my bloodstream, gurgling in my stomach and weakening my muscles. When Birch crawled onto my lap, I laid my hand on his side, letting his heartbeat center me.
I breathed out and started my meditation exercises. The sun wouldn’t rise for a while, so I had time. I closed my eyes and breathed in deep, until I could feel the oxygen swirling in the deepest parts of my lungs, spreading into my blood. From there, it wasn’t so hard to sense the tiny particles of Chaos.
I forced them into my mental room of serenity, and put their writhing darkness in my box of silence, locked inside the chest of stillness. By its very nature, Chaos hated being confined so, and wrestled with me to escape. But if there is one thing I can be sure of in myself, it is my will of iron. I do not back down.
I stayed in my meditative state even after I was finished cleansing my body, letting my heightened Perception swirl around me. I could feel Birch’s little heart beating within his body, hear the electricity thrumming through the walls, and sense the cold air blowing through the vents woven into the compound.
Desperate curiosity sparked within me again. I’d agreed to join NIX for two reasons. Partially, to gain their “protection” for myself and my team. And partially because of the alien down below. Maybe, we could have threatened NIX into compliance after breaking the Shortcut and escaped to live in peace, but when I had seen the alien, that had no longer been an option for me. Not until the urge inside me that I didn’t even understand had been sated, at least.
The night before, I’d searched my quarters for monitoring devices. I found many, some of them hidden more cleverly than others. I’d destroyed them, of course. Beyond that, I’d been too exhausted to even brush my teeth before falling into bed. I hadn’t had the time or the energy to learn much about NIX, or the thing it was holding far below, in the bowels of the mountain. Now I did.
I sent my awareness outward through the air, leaving my room through the vent in the ceiling. It was more difficult to force my awareness to travel through substances I wasn’t in physical contact with, and as I pushed farther from my body, even moving at all got exponentially harder. So I let my mind travel through the vents and hallways and spaces where air traveled unimpeded. I sensed Players as I went, an aura of sorts thrumming around them even as they slept.
Occasionally, I passed a bright spark of power that wasn’t asleep. A couple roamed the halls, or the cafeteria, and farther down a group of them had gathered in a large room along the way, but my Perception of details aside from the Seed glow was hazy at that distance, and I couldn’t tell what they were doing.
I slipped past, straining to hold my concentration together. Downward, level after level, until something pinged on the edges of my alertness. I ignored it. I was used to gaining levels by that point. I’d check my stats later. I strained, but I couldn’t keep hold of that strange extra-sensory Perception at such distances. It snapped, fraying like mist through a shredder, and I found myself fully back in my room, my head throbbing fiercely along with my heartbeat.
* * *
I dressed in the bodysuit NIX provided for its Players, wearing my blood-powered armored vest underneath it. I ignored the boots because my feet were too strangely shaped nowadays to fit into them, and the bottoms were tough enough to make footwear unnecessary. I wove my damp hair into a tight braid and checked the whites of my eyes in the bathroom mirror. I’d disabled its monitoring function the night before. The blood vessels in my sclera were still red and irritated, and patches of rusty brown showed where they’d broken and bled, which made the ice-blue of my irises stand out more. At least it looked better than the disturbing bloody color the whites of my eyes had been the day before, after I’d used too much Chaos.
Before leaving the room, I pulled up my Attributes Window to see what had happened during my mental foray into the carved-out depths of the mountain.
PLAYER NAME: EVE REDDING
TITLE: SQUAD LEADER(9)
CHARACTERISTIC SKILL: SPIRIT OF THE HUNTRESS, TUMBLING FEATHER
LEVEL: 38 UNPLANTED SEEDS: 0
SKILLS: COMMAND, CHAOS
MANUAL DEXTERITY: 9
MENTAL ACUITY: 18
For some reason, my out of body awareness didn’t count as a Skill. Maybe because I hadn’t gained it through a specific Skill Bestowal. I didn’t advertise its existence, so anyone who didn’t know and saw me using it just thought I was into meditation. The couple of Seeds Commander Petralka had given me and the others as a joining bonus weren’t noted, either.
I placed my hand on the pad next to my door, and it slid open onto the slightly curving hallway. One of the barracks doors a few meters down the hall was also open. A Player leaned nonchalantly against the doorway, staring straight at the entrance to my quarters. She held my gaze long enough to make it an obvious challenge, then stepped back and waved her door closed.
Birch bared his teeth at her closed door.
I rolled my shoulders to release the tension already building there and knocked briefly on the door to my team’s room before signaling it to open. I wasn’t going to worry about hostility from the other Players in NIX, since there wasn’t much I could do about it. Hopefully, our display the day before would keep anyone from messing with us directly. If not, maybe we would have to put on another gruesome show with the first people to try their luck.
Within the room, most of my teammates milled about in various states of undress, some still obviously waking up.
Birch shot through the open doorway, straight at Adam. He knocked Adam back onto the low bed behind him, ruffled his wings, let out a scratchy roar, and pranced off.
Kris, Blaine’s young niece, let out a delighted laugh and bent down, making enticing noises at Birch.
“Be quiet,” her younger brother grumbled, scrubbing at his face. Gregor’s adorable bushy eyebrows drew down into a scowl like a storm cloud.
“Why does Birch hate me?” Adam said, throwing his arms out dramatically and ruffling Sam’s pristinely made bed. Which he was still lying on, apparently having given up on the idea of standing back up.
Zed laughed, leaning down from his bunk above Adam. “Birch doesn’t hate you. He loves you. He loves to torment you.”
I snickered, drawing Adam’s attention, and was about to add a comment of my own when a flash of blonde caught the corner of my eye. My first thought was that Blaine was combing Sam’s hair. Then I realized, of course it was China, not Sam. After that, I realized it was actually Chanelle, and her hair had been cut sometime during her stay at NIX. No doubt to make it easier for her captors to care for her. She stared blankly ahead, not seeming to notice the tug of the comb on the boy-short hair of her head, or the people around her. Everything about it was wrong. China’s face, even if it wasn’t really her, shouldn’t be so blank. And she definitely would never have chopped off her princess-hair.
Any amusement died a cold death.
Adam’s eyes followed my own, and he sat up, running nimble fingers through the brown mop of curls atop his own head.
“No luck?” I said, turning to Sam, who was yanking his covers back into some semblance of neatness.
He straightened and shook his head. “I can tell something’s wrong with her, or was wrong at some point, but…I can’t fix it. Something’s wrong with her brain, I think. But it seems as if it’s natural, rather than an injury. Maybe, it’s because whatever it was happened too long ago. I can’t take away scars.” He grimaced and looked away, but not before I caught a glimpse of the shiny wetness in his eyes. “If we’d gotten to her sooner…”
Jacky hopped down from her own top bunk, landing way too lightly for a normal human. She was unrealistically beautiful even with her brown eyes glazed over and her hair a tangled mess from sleeping. I would have bet money that she put more than a few handfuls into Beauty if I didn’t know better. She clapped Blaine on the shoulder, causing him to drop the comb and wince from the blow. Then she patted Chanelle on the head, gently enough that she probably wouldn’t have cracked an egg. “She’ll get better, Sam,” Jacky croaked sleepily. “We’re gonna figure out a way.” Then she stumbled to the bathroom, burping loudly and scratching her stomach.
“Ugh, everyone, please shut the gaping holes of loudness and stinking breath you seem to think are your mouths,” Gregor said, loud and clear, just as the door opened beside me.
The room quieted for a bit, as we all turned to stare at the child in astonishment.
“Whoa,” the new arrival said from the doorway. “Brush your own teeth before you start talking!” Bunny turned to me. His rumpled shirt, hair, and the slightly awkward tilt of his mouth belied the directness of his gaze. “Someone’s been having bad dreams,” he murmured mockingly.
I almost reacted, thinking he was talking about me, when Gregor muttered, “They’re not bad dreams. I’m not an idiot!” and stalked off to the bathroom, the hems of his pajama pants covering his entire feet.
Blaine turned to Kris, a question on his face.
She shook her head and picked up the small stuffed moose propped up against her pillows. It was old and worn. “We both have bad dreams sometimes, but Mom isn’t here to make them seem less real now.”
Blaine stared at her through the lenses of his glasses, his hands stilling in Chanelle’s hair. “Err…well…I am here now. I know I cannot compare to your mother, but—”
Kris shrugged quickly, and cut him off. “We’re older now. We don’t need you to help us with bad dreams,” she said, carefully patting her moose on the head and settling it back against her pillow without looking at Blaine.
I felt awkward on Blaine’s behalf, so I turned to Bunny and gestured to Chanelle. “Do you have any idea what’s been done to her? Brain damage?”
Bunny shrugged. “That’s really not my area of expertise. Besides, wasn’t she all ‘rabies-biter,’ before?” He bared his teeth and made fake claws, swiping at the air.
I stared at him expressionlessly, letting my eyes convey how utterly humorless I found him.
He lowered his hands after a few moments, “Well, I just mean, you guys did something to her, right?” He stared hard at Blaine. “You gave her something that stopped the crazy but made her stupid instead.”
Blaine stood up, clenching the comb in his hand hard enough to bend the plastine teeth. “I did not do this to her.”
“Whoa, calm down. You’ve got to admit it. You’re not a doctor, you’re a scientist. Maybe you didn’t consider all the side effects.”
Blaine’s arm jerked a couple times, his hands loosened around the comb, and he went back to untangling Chanelle’s hair, not seeming to notice that some of the comb’s teeth were bent. “I am a genius,” he said. “I did not do this.” But now, his voice was calm, almost serene in fact.
I lifted an eyebrow. Blaine, calmly accepting someone disparaging his inventions or intelligence? Maybe he really was worried that he’d done something wrong. “Well, NIX has records, right? I’m assuming they were studying Chanelle and whatever it was that infected her. We need that information. Talk to whoever you need to, and make it happen,” I said to Bunny.
Bunny hesitated. “That’s probably classified information. Besides…they’re not very happy with me at the moment.”
“I’m pretty sure everything we know about NIX is classified. At this point, does it really matter? If you don’t make it happen, Bunny, I’m going to.” I let my expression harden a bit.
He scratched the back of his head. “Well, if you agree to get your VR and GPS chips replaced, I could probably get that information.” When Jacky, Sam, Adam, and I immediately focused on him, he rolled his eyes. “Don’t be so suspicious, guys! NIX just wants to make sure they can keep track of you without going to ridiculous lengths, and all the other Players here have working VR chips. They run the classes with them, make announcements, all that stuff.”
I felt my shoulders relax just a little. That made sense. But it still didn’t mean I was going to agree to give NIX even more power over the team and me.
Jacky shrugged and returned to getting ready, while Sam relaxed with an easy smile, but Adam frowned and shook his head.
Zed hopped down from his bunk. “What about me? The boss lady said you were going to remove the Seed from me. How does that work?”
Bunny shrugged. “I have no idea. The scientists are working on something. They’ll let us know when they’ve got it figured out.”
I frowned. “How long is that going to take?”
“Not long, probably. Don’t worry,” he said, meeting my gaze. “NIX will take care of Zed. Commander Petralka knows how valuable you are.”
I wasn’t that worried. But staring into Bunny’s eyes, I realized that I couldn’t tell what color they were. That was weird, wasn’t it? I nodded, and he smiled, the skin around his eyes crinkling up in happiness.
* * *
Bunny took us first to the cafeteria for breakfast, where we garnered plenty of attention. Everyone knew who we were, apparently. Many had probably seen the pandemonium of our second invasion of NIX, and each had their own response. Some seemed afraid of me, and the power we had displayed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that response was in the minority. Most watched and waited to see what we would do, like predators waiting for our guard to drop. To be taken in by NIX, you had to be valuable. And above all, NIX seemed to value those of us with monstrous tendencies. I was no exception.
I sighed. It was definitely going to get annoying if everyone didn’t go back to minding their own business soon.
After we finished the gigantic and very uncomfortable meal, Kris and Gregor left to go to class, which apparently was being taught by remote schooling. I was surprised, because for some reason I hadn’t anticipated that NIX would ensure the kids’ continued education while holding them hostage against Blaine.
Blaine left with the kids, excited to spend time with the niece and nephew he’d been separated from for so long, and then to get his lab area set up while they were learning.
Just as Bunny was about to continue our introduction to NIX, some scientist approached and requested that Zed come with him for diagnostic testing.
“He’s not going anywhere with you alone,” I said automatically.
Bunny sighed loudly. “You are the one who asked for this, Eve. Relax, and let the man do his job.”
Zed looked uncertainly from the scientist to me, but left with him.
I watched him leave, feeling strange. Just as he was about to turn the corner, I crouched down, touching Birch on the flank. “Go after him. Make sure he’s safe,” I murmured.
Birch fluffed up and raced after my brother, his claws leaving little scratch marks on the floor.
Bunny shook his head, but only sighed. “Come on, guys. Let’s get you signed up for classes.” As we walked, he launched into a seemingly-rehearsed spiel. “NIX is very interested in helping our Players to develop and expand the utility of their Skills. With some experimentation and practice, you may find that you’re more versatile than you originally imagined, or that refinement of your control significantly increases your effectiveness.”
He turned to look at Sam. “NIX is particularly interested in helping you develop your Skill, you know. It’s rare that we find someone with the ability to heal others, and the juxtaposition between the restorative and destructive side of the coin is fascinating. To the scientists, you know. I heard them talking.”
Sam smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes, and he met my own gaze with wordless apprehension once Bunny had turned away. I knew Sam didn’t want to use the destructive half of his power any more than he absolutely had to. It was too easy to kill with. “I’d love to take some of the first aid or medic classes,” he said after a pause.
“Oh, definitely!” Bunny nodded. “Adam, your Skills are pretty interesting, too. Hyper Focus, Electric Sovereign, and Animus, right?”
Adam nodded silently, his fingers sparking with tiny little flashes as he rolled a coin between them.
“It’s a pretty eclectic mix. We’re hoping we’ll be able to help you integrate them and create some really powerful synergy.”
“We?” Adam said. “Do you still consider yourself part of NIX?”
Bunny rolled his eyes again. “You’re part of NIX now, too. God, why are you all so cynical? This is going to be an ordeal. Step one, remove stick from buttocks. Step two, sigh in relief.” He smiled at Adam in that infectious way.
Adam smiled back, though it was more like a smirk on him.
Jacky snorted and slapped Bunny on the back in approval. “Great advice. So, how’s NIX gonna help me get stronger?”
I shared a look of amusement with Adam at Bunny’s wince and stumble. Soon enough, Bunny would learn to brace himself when Jacky moved in his direction.
Bunny walked us around the circular, multi-leveled base, pointing out our classrooms, places we could go to spar mundanely or practice with our different types of powers, and places where we could go to review previous Player battles. “Players get a chance to contact relatives twice a month. Video chats are restricted to those with good behavior, so you guys won’t be having those for a while. But as soon as NIX is able to find and contact your families, who seem to have ‘relocated’ mysteriously, we’ll get you in contact with them. Wouldn’t want them to think you died!” He laughed, while those of us with relatives still outside NIX shared looks of unease.
We stopped by one of the empty observation rooms. One wall was a big screen, and there were multiple smaller cubicle stations with smartglass tabletops.
Bunny used his ID link to activate the wall display. The guards atop the wall and down below went from mostly still to kicked-anthill scrambling, in fast-forward. Then, a small figure appeared atop the wall, as if they’d leapt up, and began to attack.
“This is us,” I said. “You recorded us, from yesterday.”
“Of course. There are cameras everywhere, as I’m sure you know. But these rooms are mainly used for the Players to view the official mock battles. Your little rampant destruction spree was uploaded only because you haven’t participated in any of the battles yet, and I’m sure the others will be eager to analyze it.”
“What exactly are these mock battles?”
“Oh, you know. Just practice in military-style fights. In the Trials, you run willy-nilly for your lives, or so I hear. In the mock battles, you have objectives you have to complete, against an enemy that looks and thinks like you but is stronger than any of the normal human soldiers on Earth. We simulate protecting civilian groups or taking out enemy strongholds, that sort of thing. Based on your…‘wanton destruction,’ we probably won’t be having any Trials for a while, so this is going to be the main way for the Players here to gain Seeds, in addition to the occasional reward for exceptional performance in class.”
“So, we fight another group of Players for Seeds, and everybody else watches how we did, trying to figure out how to beat us next time?” Sam said, staring up at the screen, where I was now fighting the Player girl and getting tossed around.
“It shouldn’t be that hard,” a new voice said. “You’re not so special. I have no idea why Commander Petralka agreed to let idiotic traitors like you join.”
We turned to the Player standing in the door.
“We’re the elite,” he said. “You don’t belong here.” He stepped forward, and a group of other Players filtered into the room behind him, spreading out among the stations.
“Watch yourselves,” Bunny said sharply. Without his nonchalant irreverence, his innocuous veneer slipped away.
The Player who’d spoken looked away in an obvious display of submission and stayed silent.
“Let’s go,” I said. “I’ve seen enough here.”
As we left the room, I spread my awareness out just enough to keep track of anyone who might see our turned backs as a vulnerability. It irritated my head, and I was just about to reel it back in once we reached the hallway when I realized a bright spot of power was following us, and it wasn’t one of my team.
I turned my head and saw Bunny exit the room.
He shook his head in exasperation. “You Players are mostly idiots, as I’m sure you’re aware. Don’t take it too seriously. They’ll get over themselves in time, once you’re all properly integrated.”
I shrugged, keeping the expression from my face, and turned my head back to the front. “Where to now?”
Bunny started talking and moved to the front of the group to lead the way again, but I wasn’t paying attention.
I turned and caught Adam’s gaze out of the corner of my eye. I shook my head minutely.
He nodded, the motion almost undetectable.
—Bunny’s a Player.—
—I figured. Mind control, do you think?—
Turn your face toward the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.
— Citron Aodh
Adam and I discussed our suspicions through Windows so that neither Bunny nor anyone watching through the cameras at NIX would notice. The need for secrecy resulted in a useful discovery. Instead of body movement or verbal cues, I could use a focused enough thought to direct my VR chip.
I discovered this by accidentally wishing to close the Window Adam had sent to me. With a little more experimentation, I found I could mentally dictate and send him a message back, without ever moving my body or speaking a word. Of course, I shared this discovery, and from there it was easy to communicate without fear.
—Should we tell the others?—
I debated the question for a bit. They knew how to keep a secret, but if NIX was watching our every move, lack of knowledge about Bunny’s true nature would ensure they weren’t able to accidentally give anything away.
Adam’s mouth twitched in a subtle grimace, but he nodded.
I watched the back of Bunny’s unkempt head, my lips twitching as they attempted to pull back in a snarl. What good reason could Bunny have for hiding the fact that he was a Player? Or for manipulating our emotions? Any trust I’d ever had for him had evaporated quicker than rubbing alcohol. If I could just take him somewhere isolated… But no. If he just disappeared, NIX would notice. I couldn’t remove him unless I either had a really good way to hide my own involvement in his disappearance, or I no longer needed NIX’s goodwill.
We decided to keep a close eye on Bunny and his interactions with the others to make sure he wasn’t doing anything too nefarious. We would tell them if it became truly necessary.
The whole situation left me feeling like I had ants crawling up my spine, and only made me more desperate to regain control of everything being swept up by the winds of circumstance. I had to fix whatever was wrong with me, first. Then, I could work on the reason I’d agreed to join NIX in the first place. The creature below. With more information about it, and NIX, I’d be able to figure out what to do about Bunny.
We had some free time after the group gathered again for lunch since we weren’t yet integrated into the schedule of the rest of the Players. I left Adam to keep an eye out for the rest of the team, and grabbed Sam to come with me.
Birch stayed by Zed’s side, fluffing up and growling at any of the other Players or guards that came a little too close to my brother for the creature’s liking.
I led Sam out into the courtyard, where people milled around, repairing damage, examining the Shortcut, and guarding the compound and surrounding wall. We climbed up onto the top of the wall, where a guard moved as if to stop us, but stopped abruptly when he saw my face.
I listened carefully for monitoring devices and found them only on the uniforms of the guards, who kept their distance from us.
“What are we doing, Eve?” Sam asked. He looked over the side of the wall, then stepped back away from the open air.
“I need your help,” I said simply. “Follow me.” I walked until we were standing over the edge of the mountain, looking down on the crashing waterfall below. The sound would help disguise our voices, I hoped.
“Are you hurt, from yesterday?” he said. “I saw that you didn’t look so good, but I was so preoccupied…with everything…” He pressed his lips together for a moment, as if scolding himself. “I’m sorry. Where are you hurt?”
“I’m not sure, exactly,” I said. “Everywhere, I think.”
He laughed, then frowned in confusion when I didn’t join in. “Err…did you get really bruised up? You seem to be walking alright. Broken ribs or something? It could even be internal bleeding, with how you got tossed around.” He seemed to be worrying himself more and more with every word. “Eve, you really need to stop toughing these things out and just let me know when you need to be healed. That’s what I’m here for.” He reached forward and placed a hand on my forehead.
I watched his face carefully. What would he find?
His eyes went blank for a moment, and then he frowned. “What…” He grabbed my hand with his free one and frowned harder. “What’s going on, Eve? It’s like…”
“Like what? What do you…feel, or sense, or whatever?” Tension leaked into my voice.
“Something is hurting you, as we speak. It’s…everywhere. It’s almost like it’s trying to dissolve you, or eat you. Your body is trying to heal itself, but it can’t keep up. What happened, Eve?”
“I did something foolish,” I admitted. “But it had to be done.”
“What did you do?”
“I ate the Seed of a Goddess,” I said simply, knowing he would understand. He’d been there when I did it, after all. “She told me my body wouldn’t be enough to contain her power, but I thought I’d have more time. But…it’s getting pretty bad. It’s giving me nosebleeds quite often now, and when my emotions are heightened, I can feel it become agitated. It feels…almost alive, like a wild animal, or a storm that’s caged inside me. I’ve been putting the normal Seeds into Resilience and Life, and meditating to calm it and keep it caged, but that’s not enough on its own. I need you to help me stay ahead of it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“Because this is what’s keeping us safe. I didn’t want everyone to feel guilty about it, because we don’t have a lot of options. And I didn’t want NIX to know, because if they knew I wasn’t as strong or valuable as they thought, I wouldn’t be such a good bargaining chip. But people might start noticing something is wrong soon, and I can’t seem to get my healing factor up high enough to overcome it, so I need some help.”
Sam nodded soberly, and said, “I hope you know how stupid you are, Eve,” before closing his eyes and getting to work.
Seconds passed, then minutes, as his eyebrows furrowed together, and his skin grew pale. I waited to feel a difference, some feeling of relief, but nothing happened. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head silently, continuing to strain until tiny beads of sweat broke out atop his still-pale skin and his breath grew fast. Finally, he took his hands off me and stepped back. “I can’t,” he said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I can’t fix it. My Skill just glances off. I can tell you’re hurt, but I can’t get ahold of the injury to pull it into myself.” He shook his head desperately, as if denying the truth of his own words.
“Oh,” I said, my voice almost swallowed by the wind. “Well, now I’m really worried.”
* * *
The next couple days were stressful, to say the least. I asked Sam to keep my condition a secret from the rest of the team, at least until I could come up with a solution of some sort, and he acquiesced, but made me promise I would let him help if he could be useful.
Sam volunteered his services to other Players who got injured in one way or another, which seemed to both reassure him that he could still heal, and to make him more anxious and motivated to keep doing it. I figured it must have been difficult not to be able to heal Chanelle or me.
The Player members of our team, even Zed, started attending classes. Zed had a lighter load of “Player” classes than the rest of us, since he only had the one Seed and no Skills, and spent the rest of his school day with the kiddos, working on his own normal education.
I spent most of the next few days acclimating to classes and trying to perform well enough to earn some Seeds, while any free time was spent meditating and worrying about the Seed of Chaos’ effects. I spread my awareness around the base when I had the chance, but I had yet to be able to reach far enough to observe the alien, though I was aware of its location below me at all times, as if it was a beacon.
The scientists came up with a way to remove Zed’s Seed, and I carefully controlled my worry around Bunny, but convinced Blaine to come observe the first removal session and make sure everything was okay.
When I arrived in the observation room, Blaine was already sitting in front of the observation window, half paying attention to the scientists below. I used my link to turn on the speakers in the room, playing some loud classical music. NIX was no doubt already frustrated by my insistence on privacy for my private conversations.
Birch pressed his ears back at the noise, his tail flicking back and forth in irritation.
Blaine didn’t look up from his tablet as I took a seat beside him, but I was used to that. After a few moments, he spoke casually, as if we’d been talking for hours. “I have made some progress on the diagnosis, but none on a cure. I am not sure there is a cure, to be candid. This may be like amnesia, or memory loss. Something we can only hope that the body fixes on its own.”
I knew he was talking about Chanelle. “What have you learned about what’s wrong with her?”
“The files which Bunny,” he said the name with badly hidden irritation, “got for me about what happened to her were redacted. Heavily. Apparently, my clearance level is not high enough to be privy to whatever experiments they were doing. I am going to be speaking directly to the scientists in that research department in the attempt to get more information. For the time being, most of what I know, I have discovered through my own research. Meningolycanosis affects the brain. However, I am not certain that is the entirety of what was done to her. The symptoms suggest that she was infected with something slightly different to the samples I was given to work on, or that in a human host, it interacts complexly with the body. Perhaps even both. Whatever she had seems to have affected her like an advanced, mutated cousin to the rabies virus.”
“What does that mean? Are you saying the serum you made to cure her didn’t work?”
Birch pressed himself against the cool floor, a small whine escaping him in response to the tone of my voice.
“No, it worked. For the most part. But the damage was already done. In the samples I studied along with your blood, the Seed organisms seemed unable to recognize the meningolycanosis, and it did not attack them and thus draw attention to itself. However, samples I got from Chanelle show an almost nonexistent number of Seed organisms. Much less than I originally estimated, based on China. It seems that somehow, they were all destroyed. It was as if they were a bacteria subject to high doses of antibiotics. Without more knowledge of the timeline of what she was given, and access to research materials, I cannot be sure. Perhaps the upgraded meningolycanosis began to attack the Seed organisms, and in doing so revealed itself for counterattack, and they wiped each other out. Perhaps the anti-meningolycanosis serum I administered allowed the last of her remaining Seeds to remove the meningolycanosis, but not in time to stop their own eradication. Both the meningolycanosis and most of her Seeds are gone. How, I do not know.
“Worrying as that may be, it is secondary to the extensive brain damage. Strangely, it has left her gross motor skills intact, and she seems to be able to understand basic instructions well enough to feed herself and carry out other rudimentary functions. It is also quite a conundrum why Sam is unable to heal her. So far, this is the only ailment I have encountered that seems to elude him, except for perhaps amputated limbs and the like.”
I knew that wasn’t quite true. “Blaine,” I said, turning to the man whose kind features sometimes hid behind his glasses and his focus on whatever fascinating thing he was working on at the moment. “Do you remember examining samples from me, after we got back from our last stay on Estreyer?”
“Did you notice anything unusual about them?”
“More unusual than the two different types of Seed material mixing around within you? More unusual than the subtle ways it has been augmenting your body?”
“I’m talking about the fact that the new Seed is trying to eat me alive,” I said.
Blaine hesitated, frowned, and shook his head. “I did not have much time to do an extended observation of those samples, as you know. And I did not bring any of them here. When you say, ‘eat you alive,’ what exactly do you mean?”
“That’s what Sam said it seemed to be doing. And he can’t heal me, either.”
Zed finally entered the room below, and I turned my attention from Blaine to wave at my brother.
Zed waved back, but I could tell the joking smile on his face wasn’t quite natural. A scientist motioned him onto an obviously high-tech examination table, which cocooned him in glass and began to display diagnostic diagrams and numbers all over the surface. The display was gibberish to me, but the scientists down below gathered around avidly, tapping away on the arched smartglass of the examination table and their own tablets.
Blaine watched them, explaining what they were doing and the readings the table was giving.
After a while, Zed got off the table and drank something green, gagging a few times and screwing up his face into an exaggerated grimace with each swallow.
When I used the mic in the observation room to grill them about it, the scientists assured Blaine and I the liquid was almost perfectly harmless, as long as they completed the rest of the procedure, and didn’t stress Zed’s liver and kidneys by having him drink it too often. Blaine seemed to believe them, and I was mollified.
Zed said something that made some of the scientists laugh, but I noticed that he didn’t look up at me very often, and held himself too still. He was uncomfortable.
They pierced his arm and hooked him up to a machine that began to pull his blood out through a tube, presumably filtering it somewhere within before returning it to his body. After a while, he relaxed and sent me a thumbs up.
When I was assured enough he wasn’t being harmed, I settled back again. “Maybe Sam can’t heal certain things from Estreyer,” I said to Blaine. “Or maybe there is some other sort of restriction on his ability that we just haven’t come across until now.”
“Perhaps.” Blaine looked up from the simulations he’d begun running on his smartglass tablet, the worry on his face an obvious contrast to the unaffected tone of his voice and his academic language. “I do not know what to do, or how to help either of you,” he said. “My specialty is science and engineering, not medicine. And I will assume that you do not want to bring the medics of NIX into this.” He paused, and added in a low voice, strangely intense, “I would advise against it.”
“Of course. I don’t trust them. At all. But…maybe the solution is simple. If the meningolycanosis killed off Chanelle’s Seeds…maybe she just needs more? You’ve stopped the meningolycanosis, so it can’t keep destroying them, and the Seeds do a pretty good job of healing. Maybe even for things like the brain. NIX might have some research on that, if you could access it. I don’t know if we’d be able to focus the Seeds into healing specifically if we’re planting them in her body for her, but it’d probably do something, don’t you think? I’ve been using them myself, and Sam said it is working, but just not fast enough. If we could get a significant amount, maybe it could boost my regenerative growth level above the corrosive level of the Seed. Both would keep growing stronger, but as long as my Resilience and Life stayed higher than Chaos’ strength, I’d be okay.”
Blaine’s face brightened and his eyes unfocused from my face. “Perhaps, perhaps. Like compound interest. I would rather not duplicate the circumstances of Chanelle’s situation in another living creature for testing, but…” He sobered. “But I do not have access to Seed material, despite the fact that I work here now. Access to Seeds is very restricted, and I have actually already been denied my first request. I had a small sample back at my home laboratory, but that would not be enough to make a difference, and even that is out of our reach at the moment.”
“Well,” I said, watching Zed down below as the cleaned blood filtered back into his body, “I will just have to find a way.”
* * *
A couple days later, the team was entered into our first mock battle. The battles were announced every two or three days during breakfast, and after the announcement, teams had barely enough time to prepare and move to the arena before the battle started.
I’d been shoveling food into my mouth, because if I didn’t eat enough, I knew I’d be starving well before the second meal period of the day. Adam had calculated, with his signature snark, that I ate my own weight in food about once every week. I maintained that I was just going through a growth spurt, but in truth, I worried that my body was trying to compensate somehow for the energy it expended fighting Chaos.
“Eve, you eat so much,” Jacky said, smirking as she took a bite of the turkey leg held in her fist. “How often do you poop?”
Zed, Kris, and Gregor almost spit out their food with sudden laughter, while Sam stared at her in horror. The others were too busy talking at the other end of the table to pay attention.
Zed gave Jacky’s turkey leg a high-five with his own, which somehow devolved into “sword” fighting, and meat flying everywhere.
Birch perked up and took a flying leap for one of the pieces, flapping his wings futilely as he snatched it from the air.
Kris looked at me under her lashes, as if worried that I’d seen her laugh and would be offended.
Gregor cleared his throat, smoothed his face, and pretended he’d never laughed in the first place.
I grinned, and Kris smiled tentatively back, then returned to making a snowman out of mashed potatoes and vegetables, while I resisted the urge to reach over and ruffle Gregor’s hair. I knew he hated that, but sometimes he was so cute!
Then, the large screens cut into the walls lit up with the battle announcements.
Like creepy puppets all under the same master’s fingers, almost every head in the room turned to look at the screens at the same time. The faces of my nine team members lined up beneath mine on one of the screens, number score and a ranking next to each of us. NIX tracked all its Players, both within its walls and out in the real world, giving them points for their actions. Like Commander Petralka had said, I had one of the highest scores ever for a Player entering NIX.
That was nothing compared to the scores of the highest ranked Players, who’d been a part of NIX for far longer.
“They’re ranked twelve places above us,” Sam murmured. “And it’s a full squad! How are we supposed to fight a full squad?”
Now that I technically had ten people on the team, we were considered a squad. Which was a nasty bit of payback on Petralka’s part. When she had agreed to my demands that Blaine, his family, Chanelle, Zed, and Bunny be under my protection, she’d done so by putting them on my team. Even though none of them were fighters, and half of them weren’t even Players, my command level was still bumped up to squad leader. Which meant we’d be matched up against other full squads.
I turned my attention to the other side of the wall, where a screen showed the faces of our opponents, Squad Ridley, along with their ranking. Shit. Vaughn Ridley led a squad here? “The ranking isn’t always indicative of real strength,” I said weakly. It was no comfort. Vaughn had shown me how vicious he was in the Characteristic Trial, and I knew there was no way he’d lead a team any less driven or dangerous. Just alone, he had almost as many Skills as my entire team.
Adam shared a glance with Sam, then turned to me incredulously. “Eve.” He drew a breath. “Over half of our members aren’t fighters. Don’t tell me you expect them,” he gestured to the non-Players at our table, “to fight them.” He pointed across the cafeteria, where our opponents were stamping their feet and shouting.
Zed scowled, clenching his fork so hard his knuckles turned white. “We can still help, Eve. Just because we don’t have Skills and aren’t superhumanly powerful doesn’t mean we’re useless. The battles apply technology, too. I can use an air-burst gun just as well as you, or fly one of the airpods, or even act as a decoy for one of you to come in and surprise attack them.”
I bit the inside of my lip as I watched Squad Ridley jog off through one of the side doors of the cafeteria, moving in formation. “Let’s go. We don’t have much time,” I said.
We moved out, our ragtag bunch not moving in anything close to formation. We had children on the squad, and a girl in an unresponsive stupor, so any attempts to look cool and competent were doomed from the start.
Luckily, Bunny knew exactly where our side’s battle prep room was, and he led us there, explaining the rules between puffs of air as we jogged. “If we win,” he said, “we’ll each get twelve Seeds for defeating a squad ranked twelve higher than us, plus the normal five Seeds for winning. If we lose, but impress the Moderators, we still might get a few Seeds on an individual basis.” He stopped talking to breathe for a few moments. “The prep room will have weapons or supplies that we can take, but I don’t expect there to be anything really good, since they stock it depending on overall team rank.”
“What?” I gritted out. “So, for our first battle, we take six non-combatants into a fight against a full squad, twelve levels higher than us, and they’re going to nerf our supplies to match our average rank? Which includes the ranks of our non-Players?”
Bunny let out a little coughing laugh, his gasps for breath reminding me of my own first quests to exercise. Despite the situation, I felt a bit of vindictive satisfaction, since he’d been the one to give me those quests. “Don’t be so surprised, Eve. Commander Petralka needs to save some face, and regain a bit of authority. Plus, she’s probably,” he coughed again, “angry at you. For all that…” He coughed again and apparently gave up on finishing his sentence.
Adam shared a look with me, his mouth tightened into a grimace. “This does feel very…personal.”
Our prep room had a few grated shelves of weapons and supplies, a lot of empty space filled only with an old model airpod large enough to squeeze twenty or thirty people in a pinch, and a small screen on the wall with the battle’s objective.
Bunny went straight to the screen and began to read, while the rest of us moved toward the supply racks. There were ten thin bodysuits that went over the top of our standard issue bodysuits, which were meant to evaluate when a Player had taken too much damage and was considered “dead.” One for each of us, and sized perfectly for our bodies. The bodysuit would also alert medics to come save someone if they needed it. If someone wasn’t critically injured, it worked the same way as the electrical immobilizers NIX had used on me when they injected me with my first Seed, and stopped you from moving.
The weapons were mostly nerfed, meant to interact with the monitoring suit to simulate damage and shut down mobility rather than actually harm. Killing the other Players in the mock battles was heavily frowned upon, and apparently resulted in a loss of all Seeds that would have been earned during the battle, but it did happen, since some Skills were more destructive than others. I bet it also happened when someone held enough of a grudge against someone else that they were willing to give up on the Seeds for the chance to kill them.
“The objective is to protect a group of civilians that have hidden about a third of the way into the arena, and evacuate them safely,” Bunny yelled. “It’s simulating some high priority targets mixed in with the civilian group. Scientists and politicians. It doesn’t say what the other team’s objective is, but based on ours, it’s almost certainly to wipe out the civilian population, and probably to ‘dispatch’ our team as well.”
“How much time left?” I shouted.
I grabbed one of the airburst-round guns, and hooked it onto the utility belt at my waist, along with plenty of extra ammo.
Beside me, Zed did the same with competent efficiency and a tight expression.
I didn’t try to stop him, though seeing him suiting up for battle made my stomach clench.
“No!” Blaine’s voice rang out, sharp enough to draw my attention.
Gregor scowled up at him, holding tightly with both hands to a gun of his own. “I’m not going in there without a weapon. I don’t trust you or any of these other idiots to be able to protect me!”
Kris shifted from foot to foot, looking between her brother and her uncle. “I want one, too. We don’t have to be a burden to everyone else. If we’re attacked, at least we’ll be able to defend ourselves.” She turned to me, a pleading look on her face.
Gregor stomped toward me, still holding the gun. “I can have this, right?”
I looked up at Blaine, who was staring at me wordlessly, his expression mixed between pain, anger, and resignation. “It’s best if they can help defend themselves,” I said to him before turning back to them. “I’m not going to send you into battle, but if one of them comes after you, don’t go down without a fight.”
Blaine didn’t say anything, just turned away and latched a large shield onto his arm, which clamped on and then contracted down to the size of a bulky armguard.
Sam was loading up with medical supplies and a couple shields of his own, while Jacky fitted what looked like gauntlets onto herself, and Adam filled his utility belt with ink cartridges and electrical cells, which had been provided specifically for him.
“Bunny!” I called. “Come grab a gun and a shield, at least. We’re running out of time.”
“Oh, I was thinking I’d just…” He caught sight of my scowl. “Okay, okay. Battle gear it is.”
I turned to Chanelle and helped her dress in the top layer bodysuit, then strapped a light pack onto her back and filled it with ammo and first aid supplies, just in case.
Birch yowled scratchily up at me, drawing attention to himself for the first time since the announcement had gone off. He reached up with his forepaws toward one of the smaller packs and yowled again.
With a tiny smile that left almost as quickly as it had appeared, I grabbed the pack and helped him strap it on tightly enough to fit securely, and tossed the few remaining grenade rounds in, along with some random supplies that I’d learned through experience might come in useful, and wouldn’t weigh his small body down too much.
Adam tossed the rest of the guns into the airpod and started it up. We all jumped in with only seconds to spare before the hangar door on the wall opened onto a war-torn cityscape.