The walls shook, causing all thought to flee from her mind. She struggled to her feet, only to the floor shift beneath her feet, sending her crashing to the ground again. Pain flared from her shoulder and she cried out, the sound immediately drowned by an explosion. Mortar and dust filled the room and she heard the walls or ceiling crack.
“Help!” she shouted and found the effort of calling out painful as well. When she sucked in breath, she coughed, gagging on the dust and another, courser vapor that quickly filled the room. The room plunged into complete darkness and she screamed for help again and again.
She didn’t know how long she lay there in the dark, screaming and gasping and coughing, but in time hands touched her. They pressed gently against her throat and she heard muffled voices, barely understood. Those hands turned her over and she saw faces, horrid faces of metal and plastic with large, black eyes and round canisters that made a metallic sucking sound.
Then one of them removed his face, revealing a boy’s face. He leaned close to her, bright, focused light illuminating him from the side. She saw large, dark eyes and shaggy, dark hair that was matted with sweat and something else. He spoke and she recognized him as the boy she’d seen in her room before. The memory felt like a lifetime ago.
“We’re being attacked, put this on!” he said and then hands were handling her again, pulling her to a seated position. Something rubbery and cold was shoved over her head and even the bright light dimmed. Then, quite suddenly, she could see. The room became washed in pale, green light and there was a low hum in her ears. Every time she took a breath, it was accompanied by that metallic sucking sound.
The mask, helmet, or whatever it was tightened on her head and she was pulled to her feet. The boy wrapped his arm around her waist and took her own arm around his shoulder. He wasn’t wearing a mask anymore but followed the others out of a gaping hole in the wall without missing a step.
“Where are we going! What is going on!” she shouted, but her voice sounded tinny and distant. No one answered her. She passed through room after room, each one looking similar to the one she’d woken up in, only some with more beds or other blocky shapes she couldn’t distinguish. Desks or perhaps dressing stations.
Every so often bright lights flashed by in the distant, white and yellow and red, like lines of light flaring briefly to life before dying away again moments later. They passed groundlings lying on the ground, some with caved skulls while others had great lacerations and punctures through their bodies. In time, Aderyn put together that they were wounds made by ether-lances and ether-blades. The look was too similar to what she’d seen in vids about Wars.
“Be glad you aren’t going little sister,” Kendrick told her once when she was sullen about being left behind. “War is a stupid, messy business that serves no purpose beyond the ending of an equally messy argument.”
Kendrick is dead, she thought, the image of his exploded body pushing its way into her mind. And the argument goes on.
And then they were outside and Aderyn saw the star-filled sky dominated by the gas giant of Querra, its great red mass turned green by the mask. Mountains rose on all sides of her, great daggers of darkness that seemed all too much like teeth, swallowing them as they pushed into a forest’s edge.
Her legs gave out soon after and she fell, catching herself at the last moment with one arm that twisted painfully beneath her. She ripped the mask from her face, feeling suffocated it. The air that greeted her was cold and fresh and good. She breathed it in deeply.
The boy was at her side, a hand gentle on her arm. “We need to keep going, just a little further.”
“Leave the little spit!” another voice called, female. “Let them have her!”
“She’s one of us,” the boy called. “You saw her back! There’s no Tell!”
“Mara’s blood,” the female voice said, and Aderyn saw a tall shadow come to her side and she was pulled roughly to her knees. The pain in her shoulder flared and she screamed. A hand struck her across the cheek. “Shut up!”
“Leave off!” the boy shouted and shoved the other woman back. He took Aderyn’s hand in one of his and then used his shoulder to gently guide her to her feet again. “Don’t make me remind you where you came from, Ksenia!”
“Sure nowhere as soft as this spitting kitten.”
“Can you move?” the boy said, and Aderyn realized he was talking to her. She nodded, her head swimming and she suddenly felt sick. “Wait… no…” she said and heaved, the meager contents in her stomach splashing against the grass at her feet. She tasted nothing but water and bile.
“Come on,” he said. “You can do it, just a little further.”
“Yes,” she said, leaning against him. “Yes, all right.”
She didn’t know how long they moved through the forest, but she eventually became aware that they were not alone. She counted nearly twenty or thirty groundlings tread through the wood with them. In the distance she heard something else, something she knew instantly.
“Steeds,” she whispered. “And… and a ship…”
“Just a little further,” the boy said, his voice unsteady. “Just keep going.”
A high-pitched whine filled her ears and the woods exploded with light. She covered her eyes with an arm and she heard shouts of pain and surprise spring up all around her. A horrible wind kicked up, blowing her hair in every direction and making a roar in her ears. A ship, she thought. There’s a ship.
The boy grabbed her and pressed her into the wet grass just as a steed ripped past her head, the rider igniting his ether-blade as he turned the vehicle around. The boy pulled something off his hip. It looked like metal and plastic and glowed in places. His hands gripped it around the back and a finger squeezed tightly just before a beam of white-hot ether energy shot out from its tip. The beam appeared, connecting the device and the knight aboard his steed for a heartbeat, then it was gone and the knight was thrown backward off the his vehicle, screaming.
“Don’t have too many of those left, come on!” he said and took Aderyn’s hand again. She was too stunned, too shaken by what she’d seen to do anything but follow. They ran without a direction, crossing back and forth, hiding briefly before moving again. Aderyn quickly lost track of where they were, of which direction was forward or back. Above all she was tired, weary to the point of collapse when the boy finally pulled her into a dark hole in the ground.
He urged her into it first, following after and pulling down a screen of leaves and grass. Aderyn wasn’t sure how far down the whole was, being on an angle but she didn’t ask any questions. Instead she curled up and pressed her face into the ground, mud and dirt smearing across her cheek and forehead. She wanted to weep, to cry out in anguish and fear but instead she shook in silence.