“It’s not working.” Torig threw his hands up in disgust and stepped back from an obsidian, rectangular table that sat in the middle of the spacious living room. On the table was his brother’s latest invention—a mesmerizing game in which virtual warriors charged across a battlefield, slaughtering Illyrians with every move.
“What’s not working brother?” Malis, his older brother by a mere ten seconds, turned from an oblong window in their home, the immense Idaza Tower.
“Your stupid holo-game!” Torig slammed a fist onto the table. “I can’t get past the next level. You must have programmed it wrong.” He dropped back into his comfortable couch with a huff, folding his pudgy arms across his bulbous stomach.
“Torig,” Malis slithered over to the table and picked up the game control—a glowing black sphere that was controlled by the player’s thoughts— “you do know I designed this holo-game so the kids in Ru’ahal will waste their lives, right? If they’re busy playing holo-games, they won’t realize how I’m manipulating their minds, making them want more and more virtual fun and causing them to forget about the possibilities that real life offers. Unlike the Illyrians, thanks to my flood of entertainment options, they’ll have no time to think about ridiculous notions of freedom and, worst of all,” he spat on the floor, “God.”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” Torig glared at him. “Of course I know that!”
“Then why are you playing it?”
“Because it’s so good!” Torig grabbed the control from his brother. “Shooting and killing, hacking people to shreds—ha!” He threw back his head with a cackle as his three-dimensional avatar darted forward and chopped a virtual Illyrian to shreds. “I love it!”
“You see, this is the problem with you Torig.” Malis glided to the end of the table. “You never get off your bum. That’s why it’s so big.” He put his finger against a red reset button. “Here, let me help you disconnect.”
Torig’s eyes widened as he realized what his brother was about to do. “N-no. Don’t! D-don’t, no, no…”
An evil grin split Malis’s face. “Say goodbye… brother.” And with that, he pushed the button.
With a depressing peow the holo-game disappeared, taking a full week of Torig’s life with it.
And then Torig got out of his chair.
He didn’t just get out, he jumped out. And in one smooth motion, he hurled all four hundred seventy-two pounds of his flabby frame onto the leering, snake of a man that called itself his brother.
Crash! Malis disappeared like a haystack in a hurricane.
“Do you know what you’ve done!” Torig slammed his hammy fist into his stomach.
“Oof!” Malis’s breath left his lungs in a burst.
“You just reset one week… of my… life!” Torig punctuated each word with another blow. This was the good part about being obese. Once he managed to get his bulk on top of his victim, no one was going anywhere.
Malis’s arms and legs flailed about like an upside-down ladybug throwing a tantrum. “Off… get… off!” His voice was a croak. “Can’t b-breathe.”
He froze, fist in mid-swing, as the commanding voice of their eldest brother, Santus, sliced through the air like a sword. “Y-yes?”
“Get off him.”
Hesitantly, Torig turned to see Santus standing behind him, the permanent frown that creased his brow more noticeable than ever. They were triplets, but the three brothers couldn’t be more different. Malis was tall and thin while he, Torig, was short and fat. Santus had the build of a god. Malis had brains and good looks while he had… well nothing.
Santus wore a black, sleeveless tunic, whose fringes were trimmed with the same shade of blue as their eyes. He was called Santus the Strong, and the reason for his name rippled about each time he flexed his arms.
Life just isn’t fair. Torig groaned as he tried, unsuccessfully, to roll himself off his brother. By this time, Malis’s face was turning purple.
“I can’t move.” Torig glanced at Santus again. “Help?”
With a disgusted groan, Santus put his foot against his brother’s back and pushed—hard.
“Wooaah.” Torig rolled twice to one side, then stopped. After a brief struggle, he managed to push himself to his feet.
“Thank you. Thank… you.” Malis gasped for breath, croaking out the words. “Thought I was… going to… die!”
“You two idiots would have died long ago if it wasn’t for me.” Santus glared down at both of them then reached out and jerked Malis upright.
“He started it.” Both brothers spoke at once, thrusting a finger in the other’s face.
“I did not!” Torig shook a fist. “You sabotaged my holo-game.”
“You were about to break it. In fact—”
“Enough!” Santus’s roar shook a painting off the wall. “This is the behavior of children not seven-hundred year old men! Sometimes I find it hard to believe that we were all born at the same time.”
“Technically, brother, we weren’t.” Malis held up his index finger. “I’m a solid minute older than Torig the Tubby.”
“Oh, shut up.” Santus pivoted and stormed to the window. “When our parents died, at the hands of the Illyrians, they left me in charge. I swore to them that I would make the Illyrians pay. I promised that I would make all of Britannia bow to us.” He clenched a fist as he glared out at the city below. “I have kept that vow.”
Malis and Torig exchanged an uneasy glance their quarrel, for the moment, forgotten. They moved to stand beside Santus and gazed out of the panes of glass. Their home was the Idaza Tower—a massive, glistening structure made of white marble that stood like a sentinel, five hundred feet above the sprawling city of Ru’ahal.
“Look brothers.” Santus’s voice rumbled over them. “Thousands of Britannians bustle about the city’s busy streets despite the night.” He looked up as one of hundreds of circular drones hummed by, sending a shaft of white light on the city’s inhabitants below. “Through science we have conquered nature itself. Our drones protect us from Illyrian invasion, turn night into day, and let us hear every conversation within the city walls.”
“We are gods.” Malis’s mouth curved in a crooked smile. The drones had been his idea.
“Yes,” Torig agreed. “Whatever we want we get. That’s a good thing. Especially when we want food.”
“We only get what we want because we control the people’s minds. If we lose control of that we are finished! Only by working together can we hope to remain in power. We are a trinity, a three-fold rope that must not be broken.” Santus jerked his hand downward in a chopping motion. “We have defeated old age and soon, we will conquer death itself.”
Torig scratched his bald head. “But the Illyrians say no one can defeat death. They claim that their god, Elyon, will never permit it.”
“Ah, the gullible Illyrians. Ever the thorn in our side.” Santus pulled a dagger from his belt and twirled it around between his fingers. His blue eyes glinted beneath hooded eyebrows and black eyelashes. “I received a report from a patrol that an Old Blood was found today.”
Malis stared at him. “An… Old Blood?”
“He was with an Illyrian, a girl.”
“Well,” Torig shrugged, making his belly jiggle, “where are they?”
“The patrol lost them somewhere in the Southern forest. I’ve dispatched some of our Ravens. Those robotic birds will track them from the air and bring them back to us.”
“But how did he get here? When did he arrive?” Malis fired the questions like energy bolts from a fusilli. “And why was he with an Illyrian of all people?”
“I don’t know.” Santus held up a firm hand. “But believe me, we’ll find out.”
Torig spoke next. “Will you kill the him when we find him?”
“That would be a mistake.” Malis stroked his thin, beardless face. “I should take him to my lab and dissect him. Just think of what we could learn about the ancient world by cutting him into tiny, little pieces!”
Santus shook his head. “You’re both wrong. This Old Blood needs to be sent back home.”
They gaped at him, mouths open like fish on a spit.
Torig recovered first. “W-why?”
“Because if we kill this Old Blood, all the Illyrians will rise as one to avenge him. You know they’ve been massing an army in the North. We’re not yet strong enough for an all-out battle.”
“Why not just keep him a prisoner?” Malis began to pace. “You know the prophecy.”
“Prophecy!” Santus threw back his head with a snort. “Do you believe in the fables of old men?” He clamped both hands on his hips. “We are men of science, of learning! Our only threat is the Illyrian army in the North. If we keep him prisoner, they will find out and will attack us in full force. We cannot take that risk.”
Malis gave a slow nod. “So… you’ll just, send him home?”
“Yes.” Santus tapped the knife’s sharp edge against his palm. “You, Malis, will welcome him. Impress him. And then send him on his merry little way. Hopefully, he will not return.”
“And if he does?” Torig didn’t like the sense of unease that swirled about in his belly.
Santus grinned and tapped the knife against his palm. “If he returns then blood will flow.”
Kit staggered ahead, muttering under his breath. “Thousand year old men, mind control—ha!” He glanced over his shoulder to where Elira stood beneath the tree-line. He could barely see her anymore because of the growing darkness, but he knew she was there. Waiting. Hoping against hope that he would change his mind and come with her on her suicidal mission.
“I’m sorry.” He yelled the words, hoping she would believe him. “But I don’t want to die. Besides, this whole thing… it’s just too impossible to be real. It’s a nightmare.”
Nothing but the sound of distant waves reached his ears. Whirling around, he resumed his trek toward the solitary peak in the distance where his ticket home waited.
“She wouldn’t understand.” How could she? Elira had no idea how different their two worlds were. In fact, Kit wasn’t sure that this wasn’t all some elaborate dream. “There’s only one thing way of getting out of this mess.”
If he could get to the top of the hill without being spotted by any of those ridiculous horsemen or their killer horses, maybe he could find the red button that had brought him here in the first place. Since it brought him to Britannia—or whatever Elira had called—maybe it would take him back home.
Right. Where Nick and his gang can turn me into a human punching bag.
Moonlight spilled in patches on the ground and Kit shivered as his socks squelched on the moist, muddy soil. Thoughts milled about in his head, confusing thoughts. What if Elira was right? What if he somehow was supposed to be here for some reason he couldn’t understand?
“But that’s impo—”
A raucous screech from above brought him to a skidding halt. Kit froze then slowly, tilted his head backward just in time to see an enormous bird, the color of midnight, come swooping down from the moonlit sky. Its outstretched claws, black and cruel, snagged in his curly hair, whipping his whole body an inch off the ground.
“Ow!” Pain jolted him into action. Kit swung a fist that connected with the bird’s leg. Metal? The bird screeched again and opened its claws, releasing him.
Kit fell. His feet slammed onto the ground. He rolled, curling into a small ball. “Metal horses, metal birds. What’s next?”
Screek! The sound came from his right, and he timidly opened one eye. “Oi!” The glaring eye of another raven was pressed right against his own. Kit threw himself backward, scrambling in the dirt to get away from the predator.
But there was no escape.
About a dozen of them swooped about, some in the air and others on the ground. Their beady, red eyes focused in on him as though deciding if he was too scrawny to eat.
“Oy, clear off!” Kit staggered to his feet, clutching a rock in his fist. He launched it at the closest bird who easily deflected it with its left wing. At that moment, something hooked into his hair again. Claws scratched at his forehead as the bird got a firm grip. Two others wrapped their claws around both his flailing arms.
“Oh, not again.” Pain lanced through him as his feet left the ground. “I’m bird bait.”
“Is he here?” Malis rubbed his thin hands together in anticipation as he glanced at each of his two brothers.
“I don’t understand why you’re so happy about this Malis,” Torig yawned and scratched his armpit. “You know this Old Blood is out to kill us.”
“We don’t know that, you jellyfish.” Santus glared at him. “If he was, I would have slit his throat the moment the Ravens brought him in.”
“Well,” Malis bared his crooked teeth in a grin, “I’m just glad you’re letting me talk with him before you send him back. I am the brains of this little entourage after all.”
“Oh, do shut up Malis.” Torig plopped into a sofa and pressed a button. “You’re nothing of the kind.” A blue light spread over the plush leather cloth and the couch began to massage Torig’s plump back.
“Um… excuse me but, who invented the chair you’re sitting in?” Malis arched an eyebrow.
Torig frowned as he concentrated. “Uh, you?”
“And the drones?” Malis tapped his temple, waiting for the obvious answer. “And the Ravens?”
“And the Hunters?”
“Alright Malis, we get your point.” Santus fondled the gleaming edge of a knife. “Now if you’re done preening, here are your orders. You’ve got ten minutes to convince him to leave. In the next room we have a hundred Hunters, ready to rip him to shreds. If he so much as looks at you crosswise, just yell.”
“As long as I’ve got my wits, I’m safe. Brains will trump brawn any day, brothers.” Malis slanted them both a smug smile. “Never forget that.”
Then, with a disdainful sniff, he gathered his black robes about his thin body and stepped through the door.
Kit was sure his eyes were going to jump out of his sockets. He stared as a bald, eel-thin man dressed in a black robe with a bizarre assortment of blue symbols moved toward him, gliding a foot above the ground. Apparently he was pushed along by some sort of pulsing, blue energy that spread out in shimmering waves beneath his black boots. He was at least six feet tall and, the closer he came, the more Kit wanted to run. For, as sure as his name was Kit Benedict, this man was evil.
“Anti-gravity propulsion.” The airborne giant pointed at his feet then pressed a button on his belt. “Something I concocted in my spare time.” He slowly landed on the ground.
“Y-you were just walking in the air.” Kit stared at him, unblinking. “Did you just really do that or is this nightmare getting even stranger?”
“Oh this is no nightmare. This is all very… very real.” He shot a wolfish smile in Kit’s direction then dipped his head in a slight bow. “I’m Lord Malis, by the way. What’s your name?”
“K-Kit. Kit Benedict.”
“Ah, yes. The ancients did have the
bizarre habit of giving each other at least two names. As if one wasn’t
enough.” Malis leaned forward, his dark eyes glinting. “Well. tell me, Kitty, would
you like to go home?”
“It’s Kit not kitty. And yes, I would like to go home. Why did your birds grab me at all? I didn’t do anything wrong.” His head ached from the rough flight. Trickles of blood oozed out of the scratches the birds’ metallic claws had made on his head and arms.
“So sorry for the mix-up.” Malis sounded anything but sincere. “You see, you’re the first Old Blood I’ve ever seen. Naturally, I wanted to meet you.”
“How do you know about my blood?”
Malis narrowed his eyes. “Believe me Kit, my brothers and I know everything that happens in Britannia. We are The Three. Indestructible. Invincible. Soon-to-be immortal.”
Kit’s blood turned to ice. Before him stood one of the scientists that, according to Elira, had made slaves of everyone on the continent except the Illyrians. This man was to blame for her father’s death!
“What is it?” Malis scratched his chin with a long fingernail, observing him carefully. “Cat got your tongue… Kitty?”
“N-no, it’s, um, nothing.” Kit didn’t dare to correct him a second time.
“One question. How on earth did you get here?”
Kit hesitated. Every instinct urged him not to talk about the bog into which he had fallen or the red switch on the hill. “I… I don’t know.” He shrugged. It was true, he realized. He really didn’t know how he got here or even if he could get back without help.
“You don’t know?” Malis narrowed his eyes, as though trying to see into Kit’s soul. “Do you honestly expect me to believe that you just, what, woke up a thousand years in earth’s future?”
“But that’s what happened.” Kit nodded eagerly. “I was in the woods. I fell and boom I woke up here.”
“I see.” Malis looked as though he was about to ask another question, but Kit didn’t give him the chance.
“I’d like to leave, please.” He licked his lips. “Now, if you don’t mind.”
Malis sighed. “A pity. I’d love the chance to study you, to dissect you into tiny pieces and see what kind of power is in your blood. What scientific progress could be made!”
“Um… another time, perhaps?” It came out more like a squeak than an intelligible sentence.
“Hm, perhaps.” Malis fished around in his black robe for a few moments then withdrew a glass orb about the size of a marble that pulsed with an energy. “Unfortunately, my big brother wants you to leave Britannia and never return.” He handed the stone to Kit. “This is a transport device which synchronizes with the user’s thoughts. Simply hold it toward a source of light and think of wherever you’d like to go. In a moment, you’ll be there.”
Kit hesitated. “Anywhere?”
“It only works this world because the technology wasn’t invented in your time. You all were a rather primitive lot, you know. Oh and, it only works once.”
Kit took the marble from Malis’s palm. It was surprisingly heavy.
“Goodbye, Kit Benedict. I do hope we meet again.”
Kit frowned. The thought of crossing paths with a bloodthirsty scientist who wanted nothing more than to cut him into tiny pieces was quite disturbing. “Right. Well. I can’t honestly say that I feel the same.”
“That’s the spirit. Stay away if you want to stay alive.” Malis gave a tight smile then turned with a majestic sweep of his blue cape and glided out of the room.
When he was sure he was alone, Kit pulled a deep breath into his lungs and moved toward an oval window. He caught his breath at the sight of the immense city that stretched out below him. “Turnips and tomatoes! There must be gazillions of people down there!”
Elira had said the minds of every one of them were controlled by these Malis and his brothers. They were slaves who had willingly traded their freedom for knowledge. Kit shuddered. He wanted nothing more than to leave this place. And yet, he hesitated.
A memory of Elira’s disappointed face drifted through his mind when he had turned and walked away.
“Ah, it doesn’t matter. Nick and his gang have got to be better than what’s going on here.” He squinted, looking at his feet. “Besides, I don’t even have shoes on.”
With that, Kit lifted the small marble high, toward the light of a distant moon. Closing his eyes, he imagined that he stood on the edge of the forest into which he had run for safety.
Instantly, he felt the room around him begin to spin. Kit’s eyes flew open. Before him stretched a series of swirling red circles, glowing with a pulsing energy that urged him onward. He took a step forward, heart crashing in his chest. Everything exploded in a ball of light and then…
Kit staggered forward, trying to catch his breath. Sunlight streamed overhead, bathing his face with its warmth. He was home.
“Grass!” He fell to his knees, clutching at the sparse greenery at the forest’s edge. He looked up. There was the orphanage! Relief pulsed through him. “As ugly and cramped looking as ever. I’m so glad to see you!”
Kit’s pulse slowed to a crawl at the familiar voice that filled him with dread. Nick!
“I’ve been expecting you.” The muscle-bound bully was sitting with his back against a nearby tree. “Got lost in the woods, did we?” He smirked and held up Kit’s shoe. “I’ve been waiting a whole hour for this.”
“A-an hour?” Kit shook his head. “I’ve been gone at least half a day.”
“What?” Nick pushed himself up in a smooth motion and stalked toward Kit. “Did you lose your mind down there along with your shoe?”
Kit shrank back, his mind reeling. Obviously, time moved faster in the future than it did here. He had been gone at least six hours but for Nick, it had only been sixty minutes. How interesting.
What was not interesting was the fact that Nick had been joined by his posse of ruffians.
“Is this going to hurt?”
“Yeah, it might.” The bully grinned as he cracked his knuckles and rolled his neck. “Welcome home, Kit.”
Kit tossed about in his bunk, kept awake by the bruises from Nick’s punches. Finally, he gave up and rolled out of his thin mattress that lay atop a hard, metal bedframe. A single window on the far end of the boys’ dormitory let a shaft of moonlight into the room. Making his way carefully around the snoring boys, Kit gingerly padded over to the window.
The forest was clearly visible, and the sight of the dark trees brought the day’s events back into his mind. Elira’s words wrapped themselves around his thoughts. You were sent for a purpose, Kit. The fate of this entire world depends on you.
More than anything else, Kit wanted to feel a sense of belonging. Nick Jaggers had taught him that acceptance only came to those strong enough to crush the weak. But Elira had said her people needed him because he alone could set them free. “What if I can do something important… really important over there?” Could he find the acceptance he wanted?
His pulse quickened as another thought struck him. Elira had said that this man, the Prophet, knew things that had happened before the Great Destruction. What if he could tell Kit who his parents were and how to crush Nick Jaggers and his gang?
Kit clenched a fist and winced as a fresh wave of pain struck him. Now that was an interesting thought. How many times had he wished for a way to bring down the arrogant thug? Perhaps in Elira’s world, he could find the answers he needed to survive in this one.
I’ll do it. His fingers curled around the pebble that Malis had given him. He knew that what he was about to do was dangerous. If the evil scientist found him, he’d be dissected. But, if he stayed here, Nick would probably do the same thing sooner or later. “Alright, Elira.” He whispered the words. “I’m coming.”