The elevator door opens on a spring dawn saturated with fog. Draped over the barrier wall, it divides between the running legs of civilian workers adhering to evacuation routes, including the two gardeners who stagger inside our lift, just as we exit, and drop to their knees to fill their lungs. Entering the motionless air I see squads of Blood Keepers bleeding from the elevator bay. Black uniforms disappear into the mist and the tracks of bodies, moving toward and away from the only outer access point, draw lines like those on the surface of an active anthill.
This is the Compound—the last surviving human settlement in Monstrum.
Keeper Vaughn, our instructor and commander, waits for us at the center of the bay. Tufts of his graying hair are glued to his forehead with sweat, and now I know it’s not a drill.
“A fine morning to end on!” Vaughn’s statement is hanging in the fog when he nods to Hayes. “Report to zone five. Hayes, take point.”
“Zone five! Earpieces in!” Hayes begins, inspecting our formation line as Vaughn watches the favored Recruit go to work. Hayes’s dark eyes, sewn in like buttons, pause to score me. His stare is as gentle as the twin dual-blade hatchets he chokes in his hands.
I fasten my earpieces and adjust the radio in time to hear, “This is Central Command. The intruder species has not been identified. All units standby.”
From the front of our formation, Hayes gives the fall-out signal and we join the mass of Keepers in their stream across the lawn. Squad leaders branch off as their zone assignment approaches; single-file, we follow Hayes between the greenhouse buildings and the south wall and don’t stop until we reach the south entrance gate.
The Compound is protected by two natural barriers: the Hornback River to the south and the Black Peak Mountains at our backs to the west.
The double walls on the north, east, and south sides separate the Compound from nonhumans. The outer wall is made of stones that were harvested from the Hornback River over two hundred years ago, and is all that’s left from the Blood Keepers who constructed it after the Dark Taking. The inner wall, made of reinforced concrete and forty feet high, was built a century ago, when Keepers reclaimed technology that had been lost in the war. A vertical mountain slope serves as the west wall, and is where the human-made walls complete their seal.
Of the three Compound entrances, the east wall entrance is the most exposed, facing an open meadow flanked by pine and fir trees on its north side. The second entrance is hidden, tunneling through the mountain and entering an underground security level. Zone five covers the third entrance, running through the south wall and facing the river half a mile away.
Here we wait.
“Luc,” Cole says from behind and taps me with the handle of his sword. He nods at the stars I’ve been twirling in my fingers. “Don’t miss,” he adds through an open grin.
“Never,” I whisper back.
If kindness had a face, it would be Cole’s. His eyes are two polished marbles made of black glass, and if not careful, it is possible to get lost in them. His hair is also black, cleanly cut and longer on top. The other Recruits always looked at me like a diseased mutt who was mistakenly allowed to live. Everyone but Cole.
As first-years, we had both measured six inches shorter than the rest of the class. “Runts,” they used to call him and still call me. Thanks to strict physical exercise and a growth spurt in our seventh year, Cole is currently the only Recruit capable of matching Hayes in size and hand to hand combat. In the last six months alone, Cole’s muscles have outgrown his Recruit jacket to where the sleeves stop short before his wrists and the eleven white stripes—one for every year of training—cinch so tight around his arm it’s a wonder it hasn’t fallen off at the elbow. Even if it wasn’t our last year before becoming Keepers, there’s no point in wasting the materials to replace it.
“Shall we?” Cole asks against my ear.
“It is our last chance.”
“Five bites of stew says it’s a fawn herd,” he wagers though he should know better. Fawns typically graze at dusk, not dawn.
“Half a potato says they’re chimeras,” I counter.
“That’s a rich bet.” His smile lifts again.
“Foley! Eyes front!” Hayes barks, bringing Cole and I back to attention, as he rushes to the middle of our line to rattle Foley by the collar, which isn’t saying much. Foley is built like a flagpole and just as agile. His father is Keeper Markus Foley, Security Engineer and third in Blood Keeper command, so everyone looks the other way when he fails the endurance course or changes his weapon specialty for the sixth time in eleven years.
“The intruders are approaching the south entrance at two-hundred paces. Recruit Hayes, affirm when assembled.”
The nine pairs of hands belonging to the eleventh-year Recruit class, including mine, dig into the grips of our weapons.
“This is Recruit Hayes,” he transmits over the radio without a fiber of hesitation. “Squad assembled.”
“Zone five initiate contact.”
By the time Hayes replies, “Affirmative,” the inner wall’s locking mechanisms crank and the massive, steel-plated south entrance gate groans open.
“Is this some kind of test?” Tomei blurts and Hayes hushes him with a look. To answer Tomei’s question: of course it’s a test. Every day of Recruit training is. But I know what he really meant. Only eleventh-years, the oldest Recruits, participate in Compound security measures as a way to gain field experience before being made Keepers. Out of the twenty-seven intruder alarms this year, we’ve never been assigned to greet trespassers. Recruits technically don’t have clearance to do so, until today, I guess.
“They know we’re ready—don’t make us look like idiots,” Hayes orders, pacing down our line one last time. “I have the first kill!”
The supple grass that separates the inner and outer wall mutes our footsteps. Hand over hand, Droppel and Sandez pull on chains, drawing cross-beams up from their locked position across the primitive wood and iron door of the outer wall. Once the beams are lifted and the doors part, there is nothing between us and the rest of Monstrum.
“Outer wall cleared,” Hayes reports.
We move forward in formation through the knee-high grass between the Compound and the river. The air is stagnant, still too early in the season for the wind that rakes the winter off the Black Peaks every spring. In a few steps my boots are covered with dew.
“Seventy paces southeast to contact,” Central Command advises.
Trees are sparse on this side of the river, so the four willowy figures in the distance can’t be trees. The creatures are too small to be chimeras and make little progress, if they move at all.
I position two stars in each hand and my fingerprints set in steam against the cold steel. I was six, and a second-year Recruit, when I held my first star. Keeper Vaughn had given me an axe, which was too heavy for my small frame. The same was true for spears, swords, and clubs. A throwing star was the only weapon I could lift without falling over. Back then, not only was Vaughn’s hair more brown than gray, he didn’t know what to do with me. No one did. I was the first female Recruit selected for Blood Keeper training in thirty years.
Hayes carves the fog, swinging his hatches in tight loops, his stride progressing to a full run as the intruders come within reach. We fan out behind him with our weapons displayed; Cole raises his sword, the others their spears, arrows, and blades, my arm ready to throw.
The creatures are upright, on two legs. Hayes assesses the target as he steps in to strike, his calculating eyes recognizing the craftsmanship behind the deerskin blanket slung over the intruder’s shoulders and the length of neck behind a muddied beard, where Hayes stops his swing inches before taking off the male’s head.
“Take it. It’s our only weapon,” the male says in a shallow breath as he tosses a knife into the grass in front of Hayes. The handle is missing and the blade is rounded. Probably couldn’t cut through a ripe squash. “Help us,” he pleads.
None of us can summon the words to fill the silence that follows.
Hayes steps back from the man whose deerskin blanket is his only clothing. It is open in the front, framing the bones of his starved body. An older female hangs on the male, her hair matted and fingernails hidden behind a layer of muck. Her legs hide under a long skirt, her body wrapped in a sweater held with wooden buttons. Both are soaked with water. A younger female wears rabbit fur and no shoes; yellow film covers a wound below her left knee and a spotted rash coats her skin between the chin and ankles. The fourth creature is a boy. His skin is stretched so tightly across his collarbone that deep crevasses appear at the base of his neck. He wears only pants that he holds up with his thumbs.
Their faces will not be found in the library of Monstrum creatures—the trespassers are identified not by snouts or claws, but by their absence. I have never seen another human outside the walls. No one has. Well, not in our lifetimes.
I’ve heard the stories about how survivors found their way to the Compound during the first few years following the Dark Taking, happening upon it by chance while the outer wall was being constructed, or while traveling downriver or chasing game into the meadow on the eastern side. The Blood Keepers never turned any fellow human away, offering food, shelter, and work to better their conditions. The Compound civilians alive today are the direct descendants of the survivors the Blood Keepers were able to protect. “We have a right to live, Corinne, in order to keep the balance.” That’s what my father said when I was five and selected for Keeper training.
“What’s balance?” I asked him.
“Balance is when the sun and the moon are in the same sky. You can’t have night without day and you can’t have vampires without humans. We need each other to survive,” he said as he helped me tie my new boots, new to me, and then settled his heavy field jacket onto my shoulders. He explained that humans used to live in their own homes, wherever they wanted. In fact, there were human cities all over Monstrum.
Hayes repositions his blade against the male’s neck. “Are you a creature of the unnatural world?”
“We are human! Like you! Sir, I promise. I swear on my life, my wife’s life, my daughter’s life, my grandson’s life. You must help us!”
“Recruit Hayes, state your progress,” the voice on the radio demands.
“Where are you from?” Hayes continues.
“Vampires found our tunnel. We’ve spent the last sixteen nights on the river. We need shelter. Food. She has an infection. Please.”
The fog is thicker closer to the river and, from what I can tell, there are no signs of anything nonhuman. Nothing seems out of place, except for the humans themselves.
“Hayes. Have the intruders been eliminated?”
Cole sheaths his sword and insists, “We have to take them in.”
“Hold formation! No one is going anywhere,” Hayes snaps. He presses his hand to his ear and delivers over the radio, “The intruder species is human. Repeat, four humans. One male, two females, one child, male.”
A bird sings in the distance and cleaves the air like a thunderclap. Several moments pass in cutting silence before the radio picks up again.
“Hayes, standby for assistance. I.I.U. deploy for retrieval. Team Leader Darius, affirm when assembled.”
“This is Team Leader Darius. Squad en route.”
Darius commands the Keepers assigned to the Intelligence Investigation Unit. Each was handpicked by Master General Fox for their courage, strength, and devotion to the Blood Keeper legacy above all else. They specialize in assessing security threats and nonhuman habitats, reporting directly to the Master General. Every time the I.I.U. assembles I try not to think about my dad, but trying not to think about him makes me think about him more. He was the I.I.U. Team Leader for a decade before a vampire split him like a wishbone.
“Outer wall cleared,” Darius transmits, and in moments their black uniforms appear within the mist, running in rows of three toward our position. Their eyes are hidden behind com spec lenses, the device shaped like eyeglasses that secures behind the neck, equipped with thermal imaging and conceals a high clearance radio link. Each shoulders a double-ended automatic rifle—one end shoots bullets, and the other end is a flamethrower, plugging into a customized backpack containing the alcohol canister and a survival ration. One thousand practice hours are required prior to the Tasting ceremony for a Recruit to earn possession of such a weapon.
Keeper Darius leads his unit in a circle around the four trespassers, who shrivel as a black canvas wall made of broad shoulders rises before them.
“Confirming one male, two females, one child, male,” Darius relays over the radio from the center of their circle, his rifle pointed at the humans.
“Please. Some food, for the child,” the male’s unsteady voice is almost lost in his beard.
“Are there more of you?”
“We are the only survivors!” The words spray out of the older woman in a scream, as if she had been waiting days to say it. She then ducks her head between her shoulders, her eyes wild and looking from Keeper to Keeper, mimicking a hopeless rabbit on the wrong side of a wolf pack.
“Name your diseases,” Darius persists.
“We have none. Our group was healthy.”
“What about her?” Darius shifts his aim to the younger female who hasn’t stopped trembling.
“Her wound needs to be cleaned. She isn’t contagious, please we just need—”
“Where were you living?” Darius fires another question, lacking the patience that had made my father an I.I.U. legend.
“A cave tunnel, in the mountains,” is all the male says before the boy collapses and is engulfed by the tall grass.
Cole breaks through the I.I.U. circle around the humans.
“Hold formation!” Hayes repeats.
“Recruit Cole, resume your position!” Darius orders.
Cole scoops the child into his arms.
“The quarantine protocol is incomplete. You will put him down, now.”
Cole turns toward the Compound, his back to Darius.
“Cole! You will release him, damn it! I’d hate to see you fail your Recruit training now.”
An electric current jolts my body, seizing my muscles out of function and clamping my lungs, for an instant, before the charge retracts inside my arm, back to the transmitter chip it came from. The pain dissipates almost as quickly as it came. The shock is the silent alarm, felt by every human within the Compound, meaning another intruder has passed into Compound territory.
“From the west!” Tomei yells down the line.
Six cheetahs emerge from the pine trees along the slope, their paws never striking the ground—they glide, sailing along an invisible cable that bisects our formation.
A wave of bullets rips as the cluster of Blood Keepers takes aim against the cheetahs. But they suddenly aren’t cheetahs anymore. They’ve become six songbirds, small against the sky and soaring above us.
“Shifters!” I shout as the gunfire continues.
The birds dive and criss-cross in turns, braiding the air between them and creating a formidable target. I isolate one of the birds and study its flight pattern. Brown feathers fold and rotate, propelling the flying target up, down, across, down, across, up.
The throwing star is warm from being cupped in my hand when I clutch it between my thumb and the outside of my index finger. I throw my arm as the bird goes into its next dive, releasing the star into my line of sight. End over end the star severs the air, giving the illusion of a silver coin on a floating track. The sharp points snag on one of the bird’s wings, clipping the bird out of its pattern and it nosedives to the ground. The five remaining birds flock to the fallen and the six of them settle in the tall grass.
“Hold your fire!”
The birds remain hidden in the growth. We fill the gaps in our formation.
“Luc, cover me,” Cole says before running toward the Compound, the boy’s head hanging over the bend in his arm.
Darius watches Cole disobey his orders and decides to take it out on the rest of us. “Sandez, Treck, you two take the male. Morrich, Droppel, the older female. Foley, Lucas, the younger. If they’re diseased, you’ll be the first to know. Hayes, Tomei, you two are on guard.”
I approach the younger female with the gash on her leg whose alertness has been replaced with eyes that drift behind half-open lids and no response when I ask if she can stand up. I hook my arms under hers and lift, relieved when she locks her knees and is stable on her feet.
Foley reluctantly throws the female’s arm behind his neck. She is leaning most of her weight on me, which isn’t much, but enough to slow us down considerably. Foley looks too terrified to breathe, as if he’s inhaling death itself. Step after step, we achieve a crawling pace. The Keepers linger in the open field, surveying for any sign of the shifters.
Hayes leads Morrich and Droppel, who are at least fifty paces in front of us with Treck and Sandez not far behind them. Tomei covers the back, which doesn’t include Foley and me because, as I could have predicted, the rest of my class feels we are the two Recruits worth losing. Cole is almost to the outer wall.
I manage only a few more steps when I hear growling. Looking over my shoulder, I see the shifters have morphed from birds into grizzly bears. Round, robust creatures with fur that develops from brown to gold in the tips of sunrise breaking through the fog. The six bears advance upon the line of Keepers, their jaws snapping, their mouths dripping with foam.
One of the bears strays from the other five and I realize it’s heading directly for me, limping on its left side—the same one I hit with my star. Even with this injury, the bear is moving fast and gaining on us. I lose precious seconds waiting for the Keepers to gun down the rogue bear but they’re too preoccupied with the other five to notice.
“Run!” I scream to Foley and dig the toes of my boots into the grass.
I launch a star over my shoulder but it only skims the bear’s thick coat. There’s no way my star can cut through its skin.
Foley doesn’t have his spiked club. Did he drop it? Recruits are never supposed to abandon their weapons. I shuffle the other two stars into my throwing hand.
Foley responds by flinging the younger female’s arm off his shoulder and sprinting for the Compound. I barely save the female from slamming into the ground. The Keepers are fighting the other shifters. My Recruit mates are almost to the outer wall. There is no one else.
There’s just the dying female and this bear whose eyes are fixed on me.
“Sorry,” I say as I drop her.
The bear is grunting, its jaw ready to make the kill. I position both stars in my hand and aim for the one spot I know will slow the beast down. I take a deep breath, raise my arm, exhale and release. The stars graze the bear’s right eye and the bear stumbles, pawing at its face.
I drape the female’s inert body over my shoulder with no time to check if she’s still alive.
After a few steps I look back and see the bear is gone. I push all my weight on the balls of my feet to quicken our pace. Over the sound of my labored breathing I hear a rattle, like a wooden canister of dried beans being furiously shaken.
Swimming through the tall grass is a rattlesnake with a deep wound where its right eye should be. The younger female slips down my arm when I try to extract a star from an inside pocket but the snake has already wrapped itself around my leg. Its golden scales weave together to create its flexible form, the body contracting against my leg to hold its position. The rattler stands strong in front of me, its tongue probing the air in frantic licks. I freeze, contemplating grabbing it by the head and sacrificing my hand.
The snake rears its head back and strikes.
Brook received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry before turning her life around to become a writer. She is an author, freelance writer, and the Screenplay Competition Director for the Destiny City Film Festival.