“It is the law of the Etherworld,” said the Gatekeeper. The desert wind whipped at his robe, blasting his tiny frame with sand and debris. “You may not pass.”
“How can you do this?” Nadara gritted, shaking her head defiantly.
The Gatekeeper watched her, oblivious to the dying planet around them, his cherubic face glowing beneath a wild shock of blond hair. Behind him, scattering a pale mist into the air, the white gateway rotated on nothing. Its smooth, pearl-colored panels glowed with ethereal power. The center of the gate was empty, like the center of a screw: through it, she could see the jagged Peaks of Othlen. Beyond the mountains lay the ever-growing Rift, a massive rent in the planet’s surface that completely isolated them from the rest of the planet.
“You are not ready,” the alien child reiterated. “You must go back.”
She snorted, fists clenched. “Go back to what? We nearly lost our lives coming here!”
A warm hand squeezed her shoulder. “Calm down,” Quinn ordered softly, with a stern undertone.
For a moment they stood in chilling silence. The wind roared across the high plateau, carrying a stench of decay. Nadara stared at the Gate, longing throbbing in her chest. She worried her lower lip between her teeth. If I could only touch it. We’re so close--our only hope....
She had come to the Etherworld at the age of fifteen, stowed away on a transport carrying a team of deep space explorers. There were forests and animals at that time, but even then they should have noticed the signs of slow decay. The colony survived for almost five years before they abandoned the experiment and called the transports back. For many of them, however, it was too late; When the Mowrg attacked the Base, the colonists were scattered. Those who did not reach the transport in time were left behind.
How long would it be before she heard the twitter of birds, the rush of water in a stream, the whisper of the wind through the trees? Here on the Etherworld, everything was dying. Even the land no longer had a voice. The Rift that surrounded them grew daily, as the earthquakes became more violent and frequent. Soon, they feared that the mountains and wilderness would fall away. And the survivors with them.
She pulled away from his touch, shuddering as the panic escalated, aggravated by long weeks of constant terror. In a sudden fit of passion, she strode toward the gate, reaching toward the metal panels. A sudden jolt of white heat ripped through her body and flung her backward. She lay stunned, body twitching. Quinn knelt beside her, the orphan child clinging to his back. The girl blinked, blond hair flying about her pale features.
“I’m fine,” Nadara wheezed, refusing help even though her limbs trembled.
“You must go back to what you were,” the alien said, as if nothing had happened. “It is the law of the Etherworld. It is His law.”
Quinn glared at him, his dark eyes flinty. “We don’t know what you’re talking about. We used the transmitter, and watched the holograms, for crying out loud--”
“I am the Gatekeeper,” the boy said, stressing each word. “I go as a child.” He stepped back as if their interview had ended.
Reluctant but resigned, Quinn jerked his head toward the trail that wound around the side of the plateau. Nadara limped after him. Around her, the air was thick with the dust of the desert, scorched from the blazing heat of the twin suns. Nothing moved or lived in the mountainous terrain; even the occasional tufts of scrub brush had withered into brittle skeletons.
It’s not fair, her thoughts raged. All those weeks of travel, the constant threat of Mowrg attack, and Tilly . . . poor Tilly. The orphan shuddered in Quinn’s arms, but remained silent. Since the day they had rescued her from the Mowrg raiding party, Tilly had not spoken one word: not in laughter, not in fear. She remained as silent as the land. Her fate is bound to it.
“How could he do this to us? To Tilly?” she gritted as she eased onto a low-lying rock at the base of the plateau. She pressed her hands into the rough heated surface and breathed deeply, sweat trickling down her sides and soaking her tan jacket. “Does he want us to die?”
Quinn pressed a canteen into her hands. “I won’t let that happen,” he promised.
As the warm liquid filled her mouth, she gritted her teeth against the stale, metallic taste. “What will we do now?” she asked.
He turned, gazing across the barren wasteland. His tan uniform, once pressed and fitted to perfection, now hung in tatters. Even his badge of rank had been stripped away. At last he shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know.” He adjusted the rifle slung across his back and met her gaze. “It has to be a riddle, but I don’t understand.”
I go as a child. The words churned in her mind. “It’s gibberish, if you ask me.”
Suddenly, Quinn tensed. Nadara moved to stand next to him, searching for the cause of his alarm. A dark sharp hurtled through the sky, held aloft by massive leathery wings. As it circled the sky to the south, a chilling scream spewed from its throat. The sound reached into her gut and twisted it into a knot.
She felt Quinn’s hand close over hers. His grip nearly squeezed the feeling from her fingers. But instead of turning toward them, the Rider continued southward. Her breath released as the monster disappeared over the Peaks of Othlen.
“Are we going back to the hideout?” she asked softly, still watching the sky.
He shook his head, forehead creased. “I’ll set up the transmitter and try to pick up another broadcast. According to the holograms--”
“Quinn, forget the holograms!” she interrupted. “They’ve been leading us in circles!”
“They led us to the Gate, didn’t they?” he reminded testily. He spun away, the dust billowing around his boots. Tilly squirmed uneasily, hiding her face in his shoulder. “Good grief, Nadara, I don’t know what you expect here! You can’t just go around the mountains, or over the Rift. You can’t always do things your way. You have limitations, you know.”
She limped after him, swinging her arms. “So you actually believe those alien holograms? All that junk about the Gateway, and the Safe Zone? If it’s real, then why are we still here?”
He groaned. “Let it lie, Nadara.”
“Let it lie? I can’t do that, Quinn.” She stopped and watched his retreating back. Tears of frustration strangled her throat. “I refuse to believe we were left here to die.”
He turned to look at her, emotions flitting across his stern features, heightening the shadows beneath his eyes. “The transports aren’t coming back, Dar,” he said softly. “You know that.”
She squeezed the bridge of her nose. “Then why are we here? I can’t believe Drydus would just leave us here!”
“He’s always with us,” Quinn replied.
She shook her head, sighing. “Was He here when the Mowrg attacked the Base? And Tilly? Where was Drydus when the Mowrg took her?”
Quinn flinched. At the mention of Tilly, his emotions retreated. The child drew instinctively closer to him, as if she understand his thoughts. What was it that bound two strangers together like that? They could have been a family, both of them blond and blue eyed. While she felt completely foreign: dark-skinned, black-haired. Her gaze flickered from his face, to Tilly’s rocking form, and up at the dusty sky. “I’m sorry,” she conceded wearily. “It’s just hard to believe sometimes.”
“You have to trust Him, Nadara, or you won’t survive. Drydus never lies.” Quinn shook his head stubbornly, his jaw taught beneath his unkempt beard. When she glared at him, he returned her stare, unflinching. “You can’t quit. Let someone else lead for once.”
Heat flooded her face with the insinuation. She chewed down on her lower lip and spun away. He called sharply, but she ignored him and plunged recklessly through their rocky prison. The towering rock outcroppings soon surrounded her. Only when she could no longer see him did she skid to a stop. She chucked a small stone at one of the towering rock walls, her cry of outrage echoing around her.
“Why are you doing this to us?”
When all fell silent, she dropped her chin to her chest and sank to her knees, her long snarled curls creating a dark curtain around her face. Somehow she had expected this sort of an end. They were doomed from the start. Quinn alone possessed a rifle, and even if she had a rifle, she could barely use it. She could not hit a target even when it loomed right in front of her; Quinn, on the other hand, had been a second commander at the Main Base: he could hit the eye of a salamander in the dark. But what good had that done them? They should have died weeks ago when the Mowrg first attacked the Base. It would have been better to die with the others.
And what about you, she thought bitterly. Quinn doesn’t lie. He was right. About you. About everything. The truth stung like salt on a gaping wound. But she faced the ugliness and wallowed in the perverse pleasure it brought to face her own worst enemy.
A sudden tremor rattled the rocks around her. She cowered against the ground, covering her head as debris tumbled down from the high ledges and pelted her back. The earth pitched and heaved as if renting itself apart. The thunder lasted for an eternity. She remained crouched on the ground even after the tremors subsided.
The hair prickled on the back of her neck. She lifted her head, sniffing, suddenly aware of a sickly-sweet warning scent. To late the smell of Mowrg curled around her, painting vivid pictures of death and gore on the canvas of her mind. She looked up just as the first one crawled over the cliff, his black hulk silhouetted against the blue sky. His white unseeing eyes stared right at her, bulging out of a deformed and mutated face, fringed by greasy patches of fur. Despite their blindness, the Mowrg could see everything. Nadara froze: she had no weapon.
As if sensing her thoughts, Quinn’s voice chirruped in her ear, sharp, urgent. “Nadara, where are you?”
She dared not reach for the black box in her ear, afraid the mutated alien would see. She prayed he could not hear. The Mowrg sniffed the air, his massive chest heaving as he inhaled. Then, as he turned toward her, his black lips twisted into a leer.
I know where you are: you cannot escape me, Outworlder.
Nadara knew she could not fight them. They always traveled in packs, of half a dozen or more. Her only hope was flight; she needed to put distance between them, before they descended the cliff.
She was already running when his bone-splitting shriek rent the silence. A metal disc whizzed past her left ear. She pounded back down the path, using the rocky ledges for cover as the razor sharp discs hissed around her, clinking off the rocks. Dodging to the right, she leaped over a small ledge and landed on all fours. Dust and pebbles scattered around her. She heard the rifle retort just as the black mass hurtled over her head. The mutant rolled across the ground, heaved once, and lay still.
“Nadara, get out of there!”
She sensed the presence of the other Mowrg and sprinted toward Quinn, her blood pumping like thunder in her ears. When she glanced back, four more thudded after her, and another appeared beyond the ridge.
Quinn shoved her behind a rock outcropping and fired another warning shot at the Mowrg. One shrieked and thudded to the ground. “Take Tilly back to the Gate,” Quinn gasped, hair plastered to his forehead. “You will make it this time: I promise.”
“No,” she pleaded. “We should stay together.”
Quinn met her gaze briefly, jaw twitching. “Do it, Nadara! Trust me.” He thrust his rifle into her hands and drew his knife, the blade glinting. Their eyes locked and held; after the many months they had spent together, the battles they had fought, the moments of hope and terror shared, the silent farewell seemed so inadequate. Then he was gone, scrambling over the crag of rock and lunging at the first Mowrg.
“Quinn!” She threw her head back and strangled a cry. Grappling at her black utility belt, she slid a cartridge into the firing chamber, chewing on her blistered lips. She knew Quinn wanted--no, expected--her to obey, but she resented it. They were all going to die. He would die here, and they on top of the plateau.
She did not want to die alone.
Nadara leaned over the rock, squinting as she peered through the scope. She centered a Mowrg in the green cross bar, and pulled the trigger. The bullet riqucheted off a boulder behind him. She grappled for another bullet, glancing over her shoulder. Tilly sat several feet away, still rocking, her expression glazed. Nadara watched her for a moment, her heart wrenching. What would she give for Tilly to have a normal life, with parents and food and laughter: all the things normal children took for granted? Quinn would give everything. And he planned to.
Go to the gate. Trust me.
The words exploded in her brain, but not through her headset. She shook her head, teeth clenched to withhold an onslaught of emotions as her mind connected with another. The link flared to life, coursing through her veins, sizzling with power. It was not the mind of a man, but the heart Drydus himself. She gasped, shuddering as they made contact.
She grabbed Tilly and bolted across the ground, the rifle slamming against her back. His touch still ignited her blood, forcing her onward. Her body screamed in pain at the pressure she demanded, but she knew she had to reach the Gate.
By the time she reached the flat crown of the plateau, her legs had knotted and refused to cooperate. She wheezed loudly, attempting to draw breath into her overburdened lungs. The Gate glittered in the late afternoon sun, the mist creating a hazy rainbow around the structure. The alien child beckoned to her, smiling as Tilly stretched a trembling hand toward the dancing rainbows.
Nadara glanced around, clutching her side. “Are you going to let us in this time?”
He looked sad. “I am the Gatekeeper. I go as a child.”
They faced each other, the blistering wind whipping around them. He met her gaze unflinching, blue eyes sparkling like sunbeams on a sea. As the sand and heat beat against her skin, Nadara felt her strength waning. She felt battered and naked, totally exposed to the horror around her.
“Trust me,” he whispered, holding out his hand.
She hissed in frustration. “I want your help,” she argued. “But I don’t understand you!” She pounded her legs with her fists. “Why won’t you let us pass?”
His expression deepened with an intensity that did not belong to a child. Then his gaze snagged on something beyond her left shoulder. She turned around as the air began to undulate and ripple, churning outward like a sea of airborne waves. A huge, black mass descended from the sky. She stepped backward, gazing up into the reptilian maw of a snarling Rider. The beast flapped its leathery wings and breathed hot air into her face, blowing her hair back as a retching stench of rotting flesh nearly bowled her over.
On its back sat the largest mutant Nadara had ever seen. This was no common Mowrg, but a master of lesser mutants.
“So,” she choked, shoving Tilly away as she reached for the rifle on her back. The child crawled across the ground, seeking refuge. “Have you come to finish me at last?”
The huge maw of the Rider opened to hiss at her, in what appeared to be a sneer of derision. In comparison, she was nothing. How could one so small stand against a monster ten times her size and strength? The creature circled her slowly, hissing and leaking smoke from its nostrils and gaping mouth.
“You belong to me,” the Mowrg rasped, white eyes bulging. Nadara shook her head.
In a sudden, unexpected burst of speed, the Rider lunged, a roar bursting from inside its massive chest. Screaming, she dropped to the ground and rolled aside, the crushing bulk missing her by scant inches. She was on her feet in mid-roll, poised to flee as the Rider circled around again, snarling.
Then she realized she had lost the rifle. It lay several yards to her left, between her and her opponent. The Rider watched her through red eyes, leering. And then, as if sensing the wishes of its master, it lifted a clawed foot and ground her rifle into dust.
“No!” she screamed as her last resource disappeared. Reality rocked her: she was going to die, and Tilly would perish in the same fear she had lived with. The Rider laughed. The sound shaking the ground beneath her, rattling loose stones. He swiped her with one wing and smashed her into the ground.
Air escaped her lungs as flashing lights obscured her vision. She fell back limply, willing herself to die. Then Tilly screamed, a loud piercing shriek that grappled with Nadara’s consciousness, pulling her back from blissful darkness. She opened her eyes, looked up at the Gatekeeper, hovering beside her: waiting, watching. She reached a hand toward him as the last vestige of hope melted away. “Help us,” she whispered, desperate. “I can’t do this.”
“Come as a child,” he whispered as he leaned forward. “Trust me.”
She reached out, her fingers stained with blood, blistered and scarred from endless battles. As she brushed the baby-soft fingers of the Gatekeeper, a shock ripped through her. For a brief second she went rigid with an unbearable agony. Then it vanished, ripped away by a force outside of herself. She saw shock ripple in the piercing blue eyes of the Gatekeeper, saw his beautiful skin darken. Blood poured from his body, and he screamed.
In the distance, the Rider howled. The sound echoed around her, pulsating like thunder as the ground itself began to rock and shake beneath her. Dark clouds gathered above them, churning and swirling as they formed. The Rider backed away, eyes rolling in its grotesque skull. Nadara struggled to her feet, reaching for Tilly. She stood before the Gate as it began to thrum, spinning faster and faster.
“What have you done,” she whispered, but when she turned to look, the Gatekeeper had disappeared.
As the ground began to rock even more beneath her, she focused on the Gate.
The silent command spurred her to action. Clutching Tilly against her own body, she leaped through the rotating portal and into white light. The ground disappeared, and for a moment she felt as if she walked on clouds. Bolts of hot light flashed around them, zinging energy into her body, and through Tilly’s. Then her boots settled on firm earth. She stepped forward and gaped in astonishment as she looked out over white-peaked mountains and sweeping green valleys. She faltered, legs weak.
Tilly squirmed to be set down, her bare feet digging into Nadara’s side. Once free, the girl skipped across the ground, one hand pointing toward the green valleys below. She looked back, awe fleeing across her face, sparkling in her blue eyes.
“Have you even seen grass?” Nadara wondered out loud. Tilly smiled, a soft giggle bubbling from her throat. The mountains began to sing as the soft sound echoed around them, bouncing off the verdant heights of the high places.
Behind them, an explosion rocked the earth. Nadara stumbled and turned back to the Gate, gut clenching. Behind them, the floating structure lay in a smoldering heap, the ground littered with scorched panels and twisted steel. Smoke wafted toward the sky, tugged upward by the clear, piercing wind of the mountains.
Tears began to flow down her cheeks as she sank to the ground, her fingers resting on cool grass. Tilly ran back to her side and climbed into her lap, wide-eyed as she surveyed the ruin. Her mouth worked furiously. “Pa-pa?” she asked at last, the words harsh and unnatural.
Nadara forced away the sobs, for Tilly’s sake. “He’s gone, Tilly,” she whispered, smoothing Tilly’s hair and caressing her round cheek. I know this is what you always wanted, but why did you have to do it? You can’t be gone, you just can’t!
“Do it, Nadara. Trust me.”
The words came back unbidden. She turned her face toward the sweeping vista, the wind brushing her cheeks. Their future lay out there: perhaps in a settlement, where there would be teachers for Tilly, and maybe even a transport. She could go home and find the uncle she had not seen in five years. Earth. It was a place she had thought she would never see again.
Nadara drew a shuddering breath and hugged the child tightly. “So it begins,” she murmured.
She must go on. For her. For Tilly.