A falcon tucked its wings over the greenery north of the United States border and made a final plunge for prey in the forest below it. Talons tore into a smaller bird in the treetops, but the predator flinched and dropped its target. It observed a figure in a black cloak standing with an ominous calm below the branches. The cloak’s bottom rippled at his feet, and red tassels dangled from the clasp at his neck, thrashing in the wind.
Two hundred meters ahead stood a pair of guards in front of a razor-wire gate. A sleepy haze hung about them as they feigned attention, picking their heads up every few minutes when they realized they had dozed off.
The cloaked figure took slow, effortless steps towards them until he floated into their vision.
“Halt!” One ordered.
The approaching man stopped a few paces out from the gate. There he stood in silence. The wind blew at his hood, tugging it across his face. Despite this, he remained completely hidden in shadows under the black cloth. The gust eventually won, and the hood was pulled just right to reveal pale, grey lips and a sly smile that drew the corners of his mouth just a bit past good intentions.
A stroke of fear rose in one of the guards who had recently heard a rumor—one that told of cloaked men who periodically stopped by the European Sector’s base in Canada. Fabled as monsters and murderers, the other cloaked men who had come before could intimidate even the generals of the European Sector. The terror surrounding the stories made him step back with shaky legs—bumping into the gate behind him and snagging his tan uniform on its barbs. This only made him squirm more.
“It’s one of them…” the man whispered to the other guard, trembling in his maroon European Sector boots.
“I know. We have to follow orders!” The other guard said, less intimidated by the unarmed man before him.
The backpedaling guard froze as he thought about his choices.
He bolted around the side of the premise.
The remaining soldier yelled out, “I can’t let you in. I have orders that no one may enter today. That includes you!” The muzzle of his rifle bounced unsteadily as it eyed the pale lips protruding from the shadows.
In a sure voice, the cloaked man said, “You’d do well to either let me in or follow your friend’s lead.”
The guard shook his head. “If I shoot, the guards above will hear and shoot as well.”
With shaky hands, he turned off the safety. His target remained still.
“You won’t have time to,” the figure murmured.
There was a flash of dull, dirty light. The guard looked down in shock at an object that had just torn through his mid-section. He let out a squeal before he hit the ground.
The shrouded intruder pulled firmly on his weapon. Something resembling a chain whip reeled back into the outstretched sleeve and disappeared in a faint blur.
The guard lay, clutching his abdomen with detached consciousness. A wet spot spread through the cloth around his wound. He looked up as the intruder stepped slowly over him. The dark fabric brushed him like the touch of a ghost.
The cloaked figure stood in front of the main entrance into the building and waited. Eventually, it opened. The steel panels folded in, revealing a well-decorated general standing within a circle of guards. He had round, wired spectacles and thin hair that wrapped only around the sides of his crown. He motioned for the intruder to follow with a slightly reluctant flick of his fingers.
The intruder acknowledged the gesture with a casual strut as the gates closed behind him.
The General led them across a courtyard into the main building, through multiple corridors, and into a room with vaulted ceilings. They stopped underneath a pillared arch with square engravings cut above it. The general ordered his guards out, and the two were left alone. The cloaked man blended in underneath the shadow of the pillar.
“You trust me in a room alone with you, General Allenby?” The man in shadows asked with amusement.
“Ares, you don’t reach my rank without being able to perform under intimidating conditions. I know what you’re capable of; I also know you won’t kill me here and now,” General Allenby paused to wipe sweat from his brow before finishing, “That was entirely unnecessary out there—killing one of my men.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t have tried to keep me out,” Ares said slyly and raised a hand. General Allenby flinched.
Ares pulled at the General’s collar as the old man struggled for breath.
“You’re breathing uneasily, General. Don’t worry, I prefer you alive, as you said…for now.”
“And what is it that you want from the European Sector this time? Making any deals will be extremely difficult. Our invasion into the North American Sector is struggling so much that they’ve almost pushed the battlefield back to this base. There is little we can afford to part with right now.”
Ares stepped into the light and approached General Allenby, “I need another cargo carrier by the end of the week.”
“Another? Last time, I pulled some strings and avoided having your organization meet face to face with all the generals. Doing that a second time won’t be so easy, especially if you’re here alone.” Sweat was rolling down the wire temples of the General’s glasses, and he dabbed it with his sleeve. “Before, your group had services to offer; they will want to push the timeline on our previous deal forward. I’m sure you won’t be surprised, as second in command, I can’t meet your demand alone.”
Ares leaned in closer, “I’m aware.”
General Allenby was suddenly desperate to leave the room.
A strange crest was embroidered on the breast of Ares’ cloak: a red snake that formed a circle. Both ends of the serpent had a ridged head that turned away from each other at the top, their tongues hissing outward. It was hard for Allenby to divert his eyes to anything else.
“You ask for too much. You still have to uphold your end of our previous deal…and your private deal with me. Your words have not turned into actions, and already you’re asking for more.” He spoke as if talking to the red snakes, and they hurried him toward a conclusion. “The generals will meet in three nights. I’ll guarantee you can make your request in front of them, but whether or not they listen....” He cleared his throat and began to back out of the room.
“The bureaucratic ways of your sector prevent anything from being accomplished in a timely manner,” Ares condescended while tapping his foot impatiently on the stone floor, “but I have no choice. I trust you will make them aware of their options ahead of time.” He smiled at General Allenby with arrogance from underneath his hood. “And then words will become action. You’ll get what we agreed on.” He finished the sentence while turning back into the darkness.
General Allenby never took his sight off of Ares. He reached to open the door with shaky liver-spotted fingers, all the while keeping his head turned just enough to keep an eye on the smile that watched him from the shadows. A wave of relief came over him as his hand reached the door handle’s cool metal, and he gave it a turn.
∞ ∞ ∞
Ares navigated the depths of the underground network that made up the base for the organization known as the Mitad. It was a dimly lit, musty labyrinth, but those were the conditions required to operate in secrecy as they did. He strode through the ancient rooms and connection ways of underground buildings with a saunter. His pace commanded time in this subterranean place.
There was light up ahead, through the concrete passageway. A glowing stone lit the room.
Someone was waiting for Ares.
As he passed through the opening at the end of the dark gray hall, he received a jolting pat on the shoulders—as he had anticipated. His anticipation only just prevented a violent reaction. If it had been anyone else, he might not have forgiven such encroachment of his space.
“Welcome back, Ares,” a man said with a tease in his voice. They wore the same black robe. “You travel fast. Too fast to make it back here from the Euro Sector’s military base. That’s a long way. The girls been helping you travel, huh?” The voice chuckled in a friendly tone. “Or are you helping her? I can’t keep it quite straight. But why would you help Bellia?”
Ares faced the man. His hood was down, revealing a chiseled face and matted straw hair. The single lantern in the room showed no more, but Ares knew the man well. “Tessio…you know I help the cause alone. The plans cannot afford any delay.”
“Right, Right. But perceptions being what they are when you’re trapped underground most of the time…wouldn’t want the boss to get the wrong idea. I noticed he’s been watching.”
Ares sighed through his flared nostrils. “Let him watch. I’m gaining power for the Mitad. That’s all I’m after—power. No woman, no man, nothing will get in my way. Now, you’re talking more than usual, Tessio. I think that’s enough. What’s gotten into you tonight?”
Tessio put an arm around Ares, which Ares merely tolerated with a squint. “We’re brothers in the Mitad. We’ve been working together, what eight years now? I’m looking out for my superior officer. If you keep it up with this, favors for Bellia stuff…he’s going to notice. That’s all.”
“I appreciate the warning, but I’m well aware. You know…I’d beat down any other subordinate who’d talk to me like that.” Ares smirked as he said it, showing the first hint of emotion. “Why do I tolerate you?”
Tessio nodded. “Because I’m good. You appreciate my skills, and they serve you well. And we’ve been through some times together. I lost count of who saved who more in the second battle at Pacem.” He pointed at Ares in appeal.
Ares’ eyebrows drew together. “You had my back once. The lost count must have been how many times you escaped death because of me.” He said with a dry wryness.
“Right.” Tessio’s pointer finger dropped, and he looked at the ground. “But the point is you put up with me.” He shrugged and nodded to himself. “Besides, I wanted to tell you before you get to the meeting that they’ve given up on Constantine. He didn’t return, and the search found his lookout point destroyed.”
“Destroyed how?” Ares asked sharply.
Tessio turned up his lower lip. “I don’t know. Wasn’t there myself. Scouts said the silo had a big hole in it. Braxton’s men must have seen him coming. Unlucky, but I said from the beginning that we shouldn’t send some fresh, weak, ostaka,” the word was for those without powers like their own, “into the direct path of soldiers—”
Ares scowled and interjected, “It was just surveillance. Using an officer would have been a waste of resources. He was no loss. Our Soul Wielders,” he referred to those with powers like his, “are too scarce here to be sending out for simple work. Almost every person here that isn’t ranking also can’t wield. Hmmpf pathetic ostaka…if Constantine failed on such a simple task, he had no value.”
“You’re right. Just has me nervous that Braxton’s men got one of us.”
They were silent for a time as Ares thought on it. The event was too peculiar to be believed. In an entire desert—one lone man was found at the uncovered silo and engaged while he monitored military routes.
Tessio picked up a glowing stone that provided light like a lantern would and illuminated his tattooed hand.
The two walked together with the dark pressing in around them.
“I didn’t mean to pretend I know better than you about the girl earlier. Forget I said it.”
Ares grunted in return.
“Aww, come on. I don’t need to deal with scowling Ares for three days. I only said it to look out for you! You’re respected, powerful, rising in the ranks. You have the pedigree—”
Ares turned on the lanky man.
The glowing stone flickered, and the light on the walls shook with Tessio’s hand. He knew he said something wrong.
“What does that mean?” Ares asked.
“Come on. Forget I said—”
“No,” Ares said through gritted teeth. “Explain to me.”
Tessio hesitated. “It’s just…you know…you’re…you’re from two powerful bloodlines. That comes with some—”
Ares drove his fist into Tessio’s abdomen in a vicious blow.
Tessio clutched his stomach and seized over, falling to a knee. He barely kept hold of the light stone as spittle flew from his mouth.
“I have no family. I have allegiance to the Mitad. I am Mitad.” Ares grabbed his subordinate’s hair and yanked his head up. “See this?” He pointed to the two-headed snake emblazoned on his breast in red.
Tessio nodded with fear in his eyes as he breathed short, tight breaths.
“I’m part of the whole. Don’t ever make that mistake again. You know better.”
Ares helped Tessio stand straight.
“And don’t make me strike a brother of the Mitad.”
Tessio shook his head. “No. I won’t. I forgot my place.”
The two walked on together into the depths of the dark labyrinth.