OF US AND THEM by T. L. Coughlin
To say my end would be merciful would be lying.
My body fell to the ground. Her weight had brought me down into a pile of arms and legs, smashing my face into the floor. I tried to get out from under her, but couldn’t. Her hands snaked around my throat. I could feel her shift forward, angling her body so that everything was at my neck. And with that came an opening.
With a desperate grasp, I used my daggers to plunge into the soles of her shoes. It wasn’t enough to maim, but it surprised her enough to loosen her grip. I used the embedded knives as leverage, pushing up and sliding between her thighs. I spun my leg around and got up behind her, losing my grip on one of them in the process.
With only one dagger still left in my hand, I yanked her head backward. My fingers on the pommel were ready, raring to go. My hand so tense, the sleek metal embossed every etching onto me. Sweat dripped down, stinging my eyes. I let them burn. The brazen blade kissed against her throat as I slid it into place, hovering over the carotid. Helpless.
She tapped my forearm, relinquishing to her fate. “Good,” she said.
My mother’s stern voice echoed in the empty room. I snapped out of the attack. Wild with adrenaline, my blood pumped and churned. She towered over me with arched eyebrows, drawing her face together into a pinch.
As the sun set, the light streamed in through the eight-foot glass windows. The forgiving rays hit one side of her almond-shaped face, making her expression soften as she looked at me. Her name, Ignis, meaning fire. The orange glow sure made it seem that way.
She circled, like a lioness readying herself for the hunt. Her hands were tight behind her back as she examined every inch of my body. It took all of me not to squirm or readjust. With two needle-like fingers, she pushed into the middle of my spine. My body instantly straightened, recovering the appropriate posture.
With my shoulders rolled back, I returned to my full five-foot-four-and-a-half (the half should always count) and took the barrage of criticism with barely a reaction. I was getting better at that. My muscles prayed that I would.
She continued her hunt. I could sense the tension in my hair threatening to burst out against the confines of my elastic. It would never stay put, the unruly beast. Don’t you dare, I threatened back.
As if in slow motion, one front wave fell in front of my face. Shoot.
“And keep your hair out of your face,” my mother said, without missing a beat. “Such a mess.”
She took a step closer, and I held my breath. Her hand stretched towards me. For a moment, the stupidest, most ridiculous moment, I thought she was going to tuck the protesting piece behind my ear. Maybe earn me a potential reprieve from her duty-focused ways. With a mind of its own, my chin gravitated towards her.
Instead, she passed my head and grabbed the tail of my hair upwards. I automatically turned, fully aware of what she was truly looking for.
“Nothing,” she stated coldly as she examined the back of my neck. “Not even a millimetre.”
My shoulders reverted to their naturally depressed state. The sudden altitude change made my ponytail fall from her grasp.
“Four months, Evren,” she glowered, ignoring the clear defeat I already wore. “Four months, and still nothing.”
I touched the nape of my neck, wishing I could feel the head of the dragon and its serpentine body. To feel if my birthmark had awoken. If it had moved and curved further into a completed circle. It had to have.
“I… I thought we were only five millimetres away.” I tried to flip the script and beg for her to see how close we were to its completion.
“It is nowhere near an ouroboros, Evren. Do you not see what is at stake?” she asked – rhetorically, I hoped. “Nexum, they are waiting for you. For us. Some days I question your loyalty.” I flinched at her words. “It is almost as if you do not want the power.”
“I’m sorry, Mother. You know that’s not true. I’ll work harder. I promise.” I rubbed my neck as if her look had pierced the skin.
“Our world is in chaos. And you are...” She tried to bite her words back, but couldn’t help herself, although she seemed to adjust her approach. “You are the last piece, Evren. They will save our world and you are their last piece.” She shook her head, pinching the bridge of her nose. “What am I missing?”
This time, I studied her as she moved. The lines that creased her furrowed brow drew stories of pain, self-isolation and, of course, stress. I couldn’t help but think I’d caused each one.
I wanted to run, hide away in the library, open a book and escape into its pages. I wanted to tell her there was nothing more I could do other than try. But with my feet remaining planted on the mats I understood the severity of it all, with all eyes on her as Leader. Like me, my mother wasn’t a stranger to a young, fated future. She was trained to take over Nexum at the age of sixteen, a year younger than I am now, and the rest was her utilitarian history.
Her sights focused on me again, knowing what was coming. If she couldn’t find the answer within her, she had to send that frustration out.
“The other Paladins cannot wait any longer. You hold our entire future in your hands, Evren.
The Leviathans must return.”
I stared blankly at the floor-to-ceiling windows, knowing exactly what she would say before she’d begun. The Okanagan Lake was barely a lake; the surrounding green hills had gone grey. It was still Earth, but only a shadow of what it once was.
“You and your mark are the only thing in their way, and—”
“I understand,” I stated clearly, cutting her off and not allowing my voice to waver. I saw my mother’s impatience through every twinge of her lip and raise of her eyebrows. She tried to hide it, with her grace and regality, but I knew her better than she thought. She was my trainer and my Leader. And here I was, reassuring her that I had all the qualities of a Paladin: brave, virtuous, humble. Fake it until you make it, Evren.
She nodded. “You will reach maturity. I will ensure it.” She didn’t meet my eyes before walking away.
I wanted to gag at the word: maturity. The Nexum’s eloquent way of saying I was physiologically ready to be a vessel for the Leviathans to inhabit. At seventeen, I’d already been through the usual puberty. But blood and hormones were the least of the Leviathans’ concerns.
They needed power, along with human carriers to enact change on Earth.
I’d read books, hundreds upon thousands, where so many thought of aliens as humanoid beings, consisting of matter and hunger. Little did they know they were more like spirits, hovering on a different plane of existence. The Leviathans were gods among men, true mythic creatures that had a larger purpose beyond Earth, but to save Earth and push humans into their next state of evolution? Well, that needed some flesh and bone to make it happen.
The heaviness of the air lifted as my mother left through the training doors. I’m sure if she could’ve had a daughter that was as dutiful and dependable as those automatic doors, she would.
I picked up my towel and threw it over the rubber heads of Stoic and Stagnant, my two and only best friends. Poor Stoic was the more temperamental combat dummy of the two, having injuries that made him lean to the left – some of which I may or may not have caused. It didn’t help that the manufacturer had printed his eyes out of socket. Hard to focus on deadly spear- training and being an alien vessel when you’re staring at your foe who can’t quite stare back.
I crumpled to the floor at his feet and chugged what remained of my water bottle, swallowing both the water and my feelings. How badly I wished the air was clean enough to jump into the lake below. I watched the lake’s deep waters ripple as the wind danced along it, matching my breaths to each crest and valley.
But as I dived deep into my subconscious, it proved utterly useless. Like a hydra, when I pushed one thought away, two more took its place. This time, they chose to follow my mother, who was likely notifying Nexum of yet another week with no results. I had to reach maturity. And to up the ante, she was the bearer of grave news, as I am the last of the twelve Paladins to mature. Twelve for the twelve Leviathans, twelve to save the world from itself. No pressure, nope. None at all.
As luxurious as this home was, I noticed her getting stir-crazy with each passing day. She yearned for when I would complete my training and we could return to her home, up in the mountains where the air was more manageable, where I could gain my final power I knew she so deeply desired.
I was stir-crazy too. From a young age, my dream was to see the headquarters of Nexum and to serve the Leviathans. I had only stepped into its halls once, and it was only the lobby. To this day, I knew it was my mother’s desperate attempt to re-ignite a sizzling ember. Another way to egg me on further and send me through the last stage of maturity. Ugh.
I picked at my nails, trying to channel my frenzied feelings. My entire existence was predicated on this very moment. The prophecy, written in a first-hand account with one of the Leviathans, called for Twelve Paladins to be born when Earth’s denizens have lost their way through natural evolution and the smaller influences of the Leviathans were no longer enough, where humans were prepared to send their world on a path of extinction. And so, when the first Paladin was born, and the mark of the Leviathans had come to Earth, my mother felt as if she was being called. As heartbreaking as the reality was, the honour and privilege to witness the Leviathans’ omnipotence was sacred in itself.
So, without a partner, a love-interest, or even a desire for children, she decided then and there she would bring a Paladin into the world. But my mother was not the betting type, and this? This was a lottery, and she tried to fix it.
I had heard the story from Balaur, an obstinate ingrate of a man who was the only Member of
Nexum I’d met in that teasing lobby. His son was the first Paladin to be born, and oh boy did Balaur ever try to use it.
He laughed at my mother – something I had never seen anyone else dare do – and told me how his son’s arrival had sent her into a state of panic. He was altogether off-putting, but his actions were clear once she told me he was her second-in-command. Balaur was compensating for something – of that, I was sure.
But on he went, as if trying to make a teenager feel insignificant was a hobby. He’d said that she was right to be threatened, since his son’s birth should have marked him to be Nexum’s Leader. I could never get his booming laughter out of my head.
After sitting in her study, combing through the agency’s booklets, she found donor A030- C479. Lucky for her, on August 8th 2103 I came into the world. A girl born to live a life already written. She named me Evren, Turkish for “universe” and the name of revived dragons in their mythology. An ode to the mixed man who served as donor to half of me. But, unlucky for her, my mark was a stubborn beast who fittingly decided it won’t mature.
As the nth generation described in Nexum’s texts, I was “sent” as a Paladin to usher in the next level of evolution and save the world that we had destroyed. They would ready Earth with our creators, the shapers of our history, and usher in a new age of humanity. Bring it, I had said when my mother first told me the story. I am ready.
But I wasn’t.
I was a child, unprepared. My genetics were on point – the ultimate mixed-race and true product of human evolution – but something was lacking.
It had to be closer than five millimetres now. Meditation was not the medicine today. I got up fast, kicking the empty bottle across the room. The tin clangs resonated against the concrete walls, echoing my budding frustration. The clock on the wall hit seven.
I looked to the door, my heightened Paladin senses trying to see if my mother was still stirring in her office. I could hear her talking to Inamba, one of Heads of Nexum, to get his advice on this “situation.” He used his deep timbre to settle her nerves, but it was futile. She responded in hurried, hushed tones, saying something about not being able to handle yet another day.
And… that was my exit. I stared at the door that led to our concrete hallway. Screw it.
I gave Stoic a good smack on the chest and walked towards the unused sliding door that led to our wasteland of a world. I put in the universal code, but even with it unlocked, I had to push it several times to get it open. Years of grime and decay would not hold me.
The air was slick, but I stepped further. If only my mother could see me now. It was rebellion at its meekest, but rebellion nonetheless.
I released my mane and stripped down to my sports bra and shorts, dumping my sheathed knives to the side. With one last look behind me, I jumped over the glass balcony, diving deep into the dark waters two storeys below.
A rush of water hit my ears. The garbled noise sounded as I pulled myself up to the surface. My hair chose to participate and slicked back into a nice, dark brown curtain behind my head. The unapologetic cold had numbed my running mind. I closed my eyes to face the sun, my faint freckles craving for more.
I circled around and took a moment to appreciate our glass and concrete home. It housed one of the most precious and rare book collections, and yet somehow I had learned everything I could from its library.
The base was pretty highbrow. My mother and I could have lived comfortably in the kitchen alone. The four-storey structure sat embedded in a curved inlet atop a cliff that plunged straight into deep waters. The magic of modern architecture created an illusion of it hovering over the lake below. The first two floors were concealed, tucked away into the earth, while the sparse Douglas fir and ponderosa pine hugged the exposed upper ones. Sure, there was no warmth in its bare off-white walls, square metal casings and glass accents, but it was home.
I always laughed at the irony of it all. We belonged to something so secret, and yet the house was so exposed. We truly were a perfect match for the Leviathans, for they too were something hidden in plain sight. Their existence intertwined in the myths and legends of something every human knew of – dragons. You could thank Nexum for that.
The age-old question: Why were versions of dragons found in every culture on Earth? The common answer was dinosaurs, but what if it was something more? Well, I was one of the few who knew. They were Leviathans. Even as my hand swept through this murky water, its own depths held the story of a Leviathan here in British Columbia. For centuries, their stories were told, their interactions impactful, their legends used to further influence. I didn’t know who to thank for this, whether it was the Leviathans’ idea or if it was someone like my mother who wanted secret control.
I lay back, welcoming the Okanagan Lake to hold me afloat. The air burned my throat, but it wasn’t as bad as my mother had warned. It was thick and… mossy? But what sent me on edge in the best possible way was imagining what was beneath me in the deep.
I dreamed of the day that I would meet the great N’ha-a-itk, a Leviathan at their last visit and what many locals called the Ogopogo. Their tabloids showed blurred photos of something mysterious floating, but they could never have been more wrong. N’ha-a-itk was a Leviathan, and they had not come to Earth for centuries. All those blobs were likely beavers, marmots, or even an innocent piece of driftwood trying to make its way to shore.
My mother always taught me that humans’ imagination is influenced by intent. That, without realizing, we could alter reality and see what we want to see rather than what actually exists. This didn’t stop seven-year-old me from imagining that I would find N’ha-a-itk and challenge his demon-like ways. All while practicing my backstroke, of course.
In a blissful state, my ears submerged themselves beneath the waterline. Compared to the hectic noise above, the lake below gave my frayed senses a break. The depths lulled me away, delivering a moment of peace. A moment where everything just washed away. A moment that was rudely interrupted.
I would love to read more and find out why her mark is so slow to complete.
Apologies for the delayed response.
In reply to Fantastic start!! by Jennifer Rarden
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