Dahlia loved Brawnstone as much as she hated him.
He protected her. Provided for her. Cared for her like she was a glass flower.
But it was her fault all those people had died.
Creatures. Whatever they were. Like Brawnstone, they were difficult to classify. Spliced, the humans called them. One had the shaggy golden face of a lion and the body of a large muscular man. Arsalean was his name, chief among the Elders.
Now as dead as the rest of them, thanks to her.
Brawnstone had taken her from her own people. Tasked with her capture and delivery to his masters, he had broken into the human compound like it was made of chalk. Smashed right through the wall, a stone monster breaking through reinforced concrete. Chunks of the stuff hit the floor, and dust enshrouded his features as he stomped toward her cot.
He had taken her away in her nightgown, tucking her under the enormous trench coat he wore, shielding her from the toxic rain.
It had not been a rescue.
The Elders had planned a feast in her honor. For Dahlia, the last human child. They intended to feed her, then feast on her, broadcasting her grisly dismemberment to every human compound scattered throughout the sectors. Her death would mark the end of their future. Their hopes would be crushed.
Instead, the humans saw a small-boned girl kill the twelve Spliced Elders and all of their Spliced guards with her bare hands—and whatever weapons she laid those hands upon. There would have been great rejoicing among her audience that night.
But their cheers died in their throats. For young Dahlia’s rampage had not ended with the spliced ones’ demise.
Brawnstone did not intervene. He could have, and she would not have been able to stand against him. Brawnstone was no creature of flesh but of earth. A hybrid of mythical creatures: part troll, part ogre. Designed by the Council wizards to serve the Elders without question. Yet he did not stop her, did not interfere with what she had been programmed to do: eliminate the Elders.
The human squad sent to reclaim her after her task was done had wanted to destroy Brawnstone. He was Spliced, after all. One of the enemy. But she would not let them hurt him. She did not completely understand why.
He had kidnapped her. He was a monster. Yet he had been kind to her.
Much to their alarm, she turned on the squad sent to collect her. The humans from her compound, those who had trained her, tested her, made her their killing machine. A merciless berserker in the guise of a ten-year-old girl.
She slaughtered them all.
So Dahlia the human child and Brawnstone the trollgre were now on the run. From their own people and each other’s.
The humans wanted to reclaim Dahlia and adjust her programming. Something in her little head had snapped, undoubtedly caused by all the blood she had spilled. They never should have expected so much from her. They would have to fix her.
They also wanted to blast Brawnstone into dust—as did the Spliced.
Of course his people blamed him for the Council’s demise, for bringing the girl to the Elders in the first place. It mattered little that he had been ordered to do so. The Spliced hierarchy lay in shambles, and there was only the trollgre to blame.
Their plans for Dahlia remained. They had not forsaken their desire to destroy the child and all that she stood for.
Toxic rain, engineered by the Council wizards, targeted human DNA. It burned their flesh and kept them from breeding and increasing their population. As they could no longer reproduce, their days as a species were numbered. But Dahlia gave them hope that where there was one child, there could be another. And perhaps another. Somewhere deep in the Wild, untouched by the rain.
The humans wore gas masks and hooded trench coats, pelted by the rain that fizzed and bubbled across their shoulders like acid mucus before oozing down their backs. Muzzled children strained ahead on leather leashes, creaking as they twitched this way and that.
Only they weren’t children, not really. Young Spliced offspring, stolen from their families and forced to sniff out a trail becoming more difficult to follow by the hour.
“This is pointless.” Captain Reginald signaled the squad to halt, raising a clenched fist clad in a form-fitting glove. His voice was muffled by the mask but loud enough for all five of his soldiers to hear. “They can’t smell anything in this mess.”
“Not sure about that, sir,” said Eyan, his lieutenant. She stood erect, statuesque, surveying the children as they shifted uneasily in the mud. “They’ve got better noses for it than we do.”
“Don’t let their dog-faces fool you. Even the best tracker wouldn’t be able to follow what we’re looking for. Not in this downpour.”
“What do you suggest, then?”
“We make camp.” He pointed out a cave thirty meters off to the right. It would have been the entrance to an underground recharging station for electric vehicles in the Old World. The ruins of the building above were now choked with lush jungle foliage and thick creeping vines that dangled into the cavern’s mouth. “Wait for things to clear up.”
Eyan nodded, beckoning to the squad to head toward that substructure. Their captain followed as she led the way.
Her heart ached for the Spliced on those leashes, treated like animals. Perhaps not even so well. These little ones were mere slaves. Gifted creatures, able to track better than anyone else, treated as tools. Not living things.
Fed only to keep them useful. Clothed and sheltered only to keep them alive. Never spoken to as people.
She could not allow herself to get close to them. If she did, then it would hurt too much when they were pushed beyond their limits and expired. That was the reason she told herself, anyway.
The truth? They frightened her. With their powerful senses, they might be able to see past her carefully manufactured facade that fooled the humans. The young Spliced might be able to recognize her for what she was.
One of them.
Without the wizards’ elixir, Brawnstone the trollgre would crumble to pieces. Already, the surface of his massive frame cracked like desert hardpan, paining him to move even in the slightest. Too long had he gone without the magical cure.
A genius way for the Elders to ensure loyalty from their devoted slaves. Keep them coming back for the stuff. Keep them from straying too far.
Dahlia looked up at him with a frown. It could have been a look of concern. Or, just as likely, an angry expression. She had begun distancing herself from him, sitting meters away when they ate. Close enough to the fire that it glinted in her eyes; far enough for her small frame to be cloaked in shadows.
He knew the burden she bore. She carried the memories of what she had done, and there was nothing he could do to help with that. For a child to have committed such atrocities, there was sure to be permanent damage. In her spirit, her soul.
All he could do was continue to protect her. Feed her. Shelter her. Provide for her needs. And keep far ahead of the human hunters and Spliced trackers on their trail by delving ever deeper into the Wild. A trollgre could sense such things, attuned as he was to the vibrations of the earth and those that moved across it. With any luck, their journey would continue unimpeded by their pursuers.
She needed to be among her own kind again. But not ones like those who had programmed her. No, she needed to live with a peaceful group of survivors, a human community left untainted by the rebels, untouched by the Spliced. Perhaps somewhere out in the wilderness, there might be people with no connectivity. Off the grid. Humans who had not seen the broadcast of Dahlia’s feast.
Did such people exist? Unlikely. But Brawnstone aimed to find them...someday. The child did not belong to him, as much as he cared for her. She could not live the rest of her life with him. His days were numbered, while hers stretched out before her as promising as a golden sunrise. For now, though, the two of them belonged together. He liked to think she was safer with him by her side. At times he even believed it to be true.
“I’m tired of rabbit.” She spat out what she had been chewing and tossed the rest of her meat into the fire. “Isn’t there anything else out here?”
“Edible? Yes.” Brawnstone’s voice rumbled in the echoing confines of the cave. It had belonged to an animal long ago, before the Uprising. A bear, perhaps. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Safe to eat? No.”
“Why not?” she challenged.
He lifted the remains of his rabbit, a bloody mess in the palm of his hand.
“These creatures are different from most. Some would say they have evolved.” He paused, studying her expression, wondering if he had used the right word. Her frown did not look like one of confusion. “They do not forage among the plants above, tainted by toxic rain. They eat roots and worms and drink from underground springs. They are smarter.”
“Not smart enough.” She nodded toward the meat in his hand.
“They will learn not to make their burrows so shallow.” Eventually. After he had crushed the earth to find a few more. To feed himself and young Dahlia.
Before meeting her, he had never eaten. The Elders’ elixir, that special chemical compound they had engineered for their trollgre slaves, was meat and drink for him as long as he could remember. But now he found in its absence that the taste of meat served to keep his mind focused. It did nothing to heal his cracking hide, but at least his insides did not tremble like frail branches under his weight.
His inner self had yet to crack.
“I can’t eat anymore. It makes me sick to my stomach.”
“Very well.” He finished off the carcass with one bite, crushing flesh and bones alike before swallowing the dead creature whole. “What will you eat then?”
“You must eat, Dahlia.”
“I said I’m not hungry!” She wrapped herself in her scrawny arms and fought a shiver.
“Are you cold?” He gestured toward the fire he had built for her. “Come closer, warm yourself.”
“I’m not cold.”
“You look it.”
“Why do you care?” she spat. “You think you owe me? Is that it? They were going to blow you to pieces, and I stopped them.” She trembled, either from a chill or at the memory. “Are you a killer too? Is that why you’re fine with this? You think we’re two of a kind.”
“We are both being hunted.”
“I killed the Elders. And those humans who raised me. I killed all of them.” She shook her head, staring into the flickering light. “I deserve to be hunted. They should kill me for what I did.”
“They will not have the chance.”
“There you go again!” She leapt to her feet with a scowl. “Always trying to protect me. Has it ever occurred to you that I don’t deserve your protection? That I don’t even want it?”
His turn to frown. Confused by her outburst. “What are you saying, Dahlia?”
“When the rain stops, we split up. You go your way, and I go mine.”
His giant head pivoted side to side. “You do not know the Wild. There are things worse than humans or spliced ones to contend with here. Dangers—”
“I can take care of myself.”
He could not argue with that. “Get some rest. In the morning, we will talk about it.”
“I’m done talking.” She turned her back on him, the firelight straining to touch her frail shoulders and the filthy nightgown she wore. It had been a pristine white the night he had taken her. Not bloodstained. Not dirty.
His fault, all that had befallen her. If he had not obeyed the Elders, if he had not stolen her from her bed, then none of this would have happened. She would not be bearing this burden too heavy for anyone’s shoulders. She would still be clean.
Was that why he insisted on protecting her?
“You will need this.” He reached out with one hand, his long arm crossing the distance between them.
She half-turned to find his black trench coat extended toward her. Blinking, she took it from him and swallowed back some sort of emotion. She wrapped herself in it tentatively, enveloping her. It would protect her from the rain, and it would drag behind her, confusing her tracks. She would be safe.
“Thank you,” she said. Almost too quiet to be heard.
Eyan watched as Parsons bedded down the spliced children. That’s what he should have been doing, as one would a pack of valued animals. Feed them. Get them to lie down. Make sure they were comfortable for the night, despite the rain. Check their tethers to ensure they would not run away. Take off their muzzles.
But Parsons did none of these things. He barked curses at them, threatened them, kicked them to the ground when they talked back to him. When they talked at all. They were hungry and exhausted and frightened, far from home. Far from their parents, from anyone who loved them.
“Get down and stay down,” he shouted at them.
“Please—some food,” one croaked, her throat dry without water.
She received Parsons’s boot in the face for her efforts. Thankfully, the muzzle protected her nose from being shattered. She fell back with a sharp cry.
Parsons. Holy men from the ancient past. But this man had nothing in common with them, unless they too were brutes with more muscle than brains and necks wide enough to swallow their bald, scarred heads.
He scowled at Eyan. “What’re you looking at?”
She hadn’t realized she was staring. “They will not track well for us if they are starving. Or if they are dead.”
“Then we’ll get us some more.”
He spat at the girl who had asked for something to eat, and she flinched, raising an arm to catch the spray. The others clustered around her on the ground, six of them in total.
“We were lucky to have caught this brood.” Eyan shook her head. “They won’t stray far from their homes here. Not in the Wild.”
“You know this how? Because you spent so much time among their kind?” He glared at her as he encroached upon her breathing space, close enough to share a good whiff of his reek. Proof the masks were useless against the rain’s fertility-killing fumes, but humans needed their safety measures. They found security in ritual. “Careful now.” He grinned at her, exposing gaps where a few teeth had once lived. “We might think you’ve gone native.”
Captain Reginald’s footsteps echoed across the filthy concrete at the mouth of the cave. He glanced outside at the tracker children huddled together under the thunderous night sky.
“Are they fed?” Reginald’s voice echoed. Firelight at his back cast his tall, muscular build into silhouette.
Parsons faced the captain. “Eyan’s taking care of it, sir.” He strode past her, his boots kicking up mud in his wake.
“Half a ration each, no more,” Reginald said, turning back into the cave with Parsons at his side.
Eyan ground her teeth. The last thing she wanted was to approach these children, to be close enough for them to smell her. The gas mask and hooded coat she wore would make no difference. They would see right through it. They would know. And if it meant keeping out from under Parsons’ boot for even an hour’s respite, they would tell. Redirect his wrath onto Eyan instead.
Or not. Perhaps she had more to offer them than a break from Parsons’ abuse.
Fishing deep in the pockets of her coat, she retrieved three ration bars. Her boots sloshed through the mud as she approached the children.
“Hungry?” Her voice was quiet beneath the rainfall, but they heard her well enough. They perked up, eyes focused on her hands. “Here.” She broke the bars in two and passed out each half-ration.
The children stuttered forward to snatch the pieces from her hands. Then back they went, keeping out of arm’s reach. Ready to scurry if it looked like she would kick them.
Savagely they bit into the rations, stuffing them through gaps in their wire muzzles. In less time than it took her to break each bar in two, they had consumed every piece.
“You did well today,” Eyan said, watching them watch her. Wondering what they were thinking.
“We did not find your quarry,” one boy said. “We have failed you.”
“That could not be helped,” she replied.
“Will your captain really let us go if we do?” said another.
“He won’t,” said the girl Parsons had booted in the face. “They will kill us when we are no longer useful.”
The others sucked in their breath, aghast at her impudence. Had she learned nothing?
Eyan did not kick the child. Instead she dropped into a squat, her movements so fast and unexpected that the five others scurried backward in fear. Only the brave girl did not move, staring into the bug-like face of Eyan’s mask.
“What is your name?” Eyan said.
The girl frowned. “Why are you different?”
Eyan clenched her jaw. Here it was. Exposed, at last.
“You don’t hurt us. You don’t call us names. You treat us like...” The girl shook her head. “Like people.”
“Because you are people. Human, Spliced, it makes no difference. We are all people, just different sorts.”
“Even Dahlia?” The girl’s snout twitched behind the muzzle. “A person would not do what she did.”
Unsurprising, that word of the atrocity had spread far throughout the realm.
“That’s because she’s a robot,” said one of the boys. “Human wizards programmed her to murder the Elders. She’s their trained assassin.”
“All the human wizards are dead, you idiot,” said another boy. “The Elders saw to that a long time ago.”
“Is that true?” said the girl. Her gaze had yet to leave Eyan. “Did your people program her?”
“I’m not sure what was done to Dahlia,” Eyan lied. “But she is a girl, just like you.”
The other children scoffed. The girl did not.
“She is human and you are Spliced, but you are both people,” Eyan said.
“Then why are we tracking her like an animal?”
Eyan folded her arms. “You tell me.”
The girl’s frown rumpled her canine forehead. “My people say she should be executed for what she did to the Council. Your people probably want to reprogram her. Or punish her.”
My people, Eyan mused. Do I have a people anymore? Or had she played both sides too long to belong to either one? Chief Elder Arsalean, her master, was dead. She no longer reported to him all that she learned while wearing this human facade. She was no longer a double agent. Merely a ronin, doing what she had to in order to survive.
“You do not smell like them...” The girl wrinkled her snout.
“That is because I bathe.” Eyan got to her feet in a single fluid movement and backed away.
“Is it true that your kind made us?”
Eyan was glad the mask hid her surprise. The impertinence of youth, bouncing from one non-sequitur to the next.
“You created us for your amusement and put us in zoos. Right?”
Eyan dipped her head. “Long ago, yes.”
“Our genes were spliced. Animal DNA combined with that of...”
“Criminals,” one of the boys spat. “Our great-grandparents were humans from prisons.”
“We... cannot always be proud of our past,” Eyan said.
“Bet you’ve been regretting it for a while now,” said the boy, and the other children chuckled.
Not the girl. She narrowed her gaze up at Eyan. “Why do they hate us?”
They. Not you.
Eyan half-turned toward the human squad in the cave. “Perhaps we fear you,” she said quietly, so only the girl could hear.
“Humans do not seem afraid of anything. They do not give up, no matter what my kind does to them. They are determined to regain power over this world.” She paused, and her chin fell. “To put us in zoos again.”
No, little one. Eyan’s eyes stung at the thought. They will kill every last one of us.
“Would you like to sleep without that muzzle on?” Eyan kept her voice low.
The girl did not blink. “Your captain would never allow it.”
“He doesn’t need to know. I will rise early in the morning before the others are awake and put it back on. I have the key right here.” She patted her pocket.
“Why are you being nice to me?” The girl pulled back. The other children crept forward, surrounding her. A united front. A valiant effort.
“Think about it,” Eyan tossed over her shoulder, trudging through the muck toward the firelight and humans inside the concrete cave.
One of many such caverns, where the zookeepers of old used to park their vehicles before this overgrown jungle spread everywhere, infiltrating the terrain for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. An unnatural ecosystem? Of course it was, owing its existence to the splicing of native and nonnative species. The humans had not been able to help themselves, once they learned how to act like gods. Abundant jungle vegetation now overran ruined cities and forests; pine trees and other conifers thrived even as tropical plants sprouted from the ground all around them. Somehow, the natural world had managed to reach a state of equilibrium without wars, without bloodshed; sharing the same territory without either side subjugating the other.
Eyan watched the humans as she approached them. The dead eyes of their gas masks, staring silently into the campfire, made them each look like some unknown variety of spliced creature.
Brawnstone did not want to let her go. It was not safe for her out there all alone. Certainly, she could defend herself; she had proven as much in the Elders’ banquet hall. Neither Spliced nor Human posed a threat to her fighting skills, her ability to maim and destroy life.
But there were other creatures in these wild lands that she had never encountered before, apparitions that made the monsters of her experience seem tame in comparison. Things that had no names, for they defied description. Terrors they were, and they drew no distinctions between bodies of flesh, Spliced or Human.
For them, all flesh was food.
They left Brawnstone alone. He was a creature of the earth. Dust and stone was not the most delicious of fare. And judging from his current rate of decay without the Elders’ elixir, soon he would return to the elements from which he had been conjured to serve the Council long ago.
From dust to dust.
He did not know how long he had left, but he would spend the time that remained following young Dahlia at a distance. Tracking her through the sodden undergrowth, remaining far enough behind that she would not hear his lumbering footsteps, the shudder of the earth beneath his weight.
Stealth was not his companion, but he was patient. He would follow her into the very heart of the Wild, if that was the path she chose. And if he heard anything dare to attack her, he would plunge through the jungle forest, splintering anything in his path, an unstoppable force.
Toxic rain oozed between the cracks of his stone-like exterior, serving to accelerate his deterioration. The coat he had given Dahlia would have helped stave off the effects with its protective sealant designed by the Council wizards, but better she have it. He could live with the pain.
The rain would have melted the flesh off her birdlike bones.
Movement—not ahead but behind. The trackers, undoubtedly, dogged in their determination to reclaim the last human child. They had followed Brawnstone and Dahlia through the Wild for weeks now, but never had they come this close to their quarry. Perhaps now they had help.
Brawnstone stepped among a clump of broad-leafed plants and curled himself into a shape easily mistaken for an oversized boulder. One of the rare talents a trollgre possessed: transforming himself into an immovable lump of granite.
Tracker children strained ahead on leashes, muzzled and grunting over the sound of their creaking leather harnesses. Behind them, jogging to keep up, humans in masks and long coats followed, gripping the leashes with gloved hands. Six Spliced children in all. Six humans.
No, only five. One of them was not what she appeared to be.
As the others pulled ahead, she lagged behind, stopping to adjust her mask, perhaps to catch her breath. She gestured for the others to continue onward, that she would catch up. They didn’t pause in their pursuit.
“She left you,” Eyan said once her squad was out of earshot.
“I let her go,” Brawnstone rumbled, and the earth beneath him trembled at the sound of his voice. His frame cracked further as he resumed his natural shape, towering over the intruder.
“You’ve looked better.” She swept her gaze across his frame.
“You look like one of them.”
“Well, that’s the idea, isn’t it? Blend in, survive.” She released a self-deprecating laugh. “We do what we must, things being what they are.” She turned away from him, the insectoid eyes of her mask scanning the foliage ahead. “How far away is she now?”
“Far enough. They will not catch her.” He would not allow it.
“Our trackers are good.”
“They are not human.”
“Ironic, isn’t it?”
“How so?” the trollgre said.
“For once, both Human and Spliced are working together toward a common end. Perhaps peace between our kinds will be possible. Someday.”
“Not in our lifetime. No one seems to want peace these days.”
“As far as you are aware, trollgre. How could you be expected to know of such things, residing at the very bottom of the evolutionary ladder?” She regarded him for a moment. Then her tone became serious. “I haven’t been able to locate more of the elixir.”
“I did not ask you to.” Nor had he expected that she would.
“The wizards,” she spat. “There is no magic in this world. Only human technology the Spliced claimed as their own and developed after eradicating the human scientists. With the Elders gone and the government in disarray, production of the elixir has ceased. Human rebels have destroyed the stores. All this to say, your days are numbered, my friend.”
“This I know.” He lumbered forward, out of the overgrowth, following the path of the human trackers.
Eyan followed, doubling her stride to keep abreast of him. “So what now? You protect the child until you disintegrate? Even though it is obvious she does not want your protection—or your company?”
He ignored her questions. “What will you do, shapeshifter? Continue pretending to be one of them? Help them capture her?” Brawnstone chuckled, and it was the sound of low thunder. “Choose another path. Or it will be you who disintegrates, courtesy of my fist.”
“Idle threats. Is that what we’ve come to?” She shook her head, disappointed. “I have my own endgame in mind. And no, it does not involve capturing Dahlia. But it will put these humans in their place.”
“Care to lend a hand?”
He halted in his tracks. Pivoted to face her. “If this is some trick, listen well—I have nothing to lose.”
Her mask dipped as she nodded. “Understood.”
He clenched his fists. Dust drifted to the ground as his knuckles cracked. “Then count me in.”
Dahlia was alone, surrounded by the alien world of jungle forest. The whisper of a humid breeze, through branches. The rich smell of wet earth and leaves. The ooze of toxic rain, dripping without end. The suction and slurp of the mud clutching at her boots.
But they weren’t hers. She’d taken them from one of the smaller spliced creatures she’d killed in the Elders’ banquet hall. After snapping its neck like a dry twig.
She cringed at the memory and pulled Brawnstone’s coat close about her. It dragged behind like a long cloak. She pretended it did more than protect her. That it made her invisible.
Things moved in shadows at the edge of her vision, spying on her with lidless bulbous yellow eyes. They whisked away out of sight whenever she turned to give them her full attention. Studying her. Planning an attack? She struggled to count how many, but she knew they outnumbered her.
That did not matter. She had been outnumbered before.
Confidently she strode through the realm of these silent observers. If they wished her harm, there was little she could do about it until they decided to reveal themselves. And their intent.
Where was she going? Not in circles, she hoped. She kept the rising sun on her right as she forged deeper into the Wild. Far from the city ruins, where the Elders had ruled with an iron fist. Far from the compound where she had been trained by human rebels, destined to be their ultimate soldier.
What did she hope to find out here? Spliced who did not hate humans? Such did not exist in the world. Humans, then—but unlike those who had raised her. She was done with being a puppet. She had her own mind, as she had proved to Brawnstone by setting off alone.
He had been good to her. But she would not remain in his company merely to appease his guilt. She needed time alone to find out who she really was.
A human girl, perhaps the last of her kind—if she was to believe what she had been told. A killer—that could not be denied. But now that she had performed the duty for which she was programmed, perhaps she would never feel the compulsion to kill again. Defending herself was one thing, but she would not commit murder. No more of that.
A reptilian shape with leathery wings swooped over her head and she ducked, feet slipping in the mud. The thing screeched at her as it passed, lashing out with a sharp talon that whipped across her cheek. She cried out and raised a hand inside Brawnstone’s coat to defend herself.
The hood had a gash in it now. The palm of her hand came away from her face with blood on it. Too much for a small incision. She stuck out her tongue and found the coppery taste dribbling down her cheek.
The flying brutes converged upon her then. She could not tell how many. She could only feel their attack, strong arms and legs striking her, claws tearing at her borrowed coat. Screeching manically as they grabbed at her.
If not for the rain, she would have thrown off the coat and had at them. Grab one by the leg to swing like a club against the others. They looked like their DNA had been spliced from that of a monkey’s, an iguana’s, and a bat’s. Bulging yellow eyes that refused to blink. Fangs that grinned in a gruesome mockery of delight.
She could not fight, given the circumstances, and there was no shelter, not there in the middle of the jungle forest. So she ran as fast as she could, across the slippery mud and through the broad-leafed overgrowth, slapping at the creatures when they struck, using the torn coat as a barrier between them. She reached for a fallen branch to use as a weapon, but the rain on it burned her fingers and she jerked back her hand with a yelp.
The electric sound of a charged prod sizzled behind her. She spun around and lost her footing, plunging to the ground.
“Don’t be afraid,” the stranger said. Human, but the youngest she had ever seen. Closer to adulthood than she was, he stood over her in an aura of flickering light. It was as though a protective dome enshrouded him from the top of his head to his feet, made entirely of energy. It covered her too, now. “They can’t touch you.”
The vile creatures swept past his head and lashed out at the energy shield. Charged sparks flew on contact, and the monsters screeched in dismay, angrily wheeling away. High up into the trees they went to glare down at their prey and the one who dared to interfere with their hunt.
“Here,” the stranger said, reaching to help her up with a hand the color of hot cocoa.
“What are they?” She took his hand, her flesh exposed. But the toxic rain did not penetrate the energy shield, merely evaporating into mist on contact.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen chiropters before.” He laughed, but it was a good-natured sound. His eyes were bright and genuine. “What are you doing out here?”
“What are you doing out here?” she said.
“Noticed some movement beyond the perimeter on our proximity scanner.” He shrugged. “Looked like somebody might be a little lost. Not the best place for it, considering the locals.” He glanced up into the trees. “Thought I’d check things out.”
“Where do you live?”
“So do I.” She crossed her arms.
He laughed again. “No, you don’t. If I had to guess, I’d say you are far from home.”
She dropped back the generous hood of Brawnstone’s coat, and it hung halfway down her back. She pulled the coat tight around her.
“What’s your name?” she said.
“Marcus.” Another smile.
“And what is... this?” She gestured toward the sparkling aura around them.
“Electrostatic shielding. An energy field generated by this thing.” He tapped a flat metal device attached to his belt, next to a sheathed hunting knife. He wore simple woven clothes, not the camouflaged uniforms of her compound. “Needs to be recharged every few hours, so I hope you don’t plan on standing out here long. You got someplace to go?”
“Look at me.” She narrowed her gaze at him. “Have you seen me before?”
“Nope. Can’t say I have.”
“Don’t you watch broadcasts from the city?”
“No signal. The energy fields interfere with it.” He shrugged. “Why? You famous or something?”
She looked up through the shield at the yellow eyes in the trees. So many of them. They would have killed her had Marcus not intervened.
“How many are in your compound?”
He frowned at that. “Well, we’ve got what you might call a village half a kilometer due north. No more than thatched huts, really, but the generators keep us well protected.” He watched her carefully. “Were you with the rebels?”
“What do you know of them?”
“Not much. People fighting back, trying to take what the Spliced took from us all those years ago. Out here, we don’t get involved with that stuff. Just live each day the best we can, you know? Not always easy, people being the way we are, but we try to make our own peace.”
It sounded wonderful. “Can you show me?” she said.
He scratched at his chin. “We’re not too keen on welcoming outsiders, but seeing how you’re all by yourself... I doubt we’d turn you away. That is, unless you were followed—”
Without warning, the creatures above fled from their perches, flapping their great leather wings in a startling burst of motion. On the ground, small spliced canines in muzzles burst from the jungle with vicious growls to surround Dahlia and Marcus. The humans on the other end of their leashes stepped out of the overgrowth, wearing hooded coats like Brawnstone’s. Gas masks covered their faces, hiding their features, making them all look alike.
Dahlia threw down her coat and grabbed Marcus’s knife from its sheath before he knew what was happening. Gripping it at the ready, blade angled toward the ground, she stood in front of him in a protective posture. As long as she didn’t stray more than half a meter from him and his shield, the rain could not touch her.
“Yeah, I’d say she was followed.” A large masked man swaggered forward, chuckling. “How old are you, boy?”
Marcus said nothing.
“The reason I ask... is standing right in front of you. Allow me to introduce Dahlia, the last human child. Or so we thought.” The man halted just outside the glow of the electrostatic barrier. “Time to come home, kid.”
“I don’t know you,” she said.
“The name’s Parsons, and I’ve come to rescue you. How’s that?”
“Don’t need rescuing,” she said, glancing at the young canines. They stared at her in mute fascination now. Had they never seen a human girl before?
“We’re taking you back, just the same. Need to fix your wiring. Don’t you remember killing your own kind?” He chuckled again, and it wasn’t a nice sound. “Yeah, you’ve got a screw loose, kiddo.”
He reached for her then, his hand passing through the shield as if it wasn’t there. She stabbed his wrist with the blade, cutting through glove and flesh to bone, and he jerked back, howling foul language. The other humans glanced at each other. The young spliced ones grinned.
“Why didn’t the shield stop him?” Dahlia asked Marcus.
“The energy protects us against the rain and anything with Spliced DNA,” he said quietly.
“But our kind can pass through?”
He nodded. “Are you really their last human child?”
“That’s what they tell me,” she said.
“What happened to the others?”
She didn’t know.
“You’re going to make this interesting,” Parsons said, reaching into a pocket of his coat and producing a gun. He pointed it at her. “Go on,” he said to Marcus. “Get out of here. This doesn’t concern you.”
Marcus didn’t move.
“Stand down, Parsons,” said one of the humans.
“She wants to play rough, Captain,” Parsons said. He tucked his bleeding wound into his pocket.
“Can you blame her? After what we put her through?” Captain gestured for the canines to clear a path, and they did, their eyes never leaving Dahlia. “We have been searching for you, child. You are very special to us. We need to make sure you are all right.”
“She looks fine to me,” said another human who strode up behind Captain. Dahlia recognized her voice: the shapeshifter Brawnstone knew.
Parsons cursed. “Stay back, Eyan.”
Eyan reached into her pockets and withdrew what looked like standard rations. After all the dead rabbit Dahlia had consumed over the past weeks, those tasteless bars looked delicious. The young canines encircled her as she broke the rations in half and distributed them among the Spliced.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Parsons snarled.
Dahlia noticed Eyan slip something else to one of the small Spliced—a silver key.
“They have served us well,” Eyan said, standing between Parsons and the canines as they gobbled down their food. “They should be rewarded.”
“They should be put down. Abominations is what they are.” Parsons faced Captain. “We don’t need them anymore, sir. It’s a waste of resources to keep them around.”
“We could let them go,” Eyan said.
Captain hesitated. With the masks, it was impossible to see any of their expressions, what was going on behind their eyes.
“It’s not the way of things,” Captain said. He glanced at the young spliced ones. “Look at them. Their eyes so full of hate. They will grow up to be our enemies.”
“No one can see the future, sir,” Eyan insisted, turning her back to the Spliced. Parsons stood beside her, both of them blocking Captain’s view.
“Are they—?” Marcus whispered into Dahlia’s ear.
She shook her head at him, and he stopped talking. They watched as, unseen by the masked humans, the young Spliced passed the small key to one another and unfastened first their muzzles, then their harnesses, with barely a sound, eyes fixed on their captors as they worked.
“For now, our priority is Dahlia,” Captain said. He faced her, his hands out to his sides. “You need not fear us, child. Please. Put the knife away. We must take you back to the city. There is much to be done.”
“I’m not going back,” Dahlia said. “You can try to take me, but I will fight. I’m good at it now.”
Captain hesitated. “That you are...”
“What the—!” Parsons fired his weapon once, then twice more, jerking around in circles as the young canines leapt at him snarling with fangs flashing, dodging the tranq darts he sent their way.
The rest of the squad hung back, unwilling to risk having their coats torn by the Spliced. They drew their guns but didn’t seem to know where to point them.
Eyan peeled off her mask to reveal a stoic face that shone like liquid metal. She shed her coat and gloves as well, exposing a body of the same quicksilver substance, rippling and undulating as she moved lightning-quick to disarm Parsons and the other humans, crushing the weapons like plastic toys.
Then she faced Parsons.
“I’d run,” she said.
He stared at her in horror before taking off at full tilt, the canines chasing him and the other humans into the jungle forest.
The only human who remained was Captain, and he stood like he had been turned to stone, his head pivoting between Dahlia and Eyan.
“You’re... one of them,” he managed. “All this time. A Spliced spy.”
He went for his gun, holstered under his coat, but she was too fast. A whip of shimmering liquid snatched the weapon from his hand as soon as he had it in his grip. She caught it in one hand and aimed the muzzle at him. Then she let her aim drift away.
“You should go see about Parsons. I told the children to be as unkind to him as he’s been to them. They seemed to like the idea.” She paused. “Or I could tranq you. Your choice.”
Cursing under his breath about this not being the end of things between them, Captain strode away with all the dignity he could muster, disappearing into the overgrowth. Eyan watched him go, waiting to face Dahlia until after a sound like thunder reverberated the ground at their feet, followed by hoarse screams.
“That would be your trollgre,” Eyan said. “He volunteered to chase them out of the Wild.”
“Brawnstone?” Dahlia lowered the knife. “He’s working with you?”
“We had a common goal today.” She narrowed her gaze at Marcus. “Speak, human. Do you mean this girl any harm?”
“No, no I don’t,” he stammered, amazed by the sight of her mirrored skin. “I only just met her—”
“Do you know who she is? What she is?”
“The-uh, the last human child?”
“That’s right. And you’re going to protect her. Got it?”
“Yes.” He bobbed his head up and down, eyes unblinking.
“I’ll be watching,” Eyan said, “to make sure that you do.”
“And... Brawnstone?” Dahlia said. Hopeful.
Eyan smiled. “He might be, too.”
The mighty trollgre stood outside the window to her new bedroom. This was not a compound made of concrete and steel. The buildings here were made of wood and thatch, protected by a dome of electrostatic shielding. A barrier he could not penetrate or else his entire body would burst into a cloud of dust.
Apparently there lived among these humans one of their last great wizards. She had given Brawnstone his own generator, his own shield that would protect him from the toxic rain. His hide was still deteriorating, little by little, but perhaps this would buy him a bit more time.
“I wish you could come inside,” Dahlia said, leaning on the windowsill and watching him with a frown. Of concern, perhaps. A bandage stuck to her face where she had been sliced by a flying demon. Would there be a scar?
“I am too bulky,” he said. “There would be no room.”
“I’m sorry I... ran off.”
“It is good that you did.” He nodded. “You found this place. These seem to be good people.” Close to two dozen, and three of the women were pregnant. A good sign. Miraculous.
“Others might find it. Bad people.”
He shook his head. “We will not allow it.”
“You and Eyan?”
“We have nowhere else to go.” They both were ronin now, and they were dying. Brawnstone without the Elders’ elixir, Eyan without the disposable skinsuits they had designed to hold her essence. Like him, she was a mythical creature. A shapeshifter without a container, it took all her efforts to keep from spilling out across the ground. “We will keep those who would wish you harm out of the Wild.”
She nodded, looking sleepy all of a sudden. She had a warm bed inside. And the good food a growing child needed. Not just rabbit.
“Goodnight, Brawnstone,” she said. “See you in the morning.” Then, more alert, she stared at him with a focused intensity. “I love you.”
The trollgre felt warmth stir within his chest. A peculiar feeling.
“Goodnight, Dahlia,” he said as she turned away from the window.
Brawnstone curled himself into a massive boulder to sit outside the hut of the only human he had ever loved, where he would remain as long as she allowed it.