Published by: RadiantTeen
Release Date: July 11, 2017
Contributors: Amber R. Duell
Genre: Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction, Romance, Young Adult
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A GOD OF WAR SEEKING RESTORATION.
AN UNWILLING SACRIFICIAL BRIDE.
BETRAYAL THAT COULD DESTROY THEM BOTH.
“[E]very fiber of my being is woven from the rage of mortals.”
Theodric, the young God of War, has a talent for inciting conflict and bloodshed. After being stripped of his powers by his older brother, King of Gods, he sets out to instigate a mortal war to prove himself worthy of being restored to power.
“I loved Kisk once; it was my home… But that was before. This is now.”
Sixteen-year-old Cassia, like many in the modern era, believes gods and goddesses to be just a myth. Enemy to her country and an orphan of the war, she has no time for fairy tales. That’s until religious zealots from Theo’s sect offer her up as a sacrifice.
Can Cassia and Theo end the mortal war and return balance to the earth and heavens? Or, will their game of fate lead down a path of destruction, betrayal, and romance neither of them saw coming?
The musky hint of smoke follows me through the ruined Kisken city, over twisted metal and jutting pipes. The once-bustling tourist destination is hard to navigate without moonlight, but there isn’t time to be careful. Not tonight. The handle of the sledgehammer digs into my shoulder as I find the edge of town and follow a line of olive trees toward the cracked highway.
With a deep breath, cold ocean air fills my lungs. War is a captivating, magnetic disorder. And it’s mine. Only the God of War can decide when and how it ends, and right now I’m perfectly happy to let it rage on despite what my brother wants. He may be older, and the King of the Gods, but this is my decision.
My muscles tighten at the sound of my sister’s voice—especially this sister—but I don’t break my stride. “What are you doing here, Astra?”
She catches up to me in steel gray fatigues, her honey hair braided and tucked under a black beret. A round, blue pin with a red triangle at its center is stuck through the stiff wool. “Working,” she replies.
“Right.” I raise an eyebrow and scan the uniform. It suits her, despite her small frame, but it’s nothing the Goddess of Love would ever think of wearing normally. Not with pride, anyway. “When did you enlist in the Asgyan army?”
She tugs at the wide, buttoned cuffs and crinkles her nose. “Most of the men and women deployed on this forsaken island have families waiting at home. If I have to wear this thing to bring a few of them peace of mind, I will.”
Of course she will. She loves mortals as much as they love her, even if no one believes we exist anymore. Love is the one true universal obsession. It’s said to overcome even death. Something to be longed for and placed on a pedestal. Something to live and breathe, fight and die for. But I prefer the cold, hard revenge that encompasses my heart. It’s made of stronger stuff. It’s reliable.
We walk in silence past barren fruit trees and thorny brush until we reach a rusted guardrail. I step over it while Astra scrambles to keep up with my long stride. Raw sewage assaults my nostrils. An icy breeze nips at the back of my neck and sends debris skating over the parched ground. The overpass isn’t much farther; the pillars black shadows in the distance.
“Where are you going?” Astra asks.
I shift the hammer to my other shoulder. “Don’t worry about it.”
She folds her arms across her chest. “It doesn’t mean you’re weak if you listen to Ebris, you know. This island has been a battleground for over a year now, and we’re all tired. The troops on both sides are at the end of their rope, and Kiskens are on the verge of extinction.” She motions toward the flattened city behind us. “I know you don’t like being told what to do, but he’s right. This war is too much. It needs to stop.”
“Ebris might like to think he owns me, but he doesn’t,” I snap. “He doesn’t own this.”
“If he wants to stop the war, he should talk to Drea. She created the famine that turned Asgya into a wasteland. If she had offered them any hope, they wouldn’t have turned to Volkana for help.” I focus on my destination to avoid my sister’s stare. It’s common knowledge the Volks take any opportunity to infiltrate another country, but no one expected the Asgyans to drag the Kiskens into it. Not even me. “I’m only playing the hand I was dealt.”
“Don’t be a child,” Astra says with an edge.
“A child? You’re nineteen. Don’t act like you know better than I do when you only have two years on me.”
“Two mortal years.”
A breath heaves from my lungs. Two years is still two years, even if time moves differently in our realm. “I don’t interfere with Ebris’ business or yours. I don’t deserve this,” I say.
Astra scoffs. “Ebris respects you; we all do. You’re our brother and we love you but—”
I grind my feet into the pavement. None of my siblings respect me. They think I’m too young, too angry, too reckless to understand the consequences of war, but they’re wrong. Understanding and caring are two different things. Lesser evils are still evil and hard choices are still hard, but someone has to make them. I turn to face her.
“Astra, go back.”
“If you would only be open minded,” she says in a rush. “I know you remember the Ostran War.”
I stand rigid. Heat coils through my body, a spring ready to snap. I remember everything about that war. Including what it cost me. “That was a long time ago,” I say through my teeth.
“It was a mistake,” she says. “Look what you’re reduced to. Before Ebris stripped your power, you could’ve fixed this with a flick of your hand.”
The hammer drops to the ground with a low thud. My chest pitches under the pressure to control my breathing, to control myself. “It only became a mistake when everyone else tried to control the situation. I knew what I was doing then and I know what I’m doing now. Don’t turn this into another disaster.” I take a deep breath through my nose. It’s no use. They have less faith in me than modern mortals. I can prove myself again and again, battle after battle, but they’ll never trust me.
“I’m going to block the highway,” I deadpan.
She tilts her head, her eyes narrow, and I know she’s not going anywhere. “Why?”
“Why?” My laugh is bitter. As much as I want to brush my brother off completely, it would be foolish. It has to at least look like I’m trying. “Ebris wants Kisk to have a fighting chance, doesn’t he?”
I skirt around a boulder, dragging the metal tool behind me, and arrive at the overpass. Abandoned vehicles line the desolate road, pushed aside by enemy tanks to clear a path. Pieces of concrete dot the ground from the half-fallen street above while wires and strips of guardrail hang precariously over our heads. Cracks run up the wide cement post holding the pavement in place, one section crumbling from impact. It won’t take much to finish knocking it down. Not much, but all that I have.
“How will more destruction help?” Astra asks.
“Because.” I heft the hammer. “Once the highway is blocked, the convoy heading this way will be forced onto the coastal route.”
“Do you know who camps there?” I ask.
“Should I?” she asks flatly.
No. And that’s exactly why she has no business sticking her nose in this.
“Kisken militia.” I swing. The impact of metal on concrete rocks my body. “I sent word to them earlier.” I swing again, and bits of debris fly back into my face. “If they’re resourceful enough, their sad little band of fighters will have real weapons instead of knives and shovels by morning.”
Astra shakes her head. “That’s—”
“Whatever you do in a war zone, it doesn’t involve strategizing. Go home,” I shout over my shoulder.
“I’ll wait.” She backs away, her black military boots crunching against bits of rubble on the pavement. “We can go back together.”
I hold my breath, fighting to ignore my sister’s gaze on my back. The odds that she’s here at the same time I am are small. Kisk is one tiny part of an entire world, and she doesn’t like to witness the atrocities of war unless she has to. No, Astra didn’t come here for work. She came to pressure me to stop the war like Ebris did earlier today. Like I’m sure my other three siblings will in the near future.
They don’t understand. Of course they don’t; I’m nothing like them. I can’t grow crops or help two people find each other. The sea is predictable in its unpredictable nature. And even death is accepted as part of life. But every fiber of my being is woven from the rage of mortals. Threads of petty jealousy, intense greed, and misplaced righteousness knotted together, snarling in a violent ball that is warfare. I need war the same way my siblings need air, and they’re trying to suffocate me.
Anger boils under my skin, and I hit the post a third time. Then a fourth and a fifth. Each impact shudders through my tense muscles. I swing until my arms ache, until I’m panting from exhaustion. Until steel support rods groan under the weight of the overpass. I drop the sledgehammer and bolt before it buries me. Today has been hard enough without having to climb my way out from beneath two tons of cement.
It happens slowly at first. The weakened part of the pillar bends. Then larger pieces of pavement slam down with a deafening boom. The ground vibrates beneath my feet as a dust cloud swallows everything in its path. When it settles, the same gray-white powder that coats the cars covers me as well, but the job is done. No one will get around the jumbled mess.
“Do you feel better now?” Astra calls from the tree line.
I push the sleeves of my sweater to my elbows and silently retrace my steps through the city. Astra walks beside me like a ghost.
* * *
Flames lick at the starless sky, the pops and crackles of a bonfire lost in a soft chorus of voices. From a distance, the two groups standing around the blaze are nothing but dark silhouettes. I throw up my mental shields, diverting their eyes. Astra does the same. If they look in our direction, their gaze will subconsciously skip over us as if we aren’t there at all. There’s no reason to create panic by letting them see an enemy solider strut through camp with an outsider. Especially if they heard the road collapse.
And there’s no way they didn’t hear it. Didn’t feel it. That part of the highway is only a ten-minute walk, but no one runs. No one screams. They stand, somber, around their fire like it’s just another evening. One more noise going bump in the night.
Waves crash against the rocky cliff below as Astra and I round the bottom of the hill. My temple looms above, black stone cutting into the darkness. In a few dozen steps, I’ll be inside those walls, flashing back to my own realm.
I follow Astra up the first few stones set into the grassy incline before a silvery voice from below makes me falter. I shouldn’t turn, shouldn’t waste precious time on curiosity, but I do.
A girl in an oversized khaki jacket is sitting at the edge of the firelight’s glow. Shadows flicker over her tan skin, dancing in time to the flames. She can’t be more than sixteen. “Last roll,” she says.
“Theodric?” Astra whispers. “What’s wrong?”
I hold my hand up to silence her. There’s no answer to give. I don’t understand why this girl’s voice caught my attention nor why it’s holding it. The war shows on the girl’s dirt-smeared clothes and the snarled mass of black hair knotted at the back of her head. I can’t look away. There’s something about the careful way her chestnut eyes dart across the city center, like she knows something she shouldn’t.
“What is it?” Astra asks.
A gaunt man sitting across from the girl nods once. They both raise their hands and a pair of iron dice fall, clinking against a sheet of rippled aluminum. A few bounces later, the dice come to rest between them. There’s a moment of stillness before the girl grabs the loaf of bread and faded blue and yellow windbreaker from the edge of their makeshift table.
“Wait,” the man croaks. His hand covers hers.
“It was best two out of three,” she says evenly. “A fair game.”
His knuckles protrude as he strengthens his grip. “A rematch then.”
“I’m sorry.” She pries at his fingers, but he clamps down on her with his other hand. “Let go.”
“Go ahead without me,” I say to Astra, and before I realize it, I’m standing beside the man and the girl without my shields. “She said let go.”
The man jumps and the girl uses the distraction to twist her hands free. She turns and looks at me. Whatever response I was expecting from her, it wasn’t this harsh glare. I stare back until the man pushes up from the piece of fallen wall he was using as a chair.
“Wait. Take this.” She rips the bread in two and holds the smaller end out to him. He snatches it from her, barring yellow teeth, and trudges away, stumbling on the uneven ground. She tugs the collar of her jacket tight around her chest and shakes her head. Then her eyes snap back across the table to me. “I didn’t need your help.”
She shoves the half-loaf into a messenger bag on her lap followed by the windbreaker. She didn’t need my help? That man would’ve fought her and, frail as he looked, he would have won. He’s too desperate not to. But I’m too tired from fighting about the war with my siblings all day to argue again with someone else, so I bite my tongue.
Snatching up one of the iron dice, I roll it between my fingers. Fate Dice. An odd choice for someone who doesn’t believe in the gods. She doesn’t. I don’t have to ask. The believers—all fourteen of them—prowl the temple in woven black robes. This set of dice is high quality, though—heavy, with intricately carved symbols on each of the six sides, one for each god, and intertwining vines along the edges. They belonged to someone with money. Perhaps someone who died in the bombings, their things left to be plundered by a young girl in a khaki coat.
“Care for another round?” I ask.
“Not tonight.” She holds out her hand for the die. “I already got what I came for.”
“No stakes.” I take the recently vacated seat across from her, and a thrill runs up my spine. I grind my teeth against the need to talk to her. There’s no time for distraction while I’m working. During times of peace, it’s easy enough to waste days away with a bit of mortal fun but not now. Never now. I have to remain neutral. “For fun.”
A laugh flies from my mouth. At least one of us has some sense. “Please?” I tilt my head.
She fidgets uncomfortably, eying my hand. “They don’t like strangers here. You should leave.”
I glance at the two groups around the fire: One of bedraggled Kisken survivors, perhaps twenty total, with filthy, threadbare clothes. The other, four men from the temple. Each stays as close to the fire and as far from each other as possible.
“And you?” I ask. “How do you feel about strangers?”
Her stare cuts through me like a hot knife. “You’re not Kisken.”
It’s an accusation, not a question. My skin is almost as bronze as hers, my hair just as black, and if it weren’t for my blue eyes, I could easily pass as a fellow islander. “Not fully, no.” I’m everything and I’m nothing—the original race that all others stem from. “I’m not here to hurt anyone, if it makes you feel better.”
She rolls her eyes. “Forgive me if I don’t trust someone skulking around in the middle of the night after what I heard a few minutes ago.”
She’s referring to the overpass collapsing, but it isn’t fear I see in her expression. It’s unwavering certainty. Of what, I’m not sure. I toss the die up and catch it midair. “I’m not skulking. Three rolls. Each round I win, I get to ask a question.”
She inches forward on her seat and clears her throat. “And if I win?”
A grin breaks free of my control. “Win once and you can ask me something. Twice and I’ll go away.”
She glances at the fire over my shoulder before pinching her lips together. “Fine.”
I ignore the expanding sensation in my chest. There’s no reason to play a game with this girl and every reason to walk away. Instead, I ask, “Ready?”
She nods and we drop our dice. Hers lands on a crown—king—and mine on a black dot—death. My win. But I pause. I had no specific question in mind when I suggested this. It was merely a way to hear her speak again. To learn something about her, maybe a clue about why she caught my attention. What she likes. What she hates. Although, I’m fairly certain the answer to the latter is me at the moment.
“I don’t know anything useful,” she warns.
“I’m not a spy.” I pull my winning die back before she can get any ideas of quitting early. “What’s your name?”
Her shoulders rise and fall with each slow breath. “Why?” she asks, her expression pensive.
After another moment of silence, she sighs. “Cassia.”
“Cassia.” Like the flower, delicate and graceful. It almost suits her, but she seems tougher, able to weather harsher conditions. With a smile, I hold my palm out in the Kisken greeting and wait for her to touch it with her fingertips. “I’m Theo.”
She scans the area again, ignoring my gesture. “I didn’t ask your name.”
“That man didn’t ask to split the bread, either.” I pull back and rub my hand on my jeans.
Cassia picks up her die and gives it a small flick with her fingers. “Love,” she says when it lands on an infinity symbol. “You lose.”
“I haven’t rolled yet.” I drop the die but I had to hope for the same or a wave—water—to roll again. It stops on a flower—life. My loss. “Your question?”
“There’s nothing I want to know.” She swipes up her die and shakes it in her fist. “Again.”
Both iron pieces drop just as an argument breaks out near the fire. A low rumble of voices, unclear but distinctly unhappy, fill the air. The flames smolder in Cassia’s eyes as her gaze darts between two points behind me. Her chin jerks toward the table, and she snatches the dice with stiff movements.
“Your win.” Her voice is light but the unevenness gives her away.
“Why do you fear them?” I ask without thought.
Her breath hitches, and I feel a small pang of regret. She doesn’t owe me her secrets. Not for winning in a game of chance. Before I can change the question, a shrill scream shatters the night. Jumping from the rubble, my hand falls to the hip my broadsword usually hangs from. I left it home tonight, expecting nothing a sledgehammer couldn’t fix.
A middle-aged survivor claws at the face of a man in black while two others pull the attacking woman away. She screeches again, lunging forward, but they keep their grip on her arms. The rest of the group closes in.
Blood runs from the man’s scratches as other believers drag him, shouting a string of obscenities colorful enough to raise my eyebrows, toward the stairs where Astra still stands. We lock eyes for a brief moment, before she darts toward the temple to avoid being run over. I fight against a shiver. Tensions run high in hard times, but it feels like more than a common squabble. Heavier.
“What was that about?” I ask.
But when I turn, Cassia is gone. I squint into the darkness but it’s still as death. Needles of disappointment scrape through me. I shake the sensation off. It’s better not to get involved anyway.
That doesn’t stop me from glancing over my shoulder again before I rush up the hill behind the zealots.