Reeling from the battle with the Jinns, Khara splits up with the team. She heads to the walled-off city of Cerulis to find Belor and a cure for her deepest fear—the Other.
A being that lies dormant within her.
A ruthless fighter who has no qualms about hurting the people she loves.
But Cerulis city poses a challenge, and the Sanctum Labs are impregnable. Even worse is the threat of the Mythren army marching toward them. Khara finds herself running for her life.
But where can she run when the Cerulian scientists can control her with the push of a button?
A story about integrity, identity, and a flawed heroine, Fractured Bonds is the fourth installment of the Aeterna Chronicles coming-of-age science fantasy series.
“How come you’ve never had a boyfriend?” Kief said in that darned chirpy voice of his.
Khara gritted her teeth.
“This Wilf is too intense,” he continued. “He needs to lighten up.”
“Come on. It will be hours until we get to the Cerulis gates. There must be something you like to chat about.”
“I don’t…chat,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Good, good. It’s a good start. You know we should have a code word like you do with Wilf. ‘Poppy’ isn’t to my taste. Heck, I don’t even know what a poppy is.” He spread his palms in front of him. “How about ‘Wall’ and ‘Stay out’? Or in, if you prefer.”
“How about ‘Chatty people’ and ‘Shoot them’?” she countered.
“Nah, won’t do. I like chatty people.”
She couldn't believe she had once found him charming. Now that Kief was no longer shackled and had a dagger within reach, he stood more confident, vibrating with energy. He hopped ahead and doubled back. To her annoyance, he turned out to be a lot more than charming: someone who talked a lot.
But she guessed she should be grateful for his presence by her side. She needed a guide to gain entrance into Cerulis, and he was the only one who knew the secret entry point. Sneaking inside the well-protected Cerulis was one thing. Finding Belor, her guardian, was another.
“Could you warn me if the scary Khara comes out?” he continued cheerfully. “You know, a few moments will do so I can run far away. I’m a pretty good runner. I won a medal once…”
Khara tuned him out. Kief was right to be concerned about the Other, the scary Khara that sometimes surfaced and took control of her body. That Other, as she called her, had attacked her friends the day before in the Clover Fields. Wilf had mentioned the Other surfaced every four years. At eight, she had attacked Belor, though she had no recollection of this. At twelve, she ran away from the Compound. Now, at sixteen, the Other was awakening and gaining strength. Khara had no control.
Only Belor could make the meds for her “condition.” Two weeks ago, he had activated a beacon, and the Cerulians had tracked him to Mythren. For Khara’s sake, he had left Mythren and returned to a city he’d escaped from years ago. For some reason, Belor had tried to stop her from following him. He had been adamant that she should never be close to that city. But why?
No matter. Khara would find him. It was her duty to rescue him. He was a valuable scientist to Cerulis, and as Kief pointed out, the Cerulians wouldn’t let him go easily. So if getting inside Cerulis also earned her the booster meds for her condition, so much the better.
Without it, Khara could never be around anyone, including Wilf. If staying away kept everyone safe, she would gladly do so.
She would put up with Kief. For now. For a little while.
“I never thanked you for fighting by our side,” Khara said instead. “You didn't have to, but you put your life on the line.”
Kief stopped in his tracks. “Did you expect me to run as soon as the fight started?”
“Well, yeah. So it surprised me when you stayed and fought. Why?”
He shrugged and resumed his pace. “The Jinns are the Cerulians’ enemy, too. They rejected progress, and yet they still meddle in our affairs. I don’t understand their logic. They believe in nature. To rebuild and for nature to be renewed, you have to wipe everything out. An evolutionary thing.”
“We only evolve when everything is wiped out?” That made no sense to her either.
“No, we don’t. We get wiped out. Incredible, right? But the Jinns believe the human species dominate this planet, and removing them will allow billions of others to prosper.”
“Won’t that kill them too?”
“Nah, the Jinns would have devised protection from whatever they planned. They’ll survive. Let’s hope they don’t cross over to Dalkhaish.”
“We didn’t stop them. Well, thanks for staying back in Clover Fields. I mean, you went down unconscious before the fight even started, but still…”
“You know what? I felt loyal to this mission. That's something they ingrain into you in Cerulis: loyalty. Whether I liked it or not, I was bound to obey the House of Scorpions’ missions.” Kief stopped and looked up at the morning sky, his gaze thoughtful and serious. “In the past few days, I questioned this loyalty. With some distance, I have redefined who I am and my life's purpose. Joining you in that fight gave me a sense of…responsibility to defend this strange group with nothing much in common: three soldiers, one medic, one kid, and one dwarf. I saw how fiercely you fought to protect them.”
“Right. Loyalty meant nothing. I turned into a monster that tossed them across the clearing. I thought they looked relieved to part ways with me.”
“Hey, your intentions were good.”
“Good, righteous intentions can’t excuse your deeds.”
Kief scoffed. “I’ve never seen someone beat themselves up so much. Bad things happen, you know. It’s not all your fault.”
A slight shuffle sounded on their left. Kief stopped, cocked his head, and then resumed his walk.
“Tell me about your House,” she said, hoping to change the subject. The guilt gnawing at her wouldn’t compete with his logic. “You feel any loyalty toward it?”
Long before she set off out of the Compound, Khara had doubts about her own loyalty to the army. Like Kief, she had questioned her purpose in fighting the rebels and challenging Commander Skord’s leadership. In fact, she had defied him openly, and he had traded her to the Jinns. Maybe he thought she would accept her place without rebelling.
Now Skord was on his way here. Why? That was anyone’s guess. The Jinns had traded a weapon for her. Could it be defective? Or was Skord coming because his son, Wilf, had deserted?
No matter the reason, Khara calculated she needed to get in and out of Cerulis fast. Wilf would be waiting for her up the cliff, and she had to be by his side before Skord turned up. The latter had been cruel to deserters. No doubt he’d punish Wilf. So, after finding Belor, Khara decided she would head as far from Mythren and Cerulis as she could. She and Wilf would start a new life.
“I am the best tracker in my House,” Kief said with a grimace. Strangely, he didn’t look proud of it. “They sell my services—people go missing, and others needed spying on—and I never questioned them. That is, until now. The House cares for you, and yes, it protects you too. All it asks of you is loyalty. Your House gives you a sense of identity. You know what I mean?”
“Didn’t your team leave you behind? I never—well, when we are on a mission, we don’t leave anyone behind.”
“Not even the dead ones?”
Khara shook her head. “Not even the dead ones.”
“My team left because they thought I’d be dead after interrogation. I was the weakest link, the soft one, anyway. The others had little use for me after Belor was located.” He paused. “As long as you are of some use, there’s always a place for you in Cerulis.”
Khara agreed. Cerulis and Mythren weren’t so different after all.
She had once defined herself as a soldier, a protector of the Mythren people. For years, they had posted her to the Military Zone front line, and she survived when most, young and old, didn’t. Until one day, the realization struck her: she was fighting a losing battle and keeping Commander Skord in power. The rebels weren’t trained. They were farmers and villagers who had lost their young ones to the Mythren army. It was a vicious circle.
Being a soldier, she found out, was a mere label either to get privileges or to survive. Most Mythren citizens were starving as the city diverted all resources to the army. If a citizen were to protest, they ended up posted in the MZ, where their chances of survival were slim. If the soldiers deserted, they were tied to a pole and whipped to death.
Unless you were the commander’s son. Wilf reckoned his father would whip Khara to death. Watching her die a slow death would be enough punishment for him. That was why time was of the essence, and she and Wilf needed to get as far away as possible.
Khara’s thoughts shifted to the one thing that bothered her most: her origins. Who was she? Who were her parents? She had recently found out she was an Aeterna-slash-Guardian-slash-Ancient, a race of people who traveled between worlds and portals and were endowed with survival skills and fast healing—which might explain how she had survived the MZ for so long.
But then, her ability to heal had dwindled. Something else inside her was surfacing. The Other was a super-soldier and fought the bandits, a wyvern, and the Jinns. That being was much more powerful than her, leaving Khara as a backseat observer.
Unlike the fights with the bandits and the wyvern, of which she recalled nothing, Khara was very conscious during the battle with the Jinns. Someone else had awakened inside that she had little control over. The other Khara had tossed Orik and Jaleh across the Clover Fields and hurt Wilf and Ember as if they were puppets.
No wonder Kief called this side of her scary. Khara feared the Other, too.
Even as the air shifted behind her, Khara kept her pace steady and flexed her hands. Suddenly, the ground thudded, and a figure in a hooded cloak lunged toward her.
Khara ducked, sidestepped, and slammed the heels of her hands up. The blow connected with the bandit’s nose, and he grunted, bringing his hands up to cover his face. He shook his head as if to shake away the fog. Khara kicked him in the groin, and her fist collided with the side of his face as he fell to his knees. The bandit was out cold.
Kief glanced around nervously. “Is there anyone else?”
“Just that one, as far as I know.”
“You used me as bait, didn’t you?”
“You talked too much, and you’re too loud. I asked you earlier to be quiet, but you don’t listen to anybody but yourself.”
“Uh-huh. I like the sound of my voice. Should I talk louder now to get more bandits after us?”
“Up to you. How much farther do we have to go?”
“You’ll see the wall soon. Hey, you won’t get near Cerulis without my help.”
Khara checked her swords, glad she didn’t have to use them. She increased her pace. “Tell me about Cerulis.”
“I belong to the House of Scorpions. At least for now. Did you know they sting with their tails, and the smallest are deadly too? Ironically, I count as one of the smallest members.”
“Relatively. Physically, I’m not bulky, so I’m on the lowest rung of the hierarchy.”
“You’re the least deadly and small. What does your House value?”
“Physical and deadly skills. They train us to be assassins, Khara. Other houses pay us to do their dirty deeds or to clean up.”
Khara raised an eyebrow. “You don't look like an assassin.”
“Then don’t let looks deceive you. That’s one thing you should learn about Cerulians. I’m only good at throwing knives and darts, tracking ability, and my spatial sense.”
“They picked you because you had a…spatial ability?”
“Yep. Believe it or not, I never get lost.”
“Not getting lost is a skill?”
“For the Cerulians, it is. For people used to live in a sheltered space, the outside—the bigger world—can be intimidating.”
“Belor activated a tracker for you to retrieve him. Are you sure?”
“I’m not lying. You still think we kidnapped him?”
“I only have your word for it.”
“They needed a guide to lead the team past the mountain with only rough directions, and I was their man. For protection, they sent four others from the House of Jaguars. They wanted your guardian alive.”
“Who are ‘they’?”
“The House of Cats, of course. The top House that holds the highest power in Cerulis.”
“They do little, uh?”
“They mostly…supervise, yes. Like your guardian and other scientists.”
“Your Houses are named after extinct animals? But I remember seeing a scorpion once. It was in the desert near Dalkhaish. From what I heard of the cat as a species, they can be deadly, but in a stalker-slash-manipulative way. Well, what do you think my House should be, given my skills and character?”
“Easy. The House of Snakes.”
“I’m far from being cold and deadly. In normal times, that is. I fight to protect.”
Kief raised an eyebrow. “Snakes are deadly, yes. But did you know the legends revere them as wise and protectors of the gods? Like I said, don’t let appearances fool you.”
Suddenly, he pointed at a spire rising like an arrow in the distance. From the mountain, it looked like a stick. Now that they were closer, it turned out to be a grand building with shimmering glass walls.
“So if they wanted Belor killed,” she said, “they would’ve sent assassins from the House of Snakes.” Kief nodded. His pace had slowed as they neared the city. In fact, he looked almost reluctant to get back inside Cerulis. Khara continued, “Do you know why the House of Cats wants Belor? What kind of research did he do?”
“I know he was the top scientist. And that’s saying something when Cerulians value their research and science. The House of Cats’ greatest achievement is genetic modification. I can only assume that was his field. When I was in Mythren, I heard rumors of a weapon he was building. It stumps me.”
“What stumps you?”
“Belor left because he was against building a weapon in the Sanctum, the research labs for Cerulis’s scientists. Then we find him doing exactly that in Mythren.”
“He wasn’t doing so willingly. Commander Skord forced him.” And if Belor refused, he would send Khara to the MZ.
“From the little I heard, Belor ran away from Cerulis with blueprints of an experiment.” He looked at her sideways. “He took his niece and the blueprints and disappeared.”
“His niece? I didn’t know… Do you know where she is?”
Kief rolled his eyes and gestured at her.
“I look nothing like him,” she said.
“Well, it’s hard to tell under the beard and wrinkles. I mean, his beard. He looks so old… We don’t have many old-looking people around in Cerulis. We can do a simple genetic match at the booth if you’d like when we find him and compare results.”
A booth to get a genetic match? “If you think he’s my uncle, you’re wrong. We are so far apart. If he were, he would’ve asked me to call him uncle. Why call him guardian? No, you’re wrong. I am not his niece. I can’t be related to him by blood. When we get in, how do we find him? The fastest way possible, Kief. Wilf is waiting.”
“First, we don’t know if he’s still inside the city. He told Pim he’d be back in ten days.” Kief counted on his fingers. “He probably assumed he would secure a means of transport and get the booster. Who knows, he might already be on his way to Mythren. Unless whatever plan he had didn’t work out so well for him. But if he’s inside, there’s only one place he’ll be: the Sanctum. That’s where all the scientists live and work.” He stopped and pointed at the spire. The gleaming walls glared under the sun.
Suddenly something prickled at Khara’s neck, and she stopped short. “Wait! Something’s wrong.”
“I don’t know.” Piles of dust caught her gaze. “What are those?” Now that they were closer, the strange smell wafting around the place grew pungent.
“Oh, remnants from the Vaporizers, little explosives buried in the ground. Follow in my footsteps. Like, literally, and we’ll be fine.”
Vaporizers? “You could’ve mentioned this before! Is there anything else?”
“These were probably bears or small critters. I see a few bones and hairs. Oh well, the Vaporizer doesn’t vaporize all of you, then. Hold on, my spatial sense tells me we are pretty much on the right track.”
“So you don’t know for sure?”
“The guide from the House of Jaguars had the layout and safe paths, but my spatial sense tells me—”
“You better not get me vaporized, Kief!” she growled.
“As I said, I recognize the path, so we’re okay.” His boots pushed against a bush.
“It looks like you don’t want to go back in,” Khara said, watching him.
“Darn right, I’m not so eager.” He sighed before he continued. “You’ll understand when you get inside. No, you won’t. Everything in there is just…dazzling.” He resumed his walk, but his steps weren’t so light. He looked like a man walking to his execution.
“Will they punish you for getting caught? Or for not escaping? Is that why?”
Kief shrugged. “I have long accepted my destiny was all laid out. It makes the prospect of death much easier to bear.”
“Wait! If your House condemns you for getting caught, I’ll go in alone.”
Kief raised an eyebrow. “You’re really concerned for my well-being, aren’t you? Nah. To the House, I’m another asset that can be used for a contract. I’m working to repay the training invested in me.”
“I can find my way inside, Kief. Be on your way. It’s your chance to leave and explore the world.”
“And miss all the fun? No, without me, you won’t survive, girl. One look at that aura, and you’ll end up in the dungeons. Come on, I know how to hide both of us.”
Was the black aura that bad? “Lead the way then,” she said.