Khara, a teen soldier in the Mythren army, yearns for freedom. Faced with a moral dilemma, she takes a stand, defies the army’s rules, and stands in the line of fire. Literally.
So when a high-value scientist is taken hostage, Khara seizes the opportunity, joins the rescue team, and leaves the army’s Compound. Little does she know about the dangers that lurk in the forests and mountains: beasts, bandits, and a strange stalker who’s sabotaging their mission.
To top it all off, Khara’s biggest enemy is…herself. During bouts of memory loss, another being surfaces from within her—a fierce, ruthless warrior. One who won’t hesitate to hurt the people Khara cares about.
Belor, the kidnapped scientist, is the only one with the cure. The race is on to find him before Khara loses complete control and the warrior unleashes chaos.
Will they get to Belor in time?
A story about integrity, identity, loyalty, and a flawed heroine, Shattered Souls is the third installment of the Aeterna Chronicles coming-of-age science fantasy series.
“Hurry, boys! Burner’s coming!”
The search-and-rescue mission wasn’t going well at all. Khara had only recovered some ammo and found no survivors. She bent down and turned over a body wearing Mythren’s red insignia on the sleeve.
Then she felt a light breeze brushing the hair on the back of her neck. A clicking sound followed, and she froze. Her attacker was close, maybe an arm’s length away. Her instincts took over as her body reacted to the threat. Turning and kneeling, she swept her leg out and knocked her attacker off their feet.
But before he dropped to the ground, he lifted his gun. Khara dove to the side and rolled onto her knees, reaching for the sword on her back.
“Duck!” a voice cried out.
Khara dropped into a crouch as the TM101 crackled and popped next to her, cutting into the silence. The sound of firing shots frayed her nerves. As she straightened up, she saw wisps of smoke swirling from the attacker’s body, lying still on the ground.
Jaleh lowered his weapon. The gray streaks lining his hair glinted under the setting sun. Regret flickered on his face as he kicked the attacker’s weapon aside.
“You shot one of us?” she said, gritting her teeth. “Why did he attack me?”
“He wore the uniform, Boss, but he isn’t one of us.”
Khara looked closer, but she couldn’t tell the rebels and soldiers apart under the layers and streaks of mud.
“It’s the hair,” Jaleh continued. “Way too long.”
“Is that it? You didn’t have to shoot him.”
“No point taking him back to be executed.”
“What if he was a soldier?”
Jaleh sighed as if he were talking to a tot. “I have your back, Boss. No disrespect, but his arm’s all mangled, and he’s been shot in the chest. He can barely hold the gun with one hand as it is. He got no chance.”
Jaleh was right on all accounts and didn’t deserve that grilling on the spot. In fact, she should be grateful, but still…
“Next time, don’t fire until I order so. Is that clear?”
Any other soldier would keep their mouth shut, but this was Jaleh. As usual, he challenged her. His eyebrows furrowed. “He didn’t register on the HR goggles. His heat signature was too low. We could take the body back.”
Nothing on the HR—heat-seeking responsive—goggles? They were the best the army had. Khara’s heart skipped a beat. He senses something’s wrong. “The Incinerator will finish him off,” she said before turning away. “Let’s not waste any more ammo.”
Jaleh remained silent, staring at her. Finally, he held out the TM101 to her and turned to the rest of the team. “You heard the boss. Get on with the search!”
Time was running out. The sun painted angry red streaks across the sky as it dipped below the horizon. How Khara hated the aftermath of a battle: the scavenging of limp, dead bodies, the search for survivors and ammo, and the sight of blood and gashes. The Incinerator would be here in moments, and she hadn’t found a single survivor. Her armor suit made her movements awkward and her breathing difficult, so she took her helmet off.
Immediately, the stench hit her. She pinched her nose and breathed through her mouth. She caught the nose cap Jaleh threw at her and took a deep breath until the stench washed away. While her teammates searched for supplies and removed armor from the bodies, she checked a few ones, hoping to find a pulse.
The barreling rain had delayed the search-and-rescue, and now that it had cleared, time was against them. Khara struggled to find her footing on the uneven ground. Her boots squelched and stuck in the mud.
They’re all dead.
The dimming light painted the few bumps sprawled across the field like molehills. But here and there, bare skin caught the light. The fallen soldiers always wore little or no armor. Warily, she made her way forward, stepping across them. It was hard to distinguish between Mythren’s uniforms and the rebels’ frayed clothes with the mud coating them. Some soldiers’ faces were familiar, though.
In the distance, the Incinerator’s engine roared.
Give me one breathing soldier. Khara narrowed her focus on the bodies’ upper sleeves bearing the army’s red insignia: a sword and a rifle crossing at a red point.
She recognized a soldier—red hair, brown eyes, and a face that once smiled at her across the mess hall. Now blank, glassy eyes stared back at her. She turned away and ripped the insignia with the soldier’s enlistment number from the sleeve. She would send it to his family.
Most soldiers stationed in the Military Zone, the MZ, had no family. Some were orphans, others had endured the wrath of the Mythren Court, and others were brought in from nearby villages and towns.
Khara had never been to the Court residences located at Mythren’s center. Nor did she want to be among the wealthy she risked her life to protect. As for family, she used to have a guardian. One who rarely visited, but a guardian nevertheless.
The thought of them brought forth memories, and Khara’s knuckles turned white on her gun. Memories were a bane when you were on the front line. Attachment and relationships, too. At sixteen, she had survived two years in the field by forming no friendships. Most soldiers didn’t make it past six months.
Two years on the battlefront in the search-and-rescue team had earned the respect of the other soldiers, though. Nicknames too. Some called her Titanium Girl, others Indestructible Girl—which was quite a mouthful, in her opinion—and others Lady Luck. Never to her face, of course. None would dare. To survive the MZ, one needed both skill and luck.
You would think she would’ve gotten used to the smell of blood and fear, the squelch under her boots, and the gruesome sights. But her vision blurred, her stomach roiled, and nausea hit her. She clenched her teeth to keep from retching. The nose cap barely helped.
You’ll never get used to this. If you did, you wouldn’t be human or humane.
The thought struck her, making her stumble. Even though the evening was cool enough to raise goosebumps on her bare neck, her forehead broke into a sweat. These uncanny thoughts came into her head, making her doubt everything. She hated them. Worse of all was the exhaustion that unraveled inside her, creeping into her muscles, bones, and joints.
No time to be sick. Khara went about her task methodically. Squelch through the mud, turn the body over, check. Mythren soldier, check. Dead, check. The dirt from the downpour mixed with the grime on her hands. Darn grime. It made her hands shake for sure.
Let at least one be alive. Despair filled her, followed by confusion. Why was it suddenly so important to find one soul alive?
No time to ponder either. Soon the Incinerator would spray this area, and fire would spread. Frantically, Khara increased her pace. Behind her, the team retreated. Search-and-rescue was a gruesome job that everyone avoided. What was the point? Jaleh would ask. If anyone lost a limb or eye—frequently the case—they might as well be dead. Begging on the streets was another kind of death.
Why did she suddenly have the urge to find one living, breathing body? No answers came by. She had requested the search-and-rescue, and her team obeyed, albeit half-willingly. She didn’t blame them. They had all been brainwashed: death on the battlefield was worth more than a half-life.
“Brainwash” was the key word here. Lately, questions had arisen in Khara’s mind that put all her training and orders in doubt. Doubts about killing the enemy, enlisting young soldiers, and her loyalty.
Her hands twitched, and she noticed they were trembling slightly. She wished they would be still. Her grip on the TM101 tightened as she moved farther from the team until she reached a clump of trees.
As the last sun's rays swept away across the muddy field, right there beneath a tree, something winked at her.
Khara blinked. Was it a trick of the light? She could’ve sworn it was a green eye with flecks of hazel. She moved closer to the tree and stumbled on a root protruding from the muddy patches. Her eyes swept the ground. But there was no one where she thought the eye had peered at her. She stepped back again, and…there was no tree root. It vanished. How could she have stumbled on…nothing?
A groan sounded, startling her. She blinked again.
The ground wavered as if heat rose from it, and slowly the shape of a body emerged. It crouched, and then, slowly, almost gracefully, it straightened up.
Khara aimed her TM101 forward. Her gaze immediately went to the body’s upper arm, looking for the insignia. Mud caked the outer layer of the body. Friend or foe? Peering closely, she saw no red stripes.
So they weren’t a Mythren soldier. Nor was the figure a rebel. In fact, instead of frayed old clothes, the figure wore a strange, tight-fitting suit that shimmered under the mud. Only his hands and face were visible.
His skin was dark blue. Or so it seemed under the dying light.
Khara’s finger twitched on the trigger. A pair of green eyes locked on her. They blinked calmly, despite facing her weapon. She noticed the figure was a young boy, no more than twelve. His skin, where visible, was smooth, unlike the soldiers and rebels.
Was the boy a Court’s Elite? How did he end up on a battlefield? Maybe the suit he wore belonged to the Performing Act Company or another entertaining group. Still, she hesitated to lower her weapon. Something wasn’t right. His eyes held no fear, only a cold and calculated look.
What really bothered her was the red blotch on the suit’s left leg. It ran from the knee to the ankle. The boy was hurt, and yet he showed no sign of pain. He carried neither a bag nor a weapon.
Khara thought about the painkillers in her pocket. After much deliberation, she lowered her gun. He wasn’t armed, and she was there to protect Mythren, not kill innocents. She was about to toss him the InstaRelief when he spoke.
“You can see me,” the boy said in a trailing accent.
It sounded more like a statement than a question, and it took her aback—a strange thing to say when someone was pointing a weapon at you.
Duh. Of course, Khara could see the boy. She wasn’t blind.
“I bet you can see me too, kid,” she said.
She glanced back. Her team was close by, and if any one of them turned up, they would restrain the boy. No questions asked. He wore no insignia, and that was good enough reason.
“Run,” she said, “get out of here. If the others see you, they won’t give you a chance.”
Still, the boy remained still and showed no fear. How dumb could he be, facing an armed soldier on a battlefield? Surely, he must know he stood no chance of fighting back.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Khara let out a sigh. “The only one who’d give you a chance to survive. If my team doesn’t take you down, the fires will. Soon, this entire field will be consumed. Run while you still can.”
Still, the boy didn’t budge. Instead, his eyebrows furrowed, and he dipped his head as if in deep concentration. His face strained, eyes narrowed, and jaw tightened as if he were in pain.
Khara took out a pack of InstaRelief and held it out. “It’s for your leg. Peel it and press it to the wound. Come on, take it.” When he didn’t move, she hissed between clenched teeth. “Your loss. What’s your problem, kid? I said scoot!”
Maybe he was slow, but she doubted it. His speech was good, his stare intense. She didn’t want this young boy taken away and interrogated. There had been enough killing.
She had been relieved to find that young boy alive. But something was unsettling about him. Her fingers twitched on the trigger, but she kept calm and didn’t raise her weapon.
The boy relaxed. “You can see me, and I can’t read you. Extraordinary.”
Khara gritted her teeth, her nerves on edge at the boy’s calmness. “Hey, kid. Just go. I don’t want to hurt you. Save yourself. Get out of this mess.”
That’s what I want, too: to get away from all of this.
Behind the boy, the sun sank, bathing the field in orange and red hues. The scenery’s beauty caught her breath. The strange mix of feelings nearly made her burst into hysterical laughter: admiring the landscape while aiming a weapon at an innocent boy who refused to move.
What was happening to her? Why these thoughts and feelings? She had never noticed a sunset before. Darn, she didn’t know whether he was friend or foe. But he was no rebel, was he? He spoke like an Elite.
The boy shook his head and said in a low voice, “No, you don’t understand. No one sees us if we don’t want them to. What are you?”
He said “we” as if he were of a different species. As if he wasn’t a person. Even though she meant no harm to this kid, something strange about him made her skin crawl.
His gaze flickered to the right. Khara had the best hearing on her team. Even as she saw no one, instinct told her someone was heading their way. She knew for sure now that this was no ordinary boy hiding in the field.
“I’m just a soldier on a search-and-rescue mission, kid. I do what I must. This is your last chance. Run.”
“Your eyes aren’t silver, but you’re Silver-Eyed, I’m sure. If only—” The boy spoke to himself, mulling over his thoughts.
This conversation wasn’t going anywhere. The boy didn’t understand the danger.
Then he did the unexpected. As if reading her mind, he moved. He was in front of her in a blur, grabbing her wrist. The shock of registering his speed made her freeze for a moment. She felt his muscles twitch as he pulled the trigger.
Khara reacted just in time, ducking her head away. Gasping, she twisted her wrist away, but the boy was fast. He wrenched the gun away, and it clattered to the ground.
Khara deftly swung her foot, but he caught it and pulled. Again, her surprise at his reflexes and strength cost her. She fell onto her shoulder. Pain exploded down her back.
That was it. No more underestimating him. This young boy was fast, much faster than her, and strong. She rolled from her back onto her side as the boy’s foot stomped where her head had been, and she landed on her knees.
Kneeling, she swept one leg out. Instead of getting knocked off his feet, the boy jumped over her leg swipe easily, landed on one leg, and sent a sideswipe kick her way. Khara dove to the side, hit the ground, and landed in a forward roll.
Silver, all right. The whisper rattled her. She looked up, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. As in, he literally vanished. Perhaps he was hiding behind one of the trees.
Behind her, the sound of soft steps in the mud reached her ears. Jaleh was heading this way. He wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. The boy was a focal point in the open field with his shimmering suit—a target now. Jaleh never missed.
The boy wasn’t her problem. Or was he? Why would she care about this stranger she didn’t know? Most likely, he was one of the rebels who attacked Mythren. Her priority was to protect the Mythren people. It wasn’t logical that she would choose to save a stranger boy. That was what Jaleh would say, and he had survived the MZ longer than anyone she knew.
Mud squelched, and leaves rustled. Her heart raced. Her gaze fell on the darkening sky, the landscape slowly fading away. She reached for her TM101, and with her eyes closed, she waited for the moment Jaleh would step near the grove. Waiting for the familiar popping and rattling sound.
I’ll never get used to this.
“You all right, Boss? Heard you shoot.”
Khara opened her eyes. Under the tree, there was still no one. Something like relief flooded her.
“Thought I saw someone. Pass me the goggles,” she said, holding out her hand. The boy couldn’t have gone far.
“We’re ready to head out. I’ve checked all around, and we recovered three bags of ammo. No signature.”
“Nothing’s alive. We better head off, or we’ll become crispy meat.”
Khara kept her hand stretched out until Jaleh handed the goggles, sighing. No way would she tell him about the enemy boy.
And that boy was no friend. Heck, he didn’t sound or fight like an ordinary boy at all. She checked her perimeter tracker and saw no heat signature. No movement either. Had she imagined the whole encounter?
First was her obsession with finding a soldier alive. Next, her odd fascination with the sunset and now a hallucination about a boy who claimed to be invisible. Doubts sank in, and she held the goggles out without a word. You’re losing your mind, girl.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Jaleh said. He put the goggles on and scanned the area. “You think there are more people out there?”
“Maybe. What can you see?”
“Nothing alive so far.”
A sound whizzed from above, and a siren rang in the distance. Jaleh let out a curse.
“Fools! They know we’re out here. Move it!”
Jaleh rushed away, and pushing all her doubts away, Khara followed. They cut through the trees as the drone whizzed above, spraying over the small area. The smell of accelerant wafted around them, landing on their clothes. Jaleh cursed out loud again and raced faster behind the moving truck. Soon the whole place would be aflame.
Jaleh dove into the back as it struggled uphill and held out his hand. Khara pumped her legs faster. The truck banked left and slowed for a fraction of a second, enough for Khara to lurch forward and grab Jaleh’s hand. Her body hit the truck’s floor. She clenched her teeth as pain exploded on her right side. The truck leaped forward at full throttle, hurtling over the uneven ground before reaching the paved road.
Behind them, the sky lit up as if it were dawn. Khara peered through the back window to find billowing smoke high in the sky. For a moment, it stretched toward the back of the truck, its fiery tentacles reaching for the tires. The bare skin of her arm seared with the heat. She imagined the truck engulfed in fire. Then the monster retreated.
Even as they sped away from the field, they couldn’t escape the acrid smell that filled the inside of the truck.
“Darn close!” a voice cheered, breaking the tension and lifting the gloom.
Khara didn’t know the boy’s name, but she was grateful for the distraction. She tuned out the chatter and closed her eyes. Jaleh didn’t join in. She felt his gaze on her.
She looked for the boy through the window, to no avail. No way could he have gotten away from the all-consuming fire—assuming he was real and not a figment of her imagination.