1. THE GLASS TOWER
Thousands of people stood in the center of the circular courtyard, absolutely silent. Stark white banners hung between buildings and lampposts, occasionally snapping taut in the brisk wind, popping like gunshots in the stillness. Everyone in the crowd, dressed in the same blank white, stared toward the center of the enclosure. A single man in dark navy perched there, high on a dais. Just when the silence began to seem menacing, he cleared his throat into the microphone, rupturing the thin, wintery air.
"Millenia ago, the perfect race was born, fashioned by the Creator from the seeds of the universe."
The councilman's dramatic opening sentence was met with rapt attention from the crowd—at least the majority anyway. The attentiveness of Elle Lucas, who loitered on the fringe of the group, was fragile and wavering. The fact that her fingers were gradually turning a painful pink from the cold was of a more pressing concern to her than the old man's drawling speech, and she focused primarily on shifting restlessly from foot to foot in an attempt to stay warm. She had heard the story what felt like a million times before and knew it as well as she knew the streets of the city. The councilman droned on, relaying the traditional Immersion Day speech with practiced monotony.
"He gifted them with the ability to create something out of nothing, to fill with magic the minds of the humans they were meant to save. And thousands of years later, twenty years ago today, the race that became known as the Psyree revealed itself to human civilization. Purification began, and the Psyree started to fix the world that the humans had almost destroyed, erasing war, waste, and vice."
Elle sighed impatiently, knowing that the speech would go on for another ten minutes at least, as the councilman described the nuclear warfare, the horrific biological weapons, and the sinful habits of the humans before the Psyree had forcibly removed their corrupt governments from power and installed their own rulers in their place. The Psyree had come to human civilization's rescue in more ways than one. The Pure Race not only saved them from themselves, but also from the vicious Ilex monsters—ancient, human-like beasts that surfaced shortly before the Psyree and thoughtlessly attacked and devoured anything that crossed their path. She'd learned it all countless times in history lessons and at every Immersion Day since she'd been born. Elle's attention wandered once again from the dais, scanning the crowd.
Next to her Myles stood soldier-straight, his sand-colored hair flopping into his eyes with each burst of the chilly breeze. Elle suppressed a laugh. Her friend's gaze was completely blank, and he didn't even seem to notice the way his wild hair blocked his vision. He obviously wasn't paying attention to the speech either, but he never failed to deliver the perfect appearance of obedience and propriety. Elle had never quite mastered that skill—a weakness that got her in far more trouble than she usually intended.
Even her clothes echoed this difference between herself and her best friend. While his white dress shirt and slacks were perfectly pressed and immaculately clean, her own clothes were slightly disheveled. The hem of her dress was smudged brown from stomping through puddles and the top clasp of her ruffled shirt was unfastened. The collar was high enough that with all the buttons secured she could barely breathe, let alone twist her neck around like she wanted to in order to observe the crowd. She didn't see the harm, but Myles constantly badgered her about looking like a proper lady, lest she attract the wrong kind of attention. The obligatory white of Immersion Day—meant to symbolize the newfound purity of humanity brought about by the Psyree—made it even harder for her to keep her appearance acceptable.
Tugging at her collar for the hundredth time, Elle finally gave up on pretending an interest in the elder's speech and turned completely around to look instead at the streets that stretched out behind her. Twenty years ago the site had been known as Saint Louis, a relatively large and bustling metropolis, riddled with glamorous wealthy districts and seedy ghettos. After the Immersion however, as well as the destruction of a large part of its outer reaches, the city had simply become known as Sanctus. 25-foot-tall chain-link fences tipped with razor wire had been erected around the wounded city to keep the predators out and the inhabitants in. To keep everyone safe. At night, Elle could see the spotlights that lined the fencing from her family's apartment's balcony, each one slowly scanning the nuclear wasteland outside the city limits, keeping careful watch for the Ilex.
A few blocks away, the sparkling glass windows of a particularly interesting pre-Immersion building immediately caught her eye. It towered above its neighbors, one of the few "skyscrapers" left in the human portion of the city. There were a dozen like it in the eastern part of the city, where the Psyree lived, but a thick stone wall and the Kahrim had kept her from ever seeing them up close. This one however, she had stood outside of many times, staring up at it and letting her imagination run wild. Since she was old enough to sneak out of the apartment, children had whispered about the "Glass Tower" and what could possibly be hidden in it. No one had actually gotten inside. Elle herself had tried countless times, but the Kahrim—guards trained by the Psyree and stationed throughout the city—always blocked her way.
It had been her childhood dream to find a way inside the Glass Tower, and at seventeen years old, Elle did not find that desire muted in the slightest. Her curiosity seemed to have missed the message that others her age had received—the one that ordered the impulse to die down and focus on productive and appropriate tasks. Elle glanced around again at the mass of people in the courtyard and slowly began to pick out the familiar faces. Everyone was here for the ceremony…even the Kahrim that normally guarded the Tower. A smirk slowly twisted her full lips. How had she never noticed this before?
A flicker at the edges of her vision dragged Elle's eyes away from the bulk of the crowd. At first she thought it had been nothing, just one of the banners changing directions in the abruptly colder wind, but then she saw it again. A figure was there, in the shadow of a condemned building that squatted one street down from the intersection closest to where she stood. Almost immediately she dismissed it as a disinterested observer like herself, passively enduring the speech, but before she had time to look away it shifted again. The gesture forced her to focus on it, on its clothes that were clearly not the standard white but a dark, unidentifiable color, and Elle's eyebrows pulled down into a puzzled frown. The person seemed to hover uneasily behind the Immersion gathering, carefully avoiding attention by keeping its movements muted and remaining out of the fading light. It was too far away and too deep into the shadow for her to make out a face, or even a definite gender, but it was undoubtedly human in shape. As it turned and rounded the corner onto the street leading away from the crowd, Elle instinctively moved to follow, her interest peaking. Whoever this person was, he or she was leaving the Ceremony—a crime that was strictly forbidden and punished with imprisonment and exile. On top of that the figure wasn't dressed appropriately. Elle smiled, immediately intrigued by this rule-breaker.
Next to her, Myles finally shifted from one foot to the other, and she froze, but his hazel eyes remained glazed over. Elle knew that he would do whatever he could to keep her from wandering off during the ceremony. He worried too much about everything that could go wrong; in his mind, it all would. There was definitely no way she could bring him with her, despite the fact that his presence would make her feel much safer. Elle's curiosity raged at the thought of not following the mysterious figure, and she knew she would have to sneak away from her best friend in order to corner the truant. Even in his current state, though, it would be hard for her to slip away without his noticing.
Inching backwards slowly, Elle glanced again at the magnificent sparkling windows of the Glass Tower. That secret would have to wait. Right now, a more pressing mystery had imposed itself upon her.
The severity of the punishment if she was caught flickered through her mind, quickly drifting into and out of her concern. At seven, her attempts to slip into the Tower—as well as her other small transgressions—had been met with playful rejection and reprimand by the Kahrim. At seventeen, she doubted any attempt at truancy would be greeted with such good humor by the deadly guards. But someone else had left, encountering no problems, and all of the Kahrim were at the ceremony; Elle quickly justified the strengthening decision in her mind to follow the figure, allowing the potential rewards to erase the risks from her concern.
Throughout her internal debate, her feet had gradually carried her further from the body of the Ceremony, and a small patch of shadow beneath deteriorating stone eaves reached out to hide her. The darkness seemed to release her from the chance of attracting reproachful eyes and completely blocked out the necessity of acknowledging the elder's droning history lesson. Myles showed no sign that he noticed her absence and Elle smiled again at his obliviousness, chuckling a little at the thought of giving the Kahrim-in-training trouble about his attention span when she got back. She knew that he wanted to spend his future stationed on the outer wall, diligently keeping a look out for threats to the city, and found it amusing that he couldn't even keep track of her. Not that she was the easiest person to keep ahold of, especially when she was of a mind to be somewhere other than where she was supposed to be.
Her back brushed against the grimy stone building and the boy's eyes sparked to life. It was almost as if the barely audible rustling of her uncomfortably starched dress—or possibly her cheeky thoughts about his attentiveness—had alerted him to her absence. Myles' gaze flicked over the spot where she'd been standing, just beside him, then quickly began scanning the crowd. Elle took a few hasty steps further away, toward the street corner that would hide her from view, then winced when Myles turned around. Only a few more feet… She inched away from her friend, trying to mimic the small, smooth movements of the figure she was attempting to follow.
Finally, Elle rounded the corner onto Lindell Boulevard just before Myles eyes swept over the final few bricks of the building behind her, evading his view. The street sign next to her was bent and scratched to the point that it was barely legible, but she knew the name by heart from countless trips up and down the street's length. The dull sound of the elder's voice faded away, and Elle forced the promise of her target to fill her head again, trying to drown out the guilt that had surfaced while leaving Myles behind.
Moving faster once she was further from the courtyard, Elle padded down the street in her dirty cotton slippers. Dark gray clouds had begun to swirl angrily above her head, threatening to empty freezing water onto her already messy hair. Rain from the night before still sat in puddles on all the streets, but the cold air that whipped her cheeks as she jogged suggested that the next thing to fall from the sky would be snow, not rain. An eerie silence fell over the streets, broken only by the quiet slap of her feet on the cracked concrete. One hurried turn brought her to the road onto which the figure had crept and she glanced up and down its length, searching for any signs of life. A shuffle and what she imagined was a quiet breath whispered down the street, and her head immediately whipped in that direction. A flash of movement far ahead, barely visible and possibly created by the anticipation in her mind, caught her eye, and she darted ahead. Her vision alternated between the churning of the sky that was mirrored back to her from the crystalline shape of the Glass Tower, which still loomed in front of her, and every shadow on the street.
Suddenly a harsher footstep began to echo her own, a repetitive scratching sound like that of metal against stone. Elle thought she had imagined it for a moment, her stride carrying her a few more yards before she stumbled to a halt. The scraping noise skittered up above her head and tiny pebbles bounced down the brick face of a building to her left. Quick, pattering footsteps raced across the rooftops. Elle's breath caught as she craned her neck back, trying to catch a glimpse of the source of the noise. Had the Kahrim seen her slip away from the ceremony and come after her? Or had the figure she'd been following noticed her pursuit and turned to confront her? She couldn't be more than a hundred feet from the base of the Tower; maybe she'd been wrong, maybe some guards kept watch even on Immersion day and had seen her running haphazardly down the center of the street.
Or maybe it was something else. Something more dangerous.
A crunch to her right released another shower of stone fragments onto the sidewalk and Elle's head whipped around to the other side of the wide street. The boot or hand that had broken the crumbling pieces of the building free was no longer in sight when Elle looked up, as if her follower knew how much her failure to identify her pursuer terrified her. She backed toward the nearest wall, away from the most recent scattering of debris, until her shoulder blades collided with the coarse brick façade. Sandy mortar fragments rubbed off beneath her hands, grinding into her palms.
Down the street another sound suddenly pierced the near silence, sending her heart into her throat. This sound was one she recognized from the flickering motion pictures that teachers showed in school, where soldiers from old wars died and extinct wildlife paced in cages. The source of this deep, rasping scream suddenly stalked around the corner. Elle's green eyes widened in shock and fear as the creature's jaws stretched open in another thundering roar, baring its finger-length teeth. Thick bronze hair bristled out around its face as the enraged animal strode forward, searching for her.
A lion, Elle remembered, that's what this thing had been called. A lion. The beasts had been extinct for a hundred years.
Behind the lion, dark, human-shaped figures began to flicker between the shadows, disappearing in each patch of darkness along the edges of the street, only to reappear in the weak strands of light that filtered through the thick clouds overhead. They followed the beast closely, fearlessly ignoring its enormous size and glinting claws.
Elle remained frozen against the wall, confusion and fear mingling bitterly in her mouth. Each new addition to this twisted situation stunned her with equal force, like repeated blows to the stomach, each ripping her breath away. Her mind turned to the religion that the Psyree taught so diligently. Was this God's way of punishing her for her disobedience? Would she die here, locked between this forgotten creature and her mysterious hunters? Her knees threatened to buckle beneath her.
Only a faint rustle warned her of the object hurtling down from above her head. She barely had time to flinch before the figure's clawed feet settled with a scrape onto the pavement five feet in front of her. When her eyes fixed onto the sallow, greyish skin and white, pupil-less eyes of her pursuer, her throat finally unlocked to release the scream that had been building in her chest since the first fragments of brick had fallen from the rooftops.
The noise pouring from her mouth only seemed to accelerate the already lightning fast progression of the events taking place around her. The lion released another roar and began racing forward, its nails gouging thick grooves in the concrete. A half a dozen of the people who'd been following it strode into the center of the street, materializing in mid-sprint towards Elle. The thing in front of her jerked its gaze around to glare at her with those unsettlingly blank eyes, its stringy, blue-tinged hair following in an arc. Its thin lips drew back and an unsettling hiss crawled from between its sharp blackened teeth.
Elle couldn't close her mouth, couldn't move, couldn't do anything. She recognized that hollowed face from old newspapers and warning signs. She'd seen the claws that stretched from its fingers and toes in textbooks in school. Elle couldn't understand, though, how this creature, this monster, was within the city walls. Any other day this street would be crowded with people she knew, that she'd gone to school with, or saw every day at the market. This thing, this Ilex, could have killed dozens of them before anyone could call the guards.
She knew, without a doubt, that she wouldn't be able to move fast enough. Elle stared into the Ilex's cloudy eyes and watched it bend its knees in preparation to spring. It may have looked vaguely human, but Elle had learned countless times of how mindlessly violent these monsters were. They couldn't be reasoned or pleaded with. All they wanted was the kill.
The lion's next roar was closer than both Elle and the Ilex had expected and both of their heads jerked toward the beast barreling toward them, only twenty feet away. Its followers were now in complete view and the looks of determination on each of their faces were clear. There were four men and two women in the group, all dressed in crisp navy blue uniforms. Immediately, she recognized the dark clothing, as well as the clean, graceful movements of its wearers. The figure she'd followed from the Ceremony had been one of these people. These Psyree. She'd made a huge mistake wandering out here, but she didn't have time to regret anything right now.
With one last bellowing cry, the lion leapt towards Elle and the Ilex, close enough for Elle to see the muscle and sinew moving in its legs as it forced its weight from the ground. Her hands instinctively rose to block the animal, even knowing that the motion was useless. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a rippling silver light slide over the surface of the giant cat, barely noticeable when combined with the speed of the beast. Again, Elle was sure that she would shortly be torn limb from limb, this time by the mangling teeth and claws of an animal that couldn't exist.
At the last second though, Elle noticed two things. The lion's trajectory wasn't aiming for her. Rather, its monstrous leap was carrying it toward the Ilex, who snarled back at the lion, bracing itself for the impact. Secondly, the sight of those uniforms, of the curling, black tattoos on the side of each of the lion tamer's faces, finally fought through the haze of fear in her brain to register as something familiar.
This confrontation, this whirlwind of unusual faces and creatures on this well-known city street, this was a battle. She didn't know how the Ilex had gotten inside Sanctus, but she understood now that these five Psyree were part of the Kahrim, were there to fight the Ilex that had chosen her as its prey. They must have been stalking the Ilex, just as it was hunting her. The fierce beast's claws were driving into the Ilex so slowly that it seemed as if Elle's realization had slowed time—but it was only an illusion. It had been created by the Psyree to intimidate and distract the Ilex, to give them time to capture and kill it.
Bright violet blood spattered across the concrete as the lion's talons ripped through the Ilex's skin, tearing a long gash down its forearm. The Ilex stumbled back, barely keeping its footing as it tried to avoid the brunt of the lion's weight, keening with pain. Elle scooted away as much as she dared, afraid to draw attention to herself. She glanced at the Psyree, expecting to see some sort of triumph in their expressions, but instead she found only surprise. Glancing back and forth from the battling pair and the Psyree, who quickly formed a perimeter around the two, Elle tried to interpret the unexpected reaction. Another slash of the lion's claw into the Ilex's chest, another splash of blood, and Elle didn't care as much about their expressions as about getting out of there.
None of the Psyree seemed to pay her much notice—not surprising, since she was standing statue-still, scared that if any one of the figures before her noticed her presence she'd be ripped to shreds. Elle knew though that she couldn't afford to remain motionless any longer. True, she'd gotten out of one sticky situation, having not been torn up and eaten by either the Ilex or the lion, but the Psyree were just as much a danger to her as the others. She was most definitely not supposed to be out on the streets during the Immersion ceremony and the punishment was severe. As usual, she shouldn't have bet on not getting caught.
As slowly as a minute hand rounding a clock, Elle inched away from the fight, eyes still locked on the battling group. The Psyree had drawn their weapons—bright silver swords with blades that curved gracefully down over their wielders' hands—and strangely seemed to be fighting both the Ilex and the lion. As much as this turn of events piqued her interest, Elle wasn't going to stick around to figure out this mystery. Another few steps and she'd be far enough away to feel comfortable breaking into a sprint.
Just as she was about to turn her head away from the action and run, Elle noticed one of the Psyree staring at her from across the fight. He was younger than the rest, his youth enhanced by the soft curls of his dark-chocolate colored hair. His eyes appeared black from that distance and his expression bordered upon anger. Despite his boyish face, he towered over many of the other Guards. By the look of those long legs, he could probably run faster than most of them as well. Stepping away from the Ilex, he turned as if to come after her, taking one quick stride around his fellow Psyree to skirt the lion's hulking flank. Elle sucked in a breath, her muscles bunching up as her legs prepared to burst into movement. Just as he seemed set to chase her, the lion shouldered one of the other Psyree hard, knocking him backwards and into the dark haired boy, who fell to one knee.
Immediately, Elle took advantage of his distraction. Her legs, like coiled springs, sprang taut, launching her away from the fight and toward the nearest street corner. The pounding of her feet on the pavement sounded like the cannon fire in the school movies, loud enough to distract all of the brawlers and focus their attack on her. When she finally reached the end of the building, Elle glanced over her shoulder fearfully, expecting to see the whole group chasing her. Instead, the battle had continued as she left it, even the dark-haired boy having been pulled back into the fray. She dodged around the corner, through the nearest alleyway, and then ran full tilt down another street, not daring to stop until she was gasping for breath and had traveled at least five winding blocks.
Eventually, after hobbling down one last street, lungs burning, Elle slumped against the gritty wall of a slum apartment building. Her heart sounded like the rain hitting the aluminum roof of her balcony the night before, filling her ears with a sharp pitter-patter. Her mind was racing just as fast. The things she'd just seen, they weren't meant to have been witnessed. If there was one Ilex in the city, how many more were there? How safe were they really? She had never heard of the Psyree creating wild beasts to attack their enemies either.
However, Elle couldn't quite concentrate on her own questions, too full of relief. Her escape had been narrow, but she'd made it. And she'd learned things. Elle let out a nervous chuckle, wiped her sweaty bangs away from her eyes, and pushed herself away from the wall to begin trudging back to the ceremony's courtyard. Myles was going to be so furious that he had missed this.