The Number: Chapter One

Kaia Ketoki stood in the shadow of a column; it was just one of many that surrounded the town square. She watched people as they ate, talked, and laughed. They were a flurry of different nations coming together dressed in greens, browns, and golds; their skin was cast in red, orange, yellow, and blue as the sun’s light passed through the thin lining of balloons. Aromatic smells of roasted meat and cotton candy permeated the air. It was Messalia: a holiday celebrated throughout the planet of Zinc in commemoration of Ryder, the god of the earth and harvest.

There were a group of missionaries in a corner that surveyed and watched the denizens of Winlim — a neutral country — carrying on with their pagan ritual. They were grim faced with thin lips. The celebratory atmosphere only soured their mood.

Once Earthlings got wind that Zinc was on the brink of world war, a slew of missionaries had arrived, preaching to the people to pray to God for He would never let them down as their gods had let them down. Some Zincians converted, but the majority weren’t convinced. Why were there so many different religions that worshipped the same god? Why was Earth constantly plagued with war when they themselves rarely fought one another? The missionaries thought the Zincians simple-minded and the Zincians, for the most part, thought the missionaries dumb.

A young, slight nun broke away from the group. Her glasses continued to slide down the bridge of her nose and she constantly had to keep pushing them back up as she made her way through the crowd. She stopped and leaned against the column Kaia was hiding against, facing the crowd as she caught her breath.

Kaia glanced over at the nun who was standing so close, she could whisper in the nun’s ear. She pressed herself closer to the wall, hoping to further disappear into the shadows. The nun had closed her eyes, allowing herself to bask in the sunlight. Kaia stole a closer look at the woman.

“You have wonderful red hair,” Kaia said quietly as she leaned back against the column.

The nun opened her eyes and looked around. Spotting the person who had spoken to her standing nearby she settled back and composed herself. “Erm, thank you,” she muttered as she tucked a strand of red hair back into her habit.

Kaia shifted her eyes around and leaned toward her. “Aren’t you going behind your father’s back? Look at you, pretending to be a nun. I never would have guessed it.”

“I’d never betray my father!” she hissed. “But where else can I hide that’s as safe as a church? Even within the borders of Winlim I’m not safe. The Tueors are everywhere, watching and waiting for me.”

“Catrina—”

“Don’t say my name! You know it’s forbidden! It’s Kate for now.” Catrina took her glasses off and meticulously cleaned them, eyeing the crowd for anyone who might be listening in. Satisfied, she put them back on. “It wasn’t the most popular name in the world, but anyone who shared it changed it, I hear. And you’re stupid enough to actually use it as an alias in that bar you work at.”

“I knew someone would find me that way,” Kaia said offhandedly with a shrug.

Catrina rubbed her temples, “I’m sure the Tueors are looking into it. Do you want to get captured?”

The Chosen shook her head. “No. I told you before, I’m ready to start my quest. When are you going to stop hiding and join me? You’re supposed to be my guide, if I recall correctly.”

Catrina stayed quiet as a group of young women danced in with streamers wearing a crown of foxglove and oak leaves. People hurried out of the square, moving to the perimeter and revealing a lavish circle painted in the middle. The women’s green and gold dresses moved around them in silky wisps as they floated to the center. They began to sway, moving their streamers in a choreographed dance.

“I can’t go,” Catrina hissed as she inched closer to Kaia.

“It’s not like you to be so submissive,” Kaia muttered under her breath.

The demigoddess clapped along with the crowd, but turned her head toward the Chosen. “Wouldn’t you be submissive if you were wanted for being a rogue Number? It’s not my decision to make either way. Father told me to hide. He said it was the best thing to do until you returned. So I hid in a place where I thought no one would look. I’m supposed to wait for his signal.”

The dancers began to move toward the edge of the circle and flicked their streamers back and forth in quick succession. A man slowly walked into view leading a deer. People looked on, leaning in a smidgen closer as their excitement began to bubble over. The young women danced over to the buck, placed their crowns on his antlers and bowed away with their dresses floating all around them like a golden mist. Someone pushed an old man out into the center and he looked back at the crowd with a scowl. When he turned toward the creature he hesitated for a second, smoothed his shirt, and walked carefully toward it. The man placed a few stalks of wheat in front of the buck and whispered something to him. The elegant deer looked into the man’s eyes, peering into his soul for a long moment before touching the stalks with his nose. The crowd cheered and the old man thanked the deer and his handler nonstop.

A line formed with various people presenting the buck with various crops. Sometimes the deer would touch their offering, other times it would stomp one of its hooves. The crowd cheered when the buck did the former and expressed their regret at the latter. When the last of the people had taken their turn, the handler began leading the buck back, but he refused to move as he caught sight of Catrina and held her gaze. The crowd began to conspire what its meaning was. Finally, the creature knelt down and touched the ground before allowing the handler to lead him away.

Kaia barely heard Catrina’s message as the crowd broke out into an enormous cheer. The demigoddess pulled her habit closer around her and slipped back into the mass of people that questioned her about the meaning of what just occurred. Kaia, taking her comrade’s cue, disappeared down a dark alley. She liked it better in the shadows and away from the crowd, it made her feel secure. Despite the current atmosphere, they were living in dark times. Staying hidden had become a necessity to survive.

Catrina’s last message rang in Kaia’s mind, “Meet me at the church tonight.”

She hurried her steps. Her friend was right about one thing, the Tueors were bound to notice a Catrina in Winlim. Kaia just hoped that they weren’t too late in leaving.

* * *

The night was cold with a menacing wind, so Kaia pulled her cloak closer around her and walked quicker. Spring had just arrived but the wintery winds continued to linger at night, forcing people to stay inside. There weren’t a lot of people out at such a late hour: a few vampires and androids walked aimlessly around window shopping (they were the only people who could really stand the temperature). Stragglers, like herself, walked swiftly to their destinations, keeping their heads low as they forced their way through the wind. A lone soldier stood on the corner of an intersection checking a map. Kaia glanced at his black uniform: Tueor. She hurried along faster than ever.

Though the Tueors weren’t allowed to attack Winlim (nobody was) they still dispatched a few soldiers in the area to keep an eye out for anyone on their watch list. They weren’t allowed to arrest or force anyone out of the country, but their presence in the area was enough to make everyone jittery.

The church loomed ahead, towering over the adjacent buildings. Perhaps it was her imagination or the howling wind, but she thought she heard footsteps following her. Kaia stopped, allowing herself to catch her breath. Her gaze wandered toward the giant cross on the façade of the church. There was a sort of majestic aura that resonated from the building that the small shrine her grandmother had helped build on Earth for their protector, Spirit, never held.

The wind blew again sending a shiver down her spine. She collected herself and continued on. This time she did hear footsteps behind her. In a panic, she raced up the steps of the church hoping that the guardians of the door — two large stone angels with swords — were enough protection and knocked on the massive doors.

A frail nun opened them.

“I’m here to see Sister Kate,” Kaia said in a rush.

The nun moved out of the way. “Sister Kate is in the congregation room, praying.”

She thanked the nun and made her way to the room. Five nuns sat intermittently throughout, their heads bowed down as they silently prayed. Kaia tiptoed down the aisle, bending down to catch a glimpse of the nuns’ faces. Neither of the four that were in the pews were Catrina. The last nun sat in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, hands tightly clasped together, head bowed, and eyes closed.

“Sister Kate?” Kaia whispered as she settled herself next to the woman.

“Yes, my child?”

“Someone followed me here. A Tueor,” she hissed.

Catrina opened her eyes and glanced at Kaia. “Are you sure? Did you see who it was?”

“I’m positive it was a Tueor. I didn’t see their face though.”

Catrina took one last look at the Virgin Mary before making her way out. She led Kaia up a flight of stairs toward the cold and barren living quarters. It was a long hallway with a few open doors. Soft laughter spilled out of one, the only sign that there were living people in the area. The demigoddess made her way to the end of the hall where the laughter emitted from and walked into the room. Kaia hesitated at the doorway and reluctantly crossed the threshold.

There were two beds on either side of the room. One side was filled with color: pictures ranging from artwork to photographs were scattered along a wall. Three nuns had been sitting on a bed on that side, gossiping about something and had stopped the moment the two stepped in. Catrina paid the nuns no heed and walked to the opposing side where everything was barren and devoid of color. A pouch lay at the footrest of her bed. The tallest nun of the three observed both Kaia and Catrina; the latter was taking one last look at the place she had called home for nearly five years.

“Are you leaving for good, Sister Kate?” the nun asked. “Is this,” she gestured to Kaia, “the calling you were waiting for?”

The demigoddess shook her head with a grim smile. “No, the calling I was waiting for happened earlier this afternoon.”

One of the other two nuns giggled, “That buck that looked at you today? Honestly, Sister Kate, you shouldn’t let that pagan ritual win you over. That was nothing but cute little flourishes by pretty young women and silly farmers believing the buck would give a bountiful harvest for the next year! If you’re leaving because of that, God will be most disappointed.”

“Then let him be disappointed.” Catrina pivoted and began marching toward Kaia.

“You leave just as mysteriously as you came,” the tallest one said as Catrina reached the door. “Know that God is there for you.”

“God has never been there for me. Goodbye, my Sisters.”

Catrina ushered Kaia out and picked up their pace. A few nuns poked their heads out to watch them go as the three rushed out to spread the news. Nobody stopped them. Once they reached the main hall, the Chosen was unsure of where to go. She knew that by going out the front door, they were exposing themselves to the Tueor that had followed her there. Catrina ignored Kaia’s protests and opened the door.

“Calm down. I think I know who it was that followed you,” she assured Kaia as she stepped out into the cool, night air. The Chosen shuddered as she left the sanctuary of the church behind. The streets were devoid of activity.

The two made a cautionary sweep of the area, Kaia taking extra care to peer into the shadows. Something moved. They halted, holding their breath. A man in a black military uniform stepped into the pool of light beneath a lamp post. The Tueor insignia was unmistakable even from afar. Kaia’s heart nearly skipped a beat as she took in the man’s indigo hair and startling gray eyes.

“Reeze?” she breathed.

He was just as unreadable now as he was five years ago as he glanced at her. A moment of emotion — Relief? Joy? A mixture of both? — crossed his features for a fleeting second. He stayed rooted to his spot as both women made their way over to him. They stopped a few feet away.

“You found her,” Reeze said.

Catrina shook her head. “No, she found me.”

Kaia tensed. “What’s going on?”

“We’ve been looking for you nearly nonstop for five years. Reeze has been keeping an eye on the Tueors from the inside this entire time,” Catrina said gently.

“She’s not a little girl anymore, Catrina. She’s an adult now.” Reeze crossed the distance, towering over Kaia. “You left us for five years. Five years. Do you understand the consequences of your actions?”

Kaia held her ground under his penetrating stare. There was something that only she could hear in his voice — an urgency. They both kept perfectly still as she searched for an answer.

“The war, right? Because I was a child and couldn’t stand doing something that I didn’t choose. Am I right?”

“That’s what some are saying. You said it yourself, too. Did you really think that your little tale of a quest would stay within an orphanage for long?”

Kaia bit her lip and glanced away.

“More Tueors are planning to come into the city to look into the ‘Catrina’ at the bar. You two should leave as soon as possible. I’ll do what I can to stall them. Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

The Chosen gave a curt nod. “More than ever.”

“Things are different now, very different,” Catrina whispered, looking behind her. She shivered as another gust of wind swept through the area.

“I know,” Kaia said softly, “I was in Cunevo.”

Catrina’s eyes widened. “Cunevo? That village was decimated when the Tueors went through!”

“I managed to escape before they arrived. A handful of us were smart enough to leave.”

Reeze studied her carefully for a moment before slowly walking backwards. “Just be careful. There are people looking everywhere for both of you, and Kaia?” She looked up to see him extract something from his pocket and toss it in her direction. “Say hi to Derek for me.” Kaia caught the object — it was her old charm bracelet that she had thought she lost. The charms actually contained the powers and essence of the gods. Owning a charm meant owning the life of a god in your hands. Only one of the charms on her bracelet was in fact a real, ordinary charm: an amber shooting star given to her by Shawn, another Tueor soldier she had befriended during her imprisonment in Orlioz.

Kaia looked up to thank him, but Reeze had disappeared. Catrina led her down the streets, keeping close to the shadows, as they made their way to the forest that skirted the city. The welcome sanctuary of the woods provided an instant relief to both of them.

“Where’s our first stop?” Kaia asked as tension dissipated from her body. She hadn’t realized how tense she had gotten from hiding behind another identity.

“Aquabella. We need to give a certain merman Reeze’s message, remember?”

The Chosen smiled and ran her hand over her bracelet. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed it being on her wrist. It had always felt bare there and she had worn a watch for a while, but it still didn’t feel right. Seeing and feeling the bracelet was right. She welcomed it. Kaia took a deep breath, inhaling the strong smell of early spring. This time she wasn’t going to run away.

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