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Chapter 1

    Leon fell to his knees. He hacked and spat; small red specks exploded onto the ground in front of him. It had been a seven-day journey through the Tharthis Sandsea, the largest desert on Id’Etat. With nothing to eat or drink for nearly three days, he felt his body begin to fail him. He swore he had never felt so helpless—but deep down, he knew that was not the case.
   Still, he felt like giving up. Staying on his knees and letting the fatigue and famine take him. The constant sandstorms and desert creatures—happy to feast on anything in their unforgiving environment—would chip away at his remains until nothing was left to remember him by. Whoever finally found him would not bother with the burden of carrying him away to be identified. In the end, there would be nothing left of him to have to own up to his failure. He could lie down to rest and await his glorious release.
   A shutter flashed inside his head. His mind was racing, and he knew it. The floodgates of his subconscious burst open, releasing a deluge of rational thought. Simon knew where he was, and his communicator could be used to identify him. Most importantly, failure was never an option in the first place. Leon was a sentinel of the Order, and sentinels did not fail. The longer he sat there commiserating, the less strength he would have to carry on—he could not let it wane. He surveyed the land surrounding him—windblown dunes in all directions. He had expected nothing less.
   The resolve conditioned into him allowed him to ignore the anticipated agony of bringing that first foot to the ground. He stared in amazement at the blood-spattered sand beneath him, marveling that his body could produce so much when he felt so
little inside of him. He tried to return his focus to the task at hand, but became distracted by an inconsistency amongst the red.
   One of the specks was a lighter shade than the deep crimson of its counterparts, and the sand did not cling to its edges like it did the others. He reached with his left hand. His right arm quivered beneath his weight. When he pressed on the speck, it sank with slight resistance and the sand swelled around it. For a moment, his exhaustion vanished, and his hand shot forward to behold a solid mass. The sand trickled through his fingers as he lifted it, and he blew away the remaining grit to find a brilliant red stone. He instantly recognized it: rubelym, one of the most valuable stones on Id’Etat, and the sole reason people inhabited the Sandsea. He held it to the sun in disbelief, marveling at its translucent brilliance. He brought it to his mouth and bit down. No chipping or flaking told him it was of substantial purity.
   He put the stone in the pouch at his side, then patted it once as if for solace. The surface of the Sandsea had been picked clean of rubelym for decades, and all that could be found now was deep beneath the sands. Whether this piece fell from a buggy or was a remnant from the glory days of the rubelym rush, it was a stroke of pure luck that he found it. Leon was not superstitious, but it was hard not to consider the discovery a good omen given its timing.
   With a renewed sense of vigor, getting to his feet was not half the battle he anticipated. He placed his hands firmly atop his knee and, with all the strength he could muster, pushed down against it to straighten the leg. The muscles in his body flexed violently, and once standing, he released a heavy sigh. He surveyed the land around him again, hoping to find something different from his higher vantage. It was with little surprise and abundant disappointment that all he found was more dunes.
   He looked to the sky as he took his first labored steps. The sun was at its peak; time was moving faster than he thought. He cursed the unrelenting orb above as he pressed forward, looking down to observe the slow rhythmic motion of his feet. This was when the Sandsea was at its worst. Its heat teemed with his hunger and fatigue, transforming his mind into a force of fleeting hallucinations. Mirages of vibrant oases were common in the Sandsea, but the memories they sparked for Leon were not. For as long as he could remember, he possessed a spotty memory—it was not uncommon for things he was sure he had never seen before to send him into unrelentingly vivid fits of déjà vu. When they finally passed, he had trouble convincing himself that the imagined memories were not real. For the past few days, it was especially hard to distinguish the falsehoods from reality.
   On the day prior, upon seeing a massive oasis between two dunes, he was transported to one of these memories. He was on his knees, hunched forward to drink from his hands. Next to him sat a beautiful tiger who spoke to him in a deep rumbling voice. They spent hours together by the oasis, drinking from its waters and discussing concepts of eternity. When reason kicked in, he fought it—he needed the memory to be real, for if it was, then so was the water. Yet as he drew closer, the pool began to dwindle. Perhaps the water was evaporating beneath the scorching heat. It certainly felt hot enough. He just had to get there before it was gone. Whatever the truth, there was not a drop when he arrived.
   Hoping not to face a similar upset, he stared at his feet as he walked. He could not let temptation pull him from his forward path; he needed to get where he was going. He studied his steps. The sand was soft and light, causing slight resistance that brought him to drag his feet, not out of frustration or irritability—like a child in protest—but simply because it expelled less effort. He watched the sand clouds he kicked up and searched for more small red stones despite his confidence that the odds of finding another were nonexistent.
   Unfortunately, the distraction could only hold his attention for so long. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glint in the sky above the largest dune ahead. When he looked up, there was nothing, but he was certain. It was too minute a detail for his mind to trick him with. A reflection, he thought, something on the other side of the dune. Whether it was the city or a buggy, it was something other than nothing.
   It took every ounce of willpower to maintain his pace. He wondered how many people got to see a literal glimmer of hope in their lifetime and fought to find humor in it. With his eyes glued to the sky above the dune, he witnessed no other such phenomenon. A passing buggy, he thought, disheartened—knowing it would be too far gone by the time he arrived. Still, he supposed, a buggy would not venture far from civilization. If they broke down, they would be in the same boat I’m in, and they’re not equipped to handle that. Not like I am.
   Before long, he felt a nagging kink in his neck from staring upward. He looked ahead along the sands and was surprised to find no alluring pool in the valley beneath the dune. Though the physical torment was ever-present, his mind was going easy on him for the moment. The sun scorched, and he could feel his face and hands burning. Its warmth burrowed beneath the sleeves of his light duster, and he could feel it seeping through his shoes, delivering a rash of unwelcome heat to the tops of his feet. The dryness and dehydration made it impossible to sweat, and he thought longingly of it—little beads of water to soothe crisp, dry skin.
   His longing was interrupted by the sight of something halfway up the larger dune. At first just a speck, he quickened his pace, and for once, the object grew rather than diminished. Before long, he could make out a human shape, though it was not moving. A vague recollection sparked in his mind, making him hopeful. He ignored the stark ascent at the foot of the hill and continued onward despite the pain in his legs as new muscles tackled the incline. He tried to remember, but nothing came. It was not until he got closer and realized that it was not a real person, but a statue. Its crossed arms sparked a revelation that transported him to the other side of the dune.
   He was running alongside turbaned comrades whose names he had long since forgotten. Tharthis City was behind them, and he could see the sun glinting off Ruslan up ahead. Ruslan was the guardian of Tharthis City, placed there to protect the hermitic community from raiders seeking to steal their hard-earned rubelym caches. He was a gift from Kalibrek in the north, a symbol of good fortune when a few brave settlers decided to colonize the harsh environment to reap its crimson rewards. Ruslan’s statue served as a constant reminder that the small, seemingly defenseless city still had friends in the highest of places.
   Though Ruslan’s presence did not hinder all, and it was not he who sounded the alarm—but a caravan returning to the city after being relieved of its haul. Raiders hit them to the west, and their account sent Tharthis’ sheriffs charging up the western dunes to meet them. Leon was in town pursuing a mark and felt obliged to assist, given his position. It was what the Order and his dispatcher would expect of him.
Just as he crossed the bluff, a sharp pain exploded from his shoulder. His coat dampened, and the world began to blur as he realized he had been shot. They did not expect the raiders to be so close to the city. A clumsy orchestra of gunfire erupted, and just as he started to collect himself and prepare to return fire, another shell buried itself in his shin. He fell forward, and his head connected with Ruslan’s elbow on his way to the ground. He remembered rolling a few times down the other side of the dune before losing consciousness entirely.
   When he came to, he was staring down a sandy slope. The sun was glimmering off sporadic red stones as far as he could see; the hill had not been raked in a while. He strained his eyes and noticed larger, earthen-colored forms in the distance—the bodies of the raiders. Then he heard the shuffling of boots.
   “You all right?” came a voice.
   “I’m good,” he choked.
   The sheriffs helped him to his feet, surprised by the ease of the task. The wounds did not hinder Leon half as much as they expected, and they helped him, along with a few other wounded, back to the city.
   Leon forced his focus back to the present and found himself standing above the statue. Despite being weatherworn, its face and posture were easily recognizable. It was undoubtedly Ruslan, knocked from his post and long forgotten. It would not be hard to imagine Tharthis residents losing faith in their guardian after the hardships of recent decades. Nostalgically, Leon reached beneath his shirt and felt around his left shoulder. Nothing remained of the day but the memory. He considered the tiger and wondered at the legitimacy of both events. This one is real, he thought, unsure whether he was genuinely certain—or simply hopeful for what Ruslan’s presence signified.
   At least it will be downhill soon, he thought, looking to the not-too-distant peak, but was interrupted by a vibration from his belt. Sighing, he reached for his Order Issued Communicator—or OIC—and tapped a finger against its blank screen. A dark-skinned man with gray tufts surrounding an island of hairlessness appeared. It was his dispatcher, Simon.
   “What?” Leon answered.
   “Wow,” Simon’s eyes widened. “You don’t look so good.”
   “It’s been a rough couple of days.”
   “What happened?”
“Lost my bearings for a bit, then exhaustion, hunger, and thirst—mostly.”
“Well, whose fault is that? It’s not our job to pack your lunchbox.”
   “Why not?”
   “Enough,” Simon smirked. “I take it you’re still in the Sandsea, then? Your tracker’s out.”
   “Is it?” Leon inspected his OIC. The exterior looked okay, but he was familiar enough with the insidious nature of sand. “Explains how I got off course—and so you know, next time you assign me to the Sandsea, I’m taking a buggy.”
Simon looked relieved. The Sandsea was one of the hardest patrols on Id’Etat. Unless pursuing a specific target, it was not uncommon for a sentinel to stray south toward the more temperate beaches of Suryien.
   “To hell you are. You’d stick out like a sore thumb. You’re a sentinel; you stay under the radar. Has all that heat fried your brain?”
   “Why are you calling?” Leon asked, looking back across the barren sands. “Because I can assure you, there’s not a damned thing happening out here.”
  “One would think,” Simon answered. “You remember Salvador Coan?”
   “Sounds familiar. What’s his deal?”
   “He attempted to rob an armored truck in Kalibrek almost a year ago. Things got ugly. A guard was stationed in the cargo bay, and Coan unloaded a clip in him and bolted. He shot a path through some spectators, then turned and fired more once he was through. Probably hoped to take out as many witnesses as he could. In the end, he killed seven. No children, luckily.”
   “I remember now. Who hits an armored truck solo?”
  “That’s the thing, the guard and some witnesses said something was off about him. Something in the way he acted—how he moved. So swift and precise, some even said ‘inhuman.’”
 “It gets better. One of the witnesses claims they got a real good look at him. Coan tried to shoot her, but his clip was spent. She said they locked eyes for a minute, staring at each other, knowing what could have happened, you know? She claims that something was off about his eyes—a distant, determined look. Said she never saw anything like it, and most importantly, she said they were—”
   “Yellow?” Leon interrupted.
   “You got it.”
   “Phetaclyn. For real?”
   “You bet.”
Phetaclyn was a near-mythical designer drug, and any information regarding it was considered more hearsay than fact—a consideration expounded by the claims of its effects. It was believed to enhance a user’s senses, speeding up thought processes and reaction time. Some claimed a user could even dodge a bullet. Few believed it existed.
   “Interesting; I’m surprised I don’t remember hearing this in the original reports,” Leon answered. “I can’t say I don’t welcome the distraction, but I’m afraid to ask why you’re calling me with this.”
   “We never got him,” said Simon. “He’s been on the run for close to a year now. HQ sent out another bulletin this morning, and this came back.”
   The screen cut to surveillance footage of a sand-covered street. It was centered on two men sitting on a porch. A door flew open beside them, and another man exited briskly. The frame froze on him. He was tall and unusually thin, with long curly locks surrounding a skeletal face. Simon zoomed into his eyes; a yellow tint was evident even in the grainy video.
   “His eyes might be yellow, but nothing else seems particularly off. Maybe it’s a condition?” Leon observed, hopefully. He knew what came next.
   “Unlikely,” Simon’s face returned, “we’ve already had witnesses ID him. He’s wanted on attempted high-profile robbery and seven counts of murder—and most importantly, he could be our first lead on Phetaclyn. The clip just came in, and there were no reported incidents, so there’s no way he’s already left the city. You’re our closest agent, Leon—so collect yourself and go get him.”
   “Seven counts of murder? I should kill him then, right?” Leon did not feel up to the ordeal of containing a mark in his current state, especially one so undeserving.
   “Technically, you have the right, yes. But you’d better have a damned good excuse if you do. As I said, this could be our first lead on Phetaclyn, so no cutting corners for exhaustion’s sake. This is big.”
   Leon nodded. He lacked the energy to argue—how was he expected to contain a doped-up mark?
   “How close are you?”
   “Not sure; give me a sec.”
   Simon’s response was inaudible as Leon dropped his OIC to his side. He stared ahead. No more than a hundred feet to the top of the dune. He bid farewell to Ruslan and took his first labored steps up the slope. They came with surprising ease—the human interaction seemed to have renewed some of his vigor. He found amusement in Simon’s muffled shouts as he pressed forward. Soon the peak began to level out, and he breathed his relief when he saw the city in the distance, a massive heap of metal and lumber glimmering brilliantly beneath the scorching sun.
    Leon raised his OIC.
    “What the hell was that?” asked Simon.
   “I can see it from here. About a mile out.”
  “Good. I’m sure Coan’s holed up, so you should have some time. Don’t take any chances, though; this is big. We can’t risk losing him.”
 “I know,” he answered, cursing the fickle nature of opportunity.
   “Good. With the supposed effects of the drug, I feel like I should tell you to be careful with this one, but we both know there’s no real point in that, is there?”
   “Doesn’t feel that way.”
   “Perk up, Leon!” Simon shouted, smirking. “You’ve got quite an ordeal ahead of you. Don’t blow it.”
   The screen went blank, revealing Leon’s face in the reflection. His dark hair was unkempt, his square jaw looked bonier than ever, and his brown eyes against the blank screen made him feel like he was staring at a corpse. Red splotches on fair skin were all that was left to prove there was still some life left in him.
   He turned his attention to the city in the distance. Simon’s words hung heavy. He had never thought so longingly of a meal and a bed, and now that both were within reach, all that awaited him was more work. Accustomed to such upsets, he shrugged it off with little effort, thankful that the remainder of his journey was at least downhill.


                                                                              Chapter 2 >

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